African paintings first emerged as those that still appear on rock faces and in caves. The first of these was discovered in Namibia, and is thought to be approximately 27 000 years old. There are also an estimated 30 000 rock paintings scattered throughout the incredible Drakensberg Mountain Range in South Africa. This medium was used by ancient Africans to convey information, to relate events, to depict everyday life and to communicate with their spirit ancestors. In this way, rock art created an important link between the physical and spiritual realms.
These paintings began as realistic, monochrome depictions of life, people and animals. However, as it developed as an art form, the subjects became more abstract, and different colours began to be used with dyes made from berries, animal parts and plants. The San, or Bushmen, were fairly adventurous in their art, and frequently depicted their spirit-world counterparts in bizarre and often fantastical ways.
Indigenous tribes migrated around the African continent in search of more arable land, better weather conditions, or safety from attacking nations. This resulted in the amalgamation of various methods as different cultures integrated. The people began to decorate everything, from their homes to their bodies to the land around them. Painting took on a unique significance as it was used to represent the identity of certain groups, effectively excluding those who could not understand the symbols painted on the houses or bodies of a certain tribe.
Painting as an African art form remained fairly abstract until the arrival of the European colonialists. Colours were not determined by their subject and structural features of humans and animals were distorted in order to portray a message or expose their humorous attributes. When the colonialists arrived, they brought with them art that was distinctly realist in nature, in true Renaissance fashion. While this influenced the African peoples somewhat, it never brought about a complete revolution in their art. Colour, texture and medium remained distinctly African, constantly changing in line with the ever-fluid societies of that time.
Contemporary African art continues to present a plethora of themes, colours, textures and canvasses. The people of this continent are as colourful and varied as their artwork, which ensures its continued growth within the global arena.