Africa Re-Viewed: Rare Photos of 20th Century Africa

Eliot Elisofon was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker whose enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1972 was published in magazines such as Life and the National Geographic.

Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Workers at the Ekulu coal mine near Enugu, Nigeria, 1959

As a filmmaker, he worked on film and television projects including the Black African Heritage Series (1972), a four-part documentary on African arts and cultures. Elisofon’s association with the National Museum of African Art began as a founding trustee in 1964. Over the span of his career, Elisofon travelled to six continents. He made 11 trips to Africa, photographing, making films and collecting art.

Upon his death in 1973, Elisofon donated his African materials to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., including over 50,000 black-and-white negatives and photographs, 30,000 color slides, and 120,000 feet of motion picture film and sound materials. The bequest became the foundation for the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.

In 2013 the museum celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives and art collection with the exhibition Africa Re-Viewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon.

Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Pende Minganji maqueraders, near Gungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 1970

Elisofon’s images are significant for the way they helped change American perceptions of Africa in the 20th century, which had for the most part been informed by inaccurate literary and film representations.

Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Hausa girls, at Zaranda market in 1959, East of Jos, Nigeria.

His photos also offer important glimpses into the production of African art. His one big desire was to help people understand what these artifacts meant to Africans themselves and how they’re used and performed, their symbolic meanings, and their cultural significance.
Elisofon was a collector of art and brought back more than 700 objects from Africa during the course of his life.

Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Twins Seven-Seven and jazz band in 1971, Oshogbo, Nigeria.
Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Colossi of Memnon, Necropolis of Thebes, Egypt, 1965
Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Female potters near Kumasi, Ghana, 1971
Kuba nyim (ruler) Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen, Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1947
Rare 20th Century Look at Africa
Irigwe dancers, Miango village, Jos Plateau, Nigeria, 1959

The Smithsonian Museum of African Art –

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Join Our Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter today and start exploring the vibrant world of African history and culture!

Just In

Arthur St. Clair: The Black Minister Lynched for Presiding Over a Mixed-Race Marriage in 1877

Arthur W. St. Clair was an African-American leader whose life was tragically cut short in 1877. His crime? Presiding...

More Articles Like This