In a time and continent were money was relatively worthless, and even unknown, to local tribes, trading and bartering took place with valuable or rare items. Because Africans invested much time into their art and associated important meanings to the designs or styles therein, African art became an important means of exchange. Art was used as a currency in exchange for food, services, clothing, weapons, metal, gardening implements and rare items from faraway places. It was also used to indicate the financial prosperity of a certain tribe or family.
The beadwork for which many African cultures have become famous frequently included rare items like shells and coral, which was only available along the coast. This made items beaded with these far more valuable, particularly to inland tribes. When the Europeans arrived and brought with them glass beads, the African artists recognised the value of these, and were willing to trade other dear items for these, which were then used in the jewellery, hair pieces and garb for the tribe, particularly those members who held a higher position.
Textiles were another common means of exchange. These were made with painstaking precision, using beads, dyes and materials that were beautiful, functional and representative of certain social standings. Textiles were handed down from one generation to the next, given as gifts, or sold for other items. They were even used as peace offerings to other tribes, such was their high value.
As time passed, items that had been used as a form of exchange, such as garden implements made from iron, were now stylised and decorated to increase their value and desirability as art forms. In fact, the craftsmen producing such pieces would adapt them to such an extent that their original application was no longer important, and the pieces usually became impossible to use in the home or field.
Foreigners visiting Africa became enthralled by the artwork, and paid the locals in money or other valuable items for these pieces. Today, this remains the major industry in terms of art in Africa. Tourists from all over the world return home laden with African masks, beads and wood carvings. This age-old tradition continues, and has been instrumental in gaining global recognition for this stunning continent and the creativity it holds within.