Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

African Rock Art

Thematic Essays

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Rock paintings and engravings are Africa's oldest continuously practiced art form. Depictions of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and figures combining human and animal features—called therianthropes and associated with shamanism—continue to inspire admiration for their sophistication, energy, and direct, powerful forms. The apparent universality of these images is deceptive; content and style range widely over the African continent. Nevertheless, African rock art can be divided into three broad geographical zones—southern, central, and northern. The art of each of these zones is distinctive and easily recognizable, even to an untrained eye.

Not all rock art in these three zones is prehistoric; in some areas these arts flourished into the late nineteenth century, while in other areas rock art continues to be made today. In the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, a number of rock paintings depict clashes between San (Bushmen) people and European colonists mounted on horses and armed with rifles. Many of the Drakensberg works use subtle polychrome shading that gives their subjects a hint of three-dimensional presence. The product of many authors, time periods, and cultures, the flowing naturalism and lively sense of movement of the best rock art attests to the conviction of masterful hands and trained eyes.

Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Linton Panel.
Image courtesy of the South African Museum, Cape Town.
This rock painting was extricated from a shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains and currently resides in the South African Museum, Cape Town. Its images of antelopes and humans have been interpreted as evocations of Khoisan trance experiences. Beautifully rendered in subtle tones of red and white, this is among the most famous South African rock paintings. Although its date of execution is not known, it is estimated to have been painted sometime during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries A.D.

Notable sites of Saharan and southern African rock art.