The best-known arts of southern Africa are the rock paintings and engravings that were produced by the San peoples and are found mostly in the eastern mountainous regions.

Many of the sites where such paintings and engravings appear show evidence of use over long periods of time, suggesting that they had ritual significance, such as healing ceremonies or for attracting game animals or rain. The earliest examples have been d ated to twenty-seven thousand five hundred years ago and are thus contemporary with the cave art of Europe. The most recent date from the nineteenth century.

A similar historical spread characterizes decorated ostrich eggshells from this region - some are as old as fifteen thousand years, dating earlier than Egyptian examples, while others date from the nineteenth century.

With the exception of rock painting and engraving, the arts of southern Africa have tended to be underrated and underreported outside the area. The region's impressive stone ruins, especially those of Great Zimbabwe, were long attributed to outsiders on t he assumption that Africans were incapable of producing such imposing architecture. Recently, however, it has been clearly established that these sites are African in origin and concept. The inland trading empires that produced them, such as that of the S hona, the builders of Great Zimbabwe, were supported by the Indian Ocean gold trade.

Lydenburg Head
Eastern Transvaal, South Africa, ca. A.D. 500-700. Traces of white pigment and specularite on clay, 38 x 26 x 25.5 cm. University of Cape Town Collection at the South African Museum, Cape Town.

The exceptional find of terra-cotta heads at Lydenburg in the eastern Transvaal are the earliest-known sculptures from southern Africa. They have been dated to the sixth through eighth century a.d. Although their use is unknown, two may have been worn as masks, possibly for initiation rituals.

Snuff Container
North Nguni, South Africa, Gourd and brass wire
Collection of Marc and Denyse Ginzberg

The relative absence in southern Africa of the practice of using masks and the rarity of figurative sculpture of the sort prized by Europeans led to the region's many rich utilitarian arts being neglected by outsiders.

The peoples of this area often expended great skill and effort on objects of everyday use. Such works include headrests, ceramics, and - after the introduction of tobacco from America by way of Europe - pipes and snuff containers.

Headrest, Zulu or Nguni, South Africa, Collection of Marc and Denyse Ginzberg
Objects of personal use were much prized; they served as markers of their owners' positions in society and were often buried with them.

Ancient Egypt and Nubia

Eastern Africa

Central Africa

Sahel and Savanna

Northern Africa

Western Africa

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