African cultures, and the art that they created, are astonishingly diverse. The terrain ranges from great deserts to high mountains, and from wide grasslands to dense rain forests. Traditional modes of subsistence included hunting, herding, and farming, all enriched by far-ranging connections of commerce and trade. Paralleling this was a great complexity of social organizations, from small bands of hunter gatherers to populous urban kingdoms.

This diversity was a stimulus to the production of a wide range of art and artifacts. Some objects were domestic, decorating bodies and houses, while others were more public, embellishing royal courts and religious shrines. In addition to the well-known figurative sculpture made of wood, African artists created in a wide range of media: cloth, plant fibers, clay, iron, brass, gold, glass and shell beads, ivory, bone, and stone. Although there is evidence of great African civilizations dating back thousands of years, objects from these periods are rare in museums. Similarly, few of the objects on view here are well dated; most of these were made in the early to mid-20th century.

The museum's substantial African collections are due primarily to William R. Bascom. When he arrived in Berkeley in 1957 as professor of anthropology and director of the museum, there were about 1,500 catalogue entries from Africa; by the time of his retirement in 1979 the total had grown to 14,000 (and now numbers about 16,000). This included hundreds of objects that he and his wife had donated, as well as those acquired by his graduate students. Bascom's own focus was the Yoruba of Nigeria, whom he first visited in 1937. His Yoruba collection, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the country, is rich in both domestic objects and fine ritual sculpture. The museum's regional strength is from West Africa, but there are also important collections from the Central and Eastern portions of the continent.