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

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Early Studies
  • Missionary Monographs
  • Metal Arts
  • Writing and Inscription
  • Art and Archaeology

African Studies Arts of Central Africa
Allen F. Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0126


Central Africa consists of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, the Republic of the Congo or Congo/Brazza, the Central African Republic or CAR, and the Republics of Chad, Burundi, Rwanda, Zambia, and the northern parts of Malawi. The region is marked by great cultural, linguistic, and political diversity, which is reflected in very varied artistic expression. Sculpture includes figures inhabited by ancestral and tutelary spirits and masks that must be understood in their performative totalities of costuming, music, and choreography. Status emblems, figurative tools and weapons, architectural ornamentation, personal furniture such as stools and headrests, scepters, and staffs are often magnificently realized. Beadwork and other fine accoutrements, frequently accompanied by scarification, hairdressing, and other intimate arts, are still practiced today to some extent in some places. Textile arts are exceptionally well developed in Central Africa as are those of iron and copper; and pottery, basketry, and other idioms merge aesthetic achievement with utilitarian purpose. Performance arts are also very well developed, and music, dance, and narrative are as important to contemporary life as in earlier times, although in ever-changing ways. Contemporary arts of Central Africa, such as painting, photography, choreography, popular music, and theater, gain ever-greater prominence in local and international arenas.

General Studies

While the works to follow offer particular details, they also provide broader views of aesthetics throughout Central Africa. Interested readers should consult the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa by Patrick McNaughton and Diane Pelrine for an introduction to relevant and comparative scholarship. Most Central African ethnic groups speak dialects of what are called Bantu languages and, while each may be distinct in some ways, cognates and the terms derived from them are often shared. More important is the common grammar of Bantu languages that leads to a logic—a way of understanding and seeing the world—that also informs material and performance arts. In other words, many Central African peoples think and express themselves in very similar ways, even as artistic styles may vary from one community to the next. Compounding the complexity is the reality that extensive trade of goods and ideas led itinerant artists to master different styles as they received commissions. Thus, general studies, such as the ones to follow, should be understood as providing a baseline sense of Central African arts against which stylistic variations may be explored. Several works (Debbaut, et al. 1988; Felix 2010–; Robbins and Nooter 1989; Roy 1999; Verswijver, et al. 1995) are catalogues illustrating important Central African works that help determine regional and ethnic styles, while others (Heusch 1995, Pemberton 2000, Schildkrout and Keim 1998) are more scholarly works that introduce research themes and theoretical perspectives.

  • Debbaut, Jan, Dominique Favart, and G. van Geertruyen. Utotombo: Art d’Afrique noire dans les collections privées belges. Brussels: Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1988.

    The majority of objects presented in this large-format, lushly illustrated book are from Central Africa and offer a glimpse of the treasures held in Belgian private collections through the late 1980s.

  • Felix, Marc, ed. White Gold, Black Hands: Ivory Sculpture in Congo. Qiquhuar, China: Gemini Sun, 2010–.

    An exhaustive documentation (five volumes and counting) of ivory arts of the DRC in public museums and private collections. Essays by museum professionals and full-page color illustrations make this labor of love unlikely to be duplicated. A volume completed for the Congo Basin Art History Research Center.

  • Heusch, Luc de, ed. Objects: Signs of Africa. Ghent, Belgium: Snoeck-Ducaju, 1995.

    An important collection of essays by scholars associated with the Royal Museum for Central Africa or the Free University of Brussels. Heusch’s own contribution is based on his research of the 1950s among Tetela and related groups in what is now east central DRC.

  • Pemberton, John, ed. Insight and Artistry in African Divination. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000.

    Half of the essays in this collection concern the place of material and performance arts in Central African divination and problem-solving, while the others provide opportunities for cross-regional comparison. Ritual objects deployed in such circumstances assist people to reimagine their circumstances as wisdom is revealed.

  • Robbins, Warren M., and Nancy Ingram Nooter. African Art in American Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1989.

    This massive volume surveys US collections as they existed in the late 1980s and reports objects, provenance, and locations of objects at that time. An enduring resource for locating works from Central Africa as well as revealing collecting preferences among connoisseurs and museum curators.

  • Roy, Christopher. Kilengi: African Art from the Bareiss Family Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

    While the Bareiss Collection is known for East African sculptures unfamiliar outside their own contexts until this exhibition publication, nearly half of the works are Central African. The book fosters stylistic comparison between the two regions, as does the volume by Gary van Wyk, Shangaa! Art of Tanzania (New York: City University of New York Press, 2013).

  • Schildkrout, Enid, and Curtis Keim, eds. The Scramble for Art in Central Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    A collection of essays from a conference that accompanied the editors’ landmark exhibition “African Reflections.” Significant authors contribute historical case studies of art-collecting by early European visitors to the Congo such as Leo Frobenius, who amassed important works now in European and American museums. Useful bibliography is included.

  • Verswijver, Gustaav, Alger D. Buat, Roger Asselberghs, et al., eds. Treasures from the Africa Museum, Tervuren. Tervuren, Belgium: Royal Museum for Central Africa, 1995.

    This large catalogue accompanied a traveling exhibition of the Royal Museum’s most significant Central African works, most seen for the very first time outside of Belgium. Richly illustrated with well-developed captions written by scholars.

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