In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Festivals in West Africa

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Introductory Works
  • Anthologies
  • Local and Regional Overviews
  • Agricultural Festivals
  • Islamic and Islamicized Festivals
  • Festivals for African Deities
  • Masquerades in Festival Contexts
  • The Role of Music and Dance in Festivals
  • Gender
  • Innovation in Festivals and their Contexts
  • Pan-Afro-Caribbean Festivals
  • Imperial Spectacles
  • Independence and Golden Jubilee Celebrations
  • Regional, State, and National Arts Festivals
  • Pan-African Festivals
  • African Roots Festivals
  • Festivals in the Global Art Circuit
  • UNESCO Intervention

Art History Festivals in West Africa
Gitti Salami
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0128


Historically, many Africans have solidified their bonds by celebrating spectacular festivals. Prior to and during the early colonial era, these festivals engaged all members of a society (including invisible beings) and drew on all available artistic resources. In the 21st century the rural, metropolitan, national, and global communities to which contemporary Africans belong (or to which they wish to belong) vary dramatically in size, constitution, and outlook; accordingly, their festivals take on many different forms. To obtain information on community celebrations across time and across the African continent, researchers will need to consult a vast literature spanning Egyptology, anthropology, history, religious studies, sociology, and art history. This article thus includes only sources that focus on festivals in West Africa (defined here as Sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the west to Niger and Nigeria in the east), omitting those held elsewhere. It delves not only into the literature on traditional festivals but also considers Pan-Afro-Caribbean carnivals, imperial spectacles, European-inflected regional and national celebrations, postcolonial mega-events, UNESCO-designated masterpieces of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the features of contemporary art biennials that resemble other forms of cultural celebrations. Most of the selected texts emphasize the structure of festivals and consider their proceedings from start to finish. Works that do not meet this criterion were included because they examine overarching themes or offer a particularly keen analysis of an aspect of a festival. Despite their importance, African festivals have rarely been at the center of art-historical investigations. As early celebrations were discussed by anthropologists rather than by artists or art historians, their descriptions are almost always buried in ethnographies. Postcolonial efforts to document traditional festivals’ capacity to create meaning in a contemporary society, even when they are being rapidly absorbed into a burgeoning heritage industry, have primarily appeared as journal articles. The same can be said of analyses of art events that constitute part of the global art circuit.

Reference Works

Useful references are the Grove Art Online encyclopedia and JSTOR, which is a database that indexes relevant scholarly journals.

  • Grove Art Online.

    Features forty-seven thousand articles on Western and non-Western art history. Entries are written by scholars in an accessible manner, making this encyclopedia a useful tool for classroom use.

  • JSTOR.

    This is a database that indexes the content of around a thousand journals, including those relevant to African performance art. Articles are made available as PDF files but only five years after their publication date.

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