The western coastal region was and remains one of the most densely populated areas in Africa. Its communities range from villages in which social responsibility is shared to centralized chiefdoms ruled by a strong monarch. Art, produced as a sign of prestige, tended to strengthen the authority of the chief and his divine rule. Gold and bronze, together with other precious materials, were used to create regalia such as headdresses, staffs, and thrones. To the north of the coastal region is the more sparsely populated Western Sudan, inhabited by villagers and nomadic tribes engaged in agriculture.
Western African metalwork and pottery date from as early as 2,500 years ago. The ceramic works of northern Nigeria’s Nok culture, from about 500 BCE to 200 CE, are the first known examples of figurative sculpture south of the Sahara. The refined portrait-like terra-cotta art of Ife
(beginning ca. 350 BCE) had a strong influence on brass sculpture in Benin culture (from the 13th century on). Wood was used in non-royal art, including the secret societies’ masks and ancestor figures. These played an important role in shrine decoration, coming-of-age ceremonies, the control of supernatural forces, and the maintenance of social order.
Horseman, Mali, 19th-century