The Colonial period (1600s- early 1800s)

During this time period, many Black artisans were enslaved. They were limited to creating utilitarian objects such as ceramics, clothing and textiles, metalwork, instruments, and furniture. Styles evoked traditional African art which was designed for use in ceremonies, and other social and/or political purposes. Items such as small drums, wrought-iron figures, and ceramic “face” vessels are the most comparable to the traditional arts and crafts of native West and Central African countries. Demand for skilled craftsmen began increasing during this time as skilled enslaved people were commonly “rented” out by their owners to apprentice to white craftsmen such as carpenters, weavers, metalworkers, and potters.

Historically, these utilitarian  items were considered crafts by the American art world and were viewed as a “low” form of artistic expression. It wasn’t until the 1980s that ‘decorative arts’ or the designing and decorating of functional objects was viewed to be aesthetically equal to art forms such as painting and sculpture. 

Explore examples from this period:

  • Wrought Iron Figure, Alexandria, VA, late 18thc Bamana (Mali) sacred sculpture – ironwork sculpture in W. Africa style