Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Guinea Coast, 1900 A.D.–present

European and American museums and missionary groups collect African art, ca. 1850–ca. 1950
Collaboration and exchange between Western and African artists and intellectuals through patronage, art schools, and workshops, ca. 1900–ca. 1970
Artistic rebirth in the Ekiti region after a prolonged state of war; Yoruba leaders commission lavish palaces and sculptures, ca. 1900–ca. 1930
Archeological recovery of Ife, Igbo Ukwu, and Nok sculptures, ca. 1910–ca. 1960
Suppression of traditional ritual art in Guinea, ca. 1956–84
Independence from Europe; Africans reemerge as major patrons of African artists, ca. 1960–present
New forms of funerary art in Ghana and Nigeria, ca. 1960–present
Constitution of Nigerian national capital Abuja, 1976–present
Artists from Guinea coast increasingly participate in international exhibitions and workshops, ca. 1990–present


Encompasses present-day Republic of Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, coastal Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Togo

Supplemental Maps

By the turn of the twentieth century all of the Guinea coast, with the exception of independent Liberia, falls under European rule. In British colonies, the policy of indirect rule relies on indigenous rulers and political systems. Confronted by an astonishing wealth of ancient and contemporary art, colonizers organize governmental bureaus and museum systems as showcases devoted to the collection and preservation of traditional material culture and archaeological sites such as Ife and Igbo-Ukwu in Nigeria. Newly created universities train African students in archaeological and anthropological practices, while contemporary artists such as Ben Enwonwu learn Western creative practices at local art schools and continue their training in Europe. In the postindependence era, a sophisticated and outspoken African intelligentsia coalesces at university centers such as Nsukka, Ife, and Zaria in Nigeria, producing literature, music, and artworks for both local and international audiences.

  • • early 20th century There is a proliferation of Dutch and British industrially produced cloth on the West African coast. The earliest Dutch patterns replicate the appearance of batik cloth from Dutch Indonesia. British textile mills quickly copy the designs. Other patterns derive from specific historical circumstances: a popular 1904 pattern created for export to Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) depicts the sword of kingship captured from the Asantahene, or Asante king, in 1896. By the late 1920s, mills have perfected the technology for transferring photographic images to cloth, and British colonies such as Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone are supplied with textiles featuring portraits of royal family members.

  • • early 20th century Northeastern Yorubaland experiences a social and cultural renaissance after years of foreign invasions devastated the region. Local leaders throughout the area commission lavish palaces and architectural sculptures to evoke their authority. Sculptural subjects such as the kneeling mother, seated king, and northern equestrian invader are popularized.

  • • early 20th century Fagbite Asamu of Idahin, in the Ketu region, popularizes the use of kinetic attachments to the superstructures of gelede masks that can be manipulated during performances.

  • • 1903 Aina Onabolu (1882–1963) begins his career as a portrait painter in Lagos. He is considered the first modern Nigerian artist.

  • • 1910 German ethnographer Leo Frobenius arrives in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and excavates several sacred groves to Yoruba orishas, or deities. He uncovers a number of naturalistic terracotta sculptures of human heads and attempts to purchase and export the famous "Olokun head," a cast brass head said to represent Olokun, the deity of the sea. Although a British district officer stops the purchase, Frobenius returns to Europe with several terracotta works now in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin.

  • • 1912 Fire destroys the royal palace at Efon-Alaiye, in the Ekiti region of northeastern Nigeria. Master sculptor Agbonbiofe (died 1945) is commissioned to replace twenty-five veranda posts for its audience chambers and courtyards. These are completed in 1916.

  • • 1914 Modern Nigeria is formed with the combination of the Northern and Southern British Protectorates. The island of Lagos is established as the colony's capital.

  • • 1918 Germany cedes control of Togo to France after being defeated in World War I.

  • • 1924 Achimota College is founded in Ghana and offers courses in the fine arts.

  • • 1924 A set of palace doors carved by the Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise (ca. 1873–1938) for the egogo (ruler) of Ikere, a small Yoruba kingdom in the Ekiti region of northeastern Nigeria, is lent for display in the Nigerian Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, England. One panel illustrates the arrival of British Captain Ambrose at the palace in 1897. The doors are celebrated as masterpieces of West African art, and are later acquired for the British Museum collection in exchange for a British-made throne. A master of composition, Olowe emphasizes the openness and three-dimensionality of his doors, house posts, ceremonial bowls, and other sculptures, interweaving positive and negative space to imbue them with palpable dynamic energy.

  • • 1927 King's College in Lagos, Nigeria, organizes a fine arts curriculum under Kenneth Murray, later head of the Nigerian Antiquities Service.

  • • 1937 The work of five Nigerian artists is displayed at the Zwemmer Gallery, London. Included is the young artist Ben Enwonwu (1921–1994), who had studied under Kenneth Murray and would receive a scholarship from the Shell Company of West Africa to study art in England in 1944. After attending Ruskin College in Oxford from 1944 to 1948, Enwonwu finishes his art studies at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, London. Returning to Nigeria in 1948, he becomes the first black Nigerian to hold the post of Federal Art Advisor.

  • • 1938 Isaiah Anazie of Igbo-Ukwu village in southeastern Nigeria uncovers a cache of intricately cast brass objects including a set of vessels and pendants. Although British colonial authorities make several trips to the site and recover objects for study at the British Museum, it is not until 1959 that the site is excavated by British archaeologist Thurstan Shaw. Shaw's excavation reveals the ninth-century burial site of a religious leader or titleholder. The disparate origins of the grave goods accompanying the body indicate the region's level of involvement with far-flung trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean networks.

  • • 1938 A cache of eighteen lifelike cast brass heads dating from the thirteenth century are unearthed near the palace of the Oni of Ife. Resembling those uncovered by Frobenius, they are kept by the Oni and form the basis of the Ife Museum collection. Subsequent excavations at other sites provide further examples of Ife art that contribute to a more complete understanding of Ife ritual practice.

  • • 1940 Black Africans from French and English colonies are conscripted into the war against Nazi Germany.

  • • 1943 Examples of Nok terracotta statuary are discovered in the Jos region of northern Nigeria. Assistant administrative officer and trained archaeologist Bernard Fagg, who would later be appointed director of the Nigerian Antiquities Service, leads the effort to rescue and document Nok pieces, many of which are accidentally unearthed by mining operations. Fagg authors several scholarly texts on the finds and his older brother William, then curator of African ethnology at the British Museum, includes Nok pieces in the Royal Anthropological Institute's 1949 exhibition Traditional Art of the British Colonies. The state's collection of Nok artifacts are placed in the Nigerian National Museum in Jos upon its establishment in 1953.

  • • 1946 Under a new constitution, Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) becomes the first British African colony with an elected African majority in its Legislative Council.

  • • 1946 French citizenship is extended to all inhabitants of French colonies.

  • • 1947 A new Nigerian constitution permits elected African legislators to hold the majority in the national Legislative Council.

  • • 1947–60s Fathers Kevin Carroll and Sean O'Mahoney of the Society of African Missions establish a workshop in Ekiti district, Nigeria, to encourage local Yoruba artists to produce sculpture, textiles, and beadwork for governmental and Christian liturgical purposes. Among the most accomplished artists are Bandele, a Christian and son of famed sculptor Areogun (1880–1954), Otooro of Ketu, and Lamidi Fakeye (born 1928), a Muslim. Several Catholic churches, including Ibadan Cathedral and Saint Paul's in Lagos, contract Bandele to carve sculpted doors depicting biblical scenes, effectively combining Yoruba and Roman Catholic architectural traditions. Lamidi Fakeye is hired to carve doors, chairs, and thrones for the House of Assembly and the House of Chiefs in Ibadan. The artists also produce veranda posts and doors for preservation projects conducted under the authority of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities and the Jos Museum.

  • • 1949 The Gold Coast Film School is established in Accra.

  • • 1952 Kwame Nkrumah becomes prime minister of Gold Coast.

  • • 1954 Yoruba sculptor Areogun (born 1880), a native of the Ekiti region of Nigeria, dies. Areogun was apprenticed to Bamgboshe of Osi (died ca. 1920) and was a devotee of Ogun, the Yoruba orisha of iron. One of the most famous and accomplished Yoruba sculptors, his work is distinguished by a compact, rounded, and sometimes bulbous rendering of the human form.

  • • 1955 Saburi O. Biobaku and Ulli Beier found Odù: A Journal of Yoruba and Related Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

  • • 1956 Oil is discovered in southern Nigeria.

  • • 1956–84 Between 1956 and 1957, Islamic missionaries in northern Guinea-Conakry call for the forced conversion of Baga peoples and the destruction of thousands of ritual sculptures. Their edicts receive the support of Sekou Touré, leader of the dominant political party. Guinea achieves independence from France in 1958, and the Touré regime espouses a Marxist political ideology that, while tolerant of Islam, bans all other forms of religious worship and suppresses the production and performance of Baga sculpture.

  • • 1957 Gold Coast gains independence from Britain and is renamed Ghana.

  • • 1957 Ulli Beier founds Black Orpheus, a journal of African arts and literature, in Ibadan, Nigeria.

  • • 1958 The Zaria Art Society, which later becomes the Zaria Rebels, is organized at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria by Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, S. Irein Wangboje, Yusuf Grillo, William Olaesebikan, Simon Okeke, and Uche Okeke.

  • • 1958 Nigerian author Chinua Achebe publishes Things Fall Apart, which quickly gains international recognition.

  • • early 1960s A series of workshops is organized in Oshogbo, a town outside of Ile-Ife, Nigeria, by Ulli Beier, Georgina Beier, and Susanne Wenger, members of the faculty at the University of Ife. The instructors teach drawing and printmaking techniques and encourage their students to engage their own Yoruba folklore and belief system for inspiration. Among the most famous of the Oshogbo workshop graduates is Twins Seven Seven (born 1944), whose drawings and prints depict human, animal, and vegetal forms in compositions drawn from Yoruba mythology.

  • • 1960s–present A genre of tomb sculpture develops in the Cross River region of eastern Nigeria. Made entirely of concrete, the structures are typically three-walled boxes with sheltering canopies housing one or more lifesize naturalistic depictions of the departed, and are unveiled during costly "second burial" rites performed some years after death. One of the most successful and popular sculptors within the genre is Sunday Jack Akpan (born ca. 1940), whose works are distinguished by their striking realism and formal invention.

  • • 1960s–70s Nigerian sign painter Augustine Okoye, called "Middle Art," is promoted by Ulli Beier and emerges as an internationally recognized artist. Perhaps because of his early experience with advertising, Middle Art's paintings on plywood are characterized by an overtly narrative.

  • • 1960s–70s Austrian artist Susanne Wenger (born 1915) initiates the reconstruction of several sacred groves dedicated to Yoruba orishas located at Oshogbo, outside of Ile-Ife. With the help of Yoruba artists Buraimoh Gbadamosi (born 1936) and Adebisi Akanji (born 193-), among others, Wenger rebuilds the shrines in cement-covered clay employing a sculptural language of organic curves and abstracted forms.

  • • 1960 Former British colony Nigeria becomes an independent state while Côte d'Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), and Togo achieve independence from France.

  • • 1960 E. C. Arinze and the Music Band record Freedom Highlife to commemorate Nigerian independence.

  • • 1961 The Mbari Writers and Artists Club is founded in Ibadan by a group of young intellectuals, including authors Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Ezekiel Mphahlele (a South African), and Cyprian Ekwensi, composer Akin Euba, artists Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke, and Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Ulli Beier, a teacher at Ibadan University. Mphahlele is its first president. Created to inspire and encourage the continuing development of the arts, Mbari exhibits the work of many modern artists such as Malangatana Ngwenya (Mozambique), Jacob Lawrence (U.S.), Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan), Vincent Kofi (Ghana), Skunder Boghossian (Ethiopia), Susanne Wenger (Austria), and others.

  • • 1961 Sierra Leone gains independence from Britain.

  • • 1962 The establishment of the Mbari-Mbayo Club in Oshogbo, Nigeria, is celebrated with a performance of Duro Ladipo's play Oba Moro (The King of Ghosts). In 1964, Ladipo publishes his trilogy on the history of the Kingdom of Oyo, which includes Oba Moro as well as Oba Koso (The King Did Not Hang) and Oba Waja (The King Is Dead), and opens two Yoruba operas at the Berlin Theater Festival.

  • • 1965 Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti begins to experiment with Afrobeat, a fusion of Yoruba traditional music, American blues, jazz, and funk. Using his music as a vehicle to protest government oppression, he becomes one of the most popular figures in Africa. Thousands attend his funeral in 1997.

  • • 1965 An exquisite brass stool is found at the town of Ijebu-Ode in southern Nigeria. Its circular seat is raised on a columnar support composed of knotted snakes devouring antelopes. Sculpted in the attenuated style of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ijebu brass-casting tradition, the stool's form and iconography nevertheless indicate a strong relation to works created at Ife, Owo, and Benin, reflecting the intertwining artistic and political relationships among these centers.

  • • 1966 In Nigeria, a military coup ousts the elected civilian government. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna (Islamic religious leader) of Sokoto, are assassinated, leading to a Nigerian crisis that culminates in a three-year civil war when the heavily Igbo region of Biafra declares independence under Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in 1967.

  • • late 1960s The birth of the "Nsukka Group," a loose-knit collection of Igbo artists whose creative activities are centered at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the southeast. Some of the artists, including Uche Okeke (born 1933), Demas Nwoko (born 1935), and Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 1932), were earlier associated with the Zaria Art Society and the University of Ibadan, but are forced to leave these regions when faced with anti-Igbo pogroms at the outbreak of civil war. Their return to the Igbo homeland inspires many of the artists to draw upon indigenous Igbo aesthetics, particularly the graphic traditions of uli and nsibidi, for inspiration. While the work of the Nsukka Group is diverse in appearance, it can be characterized by a tendency toward abstract compositions with a strong linear quality.

  • • 1970s–present Ghanaian sculptor and carpenter Samuel Kane Kwei (born 1927) invents and popularizes a genre of brightly painted full-size wooden coffins. These works memorialize the deceased by taking the form of items associated with his or her profession and personal aspirations. Boats, vegetables, automobiles, and livestock are popular subjects.

  • • 1975 Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau gain independence from Portugal.

  • • 1976 Plans are laid for the construction of Abuja, the new federal capital of Nigeria, by a consortium of Canadian, European, American, and Japanese architectural and urban planning firms headed by Japanese modernist architect Kenzo Tange, a former associate of Le Corbusier. The capital is intended to present an illustration of the democratic processes set forth in the Nigerian constitution by placing the National Assembly, presidential palace, and Supreme Court within a circular area called the Three Arms Zone. Ground is broken in 1981, and the city remains one of the largest construction sites in the world.

  • • 1977 The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) is held in Lagos, Nigeria. With over 17,000 participants from over fifty countries, it is the largest cultural event ever held on the African continent.

  • • 1977 The foundation of the Ode-lay Society in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a group of social clubs for young urban men. Centered on leisure activities such as drinking, smoking, and listening to popular music, the clubs organize spectacular masquerade performances that draw on the varied ethnic traditions of their members. In keeping with their creators' contemporary urban identities, Ode-lay masquerades and ceremonies incorporate explicitly "modern" and foreign materials such as Christmas ornaments and vinyl records.

  • • 1979 The remains of fortified trading posts, erected between 1482 and 1786 in the Central and Western regions along the coast of Ghana, are designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

  • • 1980 An ensemble of Asante traditional earth, straw, and wood buildings, northeast of Kumasi in the Asante region of Ghana, is declared a world heritage site.

  • • 1982 Ghanaian-born critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker John Akomfrah (born 1957) co-founds the Black Audio Film Collective, a seminal black filmmaking workshop in London.

  • • 1985 UNESCO declares the Royal Palaces of Abomey, in the Republic of Benin, a world heritage site.

  • • 1986 Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His published works include A Dance of the Forests (1963), The Strong Breed (1963), The Interpreters (1965), The Man Died (1972), Death and the King's Horsemen (1975), and Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981).

  • • 1986 Sokari Douglas Camp (born 1958), from the Lower Niger Delta region of Nigeria, is among the featured artists in From Two Worlds, a show of contemporary African art held at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.

  • • 1986–90 The construction of Our Lady of Peace Basilica in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire, a Catholic church modeled upon Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. The basilica, whose construction costs are estimated at $150–300 million, is presented as a "personal gift" to Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church by Ivoirian president Houphouët-Boigny.

  • • 1989 Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode dies of AIDS in London. An outspokenly gay artist, his works employ the black male nude to explore the complicated relationships arising from the interplay of race, culture, and homosexual desire.

  • • 1989 Magiciens de la terre, the first major museum exhibition to prominently display modern and contemporary art from Africa, opens at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

  • • 1989 The film Yaaba (Grandmother), by Idrissa Ouedraogo (born Burkina Faso, 1954), wins the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Ouedraogo's next film, Tilai (1990), receives the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and also the Grand Prize of the 12th FESPACO.

  • • 1990 African artists are represented for the first time at the Venice Biennale. The works of El Anatsui, Tapfuma Gusta, Bruce Oboprakpeya, Nicholas Mukumberanwa, and Henry Munyaradzi are featured in the Five Contemporary African Artists. These five artists and four others, all of them working in Nigeria, were selected earlier in the year for the landmark exhibition Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition, curated by Grace Stanislaus at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

  • • 1991 Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art opens at the Center for African Art, New York.

  • • 1991 The Famished Road, by Nigerian author Ben Okri, receives the Booker Prize for Literature.

  • • 1992 The Eye: A Journal of Contemporary African Art is published in Zaria, Nigeria, by the Eye Society.

  • • 1995 Africa '95, a festival of African art in England, includes the work of several contemporary artists in exhibitions such as Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, and Self Evident at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

  • • 1995 Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui (born 1944) wins the Kansai Telecasting Prize at the Osaka Triennale.

  • • 1996 The Guggenheim Museum, New York, hosts a landmark exhibition of photography from throughout the African continent entitled In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present.

  • • 1997–2007 Ghanaian Kofi Annan is the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations.

  • • 1998 Art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor is appointed artistic director of documenta XI in Kassel, Germany.

  • • 1998 Nigerian artist Chris Ofili (born 1968) wins the Turner Prize, England's highest art award.

  • • 1999 Olusegun Obasanjo is elected president in Nigerian general elections, returning the country to civilian rule after sixteen years of military dictatorship.

  • • 1999 The Sukur Cultural Landscape, in the Adamawa region of Nigeria, is declared a world heritage site.

  • • 2000 Rebel incursions begin along Guinea's border with Liberia and Sierra Leone which eventually claim hundreds of lives and cause massive population displacement.

  • • 2001 The Nobel Peace Prize is jointly presented to the United Nations and Secretary General Kofi Annan.

  • • 2001 The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), formed by Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, South African president Mbeki, and Algerian president Bouteflika, is launched with the goals of ending wars and government corruption in exchange for foreign investment and the lifting of barriers on African exports.

  • • 2001 Nigerian curator Okui Enwezor curates The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, for the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich. The exhibition travels to Berlin, New York, and Chicago.

  • • 2001 Sudanese Salah Hassan and Nigerian Olu Oguibe are the first African curators to participate in the Venice Biennale. Their exhibition is entitled Authentic / Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa.

  • • 2002 Internationally recognized filmmaker Florentino "Flora" Gomes (born Guinea-Bissau, 1949) directs Nha Fala (My Voice). This romantic musical set in the Cape Verde Islands weaves political criticism with performative spectacle.

  • • 2004 The mud tower-houses of the Batammariba are landmarks of the Koutammakou landscape in northeastern Togo. UNESCO declares them world heritage sites.

  • • 2004–5 The exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, under the curatorial direction of Simon Njami, travels to Düsseldorf, Paris, London, Tokyo, Stockholm, and Johannesburg.

  • • 2005 In Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the first woman to be elected head of state in an African country.

  • • 2005 The sacred grove of Osogbo in the Osun region of Nigeria is declared a world heritage site.

  • • 2007 Former Liberian president Charles Taylor stands trial for crimes against humanity, charged with instigating atrocities in Sierra Leone.

  • • 2007 Béninois visual artist Romuald Hazoumé wins the Arnold Bode prize at Documenta XII in Kassel.

  • • 2007 Béninoise singer and songwriter Angélique Kidjo wins the Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding World Music Album for her album Djin Djin.

  • • 2007 A group of African artists is presented in the exhibition Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense at the 52nd Venice Biennale. Works by about 100 artists and groups are shown at the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini; Among the African artists represented in that section of the Biennale are paintings by Congolese Chéri Samba, photographs by Malian Malick Sidibé, comics by Ivoirian Faustin Titi and Cameroonian-born Eyoum Ngangué, and installations by Ghanaian-born El Anatsui. In addition to his monumental works shown in the Arsenale, Anatsui also transforms one of Venice's most celebrated Gothic landmarks with a site-specific installation that redefined the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny.

  • • 2008 Simon Njami organizes the first African Art Fair in Johannesburg.

  • • 2009 The ruins of Loropéni in Burkina Faso are designated a world heritage site.