Arts of Central Africa
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0126
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- 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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- African Socialism
- Africans in the Atlantic World
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arab Spring
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Cinema and Television
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Conflict Management and Resolution
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Disease and African Society
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Farah, Nuruddin
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Hausa Language and Literature
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Law, Islamic
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Obama and Kenya
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Popular Music
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Religion and Politics in Contemporary Africa
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- Soyinka, Wole
- Spanish Colonial Rule
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey