Visiting the gallery
The Africa Galleries reveal the extraordinary cultural, artistic and historical diversity and complexity of the continent represented by the collections.
The galleries present varied material and artistic traditions, including forged metalwork, textiles, pottery-making, masquerade and sculpture. Cross-cutting the displays, the galleries approach a range of wider themes, including trade, identity, gender, power, religion and transformation.
The inclusion of contemporary art throughout the galleries highlights the continuing vibrancy and relevance of art in and about Africa, both by artists living on the continent and those of African heritage working outside it. Among the contemporary art works represented there is a particular focus on artworks inspired or informed by earlier creative traditions.
Bronze-casting dates back to at least the 9–10th centuries in West Africa and casting in copper alloy remains a vibrant industry today. The collections from the Nigerian sites of Igbo-Ukwu, Ife, and Benin represent some of the most important early West African bronze-casting traditions and highlight the technical knowledge of metalworkers who used the lost-wax casting technique to create objects of great power and virtuosity.
For at least 2,000 years, different types of looms, weaving technologies and raw materials have been used to create regionally distinctive cloths in African societies. Textiles communicate key information about communities and individuals through their designs, use and materials. They can be used to document significant historical events and may also chart the movements and migrations of people, markets and trading patterns.
Africa is home to some of the oldest pottery making traditions in the world, including pottery found in excavations in West Africa (Mali) dating to at least 9,500 BC. Pottery traditions are found across the continent and include not only functional objects but also items of ritual or religious importance. Today, pottery-making continues to be an important means of artistic expression.
Masquerade is both an art of performance and transformation in Africa. Often, masquerades maintain and express the secret knowledge of local communities. They are danced at key moments, such as during initiation, at funerals, and to mark the agricultural calendar. Masquerade performance continues to be a predominantly male activity, although the characters may be female. Masquerade incorporates dancing, music and the participation of spectators.
The identity of many of the historic artists whose works are seen within the Africa galleries is often unknown. Among the historic artists represented within the galleries whose identity we do know is the celebrated Yoruba carver, Olowe of Ise. A pair of monumental carved doors by Olowe of Ise on display in the galleries previously featured within the 1924 Nigerian Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London.
Every department in the Museum includes African objects in its collections. A notable example of an African object displayed elsewhere within the Museum is 'the Akan Drum', currently on display in Room 26, the North American gallery and bequeathed by the Museum's founder, Sir Hans Sloane. Although the drum was acquired by Sloane in Virginia, USA, it had been made in Africa, almost certainly travelling to the Americas on a ship linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.