Sculpture in Southern Africa

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The countries of southern Africa are populated by the Bantu who created powerful and formidable kingdoms like Pagangubwe on the Limpopo around 1100. It is believed that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are the remains of a powerful Shona kingdom. which existed in the 1200s. Archaeological and prehistoric research can go even further back in time; Australopithecus have been present for at least 1 million years and “homo sapiens sapiens” between 8000 and the beginning of our era. As one can human occupation in these places is well before the installation of Europeans even if they claim to have discovered virgin lands of any trace of human presence. The most impressive historical memories remain tied to the

The analysis of catalogs and works of art leaves the strong impression that Southern Africa has not chosen to express its emotions and cultural life in the great sculpture as it is found in West and Central Africa, for example. However, what exists of sculpture in this part of the continent can not be presented isolated from the rest of his traditional artistic creations like rock paintings. The oldest of the continent has been discovered in rock shelters in South Africa and surrounding areas. Those of the “Apollo II” site in southern Namibia are more than 27,500 years old. The moose, animal most represented in these paintings, is not the one that is most hunted by the San, authors of these works. The results of recent research have shown that these scenes are the result of visions obtained during the trances of healers. The momentum reappears in Chewa masks of Zambia; We also know the “maliro nyau”, a large mask borrowing its form from the antelope. It is supposed to shelter the spirit of a deceased.

On the Great Zimbabwe site, there is a series of steatite poles. At their summit are birds, probably eagles. The shona who founded this kingdom consider birds, eagles in particular, as emissaries in connection with the spirits of the ancestors. It is likely that each sculpture is like a portrait of a sovereign: the representations are different from each other. The sculptural traditions of Great Zimbabwe have also left us a legacy of sculptures that combine human and animal forms in such a subtle way that we could be mistaken. Contemporary artists are still inspired by these ancient forms to feed their imagination.

Daily needs gave birth to many pieces: pipes, stools and neckrests. It is almost certain that these utilitarian objects carry symbols. Neck support, for example, can be indicators of social status. It is also thought that the nape-supports are the place where the revelations of the ancestors come to rest during dreams. Creativity can be observed in the complexity of forms, the ability of traditional artists to play with full and empty or the complexity of the decor.

Joseph Adandé
Art Historian
University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin

Bibliographic orientation:


  • Encyclopaedia Universalis, 1985: The Great Atlas of Archeology, Paris, 423 p.
  • MACK, J. (ed), 2000: Africa, arts and cultures. British Museum Press, 224 p.