In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arts of Western Africa

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Visual Resources
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Studies of West African Societies before 1960

African Studies Arts of Western Africa
Mary Jo Arnoldi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0018


West African arts include many of the most outstanding works from the continent and in the world. Home to both large empires and nomadic groups, this region has produced cultures that have created a diversity of art forms, from monumental architecture to small and intimate personal objects. Dating from the first millennium BCE through the present day, West African art has been the focus of a growing body of research over the past half century. This article provides an overview of this literature, with an emphasis on recent resources. Sections include reference works, databases, bibliographies, journals, and anthologies that provide users with tools to explore the full range of publications on West African arts. There are also a small number of formative studies from the first half of the twentieth century which influenced research on the arts over several generations. The 1960s mark the end of the colonial era for most of West Africa (exceptions are Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, which gained their independence in 1973 and 1975, respectively). The 1960s also saw more exhibitions on West African arts, a new journal, and new publications, all of which have continued and gained increasing momentum into the present. The study of African art has always been interdisciplinary, and it has engaged critical perspectives from anthropology, archaeology, art history, and history, and more recently from film and photographic history and cultural studies. The resources included in this article reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the scholarship. The post-1960 sources are organized into sections that include special topics, art and archaeology, regional surveys, and the arts of individual ethnic groups. They are followed by a section on artists and artistic practices and a large section focused on media and materials that is subdivided into architecture; figurative sculpture in wood, metal, and stone; masks and masquerades; pottery and other containers; and textiles, dress, and adornment. The final section of this article covers contemporary African art, one of the fastest-growing areas of research and publication. Its definitions and scholarly approaches are also the most debated and contentious. In this section, the sources are divided into general overviews followed by sections on modernist arts, popular urban and tourist arts, African photography, and African cinema.

Reference Works

A number of reference works include both text and illustrations. Grove Art Online 2003 is an important resource for articles with illustrations on West African arts. JSTOR is a broad-based and excellent resource for scholarly articles on West African arts that can be either printed or downloaded as PDFs. Eicher and Ross 2010, an encyclopedia of African dress and fashion, is an important resource for the study of African art; it includes authoritative and accessible articles on West African dress by scholars working within this entire region.

  • Armes, Roy. Dictionary of African Filmmakers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    Resource for students of African feature films includes West African filmmakers; 1,250 entries provide information on their training and the major influences on their work.

  • Eicher, Joanne Bubolz, and Doran H. Ross, eds. Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. Vol. 1, Africa. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDv1

    Major reference work offering a comprehensive overview of African dress and fashion. West African dress is well represented in the volume. Accessible for students. Articles are signed by contributors and include bibliographies. Over 300 images. Published in print and online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Grove Art Online. Edited by Jane Turner, 2003.

    First published as the landmark thirty-four-volume Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, this online version is searchable, with extensive entries on African art organized by region and topic. West African arts are well represented. Searches produce many related entries. Numerous illustrations. Available by subscription.

  • JSTOR.

    Electronic archive includes full texts of articles from fifty-one African Studies journals and 185 art journals, including African Arts (cited under Journals). Available by subscription; many academic libraries subscribe. Searchable. Articles can be printed or downloaded as PDFs.

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