For centuries Africans have produced handmade items such as cloth, baskets, and pottery to meet the practical needs of everyday life. Such handicrafts are also expressions of their makers' skills and of personal, regional, and cultural styles. Many are produced specifically for sale or for export to markets in other countries.
Both men and women make many kinds of baskets and mats out of plant materials such as wood, palm leaves, reeds, grasses, and roots. They decorate their handiwork with patterns of differently colored and textured materials or with leather stitched onto the basketwork. There are two basic basket-making techniques. In plaited basketry, strands of plant fiber are soaked and then twined, woven, or twisted together. In sewn basketry, a thin strip of continuous material—usually grass—is stitched onto itself in a coil. Some baskets made this way are so tightly sewn that they hold liquid.
Baskets serve a wide range of practical purposes. Most are used as containers for serving food, storing items, or carrying goods. Some baskets function as tools, such as traps for fish and animals and strainers for flour or homemade beer. Basketry techniques are applied to other tasks, including fashioning the framework for thatched roofs and wattle-anddaub walls.
African baskets have decorative and social purposes as well. Hats are often made of basketwork adorned with fiber tufts, feathers, fur, and leather. The traditional beaded crowns of the YORUBA people of Nigeria, for example, have basketry foundations. Groups such as the Chokwe of Angola and Zambia create dance masks of basketry or bark cloth on a wicker frame. Over much of eastern Africa, baskets ornamented with shells, beads, dyed leather, and metal dangles are presented as special gifts. They may also be included among a bride's wedding decorations. Flat mats, another form of basketry, often serve as ground covering on which to sit or sleep. The nomadic Somali people use mats to roof their temporary shelters. In the Congo region, traditional houses are often walled with rigid mats, patterned in black on a background of natural yellow.
Beads and Jewelry
Africans use beads to adorn their bodies, their furnishings, and their burials. Nigerians had developed a glass bead industry by 1000 B.C., and ancient trade routes circulated beads of bone, stone, ivory, seed, ostrich eggshell, metal, and shell. Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were highly valued. Once used as money, they still serve as symbols of wealth in many places.
Western and central Africans traditionally used beads to cover furniture, sculpture, and clothing. Groups in Nigeria and Cameroon fashioned complicated pictures out of tiny colored beads. For many nomadic peoples, beadwork, which could be carried with them, was the main form of visual art. In eastern Africa, beadwork ornaments displayed the wearer's social position through a complex system of color and design. In many regions children wore beads to bring good health and luck.
Foreign contact and modern materials have changed the types of beads used in Africa. Glass beads from India were imported into sub-Saharan Africa more than 1,000 years ago. By the late 1800s, colored glass beads manufactured in Europe were being shipped by the ton to Africa, where they served as trade goods. Despite the widespread use of these imported beads, native African bead-making techniques survived. However, craftspeople began using new materials in their work. For example, MAASAI groups have recently incorporated blue plastic pen caps into their beadwork in place of traditional feather quill pens. Today, people produce beads and other kinds of jewelry from coins, buttons, wire, and discarded aluminum and plastic, working these materials into their traditional styles.
African artists and craftspeople also make metal ornaments and jewelry. Many parts of western Africa have a long history of producing fine gold jewelry. The country that is now Ghana was formally named the Gold Coast. The name came from the fact that the local ASANTE kings wore so many gold necklaces, bracelets, crowns, rings, and anklets. In Ancient Egypt, craftspeople used gold to create spectacular jewelry, burial items, vessels, and furniture for their kings, the PHARAOHS. The TUAREG people of northeastern Africa specialize in making silver jewelry. Today many Africans produce jewelry and beadwork to sell to tourists.
Pottery is among Africa's oldest crafts. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that people in the Sahara desert were making pottery more than 10,000 years ago. Deposits of clay are found throughout the continent. This versatile material is used to make containers for cooking, storing, and measuring foodstuffs, as well as for jewelry, furniture, coffins, toys, beehives, musical instruments, household utensils, and tiles. Even broken pottery has value in Africa—as game pieces, floor tiles, and raw material for making new pottery.
Traditionally, each piece of African pottery was made by hand. Potters, some of whom were traveling craftspeople, developed a variety of techniques that could produce sturdy pottery quickly and inexpensively. They baked it over open bonfires, in fire pits, or in simple furnaces called kilns. Although these methods remain in use, some African manufacturers now make pottery by pressing or pouring clay into molds for mass production.
Africans often decorate their pottery with texture. They carve or raise patterns and designs on the surface of the clay. Craftspeople in Islamic cultures, especially in North Africa, paint clay tiles with elaborate geometric patterns and designs inspired by Arabic script. These are generally used to decorate mosques and Muslim religious schools.
Africans tend to draw a line between clay sculpture and functional pottery vessels. Traditionally, in much of the continent, sculpture is produced by men and the pottery by women. This division of labor came in part from a belief that making clay images of people or animals was considered similar to a woman's ability to have children. However, in many cultures, powerful women and women beyond childbearing age may create figurines.
African pottery vessels sometimes carry meanings beyond their everyday functions. The style of a pot may reflect a person's position in society. A widow, a married man, and a child might each be expected to use a pitcher of a different shape. A flour jar marking a tomb may indicate that a fertile mother is buried within. Pottery vessels may also act as containers of spiritual forces. A dead woman's spirit could be thought to inhabit the pot that she used for years to haul water.
Textiles are cloths woven of threads. In Africa, they have great cultural as well as practical significance. People offer textiles as gifts on important social occasions and often bury them with the dead. Textiles may indicate the wearer's importance in the community. Their patterns or color combinations sometimes carry symbolic messages. In some parts of Africa, cloth was once used as money. Textiles remain an important item in the economy, especially in West Africa, where more workers are engaged in the production and trade of cloth than in any other craft profession.
Barkcloth, traditionally used throughout much of central and eastern Africa, is not a true textile. It is pounded from the bark of the ficu tree. However, Africans have long used barkcloth in the same way they use textiles. Textile weaving and the production of barkcloth rarely occur in the same area.
African textile makers have traditionally used at least five types of hand-operated looms to weave their cloth. Some types are worked on only by men, others by women. All of these looms produce long, narrow strips of material, ranging from less than an inch to about 10 inches in width. When sewn together, the strips make rectangular cloths. Today African textiles are often manufactured on automatic looms in factories.
Africans produce many distinctive cloths woven from cotton, wool, wild silk, and raffia fibers. Egyptian weavers have been making fine linen for over 1,600 years. The FULANI people of Mali are known for their kaasa covers, a tightly woven wool fabric that offers protection against cold and insects. The weavers of southern Ghana and Togo are famous for their kente cloth, large, richly colored textiles worn by men at important ceremonies. The most valuable of these are made of silk. BERBER women produce colorful wool rugs woven in unique geometric designs. Manufactured fibers such as rayon play an important part in the modern textile trade of Africa.
African carvers—usually men—produce sculpture and other art works, such as masks. They also create a wide range of everyday items, including stools, axe handles, dugout boats, headrests, containers for food and liquid, and spoons. Such items are generally made of wood. Artworks and high-quality handicrafts may be adorned with carved patterns and figures of people or animals. Some carvers decorate their woodwork with a technique called pyrogravure, which involves blackening the wood with a hot iron blade.
The carving of very simple items, such as an axe handle, may require no special ability. Often the local blacksmith combines the skills of ironworking and woodworking and will fit a handle to the metal tool he has made. On a higher level, there may be one man in an area who is widely known for his craftsmanship. He might spend most of his time carving. In some North African societies, noblemen paid skilled carvers to create highly decorated wooden objects, from delicate spoons to carved camel saddles.
Not all carving is done in wood. African artists have a long tradition of working with ivory (from hippopotamus and elephant tusks), bone, and horn. In Cameroon and the Congo region, carvers craft buffalo horn into ceremonial drinking vessels. Some groups have carved figures and pipes from soapstone, and in Egypt, great temples still display detailed images and hieroglyphics cut into the stone by ancient craftspeople. (See also Art, Body Adornment and Clothing.)