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Musician, Nigeria: E76291
Bronze cast of a musician, Benin style, Nigeria. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

Africa is the second largest continent on our planet – as large as Canada, USA, China and a big part of Western Europe combined. The road distance from Cape Town in South Africa to Tangier in Morocco is over 12,000 km and it would take about 7 days of driving to make such a journey. Thus, any general statement about African culture would be simplistic.

And yet, for the reason of clarity, some general observations must be made. It is usually accepted that two major civilisations developed in African antiquity: one around the Nile River in the northeast and the other, somewhat younger, around the Niger River in the west. Ancient Egypt and Nubia are prominent in history textbooks. West African civilisation has not become as prominent.

Ancient Egypt formed a remarkably durable state which strongly influenced west Asian and European cultures. It attracted the Western scholars and collectors for many centuries, beginning in the classical Greco-Roman period. Roman sculptors made numerous replicas of Egyptian statues and the urge to imitate this original art continues to our time.

Civilisation of western Africa evolved via numerous local empires and kingdoms competing and replacing each other throughout history. Greco-Roman scholars had rather foggy ideas of its geography and culture. Europeans encountered the western African civilisation directly late and quite slowly – initially via the Portuguese explorers and traders in the 15th century.

It is ironic and symptomatic that the most publicised glimpse of western African civilisation was via destruction and looting of Oba’s palace in the city of Benin by the British colonial expedition in February 1897. Among other goods the British plundered over 900 bronze sculptures of exquisite aesthetic quality and technical mastery.

Ever since, collectors and art connoisseurs have rushed to fossick for bronzes and other art pieces from this artistically fertile and highly original civilisation. However, genuine archaeological and historical studies on western African civilisation still have a long way to go.

Scholars speculate that the rise of civilisations around the Nile and the Niger River could be linked, in different ways, to the increasing aridity of North Africa, which had turned the northern savannah into the vast Sahara Desert by the 3rd millennium BC. Some centres of power in West Africa built their wealth with the help of the hugely profitable trade of slaves, metals, salt and spices across the Sahara.