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Continent second only to Asia in size with a total area of 29,800,000 sq. km and a total population of 900 million people (UN estimate, 2004). Africa in the late 20th century comprises more than 50 independent nation states. This brief survey focuses on the regions of sub-Saharan Africa (i.e. south of the Sahara Desert) where Muslims have played a significant role, especially during pre-colonial times but also as they continued into colonial and post-colonial times (see fig. 1). It concentrates on the broad grassland that stretches from West Africa and the region known as the western Sudan (including the modern states of Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Guinea across the central Sudan (Niger and modern Chad Republic) to the Nilotic Sudan (modern Sudan) and the coastal regions of East Africa (modern Somalia and Kenya). North Africa, the region north of the Sahara desert including the modern states of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, is historically considered part of the heartlands of Islam; for the arts of this region, see the relevant subsections of the individual media such as architecture, carpets and flatweaves, ceramics, illustration, jewelry, metalwork, textiles and woodwork.


1. Map of the southern Islamic lands; those countries and sites with separate entries in this encyclopedia are distinguished by Cross-reference type

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The notion of sub-Saharan Africa as a cultural entity, although useful, is to some extent an arbitrary generalization: there has been both a high degree of internal diversity within the continent and much greater economic and political exchange between Africa and the outside world than was previously thought. The region considered here, for example, is home to at least three major groups with distinct cultural traditions: the Fulani, a group of more than 14 million Fulfulde-speaking people scattered across West Africa and known for their decorated gourds, wool blankets and body decoration; the Hausa, a group of some 30 million mainly in northwest Nigeria known for their non-figural arts including textiles, ceramics, wall decoration and related illumination in Koran manuscripts (see fig. 3 below); and the Swahili, a group of less than a million people living on the coast and islands of East Africa who produced fine woodworking and other crafts. This article covers the general artistic and architectural developments that have occurred as a result of the Muslim presence in the area.

I. History and artistic traditions. II. Architecture. III. Textiles. IV. Ceramics. V. Arts of the book.

I. History and artistic traditions

Muslims had begun their conquest of Egypt as early as 640, and Muslim merchants and scholars probably introduced Islam west and south from there into the western Sudan in the 8th and 9th centuries. The merchants exchanged goods from the Mediterranean lands and salt from the Sahara for gold, slaves, ivory and gum. Islam was introduced from North Africa along western routes, linking the Maghrib (Maghreb, Magreb; a collective term often applied to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; from the Arabic word for “west”) with the gold-trading centers of western Sudan, and along eastern routes that brought Tripoli, Tunis and Egypt into contact with such kingdoms of the central Sudan as Kanem, Bornu and the Hausa states. After the spread of Islam in the Sudan, partly by Berber armies, it was carried further south by West African traders, who took it to the southern savannah and the Guinea Coast forest and to northern and central Nigeria. The growth of many towns was encouraged by the arrival of enterprising Muslim traders. The Islamic colonization of the East African coast also began in the 8th century. Most of the early settlers were Arab or Persian merchants and clerics from southern Arabia and the Gulf. They intermarried with the indigenous populations and created numerous trading towns and city-states along the coastal strip. In these settlements Arab, Somali and, further south, Swahili cultures flourished, the latter being a synthesis of Bantu African and Islamic traits. Over the centuries these settlements maintained contacts with Arabia, the Gulf and western India.

The history of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa has been one of interaction with the indigenous cultures it encountered. This interaction led to the development of a diversity of artistic traditions. In addition to the regions where the population converted to orthodox Islam, there were areas where pluralistic societies emerged or where Islamic beliefs and practices merged with the traditional culture in a syncretic pattern. In general, however, Islam became associated with processes of political centralization and urbanization. The construction of congregational mosques at fixed locations, for example, encouraged settlement. Notions of private property and private space were also encouraged and new working practices introduced. Skills and crafts that had traditionally been practiced by women in nomadic societies often became the occupations of men as the societies became sedentary.

Many architectural and craft techniques were retained or reinvigorated. In this respect Islam had the ability to adapt itself region by region to the demands of the physical environment. In those regions where Islam was adopted, several new types of building were constructed, the most important being the congregational mosque (see fig. 2 below). The arrival of Islam also led to the introduction of new building techniques. In the African savannah, for example, this is suggested by the continued use of indigenous terms for simple building techniques, while Arabic-derived terms are used for brick shapes.

The adoption of Islam also stimulated a number of other crafts. For example, Islamic prescriptions regarding body covering and the requirement for burial shrouds encouraged the textile crafts. Islamic charms, talismans and similar items were also in great demand. Military exploits, meanwhile, stimulated a demand for the products of metalwork and leatherworking techniques.

Despite the common Islamic constraints on the representation of living beings, in many well-established Islamic communities in West Africa masking and figurative traditions were able to continue, either because they function at a level not treated by Islamic ritual or because they proved effective. As Islam recognized witchcraft and magic, the use of traditional methods of control when Muslim methods failed was not felt to be incompatible with the faith. The 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, for example, recorded the use of masks and figurative art forms among the Muslim Mande élite of Mali. Such practices continued into the late 20th century. For example, of the various Bedu masks in use in the area of Bondoukou, Côte d’Ivoire, many were carved in the 1960s by the Muslim Hwela artist Sirikye (b. c.1925). Gbain masks have also been carved by Muslims, and evidence suggests that the Gbain cult, for protection against witchcraft, was originally a Muslim Mande tradition. Belief in the power of amulets is also very strong among Islamized Mande. The Do masking tradition, meanwhile, is exclusively Muslim. It follows Muslim procedures and is never used in a non-Muslim context, the ownership and custody of Do masks being invariably vested in the ulema. Masking traditions probably also exist in other Islamized regions of West Africa.


  • J. S. Trimingham: A History of Islam in West Africa (Oxford, 1962)
  • I. M. Lewis, ed.: Islam in Tropical Africa (London, 1966)
  • J. Kritzek and W. H. Lewis: Islam in Africa (New York, 1968)
  • J. S. Trimingham: The Influence of Islam upon Africa (New York, 1968)
  • R. A. Bravmann: Islam and Tribal Art in West Africa, African Studies Series (London and New York, 1974)
  • R. A. Bravmann: African Islam (Washington, DC and London, 1983)
  • L. Prussin: Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (Berkeley, 1986)
  • A. A. Mazrui: “Islam and African Art: Stimulus or Stumbling Block,” Afr. A., xxvii/1 (1994), pp. 50–57
  • Africa: The Art of a Continent (exh. cat. ed. T. Phillips; London, RA, 1995–6), pp. 327–478
  • N. Levtzion and R. L. Pouwels, eds.: The History of Islam in Africa (Athens, OH, 2000)
  • A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (exh. cat. by A. F. Roberts and M. N. Roberts; Los Angeles, UCLA, Fowler Mus. Cult. Hist., 2003)
  • T. Insoll: The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge World Archaeology (Cambridge and New York, 2003)
  • M. A. Abusabib: “The Quest for Identity in Modern Sudanese Visual Art,” Art, Politics, and Cultural Identification in Sudan, ed. M. A. Abusabib (Uppsala, 2004), pp. 89–124
  • D. Robinson: Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge, 2004)
  • R. L. Pouwels: African and Middle Eastern World, 600–1500 (New York, 2005)
  • J. Picton: “Keeping the Faith: Islam and West African Art History in the Nineteenth Century,” Islamic Art in the 19th Century: Tradition, Innovation, and Eclecticism, ed. D. Behrens-Abouseif and S. Vernoit, Islamic History and Civilization, 60 (Leiden and Boston, 2006), pp. 191–230
  • M. Dumper and B. E. Stanley: Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA, 2007)

II. Architecture

The impact of Islam on architecture in Africa has been profound. It has been felt through the influence of Islamic calligraphy, patterns and decorative forms, as well as through domestic house forms (see fig. 3 below) and the larger forms of religious architecture. Islam brought to Africa a taste for the monumental, with tombs, mosques and minarets introducing a vertical dimension that was new to African architecture south of the Sahara. Islam also brought with it some technological changes, including the occasional use of kiln-dried bricks. More importantly, it led to the concentration of dwellings in trading centers and entrepôts, where mosques, palaces, markets and people's homes were clustered together. Islam's impact has been felt throughout the continent, especially in urban areas, but has been at its strongest in the Muslim areas of the western Sudan, in the towns and cities of the East African coast and, of course, in North Africa and the Maghrib. Seen as the near and distant west by their Arab colonizers, North Africa and the Maghrib may be considered stylistically part of the Middle East (see Architecture, §§IV, D; V, D; VI, D and VII, D).

A. Building Types. B. Decoration.

A. Building types.

1. Secular. 2. Sacred.

1. Secular.

Characteristically Islamic house and settlement forms can be seen from Cairo in Egypt to Salé in Morocco. These include medinas, souks and kasbas; courtyard houses, linked by interconnecting lanes and passages, with their shared walls and flat roofs; and segregated women's quarters. At the coastal town of Sousse in Tunisia, an Islamic city was built next to the pre-existing medieval city, leaving the latter largely intact. In contrast, such towns as Ghadames, El Oued and those, such as Ghardaia, in the valleys of the Mzab, as well as Constantine, Marrakesh and Fez, developed environments that were responsive to the urban economies and social mores of Islam.

In such towns as Djenné in Mali a more syncretic response to Islam resulted in the development of regional styles. In the Dambougalsoria quarter, for example, a cluster of houses is said to date from the Moroccan invasion of 1591. Their marked portals, known locally as potigé, flanking the entrances and the reception chamber above are topped with a row of pre-Islamic-style pinnacles. The Djenné masons, mostly of Songhay or Bamana origin, were renowned in the region into the late 20th century.

On the east coast of Africa, the town of Manda may have been settled in the 9th century, while Mogadishu, Malindi, Zanzibar and other ports are of later date. Many of these Islamic towns were highly developed. Excavations at Gedi, a former sultan's palace on the Kenyan coast abandoned in the 14th century, revealed coral ragstone walls and portals, reception-rooms and audience courts, apartments, ablution chambers and lavatories. Extensive archaeological evidence of sophisticated spatial organization has been suncovered at the Husuni Kubwa palace, Kilwa, which, in the 13th century, was the largest building south of the Sahara.

Early in the 16th century many Swahili towns were sacked by the Portuguese. Lamu, an island town off the Kenyan coast, largely escaped destruction, and later a treaty of protection with Oman helped to preserve it. While none of its buildings dates from before the 18th century, their form may well reflect earlier domestic architecture. Two-story merchants’ houses made of stone have servants’ quarters on the ground-floor and the main living spaces above. Flat roofs made of mangrove poles covered in lime span the walls. A succession of narrow, shallow rooms with plastered walls and rows of molded display niches, though elegant, are climatically more appropriate to the Persian Gulf than to the Kenyan coast. While these town houses reveal a taste for sophisticated urban living, the central complex of stone houses was surrounded by smaller houses, with walls of wattle-and-daub and deep, open-gabled thatched roofs, which were more suitable climatically.

Palaces were built for the emirs of Muslim societies in West Africa as expressions of their religious authority and secular power and as the focus of the community. They include the elaborately decorated palaces of Zaria and Kano. Other Hausa palaces such as that of the emir of Daura are less decorated, and the strength of the structural detail is clearer. The arches that provide structural support are typically made with stepped mud corbels, reinforced with lengths of termite-resistant azara wood from the dom palm and plastered with mud to produce a simulated continuous curved arch. Although the construction differs, the form may derive from the armatures of the frame-and-mat structures of the local nomads. Arches may intersect at a central apex, often marked by an inset brass plate, or may form a grid of crossed parabolas. Although this technique can be seen in palaces and other important buildings, the normal method of spanning roofs in domestic houses is with lengths of azara. Spans are increased by crossing the corners and making a shallow, corbelled-roof platform, which may be further supported by piers or a central pillar to take the weight of the covering of sticks and earth.

2. Sacred.

The earliest sub-Saharan mosques to have been discovered are those at Koumbi Saleh, the capital of the former empire of Ghana. Trade links had been established with this area as early as the 9th century through trans-Saharan camel caravans. The Koumbi Saleh mosque type comprised a court, a sanctuary and a square minaret. Elements of this mosque type were common in other parts of the Sudanic region and may be regarded as comprising a distinct Sudanic tradition, which nevertheless had many variants owing to the different currents of influence over many centuries. For example, although the square tower minaret of the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia may have been the source for the Sudanic square-based minaret-towers (sawma῾a), such examples as the tower at Chinguetti, Mauritania, where the mosque may date from the 14th century, differ by having a tapering form, with reinforcements and projecting beams.

The rulers of the successive empires of Ghana, Songhai and Mali embraced a vast territory, which became progressively Islamicized. Cities on the trans-Saharan routes adopted elements of Berber culture, and, under Songhai influence, pyramidal minaret structures on three levels were built. The mosque–tomb of Askia-al-Hajj Muhammed at Gao (Mali) is characteristic, with its bristling, stepped tower that reaches only half the height it was in the mid-19th century. The Sankoré Mosque at Timbuktu, a seat of Islamic scholarship in the 15th century, had a buttressed, tapering minaret and arcaded sanctuary. Contacts with the Mzab are evident at Gao and even more marked at Agadez in Niger where the pyramid tower of the great mosque is related stylistically to that at Ghardaia in Algeria.

As Islam penetrated further south, building styles were developed that incorporated traditional non-Islamic forms. The mosques built under the influence of Dyula mullah-traders, for instance those in Kong, a Dyula center of learning and commerce in present-day Mali, though changing through time, were notable for such features reminiscent of traditional Dogon forms as slender, tapering pyramidal minarets and walls buttressed with tall pinnacles. Sculptural in form, these are reinforced by horizontal cross-poles between, or projecting from, the buttresses. The mosques of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, Kawara in Côte d’Ivoire and Banda Nkwanta in Ghana show a lively variety of forms that are, nonetheless, clearly related.

Such Hausa mosques as the Shehu Mosque at Sokoto and the Friday Mosque at Bauchi (both Nigeria) had different forms. Made of reinforced earth, they had pillared prayer-halls supporting flat roofs of palm and mud. Regarded as the finest of the Hausa type, the Friday Mosque at Zaria (also Nigeria) had an undulating roof of shallow domes supported by internal parabolic arches of mud, reinforced with palm and sculpted in high relief. This remarkable building was substantially altered during restoration in 1975. Other types of mosque also exist in Africa. In the Futa Jallon and Guinea highlands an indigenous savannah building type has accommodated the formal requirements of Islam without sacrificing regional identity: thatched mosques, including those at Manou Degala and Fougoumba, were built by Fulani in the form of vast, ribbed domes. Entirely covered with layered grass thatch, each has a large cap or crest to deflect the rains. Within, a cubic earth sanctuary surrounded by the posts of the supporting structure is oriented to Mecca. Other hybrids are to be found, as in Lagos, where slaves repatriated to Nigeria from Brazil built a number of mosques in a style that derived from the Latin American ecclesiastical Baroque, with classical pilasters and broken pediments, but that bore in their polychrome façades such Islamic motifs as the star and crescent.

French engineers had an even greater impact when they remodeled the great mosque at Mopti in Mali in 1935, giving it a greater symmetry and tall, tapering external pilasters. Similarly, although the original structure of the mosque at Djenné dated from the 14th century, it was largely demolished in the early 19th century and then reconstructed in similar form under French colonial direction in 1907 (see fig. 2). Although both are hybrids, their much-photographed images established a popularized form of Sahelian architecture that is evident, for example, in the substantial rebuilding and considerable enlargement of the Great Mosque of Niono, Mali, by the designer, contractor and mason Lassine Minta (b. c.1920). The original building was finished in 1948; Minta's rebuilding and extension of it was completed in 1973.

Elsewhere the reconstruction of mosques was less happily resolved. Earlier mud mosques were replaced by new ones, often in stone with conventional minarets and prayer-halls on the Egyptian pattern. Among these were the four-minaret Friday Mosque in Kano, Nigeria, and the somewhat heavily proportioned mosque at Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire, which, nevertheless, has finely cut screens and balustrades and ogee domes of almost Mughal character. Mosques built towards the end of the 20th century tended to be similar, if smaller, and generally undistinguished. The Niliem Mosque at Omdurman, Sudan, designed by Jamal Abdullah, is a radical departure from this, being in the form of a tetrahedral dome standing on tapering pillars over an open prayer-hall.


2. Djenné, Mali, Great Mosque, eastern façade, founded 14th century; reconstructed 1907; photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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B. Decoration.

The impact of Islam is clearly seen in the decorative details of much African architecture. These may be drawn from ideograms and calligraphy and from such geometric patterns as the subdivided rectangular magic squares known as hatumere. Other motifs derive from textile patterns, wood-carving and the like. Decorations found among the settled Kabyle Berber in Algeria include cursive patterns created in white plaster on internal, red earth walls, the rugged stone exteriors of such houses preventing external ornamentation. These patterns, used to frame windows and doorways, recall the decorated bed-frames of the nomadic Berber peoples. They are widespread, being found on the other side of the Sahara in Oualata, Mauritania. Strongly associated with the privacy of the women's domain, they were created by members of the lower castes (harratin) for wives of aristocrats as symbols of fertility and maternity. Other decorative elements include sculptures, water vessels and molded sideboards.

Abstract forms are sculpted on the façades of the houses of important men in central Mali. More impressive are the age-set houses (saho) of the Sorko of the Niger River in Mali in such centers as Kolenze and Aore. These structures, built by youths in preparation for marriage, are deeply molded with phallic motifs, verandahs and crenellated roof terraces. The use of clay bricks in this region also permits high-relief framing and structural expression, with geometric openings and recessed patterns achieved by omitting bricks from the outer wall layers. More dramatically molded houses in the Djenné style with tall, flanking potigé piers beside the entrances and phallic pinnacles are the apogee of Malian architectural decoration.

The zanen gida decorations on the façades of the houses of Hausa merchants are notable for their complexity and richness. They are based on the surface enrichment of the walls, ceilings, arch ribs and coffers of Hausa palaces and mosques. Molded over the mud-plastered surfaces of walls and coated with a locally made cement (laso), the motifs are in deep relief, emphasizing doorways or window openings and sometimes extending over the entire façade (see fig. 3). The endless knot (dagi) is a common motif, and others are rifles, bicycles, cars and even aeroplanes. The zanen gida technique is probably of 18th-century origin and may be derived from the tent hangings of the nomadic Fulani. It was popularized in the 20th century but was in decline by the 1990s.

In contrast to the internal relief plasterwork of Swahili houses (see §A, 1 above) external surfaces were simply treated, with most emphasis on the massive doors using iron studs, spikes and bosses: a style as common in Bahrain as in Lamu, Kenya. Direct decorative influence from Arabia was evident in the now deserted coral stone city of Sawakin, Sudan, once an island trading port on the Red Sea coast and the focus for African pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Built by Hijazis, it had a number of Ottoman-style houses of a considerable size and three stories high. Richly decorated internally with banded walls infilled with geometric designs etched in plaster, these houses had doorways with carved stone hoods and cusped stone heads embellishing the wall niches. Windows were fitted with carved, boxed shade screens (rowshans or mashribiyyas), some of which have ornately carved grilles and opening panels. After 1866 an Egyptian style emerged in Sawakin, sometimes including European details.


3. Hausa decorated house, Kano, Nigeria; photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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Egyptian domestic architectural styles permeated northern Sudan during the 19th century, especially along the Nile. A further development in African Islamic decoration occurred in Nubia, where the internal walls of houses were painted and sometimes sculpted and external decorations painted or applied around the entrance. In Wadi Halfa an elaborate and prestigious style was developed by Ahmad Batoul, who began to make mud reliefs and incised patterns in the early 1930s. Craftsmen competed to invent new motifs, borrowing from contemporary Art Deco sources in Egypt and using saucers and ceramics inset in the plaster. Local people also decorated their own houses, men favoring scenes of pilgrimages to Mecca and women painting banded abstract wall friezes. This style of Nubian wall paintings ended with the flooding of the valley by the Aswan Dam in 1970.


  • J. Kirkman: Gedi: The Palace, Studies in African History (The Hague, 1963)
  • M. Wenzel: House Decoration in Nubia, A. & Soc. Ser. (London, 1972)
  • N. Chittick: Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast, 2 vols. (Nairobi, 1974)
  • D. Dalby: “The Concept of Settlement in the West African Savannah,” Shelter, Sign and Symbol, ed. P. Oliver (London, 1975), pp. 197–205
  • J.-P. Greenlaw: The Coral Buildings of Suakin (Stocksfield, 1976)
  • F. Ago: Moschee in adobe: Storia e tipologia nell’Africa occidentale (Rome, 1982)
  • F. W. Schwerdtfeger: Traditional Housing in African Cities: A Comparative Study of Houses in Zaria, Ibadan, and Marrakesh (Chichester, 1982)
  • J. C. Moughtin: Hausa Architecture (London, 1985)
  • L. Prussin: Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (Berkeley, 1986)
  • S. Domian: Architecture soudanaise: Vitalité d’une tradition urbaine et monumentale: Mali, Côte-d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana (Paris, 1989)
  • J.-L. Bourgeois, C. Pelos and B. Davidson: Spectacular Vernacular: The Adobe Tradition (New York, 1990)
  • R. M. A. Bedaux and J. d. van der Waals: Djenné, une ville millénaire au Mali (Leiden, 1994)
  • K. Adahl and B. Sahlström: Islamic Art and Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa (Uppsala, 1995)
  • L. Prussin: African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, and Gender (Washington, 1995)
  • L. Prussin: “Non-Western Sacred Sites: African models,” J. Soc. Arch. Hist. lviii/3 (1999), pp. 424–33
  • S. Pradines: “L’influence indienne dans l’architecture swahili,” Afrikanistische, lx (1999), pp. 103–20
  • B. S. Amoretti, ed.: Islam in East Africa: New Sources (Rome, 2001)
  • V. Prévost: “Les mosquées ‘Soudanaises,’ expressions de l’Islam Africain,” Les lieux de culte en Orient, ed. C. Cannuyer, Acta Orientalia Belgica, 17 (Brussels, 2003), pp. 113–30
  • S. Pradines: “Le mihrâb swahili: L’évolution d’une architecture islamique en Afrique subsaharienne,” An. Islam., xxxvii (2003), pp. 355–81
  • S. B. Blier: Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa (New York, 2003)

III. Textiles

Both animal and vegetable fibers are used to make textiles in Africa. In North Africa and in limited areas immediately south of the Sahara, the main fiber for weaving is sheep's wool, although goat's wool is most fully exploited in southern Madagascar. Silk, the other animal-derived fiber used traditionally in Africa, has a more restricted distribution. The main traditional production is in West Africa, especially Nigeria, although waste silk from Europe was imported in the 19th century, and in Ghana European silk textiles were once unraveled and rewoven by local weavers. Silk is also produced in Madagascar.

The principal vegetable fibers are cotton, raffia and bark. Cotton is widely cultivated in West and northeast Africa and was exploited into the 20th century by weavers in the east and south of the continent. Raffia is woven in West Central Africa and Madagascar. Bark has been used mainly to produce a beaten and felted fabric rather than a woven textile. It can, however, be prepared for weaving and has been so used in parts of West Africa and Madagascar.

Wool, silk and cotton are all prepared for mounting on the loom by spinning. Each type of material is subjected to different procedures. Wool is soaked and then combed or carded (drawn across a series of spikes to yield a sheet of fiber); it may then be rolled and mounted on a distaff ready to be spun. Silk is prepared by boiling up the silk cocoons in an alkaline solution to release the fibers of which they are constructed. Cotton is ginned to squeeze out its seeds and then bowed (fluffed out by flicking a bowstring against it). All three are spun in an essentially similar manner. A length of fiber is drawn from the distaff and twisted by hand. This is attached to the spindle, which is allowed to spin in mid-air, drawing out further lengths. These are wound on to the spindle giving a continuous yarn.

Raffia is the most easily prepared fiber. Derived from the upper epidermis of the cut leaves of the raffia palm, it is simply peeled off and then split lengthways. The bark of appropriate trees is retted to yield bast fiber by immersing it in water and then separating out the longitudinal fibers. As with raffia fibers, bark fibers may be tied together neatly or twisted to give longer lengths.

While both men and women weave in Africa, in some areas the occupation is exclusive to one gender or the other. In Berber North Africa and Madagascar, for example, it is reserved to women, whereas in many parts of West and East Africa it is a male activity. In Nigeria and Arab North Africa, both men and women weave, but they use different types of loom. Furthermore, in some areas men weave professionally, whereas for women weaving is generally a domestic activity.

African looms vary in the angle at which they are mounted, the means of creating tension in the warp system and the manner the looms are addressed in weaving. Perhaps the most basic distinction, however, is in the nature of the shedding device, the means of creating the shed and countershed whose alternation with each pick of the weft is the essential act performed by the loom. Two main possibilities are exploited in Africa. The loom may be furnished with a shed stick and a single heddle tied to one group of warp elements. The shed stick creates the shed, and the weft may be passed through; pulling the heddle forward brings the warp elements from behind to the front and forms the countershed ready for the next pick of the weft. Varieties of this simple mechanism are widely distributed throughout the continent and are used by women in North Africa and Nigeria. Virtually all such looms are fixed horizontal structures.

Alternatively, paired heddles are used, each attached to a group of warp elements. The heddles are connected by a cord that passes over a pulley and that is worked by pedals beneath. Pressing one pedal pulls one of the heddles down and simultaneously raises the other, enabling shed and countershed to be formed rapidly. This type of double-heddle loom is used exclusively by men in West and northeast Africa and by women in isolated parts of Madagascar. In Madagascar only one end of the warp is attached to the loom; the other is held either by a weight or tied to a pole. In West Africa the cloth woven on such looms is characteristically in the form of narrow strips that are sewn together selvage to selvage to give greater width.

The main techniques used in decorating African textiles include the weaving process itself as well as dyeing, printing, appliqué and embroidery. As in other traditions weavers exploit variations of structure, texture and color as a means of introducing design. Both warp- and weft-faced textiles are widely distributed and some Berber textiles are tapestry weaves, but the most common method of introducing pattern is the use of float weaves.

A wide variety of vegetable dyes is used. The most common is indigo, which yields either a blue or a red color. Resist-dyeing of woven cloth is widespread, and the techniques of tying, stitching and applying starch are used. The Bamana of Mali use a unique method of discharge-dyeing in the manufacture of their bogolanfini or “mud cloth.”

Whereas printing, drawing and stenciling cloth are all rare, the technique of applying both cloth and other materials, including beads, shells, animal fur and medicine bundles, to a textile base is common. The banners and flags of the 19th-century Mahdists in the Sudan were typically made by applying cloth to other textiles. Embroidery is used to decorate gowns, trousers and cloaks in many parts of northeast and West Africa, where it is often associated with Muslim fashion.


  • R. Boser-Sarivaxevanis: Textilhandwerk in Westafrika (Basle, 1972)
  • K. P. Kent: “West African Decorative Weaving,” Afr. A., vi/1 (1972), pp. 22–7, 67–70, 88
  • B. Menzel: Textilien aus Westafrika, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1972)
  • African Textiles and Decorative Arts (exh. cat. by R. Sieber; New York, MOMA; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.; San Francisco, CA, de Young Mem. Mus.; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.; 1972–3)
  • R. Boser-Sarivaxevanis: Recherche sur l’histoire des textiles traditionnels tissés et teints de l’Afrique occidentale (Basle, 1975)
  • V. Lamb: West African Weaving (London, 1975)
  • J. Picton and J. Mack: African Textiles (London, 1979, rev. 1989)
  • D. Idiens and K. Ponting, eds.: Textiles in Africa (Bath, 1980)
  • V. Lamb and J. Holmes: Nigerian Weaving (Lagos, 1980)
  • C. Polakoff: Into Indigo: African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques (Garden City, 1980)
  • Patterns of Life: West African Strip-weaving Traditions (exh. cat. by P. S. Gilfoy; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Afr. A.; 1987)
  • C. Kriger: “Textile Production and Gender in the Sokoto Caliphate,” J. Afr. Hist., xxxiv (1993), pp. 361–401
  • Vallées du Niger (exh. cat., Paris; Mus. A. Afr. & Océan., 1994)
  • D. Clark: The Art of African Textiles (San Diego, 1997)
  • Everyday Patterns: Factory-printed Cloth of Africa (exh. cat., Kansas City, MO, U. Missouri–Kansas City, Gal. A., 1997)
  • Afrique bleue: Les routes de l’indigo (exh. cat., Clermont-Ferrand, Mus. Tapis & A. Textiles, 2000)
  • J. Gillow: Printed and Dyed Textiles from Africa (London and Seattle, 2001)
  • V. Rovine: Bogloan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali (Washington, DC, 2001)
  • M. Candotti: “Manifatture tessili e sviluppo di stati nell savana nigeriana (XIV–XVII secolo),” Africa: Riv. Trimest. Stud. & Doc. Ist. It. Africa & Orient., lvii (2002), pp. 420–42
  • S. Hilu and I. Hersey: Textile Art of the Bakuba: Velvet Embroideries in Raffia, Schiffer Book for Designers and Collectors (Atgalen, PA, 2002)
  • J. Gillow: African Textiles: Colour and Creativity across a Continent (London, 2003)
  • Textiles du Mali: D’Après les collections du Musée national du Mali (exh. cat., Bamako, Mus. N., 2003)
  • A. Grosfilley: L’Afrique des textiles (Aix-en-Provence, 2004)
  • Textiles Bogolan du Mali (exh. cat. by P. Duponnchel; Neuchâtel, Mus. Ethnog., 2004)
  • S. Hilu and I. Hersey: Bogolanfini Mud Cloth (Atgalen, PA, 2005)
  • P. J. Imperato: African Mud Cloth: The Bogolanfini Art Tradition of Gneli Traoré of Mali (New York, 2006)

IV. Ceramics

Ceramics are among the earliest and most ubiquitous forms of art produced in Africa. Archaeological evidence indicates that Africans have been making pottery and sculptures of fired clay since Neolithic times. Although the evidence is fragmentary, it appears that domestic pottery was introduced into northern Africa shortly after its discovery in the Levant in the 6th millennium BCE. Objects made of fired clay from sites in the Sahara Desert have been dated to the 8th millennium BCE, a fact that might indicate independent invention of pottery in Africa. Pottery was produced in the area that is now Kenya as early as the Upper Paleolithic and was probably being produced throughout the continent by the 2nd millennium BCE. Controlled excavations in Ghana and Mali have indicated dates in the 1st and 2nd millennia BCE for terracotta sculptures, while radiocarbon dating of the Nok finds in northern Nigeria shows that the terracottas are from the early 1st millennium BCE. Despite the availability of mass-produced metal containers in Africa in the late 20th century, the production of ceramics has persisted, often quite vigorously.

The clays used for making pottery in Africa vary from region to region but are generally coarse, with crushed shards often mixed into the clay. The resulting material fires very rapidly and at low temperatures to a remarkably lightweight terracotta that is highly tolerant of thermal shock and functions well for both cooking pots and water vessels. Before the introduction of the potter's wheel from Europe, all African pottery was hand-built, except in Egypt, where the potter's wheel was in use from at least the 2nd millennium BCE. Even in the late 20th century almost all African pottery was still being built by hand, using one of several methods. The techniques vary from place to place and usually combine molding, that is punching and pulling, and building with coils and slabs. Depending on the size of the desired pot, the potter either sits on the ground or on a low stool, turning the work between her legs, or moves around the pot as she works. Generally she begins either by coiling and modeling a long rope of clay on to itself using no support or, more frequently, by punching and pulling a mass of clay with her hands or a hammer over or within a mold, usually a fragment of an older pot, a gourd or a rounded stone. For spherical pots, top and bottom are built separately, left to stiffen until leather-like and then finally luted together.

The techniques for modeling and firing sculptures are similar to those used for pots, and the same clays and tools are used. Most small sculptures are solid, consisting of an interior of coarse clay, which establishes the basic shape of the object, and a surface of much finer clay, which is used for the detailing. Solid pieces up to 500 mm high are known; however, large pieces are more often hollow and sometimes very thin. Armatures of wood or palm fiber are sometimes used to support the clay during the modeling of larger objects.

Firing is done after the pots or sculptures have been preheated in one of two ways. They are either inverted over small fires or filled with grass that is burnt before the firing. This preheating dries out the clay so that only a brief firing at rather low temperatures is required. For the firing itself, which is most often done in the open, the preheated items are stacked in a pyramid that includes straw, wood and often dung. This is then covered with wood and ceramic shards. The whole is set alight and burns for an hour or two. The pots are removed from the stack immediately after firing and left to cool.

The greatest variation in African utilitarian ceramics lies in their decoration. Surfaces may be modified by burnishing, by applying slips before firing or pigments after firing (generally red, white and black), by blackening the entire vessel in a reduction atmosphere and by dipping or splashing the pots immediately after firing in a vegetal solution. Most distinctive to African pottery is its range of impressed ornamentation, done by means of rouletting, grooving, incising and comb stamping. Less typical is the application of clay pellets, spikes or bands. The amount and type of decoration is partly determined by function. Cooking pots have minimal ornamentation, for they are quickly blackened by the soot from open fires.


  • D. Drost: Topferei in Afrika: Ökonomie und Soziologie (Berlin, 1968)
  • M. Cardew: Pioneer Pottery (London, 1969)
  • R. Thompson: “Abatan: A Master Potter of the Egbado Yoruba,” Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art, ed. D. P. Biebuyck (Berkeley, 1969/R 1973), pp. 120–82
  • B. Fagg and J. Picton: The Potter's Art in Africa (London, 1970/R 1978)
  • R. Guardi: African Crafts and Craftsmen (New York, 1970)
  • S. Leith-Ross: Nigerian Pottery (Lagos, 1970)
  • C. Roy: West African Pottery Forming and Firing Techniques (diss., Bloomington, IN U., 1975)
  • J. Picton, ed.: Earthenware in Asia and Africa (London, 1984)
  • A. Stossel: Afrikanische Keramik: Traditionelle Handwerkskunst südlich der Sahara (Munich, 1984) [excellent plates and geographical coverage]
  • N. David, J. Sterner and K. Gavua: “Why Pots are Decorated,” Current Anthropol., xxix/3 (1988), pp. 365–89
  • M. C. Berns: “Ceramic Arts in Africa,” Afr. A., xxii/2 (1989), pp. 32–6, 101–02
  • N. Barley: Smashing Pots: Feats of Clay from Africa (London, 1994)
  • Africa: The Art of a Continent (exh. cat., ed. T. Phillips; London, RA, 1996)
  • B. E. Frank: Mande Potters and Leatherworkers: Art and Heritage in West Africa (Washington, DC, 1998)
  • C. D. Ardouin and E. N. Arinze: Museums & History in West Africa (Washington, DC, 2000)
  • C. D. Roy, ed.: Clay and Fire: Pottery in Africa, Iowa Studies in African Art, 4 (Iowa City, 2000)
  • A. Gelbert: Traditions céramiques et emprunts techniques dans la vallée du fleuve Sénégal (Paris, 2003)
  • J. Vogel: “African Ceramics,” Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa (exh. cat., ed. F. Herreman and H. Burssens; New York, Mus. Afr. A. and elsewhere, 2003), pp. 78–93
  • For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection (exh. cat. by K. B. Berzock; Chicago, IL, A. Inst., 2005–6)

V. Arts of the book

The coming of Islam to West Africa brought a need for and appreciation of manuscripts written in Arabic script. The first manuscripts read there were imported, mostly from Morocco, but manuscripts soon began to be produced locally, perhaps by the 16th century and certainly by the 17th. By the 18th and 19th centuries Arabic manuscripts were so common that it is possible to speak of a distinctive West African style. These written documents, many preserved in local libraries in Timbuktu and other centers and still relatively unknown, cover a variety of subjects ranging from history and science to literature. The finest in terms of both quality of materials and carefulness of execution are copies of the Koran, of which several dozen are known.

These Koran manuscripts typically comprise 400–500 separate sheets of hand-trimmed paper (each page approx. 230×170 mm). The paper was imported, often watermarked with the tre lune used by the firm of Andrea Galvini in Pordenone, Italy. The text is transcribed in a distinctive script sometimes dubbed sūdānī and derived from maghribi (see Calligraphy, §III, B). It displays the same orthographic conventions used in the Maghrib (e.g. a single dot below fā῾ and above qāf) and the same paleographic characteristics (swooping tails, club-footed alif, etc.), but is often heavier, with thicker and darker letters and a greater distinction between thick and thin strokes, achieved by using the pen along its vertical chisel edge. Pages are illuminated with simple geometrical shapes painted in the same earth colors used to copy the text: brown, red, yellow (see color pl. 1:I, fig. 2) and occasionally green. Most designs are drawn from the textile repertory and could be worked out directly on the surface.


2. Illuminated frontispiece in a typical Koran manuscript, from sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, 18th–19th centuries (private collection); photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY; see Africa, §V

view larger image

The loose-leaf manuscripts are held in a tooled leather wallet that is wrapped around the text block, with an ogival flap folded on the outside and secured by a cowrie shell and leather thong wrapped around the binding. The wallet, in turn, is held in a leather satchel, said to preserve the manuscript from impurity and protect it from the evil eye, but also used to enhance portability. Made of goatskin, the satchel usually has a shoulder strap and a flap secured by plaited leather thongs.

These Koran manuscripts exemplify home production rather than a formal school with set rules. The imported paper was often cut from larger sheets, with various kinds combined in the same manuscript. Pages are not ruled, and the number of lines varies within a single manuscript (15 is typical, but the number can range from 14 to 20). Pens too were probably imported and expensive, used until the edges were blunted. Often every corner of the page was filled, with marginal inscriptions added in various directions and places. There is no indication of a division of labor between scribe and illuminator, who were probably the same person. Less polished than the manuscripts produced and used elsewhere in the Islamic lands, these energetic and lively manuscripts are nevertheless a testament to the vigorous tradition of Islam that has flourished in the region in the last few centuries.


  • Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu, Washington, DC, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/all (accessed June 11, 2008)
  • A. Brockett: “Aspects of the Physical Transmission of the Qur῾an in 19th-Century Sudan: Script, Decoration, Binding and Paper,” MSS Mid. E., ii (1987), pp. 45–67
  • S. Jeppie and S. B. Diagne, eds.: The Multiple Meanings of Timbuktu: Conference at the University of Cape Town: 2005 (in preparation)
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