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  • Paul Richards,
  • David W. Phillipson,
  • Jan Vansina,
  • John Middleton,
  • Jeremy Coote,
  • S. J. Vernoit,
  • Philip L. Ravenhill,
  • Henry John Drewal,
  • Judith Perani,
  • Norma H. Wolff,
  • John Picton,
  • Victoria L. Rovine,
  • Monni Adams,
  • Marion Johnson,
  • Daniel J. Crowley,
  • Mary Jo Arnoldi,
  • Christraud M. Geary,
  • Frederick Lamp,
  • Suzanne Preston Blier,
  • Jean M. Borgatti,
  • Herbert M. Cole,
  • Donald J. Cosentino,
  • Natalie Tobert,
  • Marla C. Berns,
  • Robert T. Soppelsa,
  • Eugenia Herbert,
  • Fred T. Smith,
  • William J. Dewey,
  • Kathy Curnow,
  • John Mack,
  • Margret Carey,
  • Carolee G. Kennedy,
  • Barbara E. Frank,
  • Christine Mullen Kreamer,
  • T. J. H. Chappel,
  • Paul Oliver,
  • Louis Perrois,
  • Susan Vogel,
  • Doran H. Ross,
  • Erin Haney,
  • David A. Binkley,
  • Simon Ottenberg,
  • Cornelius Adepegba,
  • Joanne Bubolz Eicher,
  • Nancy Ingram Nooter,
  • Marie-Thérèse Brincard,
  • Diane M. Pelrine,
  • Josette Rivallain,
  • Pierre de Maret,
  • J. D. Lewis-Williams,
  • Sheila S. Blair,
  • Jonathan M. Bloom,
  • David Appleyard,
  • Patrick R. McNaughton,
  • Leon Siroto,
  • A. P. Bourgeois,
  • Anitra Nettleton,
  • Chika Okeke-Agulu,
  • Theodore Celenko,
  • Adam Jones,
  • Kathleen Bickford Berzock,
  • Amy Powell
  •  and Janet L. Stanley

Continent second only to Asia in size with a total area of 29,800,000 sq. km and a total population of 628 million (UN estimate, 1989). This survey focuses on the art traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa (i.e. south of the Sahara Desert), especially those of pre-colonial times as they continued into colonial and post-colonial times. It should be noted here that, while the major interest of scholars has been the study of unacculturated traditions, the fieldwork that makes such studies possible has been conducted many years, even centuries, after the time of first European contact. Furthermore, the notion of 'Sub-Saharan' Africa as a cultural entity, although still useful, is to some extent an arbitrary generalization: there has been both a high degree of internal diversity within the continent and much greater economic and political exchange between Africa and the outside world than was previously thought. Africa in the late 20th century comprises more than 50 independent nation states (see fig.); separate entries on most of these are found elsewhere in this dictionary. Other entries discuss specific civilizations, archaeological sites, cities and individual artists, as well as the art traditions of particular peoples.

Map of Africa; those countries with separate entries in this dictionary are distinguished by Cross-reference type

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For information on art produced in Africa see also Egypt, ancient, Islamic art and Nubia.


I. Introduction.

1. Geography.

(i) Physical geography and climate.

Much of Africa is plateau. The coastal plain is generally limited and backed by an escarpment where rivers break up into rapids and waterfalls, marking the limit for coastal shipping. Further upstream the great rivers are often navigable for long stretches by canoes and barges. Because the African coast is relatively lacking in estuaries or safe harbours, few African peoples developed ocean-going technologies or pursued overseas trade. Historically rivers were important for intra-continental contact, with the Nile being only one of several cases where major cultural and political developments took place around a riverine axis. A notable Sub-Saharan instance is the clustering of ancient bronze-casting technologies in the basin of the lower Niger. The interconnections between Nok, Nupe, Idah, Igbo-Ukwu, Ile-Ife and Benin are still obscure, but the proximity of all these places to the lower Niger and the intra-coastal network of creeks and lagoons linking the Niger Delta with Lagos to the west and Calabar to the east seems significant.

The interior plateau landscapes of Africa are diversified by bare-rock mountains (inselberge), upstanding tablelands and volcanic chains. In East Africa the landscape is diversified by a major sequence of intercontinental fault lines, responsible for the Rift Valley and its lakes. True mountain topographies are found in the Drakensberg of Natal, the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, the Ethiopian Highlands, parts of East Africa and the isolated massifs of the central Sahara. These areas are often characterized by considerable cultural and political distinctiveness—the result of specialized ecologies, isolation and freedom from invasion.

Seasonality in Africa is marked by a contrast between the rains and the dry season. At the northern and southern extremes of the continent a Mediterranean climatic regime (warm wet winters, hot dry summers) prevails. In the inter-tropical zone summer is the period of maximum rainfall, and here farming strategies are adapted to conditions of high humidity and extensive cloud cover in the growing season. Annual rainfall in the inter-tropical zones varies from over 3 m in the wettest districts to a few hundred mm on the edges of the Kalahari in the south and the Sahara in the north. Below 600 mm a settled agricultural way of life based on grain cultivation ceases to be viable, so drier districts have continued to be occupied by nomadic pastoralists. Except for a narrow band along the Equator, the contrast between wet and dry season is important throughout the greater part of the inter-tropical zone, even in high-rainfall districts. Parts of the upper Guinea coast in West Africa with over 3 m of rainfall still experience a severe dry season lasting from four to six months. In most cases rainfall follows a single maximum distribution, but in a band stretching from southern Ghana to Cameroon and in parts of East Africa there is a double maximum distribution pattern, in which the main rains and a second shorter period of rain are interrupted by a mid-season dry period. This rainfall pattern allows for double cropping of such short-duration grains as maize and is especially conducive to yam cultivation.

The importance of the dry and wet seasons is such that yearly variation in the start and end of the rains and the attendant uncertainty is socially and agriculturally disruptive. It is not surprising, therefore, that elaborate procedures for invoking or halting the rains are widespread, and in parts of Central Africa political authority is based on the perceived capacity to ensure the orderly progression of the seasons.

Seasonal rhythms affect pastoralists and settled cultivators differently. Pastoralists may follow the rains north and south, balancing the better grazing in wetter districts during the dry season against the reduced risks of disease for their animals in low-rainfall districts during the rainy season. For settled cultivators the rainy season is the time to stay at home and concentrate on agriculture, but during the dry season there may be scope to pursue a craft, join a hunting party, undertake a trading venture or take up seasonal work in towns. Festivals and major social occasions are concentrated in the dry season, when granaries are full, people free of agricultural responsibilities and the paths and tracks more readily passable.

In addition to the normal irregularities connected with the passage of the seasons, account must also be taken of the phenomenon of long-term climatic change. There is much argument about whether the major droughts of the 1970s and 1980s represent a general trend. While available data are not yet adequate to settle the point, there is no disagreement that Africa entered a markedly drier phase c. 6000 years ago. This led to the dessication of the Sahara, which had been before then a favoured region for human habitation. The desertification of this area effectively separated the greater part of Africa from Europe. The cultural division this caused was offset to a limited degree by the expansion of cross-desert trade following the introduction of the camel c. ad 200.

(ii) Flora and fauna.

The vegetation map of Africa is largely determined by rainfall, though in places topography also plays a part. North of the Sahara and at the Cape of Good Hope winter rainfall regimes are responsible for a Mediterranean-type vegetation (deciduous woodlands grading to scrub in low rainfall districts). On the Equator side of the Kalahari and Sahara deserts, savannah grassland gives way to savannah–woodland mosaic, semi-deciduous closed-canopy forest and full lowland humid rain-forest as rainfall totals increase towards the Equator.

About four-fifths of tropical Africa is savannah grassland that, left to itself, would mature into woodland. Where population pressure is high, however, the natural savannah vegetation has largely been replaced by farmland and grassy fallows. Wood is often very scarce, and remaining trees are largely such locally conserved economic species as the baobab, locust-bean and shea. Savannah is well suited to the production of cotton, which can only be grown with great difficulty in wetter districts, and to the raising of cattle, sheep and goats, especially where high population densities have eliminated the tsetse-fly. The relative scarcity of timber, combined with the ready availability of cotton yarn and animal hides, has influenced such arts and crafts of the savannah regions as the 'Morocco' leather and cotton cloth of the Hausa city states (see fig.).

The main belt of tropical rain-forest, much modified by cultivation and logging, centres around the Zaïre River basin and extends west towards southern Nigeria, with a western outlier running from Ghana to Sierra Leone. It is likely that the rain-forest presented an obstacle to initial settlement and that agricultural groups penetrated into the forest zone only at a relatively late date. Indeed, even in heavily farmed districts, islands of forest are carefully maintained for ritual activities.

The tropical rain-forest's species diversity makes it the richest and most complex of all ecosystems, and forest peoples have a vast store of knowledge concerning trees and plants, including how to obtain pigments and dyes for colouring the body, dyeing cloth and painting walls and carvings. Forest trees often have cultural as well as practical associations. In these respects, few African forest species surpass kola and the oil palm. Kola is an important stimulant, comparable to coffee or tea, and is an item of long-established commercial importance between the forest and the savannah. The oil palm provides oil for cooking and lighting and produces an important alcoholic beverage, palm wine. Both kola nuts and palm kernels are of importance in divination and ritual, and they often figure as decorative and symbolic motifs in the art of the forest zone.

The pastoral peoples of Africa are as interested in the aesthetics of living animals as in their artistic representation. Settled agriculturalists in drier savannah districts, where cattle are commonplace, think of domestic animals as sources of raw materials for artistic expression, but in the wetter savannahs and in the forest zone, where large domestic livestock are less common owing to disease, horses, cattle and sometimes even goats and sheep assume greater iconographic significance. In southern Nigeria, for example, rulers and titleholders kept horses and trypanosomiasis-resistant dwarf cattle more for prestige and sacrifice than for their economic utility, and these animals sometimes figure as motifs in the bronzework of the region.

The creatures that appear most often in African art are those that embody unusual mystical powers and confer the greatest prestige upon the hunter. Part of ivory's prestige derives from the difficulty and danger faced by the hunter of an elephant. Among other animals considered to possess particular mystical and symbolic force are antelopes, pythons, crocodiles, leopards and lions, which are frequently rendered in artistic terms.

(iii) Minerals.

Africa is a mineral-rich continent, with a long and widespread tradition of mineral-working. The African Iron Age may date back 2500 years, and until the colonial period iron was smelted from local deposits throughout the continent and worked into agricultural implements, weapons and other items of domestic and ornamental hardware by a village blacksmith, who may also have served as gunsmith, goldsmith and jeweller. In some localities blacksmiths belonged to feared but socially inferior castes or clans. Although little ore has been smelted locally since the 1930s, the village blacksmith is as active as ever, using scrap metal as standard raw material.

Africa has long been famous for its gold. Until the opening up of New World sources in the 16th century, West Africa was the major supplier of gold to Europe and the Middle East. Gold from Central Africa was also important in the Indian Ocean trade and was a factor in the rise of Great Zimbabwe, while 20th-century output was dominated by mines in Southern Africa. Gold jewellery has long been appreciated in African societies, both for its aesthetic properties and as portable wealth. There are major deposits of copper in Central Africa, although these are not thought to have been the source of copper for the bronze of southern Nigeria. The exploitation of Africa's rich reserves of diamonds is a modern phenomenon, and diamonds have had little or no part to play in the story of African decorative arts.

Stone and brick have been used as building materials in North Africa since ancient times, for the monumental architecture of Egypt and of the Romans and Carthaginians. South of the Sahara, use of stone for building was uncommon in pre-colonial times (with such notable exceptions as Great Zimbabwe). Rapid chemical weathering in the tropical zone produces abundant supplies of lateritic mud, which provides a cheap, cool and flexible alternative to building in stone (see also §VI, 1 below).


2. Language and ethnic groups.

By comparison with Europe or Asia, Africa is not a densely populated continent. The distribution, however, is very uneven. The major population concentrations are to be found in the Nile valley, Nigeria, the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands, the Maghrib and in parts of South Africa. Nigeria alone accounts for perhaps one-fifth of the total population of the continent. Parts of the Sahel, east-central Africa and the Equatorial forest region are especially thinly peopled. Although there are few reliable population data before about 1950, it seems likely that this broad pattern of distribution is long established, since it correlates well with the general pattern of regional variation in soil fertility and rainfall reliability.

Africa is characterized by extraordinary linguistic diversity. Estimates vary, but it appears that the continent may have between 1000 and 1500 distinct languages. Of these perhaps 250 are spoken in just one country: Nigeria. Arabic is the main language of North Africa, and other important regional languages include Swahili in Central and East Africa and Hausa and Mandinka over much of the Sahel. Colonial languages (English, French and Portuguese) remain important for education and government administration. Language classification is always a contentious issue and nowhere more so than in Africa. One widely accepted approach (see Greenberg) groups African languages into four major families (phyla): Niger-Kordofanian, Khoisan, Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan. (Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, belongs to Malayo-Polynesian, another language family altogether.)

Although it has long been conventional to identify pieces of African art by 'tribe', to produce a map of ethnic units is as contentious a task as producing a language map and will not be attempted here. It has been argued that ethnic consciousness was a phenomenon heightened or even created by the social and political conditions associated with colonialism. Furthermore, ethnic units are defined according to different criteria in different cases. In some parts of the continent ethnicity denotes membership of a linguistic community. Elsewhere it equates with class, occupational caste, regional origin, religious identity or even membership of a trading diaspora. Any generalization is likely to prove misleading, therefore, and the reader seeking further guidance must refer to specialist ethnographic publications, where such caveats are often dealt with in detail.

This complexity was made even greater in the 19th and 20th centuries through the immigration into Africa of Europeans (especially into Southern Africa), Asians (especially into East and Southern Africa) and freed black slaves and their descendants from the Americas.


3. History.

(i) Before 600.

The relatively late advent of indigenous literacy in many parts of Africa, especially south of the Sahara, means that there are very few documentary sources for African history and that archaeology is a prime source of knowledge about events, processes and developments in even the comparatively recent past. On the world stage, African archaeology is of major importance, not least because there is a strong probability that it was in Africa that humans first evolved. In addition the African experience provides an opportunity for interpreting major developments in human behaviour in the context of a landscape that has changed relatively little and is thus analogous to that exploited by past human populations. Despite such potential, archaeological research in many parts of Africa remains in its infancy, being a low priority for the governments of recently independent nations. While intensive investigations have been undertaken in such areas as South Africa, Kenya and parts of the Nile Valley, huge regions remain almost completely unexplored.

(a) Human origins.

Discoveries relating to the earliest periods of human activity have been made both in East Africa (from Ethopia southwards to Tanzania and inland as far as the western branch of the Rift Valley) and in Southern Africa, where conditions have favoured not only the preservation of the earliest hominids' bones and their stone tools but also their subsequent discovery by natural erosion or by quarrying. The concentrations of archaeological discoveries thus do not necessarily reflect the distribution of the earliest hominids. Precisely when modern man first appeared is not yet proven, but it may have been c. 200,000–100,000 bp. With the development of fully modern man, the African archaeological record indicates several features of particular relevance to the study of art. Formal disposal of the dead by burial is indicated, and graves and living sites provide evidence for personal adornment and clothing. Natural pigments, notably ochre, as well as bone and shell were frequently employed, probably with other more perishable substances. Particular interest attaches to the development of rock art, both painting and engraving (see §VI, 16 below), which was practised in Africa at least as long ago as in Europe (see Prehistoric Europe, §II, 2) and which, in its later phases in Southern Africa, may be closely linked with socio-religious practices of the San peoples.

(b) Development of agriculture.

Between c. 10,000 and c. 6000 bc, in what is now the southern Sahara and in parts of East Africa, greatly increased rainfall resulted in the formation or enlargement of lakes and rivers in an area previously too arid to support human habitation. Beside these waters previously nomadic groups established semi-permanent habitations, identified by finds of pottery and barbed bone heads of harpoons. Between c. 5000 and c. 3000 bc the climate in the southern Sahara once again became more arid. It was at this time that people in this part of Africa began to control their plant and animal food supplies; this led ultimately to the development of farming.

The extent to which the domestication of animals and plants was an indigenous African development, rather than one caused by stimuli from outside that continent, has for long been a matter of controversy. Rock paintings in the Sahara, tentatively dated c. 7000–c. 3000 bc, provide numerous representations of domestic cattle indicating, among other features, the importance that was attached to body markings and the configuration of horns (see fig.). Later art in the Nile Valley and undated examples in the eastern Sahara show that attempts were made to tame such other species as giraffe and ostrich. Large numbers of heavily used grindstones on 4th-millennium bc sites in the Sudanese Nile Valley and parts of the Sahara probably indicate use of cereals, but the extent of their cultivation is still uncertain. By c. 1200 bc, if not before, bulrush millet was being intensively cultivated in the western Sahara of Mauritania.

Rock painting of a pastoral scene from Tassili N’Ajjer, Algeria, ?c. 7000–c. 3000 bc (Paris, Musée de l’Homme); Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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The initial stages of African farming development almost certainly took place in the same general area as was occupied by the harpoon-fishers and at the time when established lifestyles were subject to stress from the lowering of water levels. It is easy to visualize how, in such circumstances, settled people might have controlled herds of formerly wild cattle and begun to protect and then to cultivate plant foods in order to maintain their supply in the face of reduced availability of fish.

It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that during the last two millennia bc the peoples of the northern savannah belt between the southern fringes of the Sahara and the northern margin of the Equatorial forest turned increasingly to settled life and food production. To the south of the forest, however, the hunter–gatherer lifestyle of previous millennia continued.

(c) Discovery of metallurgy.

During the 1st millennium bc, ironworking began in settlements south of the Sahara. The evidence for this comes primarily from the Jos Plateau of Nigeria, from sites that have also yielded the remarkable Nok terracottas (see fig.). Further evidence for ironworking rather more than 2000 years ago has been recovered around Lake Victoria, notably on its western shore in north-western Tanzania. In both areas the smelting technology used shows little sign of local antecedents, leading to suggestions that it was introduced from the north; however, no clear evidence for such long-distance connection has been cited. It is noteworthy that Sub-Saharan Africa generally lacked a distinct ‘Bronze Age’ when the softer metals were worked but techniques of ironworking had not yet been developed.

Terracotta head, Nok, Nigeria, c. 900 bcc. ad 200 (London, Entwistle Gallery); Photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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In the southern half of Africa the beginnings of farming and of metalworking seem to have been broadly concurrent. During the first few centuries ad, in territory previously inhabited by stone tool-using, mobile hunter–gatherer peoples, there were established villages of settled farmers, who worked metals and made pottery. Their pottery has a stylistic uniformity that, along with the apparent speed with which the lifestyle began over an enormous area and its marked contrast with what had gone before, led archaeologists to postulate rapid population migration, possibly of Bantu speakers.

By about the 3rd century ad farming peoples had begun to absorb and replace the hunter–gatherer populations of most of Southern Africa wherever environmental conditions were suitable for the cultivation of African cereal crops. Artefacts from this period other than pottery are scarce, but mention should be made of the remarkable series of seven life-size terracotta human heads of c. ad 500–700, reconstructed from fragments found at Lydenburg in the Transvaal, which share many technological and stylistic features with the contemporary domestic pottery. In the south-westernmost regions pottery and domestic animals are attested by the 1st century ad, but metallurgy and crop cultivation remained unknown.

(d) Early settlements.
  • David W. Phillipson

During the 1st millennium ad peasant societies in several parts of Africa showed signs of increasing complexity and centralization. Indeed excavations at Jenne-Jeno, beside the inland Niger Delta in Mali, provide evidence for incipient urbanization 2000 years ago, probably supported by rice cultivation and by trade from an extensive hinterland. By the time that Arabic-speaking traders from North Africa crossed the Sahara in the 8th century ad, large centralized states had developed in the northern savannah. The most important of these was Ghana, centred on what is now southern Mauritania and south-western Mali. Although ancient Ghana and its successor, Mali, reached maximum prosperity through control of the gold production of the Bambuk area and by exploiting their intermediary position between the trans-Saharan Muslim traders and the rich savannah and forest lands of West Africa, their origin pre-dates such long-distance links.

Within the forest itself states tended to be smaller because of restrictions on communication, but they included dense populations supported by yam cultivation. Information is largely derived from excavation at such sites as Ife and Benin, Kingdom of. The outstanding artistic works discovered here reveal the development of technological and artistic expertise together with a concentration of material resources. Although they reached a peak at these sites between the 13th and 18th centuries, at Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria these developments may be traced back as far as the late 1st millennium ad. In East and Southern Africa broadly parallel developments occurred, again probably influenced by long-distance trade links, here involving the Indian Ocean coast, although its importance in African political centralization should not be exaggerated. Ivory, gum, spices, wood and slaves were exported together with, in later times, gold, in exchange for such luxury items as glass, beads, porcelain and textiles. Islam was introduced from a relatively early period. Despite the strong African roots of these maritime towns, it seems that their direct influence did not extend far inland. The interlacustrine kingdoms of East Africa, for example, seem to have arisen during the first half of the 2nd millennium ad, having virtually no contact with the Indian Ocean coast some 800–1200 km distant, but deriving their wealth primarily from large herds of cattle.


(ii) c. ad 600–c. 1885.

The diversity of societies, languages and cultures in the African continent is far too great to support generalizations about artistic and cultural trends. Some scholars have long recognized this and have attempted to group different cultural traditions by area. By 'culture' is understood not just the arts but whole distinctive ways of life, and by using the term 'tradition' the claim is made that cultures as they existed before the colonial period had been stable or even invariant for many generations. Classification by cultural area, however, has remained unsatisfactory, not only because it has proved impossible to apply the same set of criteria to different areas but also because this approach denies the existence of history, treating human cultures as if they were invariant geological strata or animal species. G. P. Murdock remedied this by focusing on the ways in which cultures had arisen, providing an early attempt at a genuine culture history of Africa. Since then, the main historical outlines of a cultural history have emerged.

The cultural map of Africa as it existed in the late 19th century took shape between c. ad 600 and 1100, and its traditions can be divided into four main cultural provinces: the oikoumene, the West African urban tradition and the western and eastern Bantu traditions. In addition there are other traditions of lesser geographic extent: several occur in the heart of the continent between the oikoumene and the cultures of the Bantu speakers, but they also include the Khoi–San traditions in south-western Africa and the Malagasy tradition.

(a) Oikoumene.

This term is derived from the Greek for 'inhabited world' and designates that part of Africa the cultures of which were polarized by the acceptance of Christianity or Islam and the peoples of which remained in continual contact with the old world. Encompassing almost half of the continent, the oikoumene includes all peoples north of a line linking the mouth of the Senegal River to the top of the Niger Bend to Lake Chad to the Nilotic Sudd, near Malakal, around the highlands of Ethiopia to the Somalia–Kenya border and then south to near the Indian Ocean following the shore inland to Mozambique. It also takes in the Comoro Islands and small parts of Madagascar.

The oikoumene grew out of many strands. First there was the civilization of Egypt, ancient that developed in the Nile Valley, culminating in Pharaonic Egypt from c. 3200 bc onwards. Painting there shows influences from styles developed by the herders of the Sahara from c. 6000 bc, when Egypt was part of an intercommunicating zone that encompassed the Middle East. Its civilization did not spread widely to the west, although it interacted with older local traditions in the adjacent Nile Valley, perhaps as far south as present Khartoum. It was left to Phoenician (after c. 1000 bc) and Greek colonies (after c. 700 bc) to implant the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean on the northern shores of Africa. With the emergence of the Roman Empire, which incorporated Egypt in 30 bc, institutions of government, law and trade became more unified, although most aspects of indigenous culture remained relatively untouched. The Empire did not greatly influence Sudan, Ethiopia or even the peoples of the Sahara. More fundamental changes in culture and world view followed the spread of Christianity into Africa from the 1st century ad. In the next 500 years it unified all of North Africa as well as the Sudan south to the Sudd and highland Ethiopia. Christian artistic expression shows a striking uniformity over the whole area.

Islam was the core of the second oikoumene. By ad 640 Muslim armies had overrun Egypt before sweeping westwards, rapidly conquering the Maghrib. By c. 800 Muslim traders had reached the African shores of the Indian Ocean as well as towns south of the Sahara in West Africa. Islam did not, however, overrun Christian Sudan or Ethiopia, and the unification of the various branches of Islam took a long time, even in North Africa. By c. 1100 a single school of Muslim law dominated the Maghrib, while Sunni orthodoxy was regaining the heartland of Egypt. At this time the first West African rulers were beginning to convert, and Islam began to gain ground in the East African coastal towns. Between the 13th and 16th centuries northern Sudan also became Muslim, but highland Ethiopia remained Christian. After c. 1100 further Islamic advances were limited and slow. Inroads were made into West Africa, but the area retained its own character. In East Africa, Muslim traders made some converts as far south as Zimbabwe, but their advance had been lost by 1600.

Christianity and, later, Islam were extremely powerful forces, and persons from any part of the oikoumene shared, at least generally, the concerns, reasoning and customs of any other part. The practice of pilgrimage—to Mecca and Jerusalem—reinforced this unity. Nevertheless, within the Muslim tradition different cultural profiles developed. By 1100 this was evident in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, the Saharan desert cultures and the lowlands of the Horn of Africa. But, while Ethiopia redefined its cultural profile in reaction to Islam, and Sudan developed its own Muslim culture, such developments never threatened the fundamental unity of the culture of the oikoumene.

(b) West African urban tradition.

Despite the vast linguistic and ethnic diversity of West Africa, there is an underlying unity based on an urban network linked by trade. The region also has a common tradition of state government and ideology that can be labelled sacred kingship. This single ideology, once believed to have spread from one point to all the others, is not all-encompassing and probably evolved from a number of local village-based religions, becoming unified through centuries of mutual exchanges. The diversity of West African cultures stems from the strength of villages, which offered creative input into the urban cultures, taking only what was useful in return and resisting assimilation.

West Africa's cultural characteristics developed over a long period. Settlement in the savannah and on the desert fringe increased following the desertification of the Sahara from c. 2500 bc to c. ad 1. As population densities rose, trade based on the exchange of varying regional resources became important, and centres of trade developed. The first known city of the region, Djenné, illustrates this pattern of development. It was probably established c. 250 bc by peoples from the Sahara; by ad 400 its hinterland reached from the desert edge in Mauritania to the Atlantic Ocean to southern Mali. Some Hellenistic beads have even been found in Djenné. In this period other towns developed, so that by c. ad 700 a network of trade was taking shape in the western half of West Africa. Thus urbanization here should not be attributed to Muslim influences; indeed the first known large-scale states, with capitals located near the desert fringe, also pre-date Muslim trading contacts. One or two of them had begun to trade in gold with North Africa by the 7th century ad at the latest.

The trans-Saharan trade developed into a major trading network after the arrival of Islam in the Maghrib, spurring on the processes of urbanization and thus unifying West Africa. The earliest known trading centre in Nigeria, Igbo-Ukwu, dates from c. 800, and the site shows evidence of intensive contact not only with North Africa but also with the ocean shore to the south. By c. 900 other cities were appearing, and by c. 1100 there was a town linked to the West African gold trade at Nyarko in southern Ghana. By this time the basic unity of West Africa was a reality: trading networks existed, and cities acted as crucibles of ideas, values and practices from afar that were then disseminated to the rural hinterlands.

An example of these processes is the history of terracotta art in West Africa. The earliest known centres of terracotta production were in northern Nigeria, where they had appeared by 900 bc. By ad 700 terracotta art was found all over the Sahel from Lake Chad to the Atlantic, with common stylistic features appearing from Nigeria to the Upper Niger and the coast. The tradition of building with sun-dried bricks also developed during the last centuries bc, so that by c. ad 1100 there were major monumental buildings in similar styles from Lake Chad to the Middle and Upper Niger. Finally, a common technique of metal-casting using the lost-wax process was established all over the West African savannah by c. 1000.

By c. 1100 a common cultural tradition linked all of West Africa (outside the forest areas between Sierra Leone and southern Ghana), and in the following centuries a gradual percolation of Islam and the expansion of specialized cattle herders, the Fulani, from Senegal to Sudan along the desert edge further strengthened common cultural features.

At the same time more localized cultural blocks were emerging in northern Nigeria, the area within the Niger Bend, the Upper Niger area, the area south of the River Senegal, southern Ghana and western Nigeria especially. These were urban, linked to the others and dominated by states but remaining culturally distinct.

(c) Western Bantu tradition.

South of a line from the Atlantic Ocean near the border between Nigeria and Cameroon to the Indian Ocean in southern Somalia is an area occupied for the most part by Bantu-speaking peoples. These peoples migrated from their homelands in two directions. Western Bantu speakers settled most of Central Africa, while the eastern Bantu directly affected the cultural history of East and Southern Africa (see §I, 3, (ii), (d) below).

The western Bantu speakers entered the rain-forests of Equatorial Africa c. 1800 bc, reached the savannah of Central Africa by 500 bc and arrived in southern Angola, the Middle Zambezi and eastern Zambia by c. the early 1st century ad. Their social organization was adapted to very low population densities. The basic units, 'houses', were led by 'big men'; several of them might group together for defensive purposes in ephemeral villages. The largest and most permanent social unit was the district, which consisted of a set of houses linked by alliance and marriage; this was the locus of ethnic identity. Ideologies of the big man and of kinship meshed well with religious beliefs and practices centring on the propitiation of spirits and the fear of witchcraft.

Cultural variation within the western Bantu tradition developed between the forest and the savannah peoples as a result not only of their physical separation and the difference of their physical environments but of varying degrees of interaction with autochthones and a later (c. ad 1–500) immigration of eastern Bantu speakers to the southern savannah. Despite the emergence of such localized cultural variants, a common core of beliefs and practices within the tradition remained. Evidence of early art in this area is sparse. Excavation of huge cemeteries found in the Upemba Depression of Zaïre and in the Shaba Province have revealed that wealth here was based on copper produced nearby. Only a few objects in wood and pottery dating from before c. 1000 have survived in the savannah area, not enough as yet to speculate about common formal features for this early period. In south-eastern Zaïre (after c. 800) and in northern Angola (after c. 1500) enough works of art have survived to show a basic continuity.

(d) Eastern Bantu tradition.

The earliest eastern Bantu speakers had moved from Cameroon to the Great Lakes by c. 1000 bc. There they met herders and farmers from the upper Nile and Ethiopia, and a stable, shared way of life developed, with world views and value systems that had become quite different from that of the western Bantu. By c. ad 400 the eastern Bantu had expanded both along the coast and inland from the Great Lakes as far south as Natal. The common culture that developed corresponds in part to that of the 'East African cattle area' designated by M. J. Herskovits; its best known works are terracotta masks from the Transvaal (see fig. above).

Between c. 750 and c. 1000 a set of regional cultures, adapted to specific local conditions, grew out of the common tradition. In Southern Africa three main regional cultures can be discerned. Some farmer/herders moved back from Transvaal, first to the Limpopo River (c. 800) and then beyond to Zimbabwe (c. 900). These groups developed a centralized government based around hierarchical settlements, the largest of which were located on defensible hill-top positions, at which substantial herds of cattle were maintained. These sites, especially those in the Limpopo, show evidence of extensive ivory-working, apparently to produce items for export. Large quantities of glass beads were also produced and traded inland. From about the 11th century gold replaced ivory as the principal export, although it was also used locally, as is attested by élite graves at Mapungubwe, Transvaal. The layout of these central sites, the presence of dry-stone architecture and some aspects of the associated material culture are clearly ancestral to those of Great Zimbabwe, which flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries and represents the culmination of this process of political centralization. At the same time the inhabitants of Botswana developed a different system based on more intensive herding and involving the creation of chiefdoms and structured interaction with the local hunter–gatherers, the San. In south-east Africa proper the Sotho–Nguni peoples retained more of the original culture, although their environments and autochthonic influences also helped to produce new cultural variants.

Beginning c. 750, four new major East African cultures emerged. Along the coast Swahili-speaking peoples adapted to the marine environment by founding fishing villages and becoming involved in overseas trade. Town sites on the coasts of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania provide abundant evidence that by the 8th century maritime connections extended to at least as far south as Vilanculos Bay in Mozambique. In the Great Lakes new ceramics confirm immigration by non-Bantu-speakers from the north after c. 750. Well before c. 1400 this led to the creation of small states culminating in major kingdoms after c. 1500. In northern Tanzania and central Kenya a variety of foreign influences produced a highland variant of the original eastern Bantu culture, probably before 1000. A fourth variant of that heritage arose from c. 750 in south-eastern Zaïre, where eastern and western Bantu speakers had mixed. Chiefdoms and then states appeared in the area, and the culture expanded into all of Zambia and portions of Malawi after c. 1000.

(e) Other traditions.
  • Jan Vansina

Several cultural traditions of lesser geographic extent must be mentioned. In south-western Africa the Khoi–San tradition derives from the cultures of the hunters and gatherers who have inhabited the area for thousands of years. As the Khoi expanded from their homeland in Botswana, cultural unification occurred as cattle were acquired and the new herders interacted with the hunters and gatherers.

During the early centuries ad, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of was settled by rice-growers from South-east Asia speaking Austronesian languages. Interaction with the eastern Bantu traditions followed, and a new cultural tradition arose. Later influences from all over the Indian Ocean contributed to Malagasy culture and arts without profoundly altering them. Unfortunately a lack of archaeological data means that a detailed chronology and cultural history for the island before c. 1500 have yet to be determined.

The cultural history of the peoples between the edge of the oikoumene and the Bantu traditions also remains obscure. The northern savannahs of Central Africa were settled by sedentary populations well before the 1st millennium bc. Where different cultural traditions confronted each other, as in the Ubangi–Uele basin, they fused, producing new variants. Further study is required to determine the age and stability of these traditions. Herders, farmers and hunter–gatherers from the southern Sudan, northern Uganda, Kenya and northern Tanzania have been better studied. Several traditions are involved, and their confrontations led to complex interactions and the creation of many local cultures. Many of the peoples concerned were highly mobile and left few archaeological traces. Several traditions (e.g. that of the Nilotic herders) can be traced, but, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, the dynamics of cultural interaction have been so intensive, complex and unstable for so long that the overall patterns remain unclear.


(iii) After c. 1885.
  • Paul Richards

From the end of the 19th century the colonial conquest and the intensive propagation of Christianity and Islam that attended it began to threaten Africa's cultural traditions and ways of life on a scale vastly exceeding the effects of the arrival of Europeans on the coasts after c. 1450 or the massive slave trade from c. 1660 to 1850. After 1885 five European powers (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal) divided up the greater part of the continent between them. Colonial rule and expanded trade with Europe greatly increased the rate of urbanization and the power of the central institutions of the state. Although full colonial rule lasted for only 50 years (c. 1900–c. 1950), it was nevertheless largely through colonialism and the cultural and aesthetic climate of the colonial metropoles that the world developed its awareness of African art. From the African perspective, such metropolitan collections as the bronzes looted from Benin in the aftermath of the British military expedition of 1898 are particularly prone to stir up memories of injustices suffered under colonialism. It will be some time yet before the field of African art can be fully separated from the political geography of colonialism.

As far as post-colonial developments are concerned, the vigourous independence of rural African populations has kept alive many old art forms as well as adding new ones, often as elements in new religious cults. In addition, the growth of towns has led to the massive expansion of such popular arts as photography, tourist art and 'bar art'. If measured by volume and brash, inventive vigour, then the surviving court arts of the old urban centres pale into insignificance beside these new forms of artistic expression. As yet, however, the scholarly community has paid relatively little attention to popular arts in Africa's rapidly expanding urban centres.


4. Religion.

By the late 20th century the religious map of Africa had become complex. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa 'traditional', often local, religions have continued to have many followers, especially in rural areas. In some areas, however, either Islam or Christianity has many adherents. Western Nigeria, for example, has a large Muslim population, while eastern Nigeria and such other areas as Uganda, Kenya and parts of Southern Africa have significant Christian populations. In addition, the East African coast and much of north-east Africa have been Islamic for centuries, although there is a long-established Christian Church in Ethiopia. Similarly, North Africa is predominantly Muslim, although a minority Coptic Christian Church exists in Egypt.

This section can provide only a brief introduction to religion in Africa. Further information on the many and complex links between religion and art in Africa will be found throughout the rest of this survey, in the entries on individual peoples and in the country entries.


(i) Indigenous religions.
  • John Middleton

Each ‘traditional’ or indigenous African religion is unique to a particular society. Each has its own ‘high’ God or Creator, often referred to as ‘Divinity’ in the anthropological literature. Each such Divinity is responsible for the creation of the world and for its protection. Divinity is all-powerful, while mankind is puny and helpless. In most indigenous African religions, people do not claim to know or understand Divinity or to know what Divinity looks like; Divinity is rarely if ever represented in art. Such qualities as compassion, anger, mercy and vengeance are, however, often attributed to Divinity. Much African myth is concerned with Divinity's creation of the world and with the activities of the first creatures, often half-human, half-divine, and with the actions of the first humans.

Divinity is typically remote and otiose. Once the world had been created, Divinity retired from any concern with everyday matters. Rather than being in any sort of contact with Divinity, therefore, the living communicate regularly with lesser forces. Generally these comprise ancestors, often referred to as ghosts, shades or ancestral spirits, and spirits, often referred to as deities or lesser divinities. These figures tend to be specific to individual societies, and they may be seen as symbolic representations of each society's experience of the world.

Ancestors are essentially the souls or spiritual essences of once-living people that have been transformed by the performance of mortuary rites into spiritual entities (see §III, 5, (ii) below). They may be given shrines where they can be contacted by the living. Usually the ancestors are linked to lineages and kin-based groups and are concerned only with the affairs of their descendants. The senior members, those closest to the ancestors in life and who will join them soonest, are responsible for communication with them through prayer, sacrifice and ritual.

Spirits may be best understood as refractions of Divinity. They are aspects of Divinity as concerned with particular problems, such as illness, or with particular places. Generally spirits are not tied to lineages or other human groups but are free to wander where they will. The configuration of spirits with which any social group is concerned varies with their changing circumstances. People seek to control the power of spirits over them through sacrifice.

Communication with the ancestors and spirits is generally not sought haphazardly but rather undertaken in response to particular problems. The major forms of communication are prayer, sacrifice, possession, visions and dreams. Those mainly responsible for these forms of communication are often referred to as priests, prophets and diviners. Sacrifice to spirits tends to be more important in pastoralist societies, where the ancestors play a less significant role, while sacrifice to the ancestors is more important in agricultural societies. The great agricultural kingdoms place great emphasis on ritual for the royal ancestors.

Priests are generally regarded as possessing attributes of sacredness, often inherited, that enable them to make sacrifices and to act as repositories of divine truth and knowledge unknown to ordinary people. The elders of lineages and local groups share in these qualities of priests, at least in respect of the group's ancestors. Diviners are often held to be able to leave the immanent world and to enter that of the spirits and ancestors. They return from such trances with knowledge of the causes of misfortune or with knowledge of the future. Prophets bring messages from Divinity and often arise at times of disaster or of great stress (see §I, 4, (iv) below).

In all traditional African societies a central problem is the occurrence of evil and misfortune, both to explain it and to cope with it. While the actions of Divinity, the spirits and the ancestors are one form of explanation, a belief in the human capacity to bring about misfortune through witchcraft and/or sorcery is widespread. Witchcraft involves an innate power to harm others merely by wishing to, while sorcery consists in the manipulation of substances. Beliefs in both witchcraft and sorcery are best understood as aspects of philosophies of misfortune. They are often part of sophisticated and complex belief systems that allow personal misfortune to be understood and dealt with. The term 'magic' has also been often used in accounts of African religion, especially by travellers and missionaries. Essentially it is an ethnocentric and derogatory term applied to the religious activities of indigenous practitioners. It has no defined meaning that can be usefully applied to the beliefs and practices of African religion and is best dispensed with.


(ii) Christianity.
  • Jeremy Coote

By the late 20th century Christianity was probably the majority religion of Sub-Saharan Africa. This was especially so in such areas as eastern Nigeria, Uganda, Lesotho and parts of South Africa. In such areas, indeed, Christianity could be said to be the traditional religion, with some families having been Christian since the early 19th century. Like Islam (see §I, 4, (iii) below), Christianity generally has more adherents in urban areas, while in rural areas it is more likely to exist side by side with other traditional beliefs. It is not uncommon for self-defining Christians to have recourse to pagan practices, and even Islamic ones, in response to particular problems or misfortunes.

Christianity in Africa is virtually as old as Christianity itself. In the very early Christian period, Egypt and North Africa were part of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world and were thus visited by the early followers of the new religion. Churches were established in Egypt by the 2nd century ad, and Alexandria and Carthage became centres of Christian learning. Christianity was taken up the Nile, so that Christian churches flourished in Nubia into the 12th century. The Arab–Muslim advance into North Africa in the 7th century led eventually to the disappearance of Christianity from all the area, except for the Coptic Church in Egypt, which has continued to the present. Islam did not, however, affect the Christian Church in Ethiopia, which, with its links to the Christian Churches of Egypt and Syria, has maintained its rich and distinctive liturgical, architectural and painting traditions to the present day (see Ethiopia and Eritrea, §I).

A second phase of the history of Christianity in Africa began with the European, especially Portuguese, contact with the West African coast from the late 15th century on. Missionary work began soon after and was spectacularly successful in the kingdom of the Kongo, where the king and many of his followers converted in 1491. Over the following centuries statues of saints with haloes were produced, as were crucifixes and other examples of Christian iconography. Given the almost archetypal status of the Kongo power figures (often erroneously referred to as 'nail fetishes') as primitive 'African' art, it is salutary to realize that there is a strong possibility that the very idea of driving nails into figures was derived by Kongo artists from Christian crucifixes and statues of martyrs (Jongmans; Thornton).

As trade with and, later, colonization of Africa increased, Christianity continued to make an impact in local areas. Trading stations often had chaplains, and some local children received a partial Christian education. These developments had little effect on the interior until the late 18th century and the early 19th, when a new evangelism in Europe and America and the return of freed, and Christian, slaves to Africa combined to give Christianity in Africa a new impetus. With the partition of Africa by the colonial powers at the end of the 19th century and the development of road and rail transport, missionaries were able to establish themselves more securely, leading to the adoption of Christianity, in its myriad imported and local forms, as the major religion of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Christianity's effects on the visual arts in Sub-Saharan Africa have been mixed. They have often been negative, with members both preaching and practising the destruction of 'idols' and objects connected to traditional beliefs and practices. The cumulative effect of such attitudes and actions is difficult to judge, but thousands of objects must have been destroyed and whole art traditions, including those of body adornment and figure sculpture, wiped out. Presumably related knowledge and skills also disappeared. In discussing such questions, however, one must not forget that many of those who converted, as well as many of their descendants, probably came to share the world-view that encouraged the destruction of the 'pagan' traditions.

In many cases too, the abandonment, forcible or otherwise, of an art tradition presaged the adoption of new ones. Among the Baluyia of western Kenya, for example, the introduction of Christianity led to the abandonment of traditions of body painting but brought about the development of a vibrant tradition of mural painting in the later 20th century (Burt). Throughout the continent one of the most visible new art traditions is that of church and church-related architecture. By the late 20th century, however, the traditions (other than those of Ethiopia) had still not been widely studied, though the Angolan churches of the 16th, 17th and later centuries have received some attention (see Angola, People’s Republic of, §2). Some works of the late 20th century, such as the basilica in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire—a copy of St Peter's, Rome—have little architectural quality, being grandiose and uninspired monuments to political power rather than works of art.

In general by the late 20th century, however, the iconoclastic attitudes of earlier times had been replaced in many areas by new and more positive attitudes. A leading exemplar of these attitudes was the Roman Catholic priest Kevin Carroll (1920–93), who both studied and commissioned work by Yoruba artists, including sculptures and murals for churches and other buildings from the 1950s on. For example, he commissioned the Muslim Yoruba sculptor Lamidi Fakeye (b c. 1925) to carve panels with New Testament scenes for the doors of the Catholic church of the University of Ibadan in 1954 (Carroll, pls 85–6). (Examples of the work commissioned by Carroll and fellow priests are held by the African Art Museum at Tenafly, NJ.) By the early 1990s churches and other Christian buildings throughout the continent were decorated with African Christian art, and a related literature had begun to appear (e.g. Thiel and Helf; Harmsen).


(iii) Islam.
  • S. J. Vernoit

As early as ad 640, followers of Islam had begun their conquest of Egypt. Further west and south, Islam was probably first introduced into the western Sudan in the 8th and 9th centuries ad through the agency of Muslim merchants and scholars. The merchants exchanged goods from the Mediterranean lands and salt from the Sahara for gold, slaves, ivory and gum. Islam was introduced from North Africa along western routes, linking the Maghrib (Maghreb, Magreb; a collective term often applied to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; from the Arabic word for ‘west’) with the gold-trading centres of western Sudan, and along eastern routes that brought Tripoli, Tunis and Egypt into contact with such kingdoms of the central Sudan as Kanem, Bornu and the Hausa states. After Islam had been disseminated in the Sudan, partly by Berber armies, it was pushed further south by West African Muslim traders, who took it to the southern savannah and the Guinea Coast forest and to northern and central Nigeria. The growth of many towns was encouraged by the arrival of enterprising Muslim traders.

The Islamic colonization of the East African coast, meanwhile, began in the 8th century ad. Most of the early settlers were Arab or Persian merchants and clerics from southern Arabia and the Gulf. They intermarried with the indigenous populations and created numerous trading towns and city-states along the coastal strip. In these settlements Arab, Somali and, further south, Swahili cultures flourished, the latter being a synthesis of Bantu African and Islamic traits. Over the centuries these settlements maintained contacts with Arabia, the Gulf and western India.

The history of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa has been one of interaction with the indigenous cultures it encountered. This interaction led to the development of a diversity of artistic traditions. In addition to the regions where the population converted to orthodox Islam, there were areas where pluralistic societies emerged or where Islamic beliefs and practices merged with the traditional culture in a syncretic pattern. In general, however, Islam became associated with processes of political centralization and urbanization. The construction of congregational mosques at fixed locations, for example, encouraged settlement. Notions of private property and private space were also encouraged and new working practices introduced. Skills and crafts that had traditionally been practised by women in nomadic societies often became the occupations of men as the societies became sedentary.

Many architectural and craft techniques were retained or reinvigorated. In this respect Islam had the ability to adapt itself region by region to the demands of the physical environment. In those regions where Islam was adopted, several new types of buildings were constructed, the most important being the congregational mosque. The arrival of Islam also led to the introduction of new building techniques. In the African savannah, for example, this is suggested by the continued use of indigenous terms for simple building techniques, while Arabic-derived terms are used for brick shapes.

The adoption of Islam also stimulated a number of other crafts. For example, Islamic prescriptions regarding body covering and the requirement for burial shrouds encouraged the textile crafts. Islamic charms, talismans and similar items were also in great demand. Military exploits, meanwhile, stimulated a demand for the products of metalwork and leatherworking techniques.

Despite the common Islamic constraints on the representation of living beings, in many well-established Islamic communities in West Africa masking and figurative traditions were able to continue, either because they functioned at a level not treated by Islamic ritual or because they proved effective. As Islam recognized witchcraft and magic, the use of traditional methods of control when Muslim methods failed was not felt to be incompatible with the faith. The 14th-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, for example, recorded the use of masks and figurative art forms among the Muslim Mande élite of Mali. Such practices continued into the late 20th century. For example, of the various Bedu masks in use in the area of Bondoukou, Côte d'Ivoire, many were carved in the 1960s by the Muslim Hwela artist Sirikye (b c. 1925). Gbain masks have also been carved by Muslims, and evidence suggests that the Gbain cult, for protection against witchcraft, was originally a Muslim Mande tradition. Belief in the power of amulets is also very strong among Islamized Mande. The Do masking tradition, meanwhile, is exclusively Muslim. It follows Muslim procedures and is never used in a non-Muslim context, the ownership and custody of Do masks being invariably vested in the ulema. Masking traditions probably also exist in other Islamized regions of West Africa.

For an account of Islamic architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa, see §VI, 1, (v) below.


(iv) Modern developments.
  • John Middleton

The period of high European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries and the consequent opening up of the African interior to world trade and governmental systems encouraged Christian missionary endeavour throughout Africa. Moreover this has continued into post-colonial times. Islam also spread more widely in the same period and for similar reasons. In the late 20th century indigenous and 'intrusive' faiths exist side by side within the same society, within the same community, within the same family, and even within the same individual.

Virtually everywhere the spread of Christianity has been accompanied by the rise of prophets. These have tended to appear in opposition to the racially inegalitarian practices of most early mission churches. Some of these prophets have established their own breakaway or 'separatist' churches, free of European control, although many of these have been shortlived, rent by dissension and competition. Other churches have grown into large organizations in their own right. The Zaïrean Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbanqu is one example, as are the many churches of the Zambian Watch-Tower movement, which grew out of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement. In western Africa many churches with Christian antecedents have developed into faith-healing, often Pentecostalist-type churches with recreated 'traditional African' elements. The Aladura churches of Nigeria are an example. Other prophetic movements that began in opposition to mission churches have turned their backs on Western Christianity altogether and have adopted supposed original African symbols. They have also emphasized polygyny as an 'African' institution, descent from the Christian kings of Ethiopia, taboos on European-type foods, clothing and hairstyles and so on.

Modern reformist movements in Islamic societies in Africa have been similar, although they have not arisen in response to racial issues. The best known are the great Fulani jihad of the early 19th century, which was directed against what the Fulani leaders considered the lax practices of the more established Islam of the region, and the Mahdist movement in late 19th-century Sudan, which was directed against the presence of European and Egyptian power. The effects of such movements and developments on the visual art and architecture of Africa have yet to be fully explored.


II. Art and aesthetics.

The art-historical and aesthetic categories applied to African art are in a constant state of flux. The history of their usage has been dogged by misapprehensions and misrepresentations, although this is hardly surprising, given that they often represent the inappropriate application of Western intellectual and aesthetic concepts. This article provides an overview of the history of scholarly research into and discussion of African art and in particular figure sculpture (see §II, 1 below), followed by an account of the vast increase in studies of indigenous systems of aesthetic evaluation since the 1960s (see §II, 2 below).

1. Critical and scholarly approaches.

The perception and identity of African art in universal art history are profoundly marked by two categories of art objects: wooden masks and figurative sculpture. In 1926 Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in Primitive Negro Sculpture went so far as to present a map of 'The Country of Negro Art' that drew a closed line around the regions of West and Central Africa and effectively limited African art to the mask and figurative art traditions that characterize these regions. Truly, however, the importance of figurative art to an understanding of African art history cannot be overestimated. Frank Willett (p. 27) stated that 'the greatest contribution Africa has made … to the cultural heritage of mankind is its richly varied sculpture'. More recently, Susan Vogel (see 1986 exh. cat. African Aesthetics, p. xiv), in asserting the moral basis of much African art, in which 'beautiful' is intended and perceived also to be 'good', has argued that this conflation of beauty and goodness may explain why, in African art 'as in Greek art, the principal subject is the human figure—to the almost total exclusion of nature in the form of landscape, or plant motifs. Consequently, while this discussion attempts a historical overview of scholarly understandings of African art as a whole, it is inevitably focused primarily on understandings of figure sculpture.

(i) Historical attitudes.

The predominance of figuration in African art traditions and in the history of Western collecting has left a legacy of countless thousands of African figures dispersed throughout the world in ethnographic and art museums as well as in private collections. These figures have been little understood in terms of the original intentionality and socio-historical context that brought them into being. The 'discovery' of primitive art, including African sculpture, in the early 20th century was a 'discovery' of its perceived formal qualities accompanied by an almost total, and indeed often wilful, ignorance of its cultural content. Figures acquired in Africa 'as curios rather than art, and as evidence of what [Europeans] considered to be the primitive barbarity of Africans' (see MacGaffey, p. 32) were taken back to Europe as 'found objects'; little or no documentation was acquired with them, and they survived as 'mute objects, themselves damaged in the processes of collection and storage' (MacGaffey, p. 33). The meanings subsequently attributed to these silent objects were invented ideas that reveal more about Western history than about African art history.

Looking back at common Western perceptions of African religion and art, Leon Siroto (p. 7) argued that one constant and fundamental assumption has been that 'representations of the human form fell into one or the other of two categories of iconographic identity. One kind of representation was thought to be positive: the ancestor figure. The other was thought to be negative: an impersonal image intended to hold combined substances capable of projecting magical force'. Each of these paired, common misperceptions of African figurative art is based on profoundly erroneous constructions of African thought and religion. The simplistic notion of 'magic', for example, has been based on a 'whole theory of African civilization, or the supposed lack of it, [that] has been developed under the term “fetishism”', according to which 'Africans were incapable of abstract and generalizing thought; instead their ideas and actions were governed by impulse' (see MacGaffey, p. 32). Likewise, the Western assumption that '“ancestor worship” was the prevailing religious and iconographic concern in traditional Africa' (Siroto, p. 7) has led to the idea that the highest form of artistic expression in Africa was the 'ancestor figure', interpreted as an 'imposing, finely worked depiction of the deceased parent', characterized by 'large size, dignified posture, a seemingly grave and aloof expression and the signs of social and political status, such as a beard, a prestigious stool, a headdress and one or more children' (Siroto).

Other historically determined notions that have continued to have a deleterious influence on Western understanding of African figurative traditions are the idea of the imagined 'expressiveness' of African sculpture and the related idea that African art results from cultural imperative rather than intellectual impulse. It is because 'much African art is extremely stylized compared to Western realism, [that] African art has been regarded as expressionistic and exaggerated' (see 1986 exh. cat. African Aesthetics, p. xvii). African figures have been perceived simultaneously as powerfully expressive works of creative invention and yet as almost accidental in their form, as though they were the result of some unleashed primal 'energy'. These seemingly opposed notions have in common a fundamental denial of any intentionality on the part of the artist. Close examination and appreciation of individual works, however, lead to the proper acknowledgement that 'African artists had complete mastery over their tools and materials', and thus 'we may assume that their work looks just as they intended, and that [any] irregularity and roughness were intentional' (see 1986 exh. cat. African Aesthetics, p. xii).

The notion that African art is simply a cultural product also denies the particular artistic intentionality of individual works of art and sees them as 'tribal' products, 'natural', or predictable outcomes of a certain world view or cultural system. The literature on African art commonly situates the production of art at the level of specific cultural systems (i.e. the 'tribe'), thus implicitly equating art with a collective activity. In this view, the production of art is almost always by 'artists', in the plural, and works are interpreted in generic cultural terms in which a gloss is given to entire genres of figurative art, for example 'the Baule other-world figure', 'the Dogon ancestor' or 'the Yoruba twin figure'. Such generic characterizations, however, have often been well-intentioned, constituting a necessary step in the understanding of art as a cultural product in their attempt to move beyond 'African' art as a totality to the art of particular cultural traditions. It is not surprising, therefore, that many studies of the cultural dimensions of specific African sculptural traditions were undertaken by anthropologists (e.g. Himmelheber, 1935; Olbrechts, 1946; Gerbrands, 1956; Horton, 1965; Ottenberg, 1975; Ben-Amos, 1980) and that, when art historians began to undertake field studies of African art, they borrowed the methodologies of anthropology (e.g. Sieber, 1961; Thompson, 1974; Vogel, 1977; Glaze, 1981; Cole, 1982; Ezra, 1986; McNaughton, 1988).

(ii) Style and canon.

According to Leon Siroto (p. 7), 'the time-lag between academic and commercial interest in African art has led to a massive immigration of unidentified objects into the West', resulting in a plethora of objects whose place in the world had to be determined in some manner. In order to come to grips with, classify and posit cultural and geographical provenances to these otherwise anonymous objects, Western museum curators and scholars, as well as art dealers, have relied upon certain formal criteria of differentiation that collectively fall under the rubric of 'style'.

In African sculpture, it has been argued, style 'includes in essence: the total appearance of an object; the expressive effect of its subject matter; and the creative methods or techniques used to produce these effects' (Wingert, 'Style …', p. 38). 'Style' ultimately became a normative and essentialist framework in the categorization of African sculpture. It has been assumed that 'the essential properties involved in the characteristics of a style' could be readily identified (Wingert, 'Style…', p. 37). For example, in enunciating acquisition criteria for the collection of the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC, Roy Sieber advanced the ideas that each object 'should be central to its style' and that it 'should be significant within that style', ideas that presuppose the possibility of establishing common denominators of style for each style and genre of traditional African art. The idea that style is culturally determined, however, potentially conflicts with the appreciation and acknowledgement of the creativity of individual artists as manifested in their work. The question of the relationship between 'cultural style' and 'individual creativity' has thus led African art scholars to investigate through field research 'the traditional artist in African societies' (the title of a compendium edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo and published in 1973). Within the culturally defined genre, what latitude does the artist have in expressing his own style? The push-and-pull contradictions of the paired opposites of cultural style and individual artistry are nicely captured in Vogel's commentary (see 1986 exh. cat. African Aesthetics, p. 129) on a Fang figure: 'some of its power comes from its size and bulk. Its formal complexity and ineffable expression place it at the summit of African artistic achievement. It both crystallizes and extends the canon of Fang art' (see fig.).

Fang reliquary guardian figure, wood (London, Entwistle Gallery); Photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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'Style' has been the critical framework for formal analysis of morphological form in African figurative art, even though, according to Paul Wingert ('Further Style Analysis…', p. 35), the term '“style” approaches the inexplicable, by virtue of its inclusion of practically every facet of an art object'. The method of style analysis is based upon 'the separation of a design into its constituent parts so as to examine these elements and to determine their significance in the expressive and aesthetic character of the work as a whole' or in terms of common denominators within specific artistic traditions. In an attempt to systematize the study of style in Fang figurative sculpture, Louis Perrois examined a corpus of figures and measured proportions, such as the height of the head in relation to that of the torso, and described the positions of arms and legs, the style of coiffure and a number of specific details, such as the shape of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, navel and breasts. From his investigation he deduced that Fang style could be divided into the northern 'hyper- and longiform' styles and the southern 'equiform and breviform' styles. At one level Perrois' work can be seen as a somewhat obsessive attempt to codify the denominators of substyles, as if thereby to prove that artists necessarily work within culturally predetermined styles, albeit perhaps unconsciously.

Style analysis as objective description has resulted in the establishment of the canon of 'African art': the differentiation of styles in terms of their genres and their ethnic provenance. Some scholars, such as William Fagg, have made major contributions to the field of African art studies by advancing studies of 'tribal styles' (see Willett, p. 29). As Sidney Kasfir has argued, the approach has often been limited to an implicit 'one tribe, one style' paradigm, in which the framework of analysis is implicitly or explicitly the tribal unit with its attendant stylistic denominators. Tribal styles have also been seen, in turn, as building blocks to larger entities, the larger 'style regions' of African art (see 1979 exh. cat.; Roy), a version of which approach has been adopted in this survey (see §VII below). Jan Vansina has argued, however, that a distributional approach to African art is insufficient and that 'the historical evolvement of the [African] art forms, even the sculptural forms, has not been a subject of sustained research' (p. 1). He argues for a study of 'art in Africa and its history' rather than an 'art history of Africa', the latter not being possible owing to the lack of monographs as well as the fact that 'too many scholars in the field of “African art” have been allergic to historical pursuits'. It is unclear what place 'style regions' will occupy in the future development of an African art history. They have been a convenient way to explore and group larger stylistic tendencies of African sculpture, especially figurative, but as the study of African art develops to include the areas of Africa north of the Sahara and the relatively neglected art traditions of East and Southern Africa, the inadequacy and profound limitations of the 'style region' approach become more and more evident. The regional geographic paradigm allows for an examination of artistic traits and comparative cultural phenomena, but it has yielded little in terms of history, concentrating as it has on space rather than time.

(iii) Context and meaning.

The classificatory approach to types of African figurative sculpture has resulted in incomplete understandings of questions of meaning in African sculpture as well as of the relationship between the form of an image and its original efficacy. Leon Siroto (p. 6) has argued that in field research 'the type-oriented question “What does this image (or object) represent?” can lead to crucial misunderstandings' and that 'equally crucial misunderstandings of imagery have resulted from failure to ask the person-oriented question “Whom does this image (or object) represent?”' (p. 7). A hypothetical exchange between an investigator and a field informant may be illustrative. In a Baule village in Côte d'Ivoire, a field worker seeing a sculpted figure and asking, 'What is this?', may receive the reply, 'It is a wooden figure' (waka sran), or 'It is a figure of an “other-world man”' (blolo bian; see fig.). If, however, a further question were to be asked, 'Whom does this figure represent?', the answer would be the name of a specific individual, such as Gbaflin Kwami, 'Kwami the dandy'.

Baule figure sculpture of an ‘other-world man’ (blolo bian), wood (Private collection); Photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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Approaches to African art that concentrate too much on the shared parameters and components of style in objects removed from their context have often overlooked the significance of the subtle differences in form that created the individuality and power of a specific work. Leon Siroto remarked (p. 7) that '[African] images often show great care in their sculptural rendering and seem individual enough to carry specific information about their personal identity'. He argued for a connection between a belief in animism—'belief in personalized, man-like supernaturals' (p. 8)—and the artistic interpretation of form, such that 'the carver's recognition of the spirit as a distinct individual compelled him to use its form as a way of differentiating it from all other spirits, and, in some cases, from humans as well' (p. 20). Wyatt MacGaffey argued convincingly for the 'personhood' of such ritual objects as Kongo power figures (minkisi; sing. nkisi), claiming that they incarnate specific, named persons who are invoked, addressed and negotiated with in speech. Part of the identity of such figures is in their form and the accumulated materials or medicines added to it in use.

Arnold Rubin argued that 'the content of African sculpture has clearly not received the attention it deserves' (see 1974 exh. cat., African Accumulative Sculpture, p. 36). In using the term 'content', Rubin described 'one dimension of the affective power and complex of multiple meanings embodied in a work of art'. In his consideration of the media of African sculpture, Rubin focused on 'accumulation'. The work of art is not just the original form fresh from the hands of the African artist; it also includes the embellishments or traces of use added to the work by its owner(s). He argued that, in visual terms, the substances and elements added to African works of art may provisionally be divided into two broad categories of 'power' and 'display'. According to Rubin:

Display materials (beads, bells, fabrics, mirrors, etc) are primarily oriented toward enhancement of the splendor of the objects to which they are attached. They usually carry associations of prosperity and cosmopolitan association for the individual or group on whose behalf such sculpture is created … The second category of materials—horns, skulls, and sacrificial accumulations, for example—is connected with the organization and exploitation of power.

Although Rubin claimed to use the notions of power and display as a 'neutral frame of reference' to explore relationships between meaning and form in African art, these two notions are not in fact polar opposites, and much African sculpture combines attributes of both. All African figurative sculptures, for example, were created for specific uses, and their intended use necessarily had an effect on form, whether originally or as it changed through time. Sculpture used and displayed in public, for instance, is often larger than that intended for use in private shrines or in the context of a consultation between diviner and client. Within a specific cultural tradition there may well be stylistic relationships between different types of figures that differ in scale. Among the Senufo of Côte d'Ivoire and Mali, one genre of sculpture, known as 'the children of Poro' (see Glaze), is used in public displays by the men's or women's Poro society. These figures are large (h. 1 m or more), whereas the stylistically similar figures that represent the bush-spirits, sometimes equestrian, that empower diviners of the Sandogo society and are used in consultations are small (h. 150–350 mm; see Senufo, §2).

(iv) Appreciation of form.
  • Philip L. Ravenhill

Discussion of style in African art is based on formal qualities and relationships. For example, in 1926 Guillaume and Munro wrote (p. 35):

Every part in a typical, fully-realized negro statue functions as an element in plastic design: an embodiment, a repetition in rhythmic, varied sequence, of some theme in mass, line, or surface … The figure must be dissociated into its parts, regarded as an aggregate of distinct units: the head, limbs, breasts, trunk, and so on, each by itself.

Such stylistic analysis, which represents subjective appreciation of individual works of art as aesthetic creations rather than as ethnographic documents, has a long history in African art studies. From Carl Einstein (1915) to Susan Vogel (1986) the fascination with the sculptural richness of African art has led to an often celebratory literature that asserts the universal value of African art. At times hostile to the contextualization of African sculpture (e.g. Einstein), at times sensitive to contextual information (e.g. Vogel), this literature is far more conclusive as art appreciation than art history. It fits into the larger historical context of the discovery of 'tribal art' or 'primitive art', the terms of convenience that have been used to link the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The 1984 exhibition 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern explored the crucial influence of 'tribal' art on modern painters and sculptors in the West. Kirk Varnedoe, co-director of the exhibition, stresses that 'modernist primitivism ultimately depends on the autonomous force of objects—and especially on the capacity of tribal art to transcend the intentions and conditions that first shaped it' (see 1984 exh. cat., p. x). It is these allied ideas of 'autonomy' and 'transcendence' that have made possible a history of stylistic appreciation of African art in which artistic meaning is posited by a direct reading of form. Such appreciation is also undertaken by Africanist art historians who seek to articulate the reasons for our response to particular works of art. Paul Wingert, for example, while arguing that 'sculpture from the Central Cameroon Grasslands area has one of the most distinctive styles in all of Black Africa' (see 'Further Style Analysis…', p. 35), analyses one particular figure as follows:

It is apparent at first glance that the paramount importance in this carving is the expression of vigorous movement that is held in a state of momentary suspension. … all of the component parts of the figure have a strongly declared autonomy in space. … The figure has a compact organic unity of expression.

Such analyses are purely formal and take little, if any, note of the rich traditions of indigenous aesthetic evaluation that scholarship has begun to explore (see §II, 2 below).


2. Aesthetic evaluation.

Aesthetics is here taken to be the valued formal qualities in things or experiences expressed as canons of taste or qualitative judgements. Broadly, visual aesthetics may be understood as a philosophy of form concerned both with objects and with activities and performances. These are evaluated by individuals whose judgements may be shared, to varying degrees, within and across cultures.

(i) Introduction.

The presence of finely crafted images in ancient central Sahara, early Egypt and Nubia, as well as early works in other parts of the continent, suggests that aesthetic evaluation is ancient in Africa. We can, however, only conjecture about the criteria used. Western aesthetic evaluations of African cultural phenomena were first made at the end of the 19th century in the publications of the German scholar F. Ratzel and of E. Grosse. These authors focused on objects (primarily figure sculpture) that most closely resembled 'art' as then conventionally defined in the West. The interest in African art displayed a few years later by such artists as Vlaminck, Picasso, Derain, Matisse and Braque helped to validate its study (see Primitivism). At the same time, however, their personal, ethnocentric and formalist perspectives ignored consideration of indigenous African views and aesthetic judgements. Unfortunately, such an approach has continued to be adopted in some quarters.

Similar attitudes shaped the appreciation of African art in the USA. There, however, the emerging African consciousness among African Americans during the Black Renaissance of the 1920s led to the aesthetic value of African art receiving glowing praise from such writers as C. S. Johnson and, especially, Alain Locke. Locke urged African American artists to use African art as a source of inspiration, not simply because of its aesthetic qualities but also because its ancestral forms possessed both spiritual and cultural relevance for them.

It was only in the 1930s and 1940s, however, that African aesthetic evaluations began to be documented in detail. Moreover, the most sustained work has taken place since the 1970s. The limits of present knowledge and the vastness and cultural diversity of the continent make attempts to generalize about African aesthetics inevitable, although it is not always clear what they achieve. Pan-African and cross-cultural studies may be contrasted with cultural case-studies. While many are still based on the unverified observations and interpretations of a single authority, in some cases, for example that of the Akan- and Yoruba-speaking peoples of West Africa, there is an extensive literature by both African and non-African scholars. A 'critical mass' of scholarship has emerged that suggests the depth and richness of aesthetic thought in Africa.


(ii) Cross-cultural criteria.

Whether cross-cultural, pan-African or perhaps even universal criteria of aesthetic evaluation exist remains a largely unanswered question. For example, in specific comparisons between Baule and Yoruba aesthetic evaluations such criteria as resemblance, balance and youthfulness were shared, but there were also some significant divergences, such as in the evaluation of asymmetry (see Vogel). R. F. Thompson has suggested that there is a definable pan-African aesthetic, which he derived from widespread cultural ideas about composure and collectedness of mind and which he termed 'the cool'. In one case at least, however, among the Asante, it appears that, while works from a wide variety of African cultures are easily and willingly evaluated, this is done with Asante, not pan-African, criteria (see Silver).

The other elements of a supposed general African aesthetic that have been proposed include: the avoidance of straight lines and the use of exponential curves (see Fagg); a moral basis, such as among the Twi of Ghana where the word fe means both 'beautiful' and 'fitting' (see Appiah), which may explain why the human figure is so prevalent throughout African art; skill in the transformation of media, that is, technical excellence or workmanship; the attributes admired in sculpture being those admired in people; moderation; and innovation and invention within set cultural parameters (see 1986 exh. cat.). Perhaps another is the importance of the secular, artful and playful aspects of African arts (see Okpewho; Drewal).

As for the question of universal aesthetic criteria, through formal experiments some researchers have found substantial agreement among the responses to art between Africans and non-Africans. However, the reasons for the similar judgements (i.e. the evaluative criteria) differed significantly (see Child and Siroto; Child).


(iii) Case-studies.
(a) Survey.

This survey is organized both geographically, to highlight possible cross-cultural interactions that may have helped shape aesthetic evaluations, and thematically.

The Dan and related peoples of Côte d'Ivoire value highly such features as finished and polished surfaces, colour, symmetry about the vertical axis, balance, rhythm and harmony among volumes, and carefully rendered linear patterns. For masks, there is also their suitability for seeing and breathing well. Such evaluations are often expressed by Dan artists not so much in words as in gestures, for example in the ways they handle works-in-progress, turning them upside-down, holding them at arm's length and so on (see Vandenhoute). For the Dan, form is meant to be evocative; specific emotions and reactions are for specific contexts and are evoked by a 'symbolism of forms' (see 1976 exh. cat., rev. 1984, p. 182). Thus, a mask that successfully conveys awe or terror (gbuze) is angular in form with a large mouth, tubular eyes, black feathers and red colouring. One expressive of grotesqueness or ugliness (ya) often has a low forehead, pendulous lips, a short flat nose and brown colouring. In contrast, a beautiful or fine (se) mask has a high forehead, slitted eyes, a narrow nose, full-lipped mouth and white paint about the eyes conveying gentleness. Other evaluative terms in the Dan vocabulary are li ('beautiful'), yeiya ('hateful'), manyene ('splendid') and ga pe mu ('something to look at'). Among the Guro, who are neighbours of the Dan to the north, the artists who make masks seem to take particular pleasure in smooth, subtle transitions from convex to concave shapes, and they also prize profile views. They have an extensive evaluative vocabulary based around such concepts as ezima ('beauty') and nee ('ugliness'; see 1986 exh. cat., p. 10).

Among the Mende of Sierra Leone ideals of feminine beauty are guarded and passed on by the female elders (sowei) of the female initiation society, Sande; they are closely related to the attributes in terms of which sculptures and Sande headdresses (sowo-wui) depicting women are evaluated (see fig.). These attributes include three fundamental features and associated aesthetic ideas: a high, broad, smooth forehead, expressive of intelligence, good fortune and social responsibility; a full head of thick hair, neatly braided and decorated and expressive of energy, fertility and abundance; and 'rainbow' neck rings, expressive of high status, vitality, well-being, divine munificence and the beauty that benefits communities. Additional features include ngakpango-jo: completeness, correctness; a gulo nya ma leke kinein: comfortable to wear or danceable, suggesting useful, efficacious beauty; gbongbongo-bowobowo: smoothness that epitomizes health; mbe-ma: balance and symmetry connoting collectedness, composure; ma ya-sahein: clarity of form; neku: freshness, newness suggesting vitality; and yengele: delicacy, especially of the mouth, which is expressive of circumspection and good judgement. Sande headdresses thus embody a complex cluster of Mende social, aesthetic and spiritual aspirations (see Boone).

Mende initiation mask, Sierra Leone (New York, Collection Manu Sassoonian); Photo credit: Manu Sassoonian/Art Resource, NY

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The Gola of Liberia, neighbours of the Mende, have an aesthetic preference for an air of nonchalance, for the ability 'to act as though one's mind were in another world … to do difficult tasks with an air of ease and silent disdain'. Women are particularly admired for 'a detached expression, and somnambulistic movement and attitude during the dance or other performance'; this 'is considered very attractive' (see d'Azevedo, pp. 63–4).

The Idoma of Nigeria focus on evaluations of the skill and technical proficiency demonstrated by artists (see Sieber). Among the Tiv of Nigeria people in general take an active role in aesthetic evaluation. Few art works are created by specialists, and thus most Tiv consider themselves both artists and critics. Expressing their appraisals both during and after the creation of a work, they explicitly judge its quality by such criteria as balance, symmetry and 'tasteful' asymmetry (see Bohannan). Among the Edo-speaking Okpella of Nigeria discussions revolve around the pleasing embellishments (ene) of form that make objects beautiful (osomhotse) as opposed to ugly (oyemhosue). The latter term is used for something that is broken, marred or flawed or that is frightful/grotesque (ulishi). The concept of beautiful overlaps with that of good (ti) but is not synonymous with it (see Borgatti, p. 19).

Among the Kongo peoples of central Africa the term umbanqu means the fusion of 'tradition and creation' and connotes 'creativity'. This suggests a preference for a dynamic, processual invention of tradition in aesthetic production (see Maesen). Knowing the reasons why persons may suspend aesthetic evaluations in certain circumstances can also reveal aesthetic preferences. Thus among the Lega (see Lega and related peoples) of Zaïre people refuse to comment on the objects of the Bwami society except to say that they are all 'good', which has been interpreted to mean that they fulfil their didactic and initiatory purposes (see Biebuyck, p. 17).

In several African cultures moral and aesthetic values intersect. Among the Chokwe of Angola and Zaïre (see Chokwe and related peoples), the concepts of 'good' and 'beautiful' (chibema) in relation to 'art' are shaped by such issues as colour preferences, age, craftsmanship, correctness, smoothness and precision of technique (see Crowley, 1966, 1973). Aesthetic comments by the Anang Ibibio people of Nigeria identify an 'aesthetic feeling tone' (mfon) related to notions of beauty and moral goodness (see Messenger, p. 124). Among the Fang of Gabon aesthetic values also resonate with allusions to moral order. According to J. W. Fernandez (1966), important Fang aesthetic principles are the notions of vitality, the 'capacity to survive' (enin) and balance (bibwe), which together comprise 'a vitality of balanced opposites' that emerges in discussions of reliquary figures (bieri). Similar concepts are also seen in the spatial organization of villages whose survival depends on balancing the tensions between different sections of the community (see Fernandez, 1973).

Among nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists whose minimal material culture contains few objects that might be termed 'art', aesthetic evaluations focus on other things. For example, in Rwanda there is a concentration on performance arts (see Smith). Among some of the Nuba peoples of Sudan aesthetic evaluation centres around judgements of embellishment through cicatrization and painting of young, strong, healthy bodies. Evaluation concerns such visual attributes as symmetry, balance, colour, focus and the reinforcing impact of two-dimensional imagery on three-dimensional forms (see Faris).

According to H. K. Schneider, the Nilotic Pokot (Pakot) define 'art' from 'non-art', or rather aesthetic from non-aesthetic objects, on the basis of pleasing and non-utilitarian embellishment termed pachigh, 'beautiful, pleasant to look at'. A headrest that might be seen as a sculpture by Westerners is for the Pokot only art in its decorative aspects, the incised designs or smooth, shiny surfaces. Often the most highly prized, aesthetically valued embellished objects are the rare, novel or unusual ones. Among the Nuer, Dinka and other Nilotic-speaking cattle-keepers of southern Sudan aesthetic evaluations concentrate on their cattle, on the colour configurations, hide textures, horn shapes and the size and condition of the bovine body (see Coote). For example, cattle with variegated hides are highly valued and are set aside as display animals. The valued attribute of contrast in such cattle constitutes a maximizing of aesthetic satisfaction in an environment generally characterized by a colourless landscape and vast herds of off-white, greyish cattle.


(b) Akan-speaking peoples.

The Akan themselves have an elaborate taxonomy of art forms and an extensive aesthetic vocabulary. For example, they have categories of non-utilitarian forms termed afefedee or 'items of beauty' and of utilitarian forms, adehunu or 'things empty', many of which are regarded as agyapadee, treasured items or heirlooms. Among the Akan set of positive evaluative terms (given here without their prefixes) are bere: beautiful, delicate; bereye: fineness; adwenemtew: clearness of thought, intention; fe/efe: fine, pretty, beauty; hare: light, quick; and ahoofe: elegance. Among the set of negative terms are kusuu: unclear; hima/kyea: unbalanced, crooked; kyim: twisted; omum: ugliness; tawee/bawee: rough, shapeless, ugly; and basa-basa: unskilful (see Warren and Andrews, pp. 6, 33–8).

The Baule comment critically on the morphology of their figural sculpture in evaluating such physical attributes of persons as the fullness and roundness of the head, arms and calves. Formal evaluations include such aspects as balance and appropriate asymmetry, segmentation and composition/placement (see Vogel). In the tourist arts of the Asante (see Asante and related peoples) the distorted and grotesque works created for an external audience exaggeratedly violated indigenous aesthetic norms, thus serving to reinforce Asante aesthetic and cultural values (see Silver, 1979).


(c) Yoruba-speaking peoples.

Yoruba aesthetics are expressed in what is known as oro ijinle ('deep discourse'). This draws on such concepts as jijora: resemblance; ifarahon: visibility, clarity of line and form; didon: luminosity, shining smoothness of surface; idogba: balance; gigun: straightness; odo: ephebism, youthfulness; itutu: an expression of composure or 'cool'; kekere, tinrin and we: delicacy; yo: roundness/pleasing protrusions; wiwu: sinister swellings; and sonso: pleasing angularity (see Thompson, 1973). Iwa l'ewa ('essence/truth is beauty') refers to the criterion of capturing the essential character of a thing or person. This reflects an artist's oju-inu: inner-eye or insight; his oju-ona: design-consciousness, sensitivity to design and composition; his yiye: appropriateness (sense of propriety); his imoju-mora: appropriate innovation, inventiveness; his ifarabale: possession of a sense of disciplined authority; his pipe: correctness, which ensures that the work is laaye: alive; tito: enduring; and dahun: responding or evocative (see Abiodun; 1991 exh. cat.). These are some of the concepts and criteria that underlie the appreciation and evaluation both of sculpture and of masks and masquerade performances by their spectators.

The carving process is divided into a number of stages: ona lile: blocking out the main volumes; aletunle: dividing the main volumes; didon, rounding and smoothing surfaces; and fifin, incising lines, linear details. These reveal some of the conceptual models of Yoruba art, such as a dynamic and ongoing view of creative activity, as well as the aesthetic preferences of Yoruba artists for such characteristics as completeness (see Carroll; 1980 exh. cat.). Close analysis of works by individual masters has shown how many of these aesthetic principles are manifested in their work (see Fagg; Thompson, 1969; Bascom; Abiodun, Drewal and Pemberton). A form of seriate or segmented composition, explained as letoleto, l'ese ese ('one by one, step by step'), is widespread in and fundamental to Yoruba sculpture, body arts and performance, as well as in Yoruba social organization. It seems to be linked with fundamental ontological concepts and a belief in ase: performative power or life-force (see M. T. Drewal and H. J. Drewal; H. J. Drewal; M. T. Drewal).


(iv) Conclusion.
  • Henry John Drewal

A few studies have attempted to document changes in aesthetic evaluation. A study of tourist art among the Edo people of southern Nigeria, that is, of the ebony sculptures made at Benin City, has revealed some of the factors shaping the changing dynamics of aesthetic judgements. Transformations in scale, motif and style show the ways in which artists have responded to new economic conditions and formulated new aesthetic preferences (see Ben-Amos, 1977). Other producers of African tourist arts have responded to the demand for instant recognition through the adoption of naturalistic styles and the manufacture of convenient portable objects (see Bascom). A study of economic factors in three African tourist art markets has illustrated other changes in aesthetic evaluations of skill, creativity and cultural expression (see Jules-Rosette).

In addition to further studies of aesthetic change it is hoped that future research will include fuller documentation of the commentaries and aesthetic terminologies of indigenous critics. Such studies would deepen and enrich an understanding of aesthetic evaluation in Africa. The development of video technology makes it possible for artists and performers to review and comment immediately on works they made or in which they participated. The interaction of members of a culture, the interplay of attitudes and opinions, seems to be at the very heart of the formulation of taste within cultures, and the study of it must therefore be essential to understanding aesthetic evaluation in Africa. Also, most scholarly discussions have concentrated on what object types are viewed as having aesthetic value rather than exploring why they have it, that is, they are concerned more with a category of object (art) than with a category of thought (aesthetics; see Coote, p. 250). Making such a distinction should help future understandings.


  • W. Bascom: ‘Changing African Artʼ, Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, ed. N. H. H. Graburn (Berkeley, 1976/R 1979), pp. 303–19
  • P. Ben-Amos: ‘“A la recherche du temps perdu”: On Being an Ebony-carver in Beninʼ, Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, ed. N. H. H. Graburn (Berkeley, 1976/R 1979), pp. 320–33
  • P. Ben-Amos: ‘Pidgin Languages and Tourist Artsʼ, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 4/2 (1977), pp. 128–39
  • B. Jules-Rosette: ‘Aesthetics and Market Demand: The Structure of the Tourist Art Market in Three African Settingsʼ, African Studies Review, 29/1 (1986), pp. 41–59
  • J. Coote: ‘“Marvels of Everyday Vision”: The Anthropology of Aesthetics and the Cattle-keeping Nilotesʼ, Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, ed. J. Coote and A. Shelton, Oxford Studies in the Anthropology of Cultural Forms (Oxford, 1992), pp. 245–73

III. Contexts of production and use.

1. Patronage.

In Africa as elsewhere the patron is often the link by which the artist is made aware of society's demands and needs for art. This role has often been neglected in studies of artistic production in Africa. Although creative interpretation originates with the artist, it is the patron who sanctions such interpretation, thereby playing a critical role in supporting artistic production and championing artistic creativity. The final art object is the product of the patron–artist relationship and of the interacting factors of the artist’s creativity, the patron’s demands and the existing prototypes. The patron–artist relationship is often mediated by the role of the trader (see §III, 3 below).

(i) General.

Within each act of patronage, the rules of interaction, the kinds of information exchanged, and the form of the contract are affected by a number of factors. These include the type of art form, the socio-cultural context in which the art object functions, the patron’s position in the local art world, the nature of the dominant social roles played by patron and artist during and after interaction, and the degree of cultural understanding shared by patron and artist. Patrons commission, pay for, and use art objects. As a consumer, the patron is the economic motivator who stimulates artistic production and thus not only influences stylistic continuity within a tradition but can also function as an agent of change. Of equal importance is the key role the patron plays in introducing the object into the social context where it may be evaluated by the wider community.

Patronage determines the range of art styles that develop and flourish in a society. For example, among the Bamana of West Africa such men’s socio-religious associations as N’tomo, Kore, Chi-wara, and Komo commission stylistically distinct forms of wooden masks and headdresses. Moreover multiple art traditions, such as the production of wood and metal sculpture, architecture, textiles, and ceramics, can co-exist in a single society if there is sufficient patronage to support them. Conversely, long-standing art traditions decline and disappear if patronage is withdrawn. The patron’s impact is most clearly seen where patron and artist interact face-to-face. The patron’s influence is most direct when the interaction takes place prior to production. During a pre-production transaction in the African context, artist and patron agree a verbal contract in which the patron’s desires concerning materials, iconographic and decorative motifs, and the time to be taken are articulated. Such specifications may be general, indicating only the type of object desired, or they may be precise, with detailed instructions given. In turn, the artist informs the patron about his requirements concerning materials, the rituals necessary for production, and payment. The artist does not always wait for a patron but may build up a stock of objects ready for visits from patron-consumers. Non-ritual textiles, pottery, leatherwork, and carved household utensils are often stockpiled in this way. In these cases the choices made from the artist's stock by patron-consumers have a delayed effect on subsequent production.

Most frequently patrons belong to the same ethnic group as the artists they support, and this may be labelled in-group patronage. Thus, patron and artist share a common artistic tradition and vocabulary as well as shared expectations about the degree of acceptable stylistic variation. For example, Fulani weavers in Mali must adhere to traditional patterns, colours, and materials in their wool blankets, since their patrons demand conformity, choosing weavers on the basis of their ability to adhere to specific designs (Imperato, 1973). On the other hand, innovation in subject-matter at least is encouraged by the traditional patrons of brass-smiths among the Asante and related peoples, who order distinctive forms of goldweights to display as prestige objects (McLeod, 1971).

An interesting form of in-group patronage is the phenomenon of self-patronage, when artist and patron are the same person. Among the Gurensi of northern Ghana, for example, women act as their own patrons when embellishing their house walls with painted designs (Smith, 1978). A senior woman of a compound organizes the necessary activities and solicits the help of other female relatives who together select the design motifs, divide the house wall into sections and paint them (see fig. below). Similarly, young male initiates among the Yaka of Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) create highly original masks to be worn and judged by the community during their initiation ceremony (Adelman).

Where patron–artist interactions cross ethnic boundaries, in what may be labelled out-group patronage, a common cultural understanding may not exist. Prior to production, therefore, there may be a detailed exchange of information. Shared expectations are less important when the patron chooses from stockpiled goods. When out-group patronage becomes institutionalized, it can have long-term effects, even leading to the development of a distinctive new style. For example, an Afro-Portuguese ivory tradition emerged in the 16th century when Portuguese sailors commissioned Bulom (Sherbro) ivory-carvers from what is now Sierra Leone to produce intricate pedestal bowls with European motifs (see §III, 1, (iii) below).

In general, it is the patron who takes the praise for the successful work of art or the blame for its failure. For this reason the creative process does not necessarily end when an artist finishes an object. Changes in its appearance may be demanded by the owner due to aesthetic preferences or for some other reason. Sometimes a ritual object’s potency and efficacy need to be enhanced. For example, some Kongo figures (nkisi; see fig.) are not considered complete until a ritual specialist acting on behalf of a patron has applied magical ingredients to them. Some are activated by having nails and blades driven into them; thus their appearance is continually transformed.

Some objects are subjected to a continual process of decorative embellishment by patrons or other artists. For example, among the Yoruba, patron-owners of Gelede masks repainted them before each public appearance (see fig.). Masks may also be enhanced with the application of cloth, beads, feathers and even attached carvings. Similarly, Senufo patrons alter the appearance of their carved masks and figures by applying polychrome, decorative patterns to them (Glaze, 1981, p. 16).

Yoruba Gelede mask (Private collection); Photo credit: Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

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Nail figure (nkisi nkondi), mixed media, Yombe, Congo, African School, 19th century (Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art); photo credit: Bridgeman Images

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The reactions to and evaluations of art objects by audiences and critics influence the future decisions of both artists and patrons. For example, the huge upstanding ears of Yoruba Egungun Erin masks were introduced when a patron demanded more imposing ears than usual. When the mask attracted favourable attention at a festival, other patrons asked for similar masks, and local carvers added the type to their repertories (Wolff, 1981).

Societies vary in the degree to which patron–artist interactions are formalized. In centralized societies with a high degree of social stratification and developed trade systems, for example among the Asante, Nupe, Hausa, and Kuba (see Kuba), the arts flourish. Here artists are needed to produce a wide range of products to meet the society’s commercial, prestige and everyday needs, and patron–artist relations are direct, regular and tightly structured. Patrons are often traders, chiefs or leaders of some sort, and artists are often full-time specialists organized into structured workgroups. For example, in the 19th century the Nupe of central Nigeria were conquered by Muslim Fulani who imposed a guild system to ensure that artists would produce a wide range of trade and prestige objects. In this way the patronage of the Fulani ruling class, channelled through titled guild-heads, shaped the direction taken by Nupe crafts, bringing into existence, for example, a tradition of hammered brass vessels for Muslim ceremonies of protocol and gift exchange.

A less formal type of patronage, where contact between patron and artist is occasional and relatively unstructured, takes place in all societies but dominates where there is no centralized political system, for example among the Dan, Senufo, Fang and Igbo. In such societies artists tend to be part-time, independent specialists, and it is the patron who takes the initiative by commissioning or purchasing objects. For instance, during the dry season in north-eastern Nigeria, Bata, Ungal, and Fulani women decorate gourds that are used as gifts and dowry goods, but only on demand.

Patrons may operate both as individuals, motivated by their own needs, and as representatives of kinship, religious, leadership, or age groups. Once displayed publicly art objects enhance the prestige and power of both the individual patron and the group. For example, the Yoruba mask Egungun Erin is known as ‘the rich man’s Egungun’ because of its aesthetic quality and cost. To commission such a mask and costume often requires the resources of a whole kinship group, whose prestige is enhanced by its public appearances, as is that of the individual owner.

(ii) Political.

Kings, emirs, and chiefs of the centralized societies of West Africa (e.g. Asante and related peoples, Fon, Yoruba, Nupe, Hausa), the Cameroon Grassfields (e.g. Bamum), and the southern savannah of Central Africa (e.g. Kongo, Kuba, Chokwe and related peoples) are particularly important patrons in Sub-Saharan Africa. They exercise monopolies over scarce resources used in art production, have exclusive control of particular forms and motifs and control the labour and organization of craft workers. As patrons, such people largely control the production and distribution of highly valued prestige and leadership arts (Fraser and Cole). Prestige arts are those artistically embellished items of everyday life (household utensils, furniture, jewellery, and clothing) that are used by persons of rank to display their wealth and special status. Leadership arts are more exclusive and include such items of regalia as dress and accessories, sceptres, swords, thrones, and ancestral sculptures. They function to stimulate loyalty to an office by instilling awe in beholders.

Items of regalia are commissioned by the emir and other Hausa nobility from local and regional craftsmen and figure prominently in public, ceremonial and political contexts where the very body of the leader becomes a focus of artistic elaboration. The appearance of the Hausa emir during the Sallah procession at the end of the Ramadan fast is such an event. Hand-embroidered gowns, layered one on top of the other, silver horse trappings, sceptres, and a huge state umbrella draw attention to and magnify the importance of the emir.

Such palace architecture as that of the Asante, the Yoruba, and the Bamum also set rulers apart from the rest of the population. The massiveness and elaboration of the architecture express the special status of the leader (see §VI, 1, (iii) below; see also Palace, §VIII). Within the palace, art further enhances his special status. For example, the royal treasuries of the kings of the Cameroon Grassfields hold sculpture depicting royal ancestors, elaborately carved stools and thrones, drums, serving bowls, embroidered clothing, jewellery, tobacco pipes, drinking horns, fly-whisks, staffs, and ceremonial swords. The leader is the guardian of such regalia and emblems of office and is responsible for the continuity of the various traditions, directly influencing the quality and quantity of objects produced. For example, after the emergence of the Asante kingdom in 18th-century Ghana, each king was required to commission two new, decorated swords, thereby assuring the continued vitality of the tradition (Ross, p. 25). Among the Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaïre) since the 17th century each king was required to commission a commemorative statue that functioned as his spiritual double.

To control production efficiently, leaders frequently have artists, whether freeborn or slave, who work in the vicinity of the palace, where they can be closely supervised. They may live in the palace complex itself, as in Bamum; in wards in the capital city, as in Benin and among the Nupe and Hausa; or in craft villages, as among the Asante, where shelter, board, financial support and regular employment are offered. The Óbas of Benin, Kingdom of, for example, established 40 to 50 guilds in wards near the palace. Members of these craft guilds were full-time specialists producing embroidered cloths, leather fans and sculpture in brass, ivory, and wood for the Óba and for his chiefs and cult priests, if the Óba allowed. The kings (fons) of the larger kingdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields control wood-carving in a similar way, so that if a neighbouring ruler with no resident carvers wants a sculpture, he must commission and pay the local fon, not the artist (1984 exh. cat., pp. 61–2). Artists under royal patronage usually consider it a great honour to work for a leader and rarely request payment. Leaders, however, frequently reward artists with gifts.

The ability of leaders to recruit artists from a wide area, sometimes from different ethnic groups, is important in contributing to the mobility and spread of art styles. For instance, after the 19th-century Nupe conquest of northern Yoruba territories, the Fulani–Nupe emir settled Yoruba slaves, including weavers, in Bida, the capital city. Male Yoruba weavers introduced new cloth types and had a great impact on increasing textile production for the cloth trade, while female Yoruba weavers introduced weaving technology and new cloth types and designs to Nupe women (Perani, 1979). The patronage of leaders may encourage artists to be itinerant as, for example, in some 19th-century Liberian chiefdoms where weavers and wood-carvers attached themselves to households of wealthy chiefs in neighbouring or even distant chiefdoms, producing carvings and textiles in exchange for shelter and board.

The link between patron leaders and the origins of specific art forms is sometimes retained in a group’s oral history. For example, Muhammadu Rumfa, a 15th-century Kano leader, is remembered for introducing red and green livery for retainers and leather sandals adorned with ostrich feathers as a royal prerogative. Ibrahim Njoya of Bamum is credited with introducing weaving and tailoring to his court in the late 19th century and is said to have woven sample lengths so that his palace weavers could copy them (Geary, 1983). These attributions of royal artistic genius add legitimacy to the art traditions and, simultaneously, enhance the perceived qualities of the leader patrons.

(iii) Religious.
  • Judith Perani and Norma H. Wolff

Priests, diviners, and members of religious associations and masquerade societies commission costumes, masks, shrine sculptures, and prestige arts to honour and control supernatural beings and forces. The production of ritual art often involves calling upon supernatural forces to produce or activate masks or figures that then become receptacles for extraordinary powers. In this potentially dangerous activity the contract between patron and artist is both an economic agreement and a pledge of ritual cooperation. Patron–artist transactions regarding ritual carving are often highly structured. The interactions of male Gola artists and female Sande society officials in south-western Liberia offer an example. A transaction begins when the women commission a mask from a carver who thus becomes privy to the secret knowledge of Sande. While carving the mask the artist is supported by his Sande patrons who attempt to direct his work by insisting upon such details as specific coiffure designs and the form and placement of neck rings. The patron–artist interaction is conceived here as a struggle: the carver may resist directives and, in extreme cases, destroy an unfinished work because of the continuous criticism of the patrons. Tension between the carver and the Sande officials may continue throughout the production period and sometimes, after the mask has been completed and performed, the artist may destroy it if he finds that it is treated with disrespect (d’Azevedo, 1973, pp. 145–7).

Occasionally whole communities may commission ritual objects from an artist. This is the case with the ikoro slit-drums of the Igbo of Nigeria. These huge signal drums, embellished with carved images of animals and humans, serve as symbols of village unity. Complex rituals are carried out before a giant tree is cut, and the lengthy carving process takes place in secret. Rituals of consecration have to be carried out at village expense to activate the drum before it can be used (see 1984 exh. cat., pp. 87–8).

In many cases of ritual patronage, the ultimate patron is a spirit with whom an individual makes a contract to act as mediator. The spirit often makes its demands known to an individual through a dream or vision or through a divination process. For example, among the Dan of Côte d’Ivoire masks are commissioned when a forest spirit appears in a person’s dreams and requests the creation of a mask to allow that spirit to participate in the human world (Fischer, 1978). Similarly, Baule nature spirits and spirit spouses, identified by a diviner as the source of an individual’s misfortunes, may appear in dreams or trances to demand that figures be carved to portray them and act as a focus for offerings. The spirit then appears to the commissioning individual, diviner or carver to make its desires known, and a carving is prepared (Vogel, 1980). Illness and infertility are often taken to be signals that a spirit desires to be appeased with an act of art patronage. Among the Chokwe and related peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, if a man who has inherited a Pwo dance mask falls ill, a diviner may determine that the pwo, a female ancestor, is causing the sickness. The man must then reactivate the mask or have a new one carved (Bastin, p. 92).


2. Artists.

The perceived role of artists in African society varies widely, depending on the nature and purpose of the work being produced and the traditions of a particular people or region. A major factor in the making of many types of art is that of gender (see §III, 2, (ii) below). In general, the concept of an individual artist being associated with a personal style and oeuvre is a 20th-century development, following the introduction of Western views of art and teaching practices (see §IX below).

(i) Role and status.

In Africa the role of the artist ranges from being the producer of ritual objects to the organizer of entertainments and rites of passage. He or she contributes to the establishment and maintenance of royal legitimacy as well as to new and emergent senses of identity. As for the artist’s status, this ranges from being nobody of any importance to being of necessity a king, or, alternatively, a deviant. These variables are still insufficiently understood by scholars to enable the establishment of any precise correlation between role and status. For the moment, we have to be satisfied with the discussion of a few varied examples. This will give the reader an idea of the complexity of questions of artists’ roles and statuses in ‘traditional’ African society. Some of the developments of colonial and post-colonial times are also addressed.

(a) Traditional examples.
  • John Picton

In the small-scale social groupings of traditional Africa it is not always obvious who the artist is. For example, for the building of a mbari house among the Owerri Igbo, a ‘man of skill’ is employed. Such a man will already have a reputation for the successful direction of the construction of these buildings with their complex painting and sculpture. Similarly, in Afikpo Igbo communities, the ‘play-leaders’ who direct the performances of Okumkpa masked plays have established reputations for the successful direction of performances (see fig.). However, whereas the ‘man of skill’ is in essence affirming the authority of elders, whose responsibility it is to maintain appropriate relationships between people and deities, the subject-matter of Okumkpa plays is frequently derogatory of the elders who sanction the performances and are obliged to take the front-row seats. Perhaps not surprisingly, the status of ‘play-leader’ is adverse, and, for as long as one is directing plays that criticize and ridicule the elders, one is denied promotion within the local title system.

Igri mask used in the Okumpa play and Njenji parade, Afikpo, Nigeria (private collection); photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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It is also useful to compare the Afikpo ‘play-leader’ with the ‘preceptor’, the senior man charged with the responsibility of organizing initiations into Bwami, the all-encompassing organization of the Lega and related peoples people of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaïre). Their roles are identical, yet in Afikpo the principle of the authority of the elders is confirmed by the criticism of those who are, in practice, in authority. In contrast, the successive phases of Bwami initiation entail a revelation of a philosophy. The Afikpo Igbo Okumkpa entails a revelation of practice, whereas Lega Bwami initiations entail a revelation of principle. If failure on the part of individual incumbents of senior office is enacted by Lega people, it is not within the context of Bwami. It is hardly surprising to learn that, in contrast to the Afikpo ‘play-leader’, the Lega ‘preceptor’ is a man of high regard.

This discussion suggests a perhaps obvious correlation between the purpose of the art work and the status of its producer, but other examples caution us against assuming such a necessary correlation. Thus, among the Fang people of Gabon, the carving of the figures that are placed with apotropaic intention upon boxes of ancestral bones is, notwithstanding the ritual necessity of these figures, considered on a par with making fish-traps and is carried out in the public gaze of the men’s club house. Here the role of producer attracts no particular esteem or status. Similarly, among the Tiv of Nigeria, sculptors attract no marked esteem, notwithstanding the social and ritual necessity of their work. In any case, for the Tiv, sculpture is something anyone can try, and, while some are better at it than others, no particular status attaches to this. The tradition of body-painting among some Nuba in Sudan might provide another example. A relevant factor is the extent to which, as determined within a received tradition of practice, an art form is considered to demand specialist knowledge. It is possible to suggest contrasts between contexts in which the practice of an art may broadly be categorized as commonplace (attracting no particular status), or specialist and clear-cut within an established order, or specialist but ambivalent, either because of the subject-matter of the art or because of the necessary circumstances of its making.

This is not a matter of the contrast between artists who support and those who subvert a political status quo; for the Afikpo ‘play-leader’ is not engaging in Okumkpa in an attempt to subvert chiefly authority but in its affirmation via the critique of the current incumbents of chiefly office. Among the Gola of Liberia, the wood-carver is perhaps an even more ambivalent character. While the status of a Gola chief is enhanced by the mere fact of having a famous sculptor within his retinue, success in sculpture is achieved through a relationship with a spirit mentor that encourages or entails behaviour that is locally regarded as deviant, to the extent that parents will take disciplinary action against a son whom they consider to be taking too much interest in the art. More to the point, the most significant artefact within a Gola sculptor’s repertory is the mask worn by women of the Sande association in the relevant stage of the initiation of girls into adulthood (see also §VII, 4 below). The Sande association, however, is an institution the inner workings of which are secret and from which men are excluded except at the very highest levels of rank within Sande and the male equivalent association, Poro. The Gola carver thus is not a man of any particular authority, and yet in order to carve the mask the sculptor is the one man with access to the secret domain of women.

In contrast to the Gola carvers, and indeed those of the Tiv and Fang, the sculptors of Benin work within a hierarchical order of guilds, with the brass-casters at the top, followed by the ivory-carvers. Within each guild, there is a series of titled offices having responsibility for, among other things, negotiating the production of works of art. Moreover, guild titles are structured within an overall hierarchy of titled offices, and, while their status therein might be considered merely middle-ranking, the important point is that status is established and esteemed to the extent permitted within the title system. The role of the guilds is the production of artworks that participate in the enactment and definition of royal legitimacy, whether as ivory regalia worn by the king or brass regalia worn by titled men, or as ivory and brass furniture for altars within the royal palace (see also Benin, Kingdom of, §3). Even more marked is the contrast with the kingdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, where sculptural expertise is an expected attribute of kings; even though much of the sculptural output is the work of palace servants, the king is nevertheless identified as its author (see Bamileke and related peoples, Bamum and Bangwa).

(b) Modern developments.
  • Victoria L. Rovine

The social structures that shape the roles of African artists in customary or traditional cultural contexts rarely apply to modern and contemporary studio artists, the majority of whom work within Western-style fine arts structures. Some directly participate in international museum and gallery systems, and many others work in local art networks in cities throughout Africa. While their subjects and aesthetic choices may reflect distinctly African cultures and concerns, the social roles of these artists are not linked to guilds, initiation societies, or cosmological beliefs. Instead, like studio artists the world over, their careers are shaped by local, national, and international art markets. International biennials and art fairs have made some of these artists highly visible, making them influential cultural figures in Africa and elsewhere.

The international profile of African studio artists has risen considerably since the early 1990s, a development that reflects both the expansion of global contemporary art markets into non-Western regions and the recognition of the importance of studio art in the field of African art history. Modern and contemporary studio art receives substantial attention in exhibitions and publications, appearing as prominently as the classical or traditional African art that has long been the sole focus of African art history. With this expansion, scholarship on African artists has moved from culture-based research (analysis based on ethnic groups or communities) to explorations of individual artists. A partial listing of African artists who have been the subject of sustained academic research includes: Ben Enwonwu, Yinka Shonibare, William Kentridge, Twins Seven Seven, Thami Mnyele (1948–85), Wangechi Mutu, Uzo Egonu,Julie Mehretu, Ibrahim el- Salahi, and El Anatsui. This research addresses broad cultural and historical issues, but it is often founded in biographical information.

The vast majority of African studio artists are based in urban centres, where artists have direct access to galleries and museums, as well as to art schools. Most of these artists are academically trained, either in African institutions or art schools outside the continent. In Africa, institutions such as the University of Nsukka (Nigeria), Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana), the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Senegal), the School of Fine Arts and Design at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere University (Uganda), Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, and Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town (both in South Africa) are among the most prominent of these. While the majority of these institutions are colonial in origin, by the 1990s so many colonial elements had been either discarded or domesticated that they were thoroughly African. Although most of these programmes did not initially devote attention to Africa’s artistic practices, curricula were expanded to encompass African art, rather than simply reproducing the occidental focus of the past. Their training exposed these artists to international artistic trends and discourses; these trends may be more relevant to analysis of some artists’ work than any element of their African heritage.

Many studio artists combine techniques and conceptual approaches drawn from their academic training with iconography and subject-matter that reflect their own cultural heritage. For example, some art movements have arisen out of pre-colonial decorative traditions. Uche Okeke and the artists in his circle reshaped Uli painting traditions of the Igbo as they emerged from fine-art training at the time of Nigerian independence. Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté was inspired by culturally significant local textile forms; Ibrahim el-Salahi of Sudan incorporated both Islamic calligraphic and local craft patterns into his work; and Ghanaian artists El Anatsui, Atta Kwami, and Owusu-Ankomah were inspired by Akan textiles. This work is clearly distinct from its sources of inspiration, transforming textiles, calligraphy, and other forms into fine art that serves wholly different purposes, aimed at new audiences.

Many studio artists live outside Africa temporarily or permanently gain access to education, markets, teaching posts, materials, and other elements of artistic infrastructure that may be lacking in their home countries. Living in the diaspora may heighten artists’ sense of their African identities, leading them to explore and express African themes in their work. Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu and Nigerian-born British artist Sokari Douglas Camp both made masquerade dancers from their home regions key subjects from their London base. Gerard Sekoto, exiled from South Africa, spent most of his life in Paris painting images of this homeland. In other instances, artists living outside Africa do not work in styles or address subject-matter that explicitly relates to Africa. Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian-American artist, and the Amsterdam-based South African artist Marlene Dumas both created work that can be elucidated through the African elements of their biographies, but Africa is not the primary subject of their explorations.

Another important element of modern and contemporary African studio art is the work of artists who have no academic training. Many of these artists initially created art as part of longstanding local traditions, making masks, funerary sculptures, religious images, wall decorations, and the like. Cultural brokers such as dealers and curators presented some of this work in fine art contexts, facilitating these artists’ success in new markets. The coffins of Kane Kwei (1924–92), Esther Mahlangu’s wall paintings, and the amuletic images of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and Gera exemplify this genre. In other cases, artists who began as tradesmen in urban contexts—such as portrait photographers and sign painters—later presented their work as fine art. Seydou Keïta and Chéri Samba, now internationally renowned artists, initially worked for local clienteles in Bamako and Kinshasa.


(ii) Gender.

Throughout Africa the division of labour by gender not only determines the everyday work of growing crops and trade but also strongly affects the production, use and imagery of visual art forms. This entry provides an overview of the role of women in the visual arts in Africa, both traditionally and in the modern situation.

(a) Traditional practices.

In Africa generally men and women practise different arts, or at least different techniques. In many areas explicit rules restrict women from participation in wood-carving and metallurgy. Thus the wood sculptures and brass-castings for which Africa is most famous are the exclusive product of male artists. Beyond these two restricted pursuits, the division of artistic labour by gender varies from community to community. In North Africa, for example, women weave, while in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, apart from Nigeria and Madagascar, only men weave. Usually women are the potters, though there are a few communities, such as among the Hausa of Niger, in which men are the potters. Although women modelled figures in clay or other soft materials among a number of peoples, for example the Dakakari and Igbo of Nigeria and the Kuba (see Kuba) of central Zaïre (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), it was more common that women's art comprised schematic forms or geometrical designs while the men produced the human and animal imagery.

Generally, where men and women engage in the same craft, whether for local use or for trade, there are clear distinctions between the equipment or materials they use or between the styles. In southern Nigeria, for example, where both men and women weave, men use a narrow, horizontal loom, while women weave on a broad, vertical loom. In the Fungom district of Cameroon, men produce tall, tapering baskets affixed to wooden slats with which to carry their burdens, while women plait a variety of bowl-shaped containers. In some instances the gender distinction lies in the type of imagery produced. For example, in mural painting in western Côte d'Ivoire and northern Ghana women paint schematic designs, while men depict figurative scenes. Often efforts are complementary: men build house structures, and women shape the walls; men weave cloth, women decorate it by dyeing or embroidery. It was typical that both genders shared in the rewards of such complementary efforts, the initiating party retaining a claim on a share of the eventual profit.

Distinctions in production between the genders are reinforced in numerous ways, perhaps most obviously by social organization. For example, among the Tuareg, Fulani, Bamana, and Malinke in the populous Sahelian and light savannah region below the Sahara, where the social order prior to the rise of the modern state was explicitly hierarchical, with ranked status groups of nobles, freemen, and servants, such artisans as smiths and leatherworkers belonged to named occupational groups ranked at the bottom of the status hierarchy. The wives of craftsmen often also pursued a craft. For example, smiths' wives among the Hausa and Songhai of Niger usually engaged in tasks that, like smithing, were segregated from residential areas. Pottery, for example, was fired in open pits away from the town or village, and both tanning and indigo dyeing, with their offensive odours, also had their own areas. In the populous Yoruba cities of Nigeria, members of the women's weaving, dyeing, and pottery guilds controlled their membership just as the male craftsmen did. Taboos or the possession of protective 'medicines' served to protect artists from encroachment in their field of expertise by members of the opposite gender. Sometimes also legends assigned the ownership of particular techniques to men or women within particular families; possession of the techniques by a particular gender could even be divinely authorized.

Considerations of gender also entered into the actual production process. These are best known for male carvers and smelters/smiths, who must refrain from sexual activity prior to and during the work and whose workplace potentially fertile women must not approach. Taboos prevented men from entering the women's work area in a Kamba potting village in Kenya (see Gill). Also the work area was separated from the places where sexual relations took place, and the women potters had to refrain from sex for three days prior to their work. These Kamba potters produced cooking pots for the region and were held in high esteem for their skill. They were also feared, however, by other potters as well as by non-potters. These attitudes of fear and respect are similar to those towards male artisans in the West African Sahel. If reports on the social relations of women artisans were not so fragmentary, the basis for these ambivalent attitudes might be better understood.

In many parts of Africa rituals involving figures or featuring masked dancers were conducted solely by men, with women being prohibited from attending on pain of death or sterility. Where women were participants, they contributed in less spectacular fashion by lending costume elements, providing ceremonial containers, by repainting house walls or by singing and dancing to honour the spirits. In only one region of Africa, among the Mende, Temne, Bullom, and Gola of Sierra Leone and Liberia, did women organize public mask performances.

In spite of the general phenomenon of male leadership, in many contexts women did have formal public roles and responsibilities. Women were court officials, heads of urban markets and organizers of girls' initiation rites. Sometimes such women called attention to their achievements through art. Decorated pottery, painted houses, body and personal adornment, and fashionable clothes silently convey success in a form that does not contradict the verbal leadership by which men demonstrate their superior authority.

(b) Modern developments.
  • Monni Adams

In spite of a tradition that only men work with metal, Hausa Muslim women near Kano in Nigeria have been engraving designs on aluminium spoons used for daily and ceremonial use and for the tourist market. This relaxation of a rule was due to three factors: the lessening of sanctions surrounding metalwork; the relatively recent adoption of aluminium in the 1920s; and the spread of purdah in the area, which has prevented women from pursuing their former economic pursuits. Efforts to find a way to increase their earning power encouraged groups of women in Sierra Leone and Mali to learn weaving, a technique formerly reserved for men. To meet the expanded demands of the international tourist trade in Lusaka, Zambia, men took up the previously female activity of pottery-making, while women entered the formerly male activity of carving.

In the late 20th century some African women began to gain international recognition as contemporary artists. Perhaps because they were accustomed to producing surplus crafts in the market, in contrast to men producing only on commission, African women readily accepted the role of individual artists producing for sale. Among these were Kadiato Kamara (b c. 1933) of Sierra Leone who practised a traditional art of designing tie-dyed cloth; Nike Olaniyi Davis (b 1951) from northern Nigeria who used the imported technique of wax batik, which she learnt in a local art school, to express her own inspirations derived from dreams and books; and Ladi Kwali (c. 1925–84), a potter from Gwari, Nigeria, who learnt glazing at a pottery training centre. A number of women also trained as professional artists outside Africa. The Igbo potter Kate Ifejike-Obukwelu (b 1945) was educated in New York and produced both rounded pots of traditional shape and decorative ceramics, including paired male and female figures. Perhaps the outstanding example of an internationally trained, successful woman sculptor is the Kalabari Ijo artist Sokari Douglas Camp, whose work includes large metal figures of women and children and male maskers.


3. Trade.

Scholarly knowledge is limited about the amount and extent of trade both within Africa and between Africa and the outside world. It is clear, however, that African societies have in general been far from isolated from one another or from the outside world. Trade has been an important factor in furthering and maintaining relations between local groups, between different geographical regions and between the continent and Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Trade in both the raw materials out of which art is made and in finished art objects has played an important part in this. Moreover, trade has had important effects on art itself. The most obvious has been the introduction into communities of new objects to be adopted, adapted, or copied. For example, North African goods and local imitations of them are found in Muslim areas of West Africa, Indian and Arab goods are found all over East Africa, and European goods are found throughout the continent. Often, though not always, these introductions have been at the expense of local production. This section can offer no more than a glimpse of the important relationship between art and trade in Africa.

(i) Local trade.

In many areas the village market is the place to which are brought not only foodstuffs but also such local craft products as iron hoes, wooden stools, baskets, mats, pots, and gourds. In larger markets some craftsmen may work in the market-place itself, and in all but the smallest markets there are often non-local goods brought by enterprising local traders. In general, local exchanges provide markets for local craft production and encourage the emergence of specialist craft-workers. Tools made by one specialist, for example the smith, can be obtained by other specialists, for example the carvers, either for money or in exchange for their own product. Such craft products as cloth strips or hoes became forms of local currency, accepted even in the long-distance trade. Cloth strips were used over a wide area of the western and central savannahs of West Africa, and hoes were important on some East African trade routes.

(ii) Long-distance trade.

In addition to providing wider markets for local crafts, long-distance trade brought in non-local raw materials. For example, the magenta-dyed silk favoured as an embellishment to Hausa gowns was waste silk from Mediterranean looms, dyed in North Africa and carried across the desert by camel. Historically, there were two major forms of long-distance trade in Africa: caravans, covering very long distances and stopping over at points on the route; and trade over shorter distances, from one major market to the next, never taking the merchants very far from their home base. In its most developed form the caravan trade followed circuits hundreds of miles long that took months or even years to complete, examples being some of the Saharan routes and the routes across East Africa. A well-documented West African caravan route led from the great Kola market in present-day Ghana to the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria (see Lovejoy). In west Central Africa, caravans travelled to Luanda in Angola from the Lake Mweru area of Zambia and Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), an area that also traded with Mozambique. Traders from Omdurman in Sudan travelled to Hausaland in Nigeria along the ancient pilgrimage route from West Africa to Mecca; the same traders sought slaves and ivory as far away as the northern part of present-day Uganda. There was also a famous 'forty-day route' through the desert from the western part of present-day Sudan to Egypt.

In West Africa there were often traders' settlements along the trade routes, established by agreement with local chiefs who collected market tolls and 'gifts' from the merchants. Such towns became recognized stopping-places on the trade routes, with semi-permanent populations of resident traders from the same groups as the caravan traders. Such peoples as the Hausa and Dyula in West Africa and the Yao, Nyamwezi, and coastal Swahili in East Africa established trading outposts far from their home areas. The markets of towns along the trade routes also attracted shorter-distance traders from nearby markets.

In addition to carrying raw materials, long-distance trade carried local crafts to markets far from their points of origin as well as providing markets en route that attracted local traders and craftsmen. The larger and more important markets themselves became significant centres of craft production, rivalled only by the courts of the major monarchs and the most important cult centres.

The trans-Saharan trade is the best-known long-distance caravan trade in Africa. The peculiar requirements of desert travel itself, for example for water storage, influenced the development of such crafts as leatherworking. In addition North African fashions, forms, and motifs were introduced into northern West Africa where they were copied, often by different techniques. In Hausaland in northern Nigeria the North African burnous was adopted alongside shawls brought back from Mecca by pilgrims and garments made from local and imported cloth. Other developments that may be regarded as by-products of this trade include the way in which Hausa palaces and mosques imitate North African arch forms by an ingenious cantilever system in sun-dried mud reinforced with split palm trunk. Also, Hausa water-coolers can be seen as imitations of North African wheel-thrown pots. The export of West African cloth to the peoples of the desert was paid for from the proceeds of the desert trade. Much of the fine, indigo-dyed cloth produced in the area of Kano in northern Nigeria was made for export northwards. A similar type of cloth was manufactured on the Senegal River, largely for sale to the Moors.

The Swahili trading empire stretched across East Africa to the Great Lakes and beyond. Some Swahili merchants even established political control over areas as far from their coastal base as present-day eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre). Much of this trade was conducted by caravan, although some traders' towns were established, for example Tabora in present-day Tanzania. Until c. 1950 there was a Swahili village in the middle of Maasai country, a survival of one of the long-distance East African trade routes. Swahili villages also survived in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) into the 1950s. In addition to the Swahili, a number of other African peoples carried on long-distance trade in ivory and slaves across eastern Africa, the best known being the Yao. Earlier long-distance traders had carried ornaments made from conch shells; these have been found in excavations far inland.

(iii) External trade.
  • Marion Johnson

The slave trade was probably the most significant external trade in African history. For centuries before Europeans reached Africa's Atlantic coasts slaves were exported by way of the Sahara and down the Nile to the Arab world. This trade continued in a small way into the 20th century. The Indian Ocean trade, though probably ancient, did not become large until the later 18th century and then only for c. 100 years. The Atlantic slave trade began when the Europeans reached the West African coast in the late 15th century, but it was not until the late 17th century, when the Dutch and the British became involved in sugar production in northern Brazil and the Caribbean, that there was large-scale export of slaves. This trade reached its peak in the late 18th century but did not finally end until towards the end of the 19th century. It has been estimated that c. 10 million or 11 million people were transported out of Africa, mainly between the 1660s and the 1860s. There has been much dispute as to the effects in Africa of the slave trade. It certainly caused great disruption in west Central Africa; but in West Africa the effects are much less certain. Many of the slaves came from areas already densely populated, and only in limited areas was there depopulation. Some small states disappeared in the course of attempting to obtain slaves for export, while other states became rich and powerful from the proceeds of the trade; along the coast, African merchants and merchant houses flourished.

The slave trade led to the introduction of many foreign goods into West Africa. The most important were textiles, for example cottons and silks from Asia and linens and woollens from Europe, and metals, including iron for tools and weapons, copper and brass largely for decoration and, in the form of bowls and basins, for domestic and ritual use of all kinds. A good part of these and other items were imported for direct consumption. There was, however, some recycling of raw materials: cloth was unwoven, brass melted down, and beads were ground up to form the raw materials for local industries. Only iron-smelting seems to have suffered seriously from competition with imports, although it survived in less accessible parts of West Africa until long after the end of the slave trade.

It is unlikely that many craftsmen were transported, since in many areas they belonged to a class that, while not wholly free, were not slaves and could not be sold. A craftsman could generally avoid being sold overseas, even if captured in war. Among the Asante, for example, he would be sent to one of the villages devoted to the making of ceremonial and domestic objects for the king's household. There was thus little transfer of African craft technology to the Americas. Weaving is a partial exception to this, since in some areas slaves were employed as weavers.

There appears to have been remarkably little transfer of technology into Africa either from Europe or from America in the slave-trade era. Claims have been made for the European origin of Benin and Ife brass-casting, but this can be discounted on chronological grounds (although it is just possible that certain refinements may have been contributed by European gunsmiths). It has been suggested that certain groupings found on Benin plaques may owe something to Christian iconography, but this seems very doubtful, although the art form of the plaque itself, so exceptional in African art, may possibly owe something to the influence of Portuguese traders. Even more improbable, on chronological and other grounds, is the suggestion that the West African loom owes anything to European technology. It is basically similar to the cotton looms of the eastern Sudan, the Yemen, and India and was probably introduced originally by traders following the ancient trade route (marked by the use of cloth strips as currency) along what may be termed 'the cloth strip', where cotton and indigo can be grown, between the desert and the Middle Belt (see Johnson). There seems little or no indication of any transfer of technology from the Americas. It is just possible that the pedals and reed of the tripod loom of the Mende of Sierra Leone, described by one early traveller as 'worked entirely by hand', were inspired by the Portuguese.

In the 19th century trade patterns changed, with the export of slaves being increasingly replaced by trade in oil and oil-seeds, groundnuts from Senegambia and palm oil from Sierra Leone to the Niger Delta and thence overseas. By the later part of the century such areas as Gabon and the Congo were being opened up by traders in search of these and other goods; rubber became increasingly important. In East Africa ivory had long been one of the principal exports; it then went increasingly to Europe and America as well as to India. Ostrich feathers were for a time a major export across the Sahara and thence to Italy and France. Towards the end of the century, South Africa began exporting diamonds and then gold in addition to wool and ostrich feathers. Imports to Africa came increasingly from Europe and to a smaller extent from the USA. Indian hand-woven textiles, for example, were no longer competitive. Surprisingly, local weaving industries survived in West Africa, and efforts to persuade the people to export cotton and import cloth were still largely unsuccessful, though the simplest and poorest quality of local cloth was replaced by imported Lancashire cottons.

Generally, local crafts continued to be cheaper than their imported alternatives until the railways were built, and it was not until the coming of the motor lorry in the 1920s that European imports began to penetrate the remotest areas. By the 1930s Africans were again wearing Indian cottons, machine-made, often from cotton grown and exported from East Africa. Some local weaving industries survived, however, largely using imported machine-spun cotton yarn.

The world depression of the 1930s and import shortages during World War II led to revival of local industries in the villages. Generally, however, it is local industrialization and development in various forms that have caused the decline in local crafts rather than competition from imported goods. A craftsman can often earn more in shorter hours as a factory worker or a clerk than he can at his craft. It is thus mainly the most highly skilled craftsmen, producing prestige products for courts and wealthy commoners, who survive. These, however, are vulnerable to such trade crises as a decline in oil revenues or the failure of an export crop.

By the late 20th century it was generally impossible legally to export older works of art from Africa. No such prohibition existed in earlier times, and many pieces owe their preservation to the almost accidental trade that took thousands of objects, particularly figure sculptures and masks, to Europe (see Paudrat). During the 20th century the trade in African art became more organized and, in some contexts, commercialized.

(iv) Traders.

The role of traders as both intermediaries between consumers and artists and as consumers and patrons in their own right is important in the African context.

(a) As intermediaries.
  • Judith Perani and Norma H. Wolff

In the complex network of supply and demand, traders communicate the needs and demands of art patrons and consumers to the artists. Traders in Africa tend to be conservative, but, as public tastes shift, they may take the lead in encouraging changes in art production. In the early 1970s, for example, urban market traders in Mali, in response to contemporary tastes, bought fewer traditional Bamana and Maninka cloths and encouraged local weavers to use modern dyes and new patterns (see Imperato). Similarly, in the 1960s Songye entrepreneurial traders in Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) encouraged changes in the forms and colours of raffia baskets to make them more appealing to European buyers (see Merriam).

Traders also act as agents of diffusion, carrying art objects over a broad geographical area and stimulating local demand for non-indigenous art forms. The traders' impact on the quantity, quality and distribution of goods produced is similar to that of leader-patrons (see §III, 1 above). This can lead to a diaspora of artists, for example, as in the settlement of Hausa tailors, embroiderers, tanners, leatherworkers, and other craftsmen throughout West and North Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wood sculpture has become a 'market-driven' commodity only in the 20th century. Not only do trader-patrons encourage the fabrication of new forms to appeal to the tourist trade, they also promote the continuity of indigenous ritual carving styles that are redefined as commodities. For example, in the 1960s a flourishing Yoruba carving industry supported by trader-patrons emerged in Abeokuta, south-west Nigeria. Yoruba, Hausa, and Ghanaian traders revived a lineage carving tradition that had largely disappeared for lack of ritual patronage. Stylistically, the carvings produced for trader-patrons adhered to the indigenous forms and aesthetics, but they were produced as commodities. As patrons, the traders encouraged a higher level of production than at any time in the past, and they spread the products across a wide geographical area. A similar industry occurred among the Senufo Kulebele of northern Côte d'Ivoire (Richter, 1980). Alternatively, traders may encourage local artists to copy foreign prototypes. This is particularly evident in the proliferation of such Western forms as salad bowls and servers, toothpicks, and ashtrays offered by the purveyors of tourist arts (see §III, 4 below). Hausa weavers and dyers of the Kano emirate produce a type of cloth known as turkudi, made up of narrow indigo-dyed strips, for leader-patrons and for the market-place. Although the cloth is used on ceremonial occasions by Hausa nobility, the most important consumers of it are the Tuareg. The production and distribution of turkudi for export involves a complex division of labour and a chain of economic interactions controlled by market agents. After buying cloth from the weavers, the agents commission cloth sewers to sew the bands together, dyers to dye the cloth a deep indigo colour, and cloth beaters to pound it with powdered indigo to give it a glossy shine. The finished product is known as yan kura cloth and is sold to long-distance traders who carry it to Tuareg patrons in Niger and the Sahara.

(b) As consumers.
  • Marion Johnson, Judith Perani and Norma H. Wolff

Some African states grew rich from trade. Kings established elaborate courts and became patrons of all manner of court arts, for which they provided rich and exotic materials. However, not all the wealth passed into the hands of the kings and chiefs. There were wealthy merchants, too, and it was they who were largely responsible for the wealth and sophistication of the walled cities of Hausaland and the Swahili towns of the East African seaboard. Within established monarchies wealthy traders were not always able to display their wealth openly, although generally they did so when they could, often in the form of imported dress and other equipment. In the colonial period, many of the old sumptuary restraints were lifted, and there was an outburst of artistic elaboration in dress and, more recently, in such other consumer items as cars. Indeed, wealthy Swahili were once known as the Wana-Benzi, people of the Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps the most significant contribution of merchants to art patronage has been the development of the decorated houses of the Hausa cities in the colonial period.


4. Commercial production.

Much traditional African art has always been 'commercial production'. That is, it has been executed by master craftsmen in return for honours and/or bartered for livestock and farm produce. Traditionally, however, African artists do not commonly support themselves exclusively by their art. On the contrary, most make their living through subsistence agriculture, augmented by what they can obtain through the exercise of their art. This situation has altered with changing economic circumstances and particularly in response to the colonial presence, to tourism and to the arrival of the wage economy in many areas. These developments have led to an increase in commercial production, both of traditional and of non-traditional arts.

A major factor has been the artists' attempt to respond to Western tastes. Understanding has grown considerably more acute since the waning of colonialism and the arrival of political independence. The colonialists were replaced as potential consumers by tourists, who often have a positive attitude to Africa and a desire to take home art objects as evidence of their visit. The response has frequently been to produce what has been termed 'airport art', since so much of it has been made for sale in airport tourist shops. Understandably, such 'airport art' has usually been finest and most varied in those countries that attract the largest number of tourists, for example Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire. It has, however, also developed in virtually every other nation, even such less visited countries as Gabon and Rwanda.

(i) Chokwe.

Since the late 19th century Chokwe people of north-eastern Angola have been immigrating into neighbouring Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Zambia. They went in search of economic opportunity and took with them their distinctive art style. Most Chokwe men practised a simple carving technique that they had learnt during their initiation. They used this to make small wooden amulets for their wives, and some also made small sculptures of humans and animals to be used in hunting magic. With the building of the Benguela Railway through their territory in the 1920s, however, Chokwe discovered an unexpected market for their arts. Portuguese and Belgian colonists and miners, as well as civil servants and their families, had time and money to spend in the various depots en route to and from their assignments. Chokwe artists began to produce baskets, wooden boxes, ashtrays, and bowls with pyrographic decorations and, soon after, mask plaques, small wooden busts, and figures in realistic European styles.

(ii) Kamba.

Perhaps the most successful example of African 'airport art' is that produced by the Kamba people of Kenya, who like most East African peoples had no previous tradition of carving. Soon after World War II, Icelandic Lutheran missionaries encouraged some young Kamba male students to make carvings out of an attractive streaky tan-and-yellow local wood of such African animals as elephants and hippopotamuses, using European tools. When these small carvings proved popular with tourists and expatriates on the streets of Nairobi, they broadened their subject-matter to include female busts, figures of warriors, letter openers, and salad servers (see fig.) The latter had handles representing Maasai women, their long necks wrapped with imported steel wire to simulate the Maasai women's giant beaded necklaces. The carvings sold so well that local Kamba and East Indian entrepreneurs began exporting them. To cater to the growing market, factory-like 'production lines' were set up. Individual carvers were trained to specialize in a single operation, either adzing out the basic form, completing the figure, cutting in the details, sanding the surface, or adding such extras as wire necklaces. But in spite of this process, usually so deadening to creativity, the Kamba have continued to change and modify their designs to assure their continued share of the market.

Kamba female figure (London, Joséf Herman Collection); photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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(iii) Makonde.
  • Daniel J. Crowley

Probably the second most successful 'airport art' also comes from East Africa, from Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Here Makonde immigrant labourers from northern Mozambique, inspired in part by the Kamba example, began carving small human figures for the expatriate community and for the booming post-war tourist market. A more interesting genre featuring fantastic figures called shetani developed over time. Shetani had distorted bodies and weird, misshapen faces; sometimes several figures were entwined in one sculpture. Another development, also a uniquely Makonde expression, was the 'tree of life'. This comprised a number of small figures, not necessarily distorted or entwined, but clustered around a chunk or rough cylinder of hard wood. These complex sculptures are little understood but apparently represent mythological and lineage themes. Some seem to represent a family, with the founder of the lineage perhaps portrayed in the large head at the top.

Later developments include the use of whole segments of a tree trunk, a metre or more high, and the exploitation of both the dark core of the wood and the softer yellow outer ring. Some such Makonde sculptures are spectacular, with small, finely carved and polished figures clambering over each other and seemingly struggling to emerge from the surface of the log. By the later 20th century such complex sculptures were no longer properly classifiable as 'airport art', although a few were still to be found in airport shops. More commonly, however, they were sold in elegant hotel shops and commercial art galleries, with prices often around US$1000. Heartening for the future of the arts in Africa, discriminating travellers have broadened their taste beyond wood sculpture to include African jewellery in brass, silver, and gold; textiles such as batiks, 'mud-resist' bokolonfini and tie-dyes (using imported dyes), to say nothing of Manjaco and Asante narrow-strip weave cloths in non-traditional imported yarns or copied in print fabrics; furniture, hair combs, musical instruments, such long-overlooked crafts as baskets, carved gourds, and even home-pictorial signboards.


5. Ritual.

Art is an integral aspect of ritual throughout Africa. In puberty rituals in particular the arts of the body, adornment, and dress are often highly elaborated and symbolically significant. In funerary rituals and others connected with death, body arts may also play a role, although sculpture is important. Masks and masquerades are common features of rituals throughout Africa, for it is frequently the masking societies that are responsible for organizing ritual ceremonies. A discussion of the ritual contexts of art illustrates the close relationship between art and life that is common in Africa.

This section can give only an indication of ritual as a context for art in Africa. Further discussion on art and ritual will be found throughout the rest of this survey and in the entries on the art traditions of individual peoples.

(i) Puberty.
(a) Introduction.

In most African societies individuals are required to undergo certain rites before they can participate fully in adult society. Although the form, scale, and duration of the ceremonies vary considerably from one society to another, the arts customarily play a central role in even the most modest events. Because these rites are concerned with social as well as biological maturation, their timing often does not coincide with the onset of physiological puberty. Depending on the particular African society, youths may undergo 'puberty' rituals when as young as eight or as old as twenty or more.

With few exceptions, separate rituals are held for boys and for girls. In some areas the rites are performed for an individual, while in societies with institutionalized age-sets youth of the same sex and relatively the same age are initiated together as a group. In female rites much of the art and its related symbolism and instruction concentrate on domestic life, fertility, marriage, and maternity. The emphasis in male rites tends to focus less on domestic life and more on men's roles in the more public spheres of politics, economics, and ritual.

Most male rites and some female rites are organized into three phases of varying elaborateness. During the first phase, the novices are physically separated from their families and either taken to an initiation camp outside the village or sequestered inside it in specially designated areas. The second or transitional phase may last only a day or continue for many months. The ritual enactment of the death of the initiate as a child and his or her rebirth as an adult is a prominent symbolic theme in this transition. Often during this phase special rules and regulations apply to interactions between the initiates and other members of the community; the novices also receive instruction in practical and esoteric matters. In some societies the bodies of the initiates are subjected to permanent alteration through scarification or circumcision. The final phase of the ritual process almost always involves a public celebration at which the initiates' new status is acknowledged by the community at large.

(b) Body arts.

Throughout Africa initiates decorate their bodies, don special costumes and ornaments, or wear special hairstyles to proclaim their transformation into adults. Dress and adornment are simultaneously aesthetic statements and means of validating ethnic, age, and gender identities. In a number of cultures, initiates begin the ritual process wearing children's costumes and emerge from their seclusion dressed in clothing and ornaments reserved for adults. Among the Herero of Southern Africa, for example, where the puberty ritual for a young girl is a small family affair, it is the girl's donning of a woman's headdress during the puberty ritual that symbolizes her transition to womanhood. Traditionally, a woman's headdress was a three-horned leather cap (ekori), often decorated with strands of metal beads, and her dress was a leather apron and cloak. In Christianized Herero households, the horned cap has been replaced by a cloth headtie (ocikaeva) and the leather apron and cloak by a long-sleeved, ankle-length cotton dress. Despite these substitutions, the ritual donning of the headdress remains one of the central symbolic acts of Herero puberty rituals.

Among the Ga'anda of north-eastern Nigeria, an elaborate programme of scarification, the hleeta, was the defining feature of girls' puberty rites until 1978. The full rites consisted of a series of six biennial ceremonies beginning when a girl was five or six years old and ending just before her marriage around the age of sixteen. Identical patterns were used throughout the dispersed Ga'anda communities, graphically proclaiming the ethnic identity of the initiates. The artful and intricate patterns made by specialists were closely placed cuts that scarred to form small, delicate dots slightly lighter than the surrounding skin (see fig.). The first patterns were cut on the stomach. Two years later the forehead was scarified. The third set was placed on the neck and forearm and the fourth set on the waist, buttocks, and back of the neck. The fifth set filled in areas on the stomach and arms, and the sixth and final set decorated the thighs and filled in areas on the chest, back, and abdomen. Ga'anda scarification constituted the permanent transformation through artistic means of a girl's body into that of a woman's. Traditionally, the various Ga'anda communities held an annual seven-day festival to honour all the young women who had completed the hleeta during the preceding year. The young women, their hleeta patterns enhanced by red camwood, danced with ornamental iron axes over their left shoulders and carried gourds decorated with incised patterns in their left hands to symbolize their new domestic and economic responsibilities as married women.

Elaborate coiffures and other forms of body adornment are part of everyday appearance among pastoralist groups in East Africa. Specific hairstyles, ornaments, and modes of dress distinguish children from young adults and young adults from elders. The transition from boy to junior 'warrior' results in the most dramatic change in dress and ornament among young Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, and Pokot men. All these groups have highly articulated age-set systems through the different stages of which men pass in a gradual process of social maturation. The stages are marked by rituals. The first of these ceremonies transforms boys into young 'warriors' who thus acquire the right to wear certain coiffures and to use certain ornaments and colours. The young men invest great time and effort in the arts of personal adornment, and a man's dress is an emphatic statement of his personal aesthetic. The forms and types of ornamentation, however, also reflect and communicate ethnic affiliation and serve to manifest visually their bearer's position within the age-set system.

Many African puberty rites involve a series of elaborate and dramatic transformations in the form and style of costume and ornamentation as boys or girls move through the various ceremonies. Among the Okiek of Kenya, for example, girls are initiated as a group sometime between the ages of 13 and 17. Their puberty rites involve a series of ceremonies that last over a number of weeks. For the first ceremony, the girls appear wearing special dance costumes that consist of strands of beads wrapped around their wrists and forearms, bells on their calves, a beaded leather cloak on their shoulders, black-and-white colobus-monkey skins fitted on their arms and falling from their waists, and a decoratively painted headdress fitted over a tall mitre-like hat. The most elaborate of these headdresses are appliquéd with metal foil, and some even have battery-operated torch bulbs attached to them. The girls perform in full costume in the opening ceremonies of the ritual, after which they are taken to a house in the village where they are circumcised.

Following circumcision the girls are stripped of their elaborate costumes and jewellery and wrapped in blankets. They retire into the house for a period of healing, and during this phase their movements are greatly restricted. After they have healed sufficiently, their instruction in women's affairs and women's secret songs begins in earnest. The initiates are now dressed by their ritual leaders in calf-length skin skirts and skin cloaks. They wear a plain metal-band necklace and a chain with a round ring of yellow metal hanging from it. Each initiate also wears a beaded headband consisting of a single strand of dark blue beads, from the centre of which four pieces of chain hang down, reaching to the bridge of the nose. A bead of either red, white, yellow, or black is fastened to the end of each chain. While in seclusion, the girls daily smear their arms, legs, and faces with white clay and decorate each other's faces by drawing decorative lines in the clay. The girls may now venture out of the initiation house to visit female relatives living near by, to collect firewood and so on, but they are still expressly forbidden to have any contact with adult men.

On the morning of their coming-out ceremony, the initiates go to the river to bathe, their bodies are oiled, and they are dressed in a cloth sheet tied over one shoulder, a beaded leather skirt around the waist and a beaded leather cloak on the shoulders. Each young woman wears an elaborate array of beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. At the conclusion of the public festivity, the girl's beaded headband is removed and replaced by a beaded tiara that has two chain loops circling the eyes and a long beaded extension rising from the top of the head symbolizing the girl's transformation into a woman. The young women return to their homes, put aside their ceremonial costumes and rejoin the daily life of their community. The next occasion when they will appear so elaborately dressed and adorned will be on their wedding day.

Ga’anda hleeta scarifications; after drawings by T. J. H. Chappel and Marla C. Berns

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Among the Bamana of the Baninko in southern Mali, boys' manhood rites take place once every seven years. The initiates into the men's Jo association range in age from 15 to 21. The various ceremonies take place over a period of eight or nine months. The novices are first taken to a bush camp, and, during the ritual called the Jo Faga (Jo killing), they enter the sama so (elephant house), a large mud plaster construction at whose summit is an enormous carved wooden horizontal mask representing an elephant. While they are in the belly of the beast the initiates are ritually killed as children and then reborn out of the beast as men. Following this ceremony, the novices spend a week in the bush in isolation, and they are stripped of all clothing and ornaments. (A mask symbolizing the principles of order and disorder protects the novices from harm. The masker is encased in a baglike form made from fibre or mud-dyed cloth that sports on its head a spread of porcupine quills.)

When the initiates emerge from the woods they cover themselves with unworked red fibres, which they gradually shed as they make their way to the outskirts of the village. There they each don a cache-sexe and bandoliers of red and white beans worn diagonally across their upper bodies; this comprises their daily dress for the period of their initiation. During the next few months the initiates wear more elaborate costumes and headdresses for a series of public ceremonies. Some groups of initiates may choose to devise their own distinctive costumes, but all are constructed from an array of bush materials in a variety of colours and textures, underscoring the initiates' association with the world of the bush. During their public performances the young men dance and sing special songs and often carry carved wooden statues of females that are decorated with strands of multicoloured beads. At a final ceremony of reincorporation, the young men discard the elaborate ritual costumes and put on plain country-cloth shirts, pants, and caps made of handwoven unbleached cotton, the traditional everyday wear of adult men.

(c) Mask and masquerade.

Puberty rituals are often the responsibility of mask-owning societies, and masks thus often feature in them. This is so, for example, in the male initiation complex known as Mukanda, which is found from south-western Zaïre (now Democratice Republic of the Congo) into south-eastern Zambia among such peoples as the Ndembu, Suku, Yaka, Kuba, Pende, and Chokwe (see Chokwe and related peoples). Most of these groups use a variety of fibre and wooden masks, both in the initiation camp and in the final coming-out ceremonies that take place in the village. Among the southern Kuba groups certain masks are created specifically for men's initiation and are intended to intensify the symbolic association between adult men, the forest and hunting. The masks are constructed from uncultivated forest palms, in contrast to the cultivated palm fibres used for weaving Kuba raffia textiles. Bird beaks, feathers, and animal skins are often attached, and the masker carries bows and arrows and various hunting paraphernalia when performing in the forest camp. Among the Suku, the most important mask, the Kakunga, is worn by the ritual master. It is a large wooden mask with massive features including a bulbous forehead and cheeks. Kakunga appears on the day of the boys' circumcision to protect them, and in the final phase of the initiation cycle it leads the young men out of seclusion back to the village (see also Yaka, §1).

Masks appear in a large number of male initiation ceremonies throughout West and Central Africa. In West Africa they are central to Baga, Diola, Bassari, Bamana, Malinke, Igbo and Ibibio rites, as well as appearing in the initiations of the Poro men's association among groups living in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire. In Central Africa numerous peoples regularly use masks during male puberty rites. Besides those practising a form of Mukanda, the Lwalwa, Luluwa, Mbole and Bembe among others also use masks and figures in puberty rites.

Masks appear with less frequency during male initiations in East and southern Africa, although the Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique and the Chewa of Malawi are notable exceptions. During Chewa boys' initiation, a large fibre mask, Kisiyamaliro, is created. This representation of a mythical beast, resembling a bush cow or other large antelope, stands nearly 3 m high. It is constructed from dried maize leaves woven over a flexible wooden frame. The head of the beast has woven fibre horns and a large projecting snout. The boys are symbolically devoured by Kisiyamaliro and reborn out of it as men. In the final coming-out ceremony the mask leads the initiates back into the village and performs in a public ceremony. Following the initiation cycle, the mask is left to decay in the bush.

Masks and masquerades are less important in women's puberty rituals, although among the Ngbandi of the Democratice Republic of Congo and the Makonde of Mozambique and Tanzania masks danced by males feature in both male and female puberty rites. Several Tanzanian Makonde masks collected in the early decades of the 20th century have fully carved, seated female figures attached to the crown of the mask. This motif seems to refer directly to the female puberty ritual itself, during which the initiates were carried on the backs of their adult sponsors.

One of the rare instances in Africa where masquerades are danced by women is during girls' initiation into the Sande association among the Vai, Gola, Temne and Mende of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The helmet mask (see fig.), portraying a beautiful young woman with finely carved features, eyes modestly downcast, shining black skin, and an elaborate coiffure, represents the Sande water spirit and symbolizes fertility and increase (see §II, 2, (iii), (a) above; see also Mende, §2).

(d) Other arts.
  • Mary Jo Arnoldi

Among the Bemba of Zambia, women's initiation traditionally involved a series of 18 different ceremonies and lasted for over a month. An initiation hut was built on the edge of the village, and its walls were painted with a series of emblems. Some 40 or more clay images, painted white, black, and red, were made by women potters for the initiation. These images represented a range of historical characters, common domestic objects, animals, and birds as well as emblematic designs regularly found on pottery vessels. Each character or emblem had a name and was associated with a particular song.

During the various ceremonies, the girls were shown the figures, learnt their names, and the songs and the multiple meanings associated with them. The pottery sculptures served as one of the primary means of instruction; through them the initiates learned the appropriate behaviour, values, and beliefs associated with their future roles as Bemba wives and mothers. Among the Pedi, Tsonga, and Venda of Southern Africa free-standing carved wooden figures were once regularly used as didactic devices in boys', and occasionally girls', initiations. In south-central Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Kuba groups constructed an 'initiation' wall of raffia palm, to which they attached a variety of sculptures, masks and assorted objects in a graphic representation of men's secret lore and symbols.


(ii) Funerary.
(a) Introduction.

In many African societies, burial and funerary celebrations provide the stage for ritual action and the use and display of works of art that enact and reaffirm beliefs and societal values. Funerals conclude a person's passage through life, and death may be accompanied by elaborate ritual extending over many months or even years. The actual burial or interment of the remains is usually very brief and takes place immediately after the individual's demise, while subsequent commemorative funerary celebrations are carefully planned and prepared long in advance.

Although the content and form of funerary rites differ greatly from one African society to another, there are general principles underlying their structure. When death occurs, the community faces the upheaval of the biological and social order, for an important member has been lost. During the course of the funeral, this order needs to be re-established and asserted. Mortuary rituals also provide the setting for a symbolic discourse on life, death and the afterlife. In this context, works of art may be created to mediate between the living and the dead and to commemorate the deceased. Funerary rites facilitate the transition of the deceased into the afterlife, creating the conditions necessary for becoming an ancestral being. The living believe that the ancestors secure health and fecundity for those who attend to them, whether in the form of many offspring or in rich crop and animal yields. Dissatisfied and neglected ancestors may threaten their descendants for generations. They may bring misfortune, disease, and death. Descendants therefore find it necessary to honour and propitiate the ancestors continuously.

Other concerns may be manifested during the public part of the mortuary ritual. Funerals sum up the social persona of the deceased, his or her conduct and achievements, and thus not all the deceased are accorded equal treatment. Age, sex, and wealth determine the length and elaboration of the funerary process. Only important men and women who have lived a long life and gained respect and admiration in the community become ancestors.

(b) Sculpture.

In West and Central Africa in particular, funerary celebrations and commemorations for important individuals are often accompanied by the commissioning and display of works of art. Among the better-known figurative funerary art forms are the terracottas of the Akan of Ghana, which were first produced as early as the early 18th century. Made for display during formal funerary ceremonies, they represent deceased leaders and their retinues. Stylistically, the terracottas range from abstract forms, representing the head of the deceased only, to fully formed portrait heads and figures. In subsequent memorial ceremonies the terracottas were accorded the treatment befitting the deceased. Other forms of sculpture linked with mortuary ritual include the nduen fobara screens of the Kalabari Ijo (see Ijo, §3). These complex constructions, made from wood and fabric and brightly painted, commemorated the leaders of big trading houses and became the surrogate residence for the spirit of the deceased. They were kept in the group's meeting-houses and were propitiated when the living sought the protection of the powerful ancestral being.

Similar notions found expression in several of Nigeria' ancient traditions of funerary art. In and around Nok archaeologists have uncovered numerous terracotta sculptures dating back to c. 500 bcad 200 (see fig.). Terracotta heads with elaborate coiffures, headdresses, and adornments, as well as other fragments, may have formed part of life-size sculptures used in a funerary context. Commemorative bronze and terracotta portraits of the rulers and other important male and female leaders in the ancient kingdom of Ife, which flourished from the 12th century ad to the 16th, are certainly conceptually, if not historically, linked to the Nok sculptures. In the Kingdom of Benin, whose dynasty can be traced back to the 14th century ad, the commissioning of brass heads portraying the kings and queen mothers was reminiscent of practices in both Nok and Ife (see Benin, Kingdom of). Upon succession, each new Benin king created an altar with numerous art works commemorating his predecessor, a place where the new king could communicate with the deceased.

Not all African funerary sculpture aspires to physical likeness or even takes representational form. The memorial effigies (vigango) of the Mijikenda of Kenya are distinguished by their minimalist elegance and clarity of design and only suggest the human form. They were created and erected for important deceased members of the Chama ya Gohu, a men's secret society. Their particular characteristics, including the representation of such anatomical features on the planklike torso as the umbilicus, pectoral muscles or an indication of the waist, as well as the size of the head and their varying scale, indicate that they were 'personalized' sculptures and represented particular deceased individuals. The larger the effigy, the more important was the dead person's role in society.

(c) Display.

Funerary celebrations not only stimulate the creation of sculpture but also are often accompanied by spectacular displays of dances and masquerades. Different genres of performance may be enacted, among them dirges, laments, and lyric songs, following a prescribed sequence. Their performance is a religious act as well as an aesthetic one, and they are often judged critically by the audience. Mortuary rites are both dramaturgical and aesthetic events. Such art forms as masquerade, dance, music, and sculpture have a role to play in the discourse on life and the afterlife. The arts used in the mortuary rituals of many African societies express and enhance these societies' understanding of the person, the community, and the cosmos. Besides mirroring these concepts, arts in the funerary context enact them and through repetitious enactment become instrumental in the constant process of constructing and consolidating the world of which death is very much a part.


In her study on art and death in a Senufo village in northern Côte d'Ivoire, A. J. Glaze discusses funerals as syntheses in which crucial components of social interaction manifest themselves. Most importantly, there is the interaction of man and spirit, then of male and female and lastly of the generations. Such art forms as figurative sculpture, masquerade, dance, music, and song are vital parts of the funerals that the Senufo employ when dealing with the potential dangers of the spirits of the dead.

The death of an important elder sets into motion a prescribed chain of events. For a person who has lived a complete and full life, the burial and the funerary ceremony may take place on consecutive days. The corpse is wrapped in colourful and expensive funeral cloths, an expression of the riches he was able to accumulate through his hard work as a farmer. During his lifetime, he had purchased large quantities of finely woven cloth, which his kin now distribute as part of the inheritance. The mourners also contribute cloth to the funerary ceremony. The size and beauty of these cloths reflect upon the status of the dead member of the community and on the generosity of the givers. Social ties and obligations find their tangible and visible expression in this cloth-giving.

Among the main protagonists for the funeral ritual are the secret societies of which the deceased was a member. In the case of a man, the Pondo (Poro) society will be involved; in the case of a woman, the Sandogo (Sande) society will officiate. The maskers wear full raffia skirts and zoomorphic helmet masks with antelope horns, painted in bold black and white bands. The maskers execute their stunning dances in a prescribed sequence, and secret-society members carry out the ritual facilitating the transformation of the deceased into an ancestral being. The flow of events and the overall design of the funerary ritual has led Glaze to view the complete process as an orchestrated work of art.

Cameroon Grassfields.

In the Grassfields of the Republic of Cameroon, burial and commemorative funerary ceremonies provide an ideal arena for the display of wealth. The Grassfields kingdoms and chiefdoms are hierarchically organized. Chiefs, office-holders and elders participate in a prestige economy in which each man strives to accumulate wealth in material goods and in people who follow and support him. The size of the funerals—participants may number thousands—and their duration visually express the deceased's importance. The grandeur not only serves to display the prestige and wealth acquired in this world but also ensures that the departed will secure a prominent position among the ancestors.

During his lifetime, a man also becomes a member of secret societies, warrior associations and dancing groups, which command high fees for admission. All these societies and associations have roles to perform at his funeral. In the north-western Cameroon Grassfields, the most important secret society for men is Kweifo, which wields political power. During burials and subsequent funerary celebrations for one of their own, Kweifo maskers give sinister and threatening performances. One mask, Nko, has a voluminous black raffia headdress with a stuffed monkey on its back. When Nko enters the funeral compound, all the women and the non-initiates flee in horror. Women who glance at Nko might bear deformed children. Nko destroys the dwelling of the deceased, throws stones, threatens the mourners, and must be physically restrained and appeased by two attendants who 'cool' him down by sprinkling him with ritual substances prepared by an expert. Nko's appearance and actions mark the separation of the deceased from this world; his power lies in the visual expression of the anti-aesthetic, and he will ultimately carry the corpse to the grave and lay it to rest. The sombre messenger of dark, powerful forces disappears until he is called upon for the next funeral. Other masks and dance groups follow in the funerary process, providing entertainment.

Women who have led responsible lives, produced numerous offspring, and grown food in abundance are accorded large funerals. While their funerals follow the general structure of the men's, the protagonists differ. Women of the female secret society Kefab, whose membership is open only to successful, wealthy women who have borne children, perform a solemn, slow dance at a woman's funeral, as will all the other associations of which the deceased was a member. Also, her husband may invite a single masker from a society to which he belongs to perform in the deceased's honour. After final farewells, she is laid to rest by the men of the compound.

The funerary rituals for a chief among the Bangwa of the southern Grassfields were observed (see Brain and Pollock). When a chief dies, men of the Night Society secretly perform the last rites before the death has even been announced to the public. The Night Society members, whose duties resemble those of the Kweifo, prepare the corpse for burial. The deceased's successor, a son who had been selected by the departed, anoints the body with medicines. It is then shrouded and buried. Until the day of the public funeral, the fiction is maintained that the chief is still alive. This lavish feast needs weeks, sometimes months, of preparation. Masks are cleaned and repainted, sometimes even newly carved, and costumes repaired. The royal sculptures, including carved wooden portraits of the former chiefs, musical instruments, and elaborate objects of daily use, are publicly displayed in the dancing field, where the celebrations take place. The chief's palace is decorated with beautiful and rare cloths. Mourners in their finest attire assemble on the first day of the celebration. They present a stark contrast to the widows, who have smeared their naked bodies with mud. The women wail and lament the death of their husband, a reminder that this splendid celebration is one of death. Neighbouring chiefs bring the colourful masks of their chiefdoms to perform in honour of the deceased.

  • Christraud M. Geary

The funerals of the chiefs of the Bwende and their neighbours on the Lower Congo River in the People's Republic of Congo and Zaïre have attracted much attention owing to their stunning visual aspects. In the past the Bwende used to honour departed chiefs with lavish sacrificial gifts of mats and cloths, out of which specialist artists created huge red anthropomorphic funerary bundles known as niombo (corpse) that enveloped the dried corpse. The artist first built a frame for the torso, then constructed the limbs and added a head. The form of the niombo itself serves as a medium for communication with the people in the other world. Its open mouth alludes to this communication as does its colour, for red is the colour of mediation among the Bwende and their neighbours. On the day of burial, which followed days of dancing and celebration, the enormous figure was paraded to its grave. An orchestra of large figurated trumpets, slit-gongs, and root trumpets accompanied the slow procession of hundreds of mourners. Women wailed and touched the figure one last time, while men carried it to its final resting-place. When the massive figure was lowered into the grave, the mourners leapt into the air simultaneously, thus marking the passage of one of their own. They resumed dancing and feasting and later returned to everyday life.


IV. Imagery and iconography.

1. Symbolism and ritual.

The overall purpose of African ritual is to promote increase; that is, to stimulate (for example) the fecundity of mothers, the potency of fathers, the fertility of domesticated animals and of the land, spiritually guided sharpness of mind, physical dexterity in both earthly and spiritual contexts, social harmony in the community, and good leadership. Symbols have an important role in ritual practices, and sexual symbolism in African art assumes an extremely wide range of expressive forms.

(i) Introduction.

Africans frequently attribute the decline of particular communities to the neglect of ritual life and can hardly conceive of an existence without children; in addition to being a source of parental pride, children bring status to a family, they enlarge the labour force and the capacity for increase, and they serve after the death of the parent in paying ritual tribute to the deceased and, consequently, in ushering his or her spirit into a cycle of reincarnation and participation in the world of the living. There are overtly sexual sculptures and performances, as well as rituals that specifically address impotence and infertility (see Turner, 1967, pp. 12–14), but references to sexuality are more often embedded symbolically in ritual that appeals to a larger framework. This is because the universe functions as a body, and if one unit (e.g. man’s realm) malfunctions, the whole must be treated. Ritual of increase generally functions by connecting the person and the community with fertile functions throughout the cosmos, in order to effect a holistic momentum that results in reproductivity in such specific areas as sexual performance.

The manmade environment often reflects this preoccupation with increase. The layout of villages of the Dogon of Mali symbolizes the human body, complete with male and female sexual organs in its centre. A pillar of earth serves as the male shrine, over which millet beer is poured during rituals. The female shrine consists of simple stones that are used to crush the lannea acida seed to produce oil (see Griaule, 1965, pp. 95–7). For the Batammaliba of Benin, the village plan represents the body of the goddess of the earth and underworld. At planting time, the villagers conduct a ritual procession around the village, tracing the outline of her body and identifying their reproductive capacities with hers (see Blier, pp. 90–96). The Batammaliba house, as the seat of reproduction, is a temple to the Creator, and its construction by men and women in concert is likened to the creation of a baby. Each part of the house is given an anatomical name (Blier, pp. 118–26, 199).

African ritual has a communal character. A male initiation, for example, functions not only to advance young men to an adult rank but serves to renew the society as a whole, promoting the entire participating community to a higher plane. Each initiation is, in turn, a re-creation of other markers of time such as original divine creation, birth and death, and moments of cosmological significance. Through ritual, each member of the community internalizes cosmological forces to produce an atmosphere of fertilization; among the Temne of Sierra Leone, for example, women begin their initiation for girls by singing of a return to the mythical home of their ancestors (Futha), which is the place of primordial birth where the spiritual body politic meets.

It is often said that Africans think of time, at least symbolically, as cyclical (though some may pursue a linear path in mundane matters), and this is in itself a fertile view. Among the Kongo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre), the cycle is represented as a diamond or circle on which four cardinal points are indicated, symbolizing the four moments of the sun: rising, zenith, setting, and nadir. This symbol relates to the life of man and is basic to motifs and gestures in sculpture, especially funerary sculpture (see 1981 exh. cat., p. 43). For the Temne, the four moments are related to four quadrants of space, indicated not only in the location of ritual sites and in dance movement but also in a small white quartered circle stamped all over the exterior walls of the sacred houses of the men’s Pörö society. As a central symbol of the men’s initiation, its full meaning is known only to the elders. They will say only that it is the 'nucleus of the world', but it probably signifies, among other things, semen (see Lamp, in preparation). For the Malinke of Guinea, the fonio seed distributed in the pod of the okra—in cross-section a segmented circle—represents semen (see Dieterlen, p. 126). Among the Temne, okra is certainly a euphemism for semen.

(ii) Human increase.

Bamana seated figure of mother and child, wood, h. 48 5/8 in. (123.5 cm), 15th–20th century (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, Accession ID: 1979.206.121); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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African art and ritual contain many explicit references to sexuality. The monolithic columns of the Nta Ejagham of Nigeria are clear phallic representations of the ancestral power to procreate. These are generally c. 1.5 m high and are said to represent 30 or 40 generations of deceased chiefs and elders (see Allison, pp. 25–35). Masks used by boys in initiation among the Yaka of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) are replete with images of the phallus, sexual intercourse, and birth (see Bourgeois), intended to have an instructive effect on the initiates. Similarly, in the Chizungu initiation of girls among the Bemba of Zambia, the initiates are given clay figures; these often include pregnant or nursing females, nude males, and phallic serpents (Richards, pp. 87, 209–11). Women of the Bamana of Mali maintain a nursing maternity figure called Daughter of the Gwan Society (Gwandusu; see fig.). She is often surrounded by other figures, including one called 'the little pregnant one', and infertile women make sacrifices at the door of her shrine, promising to dedicate future children to her (see 1981 exh. cat., pp. 26–7). An object’s function as a fertility figure, however, can only be ascertained when the ethnographic data confirm it. Geometric forms, especially vertical columns, are universal and clearly not always primarily phallic. Even explicit sexual images may have many subtle references peripheral to the goal of increase. For example, well-endowed male and female figures may simply be comic, or they may stress spiritual power, youthfulness, or the importance of an ancestor. Public performances of sexually suggestive movement and form may express rebellion or chaos or a reversal of roles. Maternity images (see §IV, 5 below) have been shown to refer to the mother as progenitor, nurturer and punisher among the Igbo of Nigeria (see 1985 exh. cat., p. 9); as an instrument of divination among the Yombe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre; see 1978–9 exh. cat. fig.); and as the symbol of social prohibition, depicting a woman in sexual abstinence during the two years after a birth, among the Yoruba of Nigeria (see 1977 exh. cat., p. 5). Copulating images embellishing the chairs of Chokwe (see Chokwe and related peoples) and Pende royalty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are said to refer simply to the chief’s dominion over even the most private aspects of community life (Vansina, p. 110).

In contrast, a sexual meaning is often conveyed by imagery that may seem non-sexual to the outside observer. Dogon women who wish to conceive keep a female figure in a shrine (see fig.), on which the only direct sexual gesture is the pointing of her hands to her abdomen. G. Dieterlen has revealed deeper levels of meaning (see 1981 exh. cat.). The figure’s long hair-braid represents the sheat-fish, which in turn symbolizes a foetus in uterine waters; a lip labret represents the fish’s barbules. Four rows of beads around the head and four bracelets connect her with the female principle and indicate that she carries in her head the image of the child she wishes to conceive. Her pierced ear lobe suggests sexual penetration. The woman’s ornaments denote original creation, the gift of speech. The weaving of words in turn indicates the symbolically rich act of weaving cloth with a shuttle, which has its own sexual connotations in the intersection of warp and weft (see Griaule, 1965, pp. 24–9, 69–74, 138–43). Another instance of such complexity of interpretation is to be found among both the Baga of Guinea and the Yaka of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Bourgeois, p. 48), for whom the house was an erotic image, often included on their masks and headdresses. For the young male still under sexual prohibition before initiation, the house evoked his future right to take a new bride, build his own home and engage there in previously unobtainable pleasures. The Asante of Ghana are well-known for a female figure called akuaba, which is worn on a woman’s back, tucked into her skirt, much as an infant would be carried. Although its purpose is to effect the birth of a beautiful child, and it is worn by both barren and expectant women (McLeod, pp. 162–6), its form is a simple disc or cylinder with only the slightest suggestion of sexual features or capacities.

Dogon female shrine figure, wood, from Mali (New York, Fuhrman Collection); photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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Euphemism in sexual imagery relies on the power of the cosmological paradigm. Thus in the ritual of the girls’ Chizungu initiation of the Bemba the penis is represented by the farmer’s hoe, connecting the penetration of earth and women (see Richards, pp. 102–206). Proverbs of the Bondo (Bundu) association for Temne women refer to the opening and closing of a butterfly’s fluttering wings as a symbol of a woman’s legs, open in sexual receptivity (see Lamp, 1985, p. 33). A small head or a simple topknot carved on the top of the black helmet masks of the Bondo refers to conception, and the primordial child was said to have been born through a woman’s head, both images suggesting that procreation begins in the mind (Lamp, 1985, p. 37). For the Temne, wearing a mask is a metaphor for bearing a child. Women say, 'I have carried the mask on my head' (Sayers, p. 111). Such containers as pots, spoons, or gourds often symbolize the female as bearer of the seed or giver of sustenance (see Griaule, 1935; Turner, 1975, pp. 225–6). Among the Batammaliba, the word for gourd means 'multiplication', and when a woman marries she offers her gourd to her husband, who in turn presents it to the ancestors (Blier, pp. 39, 111, 186, 239).

Throughout Africa, the frog refers to birth and rebirth, as a creature of primordial water who emerges on land and heralds transitions in the daily and seasonal cycles (see Lamp, 1978; 1984 exh. cat., p. 50). The python is another powerful symbol of fertility and transition. Among the Baga it appeared to initiates in the form of a tall wooden headdress. As 'author of earthquakes, master of river sources', the python is the spirit of ends and beginnings, or the cycle of death and life (see Appia, p. 161). Among the Batammaliba also, it is a patron of male initiates, who trace its winding path through the village, enter its bedroom shrine and climb out one by one from a circular portal to be reborn (Blier, pp. 101–5).

Among the Ndebele of South Africa, the progress and propriety of a family are celebrated and measured by the accumulation of elaborate beadwork worn on a woman’s body (Schneider, pp. 62–4). She chronicles her own life and the life of the family by wearing, for example, a different type of beaded apron upon marriage or a long strand of beads from the head when her son goes into initiation. Her image, furthermore, becomes transfigured into the beaded doll in the form of a cylinder enveloped in heavy rings given to girls expressly to engender maternal instincts. Here the image of the woman bears a heavy load of generative import.

Royal display is frequently concerned with community increase. On state occasions the king of the Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre; see Kuba) is surrounded by his scores of wives. This expresses the fecund nature of his own household and, by extension, the fertility of the Kuba community. In the Cameroon Grasslands, an annual ceremony is held to honour the ancestors in which the royal and noble families display their material wealth with maskers (see 1984 exh. cat.). Greater prestige is assumed by families with greater displays of masks. The display itself is a tribute to the achievement of the ancestors, but it could also be said that it perpetuates the well-being and productivity of the family.

(iii) Agricultural increase.

Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother (D’mba), wood and brass, 1320.8×390×615 mm, Baga culture, Sitem subgroup, Bulungits, or Pukur, made in Guinea Coast, Guinea, late 19th–early 20th century (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection, Ascension ID: 2006.51.390); image credit: Yale University Art Gallery

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The earth is considered to be female in much of African thought, and its working by man is often likened in ritual to coitus (see Blier, p. 39; 1981 exh. cat., p. 22). Dogon female images display on their abdomens a chequerboard pattern that symbolizes the ploughed field. In female initiation ceremonies among the Temne, the men sing of their betrothal: ‘I’ve secured my own plot of ground; when I get there, I’ll sow the seed’ (see Lamp, 1988, ‘Heavenly Bodies’). Champion cultivators among the Senufo of the Côte d’Ivoire are given a trophy staff with a voluptuous female figure as its finial that had earlier been displayed in the field to encourage the young men. It promises the champion ‘a beautiful fiancée, increase for the kinship unit, abundant harvests and many children’ (see 1981 exh. cat., p. 48). For the Baga, the image of a beautiful mother with long pendant breasts, called D’mba or Nimba (see fig.), was danced at both agricultural rituals and marriages. This honouring of the mother for her nurturing of many children served metaphorically to commemorate a bountiful harvest and celebrate the spirits that made it possible. Granary buildings in Africa are, by their very form, often clear symbols of female fecundity and nurturing (see Prussin, pp. 144–69), most notably among the Bororo of Niger. Among the Dogon, the thatched roof of the granary is tied with a cord spiralling down from the peak in reference to the descending acts of original creation, and its door locks are constructed of movable intersecting forms, suggesting sexual intercourse (see Griaule, 1965, pp. 30–34, 41–2, 71–2, 138–41; Laude, p. 60).

The Bamana celebrate agricultural success through the dance of the Chi Wara, whose headdress takes the form of a composite of the antelope, anteater, and hornbill. The antelope, whose pawing movements are imitated in dance, suggests male prowess and potency. The anteater is celebrated as a burrowing animal that resembles the farmer tilling the soil and also the penis in penetration. The hornbill is frequently associated with fertility, combining a long, phallic beak with a pot-bellied body. Dancing the Chi Wara in male and female pairs, the male represents the sun and the female the earth. This confluence of the male and female principles links human sexual intercourse, the fertility of the earth, the movements of heavenly bodies and the activities of the natural world (see 1981 exh. cat., pp. 22, 25; Imperato, p. 72; Zahan).

(iv) Transition.
  • Frederick Lamp

Concern for the fate of the dead is based on more than nostalgia and a feeling of personal loss. They enter another world of former and future beings, a world in which the germination of new life takes place. From the Sapi culture of the 15th century in what is now Sierra Leone, small stone figures survive that were probably used in shrines dedicated to ancestors. Two sub-groups of their descendants, the Temne and Kissi, continue a version of the tradition (see Lamp, 1983; Paulme, pp. 141–9). Among the Temne, a stone is taken from the deceased's grave and placed in a shrine that contains many stones representing noble ancestors. To the west of the stones are anthills, representing the entry of the dead into the underworld. The anthills are 'hot' and the stones are 'cool', bathed in cool water during a ritual intended to reincarnate the dead, in concert with the birth of the sun in the cool eastern dawn. This 'House of Stones' is visited at every rite of passage in order to align all phenomena of birth and rebirth. The ancient stones of the Sapi, on the other hand, are revered today as representations of the primordial owners of the land by the immigrant Mende, who now occupy most of the land where the stone figures are discovered in the fields. The Mende keep them in their fields to encourage the growth of crops, rewarding them for a bountiful harvest and punishing them with a flogging if the crop is poor.

Among the Kongo, death and the continuity of the lineage coincided in the placing of stone images on the graves of the noble dead. Although not actual portraits, they represented the deceased in his or her aspects of highest moral and physical authority. Numerous examples depict nursing mothers. On the chest of such female figures, three keloids are often indicated, representing the three stages of life (child, leader, and elder) and by extension the qualities of vitality, leadership, and wisdom.

Initiation into adulthood is the quintessential ritual devoted to increase, as children are considered asexual and initiation is thus crucial to their metamorphosis into sexual beings. Among the Loma and Gbande of Liberia, visitors (see Harley; Schwab, and Harley) have described an institution called Bön or Pölö that is responsible for the transformation of young men into adults. Although procedure varies greatly from area to area, similar events characterize men's initiation throughout the region. Every four years, boys between the ages of about 8 and 20 are taken into the forest to be guided by their elders for a period ranging from a few days to a full four-year term. In an act symbolizing their death as boys and their rebirth as men, they were formerly thrown over a fence in the darkened forest, believing that they would be impaled on spears or disappear into the open jaws of the ancestral spirit, Landa or Dandai. Landa, the founder of Bön/Pölö, was said to ingest the boys of the village in his belly and, at the end of the initiation, to regurgitate them, fully metamorphosed into adult men, as if giving birth. He appeared in a mask resembling a crocodile head, and the scarification marks given to the boys during initiation were advertised as his tooth-marks.

For the Temne, the organization known as Bondo transforms girls into marriageable young women. Motifs found throughout the initiation are the butterfly and its chrysalis, the serpent that sheds its skin and devours whole living beings, the planted and germinating seed, and the moon that waxes and wanes, dies and is reborn. The final ceremonies of Bondo are a microcosm of fertile processes that turn the girls, through their ritual immersion in universal flow, into reproductive women. These 'graduation' ceremonies are probably scheduled to coincide with the girls' period of most likely fertilization, when they are released to their new husbands (see Lamp, 1988, 'An Opera…').

Their graduation (the 'pouring out' or 'birth-giving') involves four distinct acts. In the first (the 'transferring') the girls, still painted white (symbolizing spiritual invisibility) from their year in initiation, 'sweep the way' through the village in a probable reference to the cleansing action of menstruation. Nurturing and death are then contrasted in a dance involving a black cooking pot and a mysterious white bundle. A chaotic rampage follows, in which the villagers perform a symbolic 'uprooting' and 'transplanting'. Finally the villagers come together in a circle of cooperation to re-enact the cultivation of their fields and allude through song to the 'sowing of the seed', that is, the impregnation of the new brides. In the second act (the 'uprooting by the serpent') the ancestral serpent spirit returns in the night in the medium of a woman whining eerily through the village. Shut inside the initiation house, the initiates are said to have been devoured by the serpent. In the darkness of the early morning, the house is demolished as a metaphor for the opening of the serpent's belly, and the girls are rushed to the river to re-enact primordial birth, emerging through water.

The third act is the dance of the mask in the form of a butterfly chrysalis (Nöwo or Sowo). Beginning in the dimness of pre-dawn and ending at the rising of the sun, she symbolizes not only metamorphosis but also an enlightening of the mind that is essential to productivity. In the final act, all 'birth-givers' are saluted, a symbolic womb is created in the central village meeting-house, and the women 'descend' from the river through the village in a serpentine spiral to deposit the initiates, concealed under a canopy, in the meeting-house. Here they are described in song as 'germinating greens'. Thus, through the metaphorical association of the ritual acts of the girls and their community with productive forces throughout the cosmos, the increase of that community is ensured for another year.


2. Gesture.

In African art, as in other contexts, gestures can both express an emotional condition or use established conventions to convey meaning (see Gesture). In other words they define unspoken aspects of a work's meaning and significance. Some gestures have symbolic meanings; others provide visual cues expressive of emotions. Aesthetic concerns also influence gesture. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, for whom the predominating aesthetic is one of symmetry, sculptures often emphasize the balanced placement of hands on parts of the body or on objects that are held, while among the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, where asymmetry is a widespread feature, slight shifts from a strictly symmetrical portrayal are often introduced. Material and medium may affect the gestures portrayed in African art. Dogon works in iron (Mali) show a distinctive resistant bend in their gestures, a feature imparted by the material itself. The gestural expressions of Lobi wood sculptures in Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire often intentionally draw on the natural curves, bends, and texture of the wood (see fig. below), with artists using the twisting form of a branch to reinforce the angling of an arm. Among the Batammaliba (Tamberma), the living branch is considered an essential component of the vitality of the sculpture. A group of artists, gazing up at the branches of a tree, will discuss the virtues of a particular section as they mentally superimpose a figure on it, noting the placement of the head, hands, torso, and legs. After reaching a decision, one of them will climb up to cut the chosen branch for carving. Sometimes gestures are incorporated or omitted for functional reasons. The outstretched arms of Fanti and Asante akuaba figures, for example, serve as a means of support when such figures are worn tucked into a woman's wrapper against her back. In Fon, Teke, and some Kongo power figures the torso is sometimes bound, wrapped or otherwise covered, and one frequently finds a minimalization or outright elimination of gestures that would be hidden from view. Some of the most interesting figural representations in African art are those associated with body alterations and deformities, the one-legged, no-headed, no-armed images and similar forms that deviate from nature (see §IV, 4 below). For the Lobi, figures with more than two arms (see fig. below) denote enhanced protective power.

(i) Religious themes.

With no single gestural language employed throughout African art, gestures must be understood according to their cultural context. This is perhaps best illustrated by the examples of gestures for prayer. In Kongo art, prayer is defined by the gesture of palms drawn to the stomach. Among the Kaka, prayer to the deity Nwie, creator of earth and sky, is defined by the gesture of the right hand outstretched, palm up. In contrast, Mambila sculptures depict a person praying with arms held tightly to the chest. Among the Baule the right hand clasped in the palm of the left is identified with ceremonies to supplicate the earth, particularly after a crime against the earth has been committed. For the Dogon, raised arms are identified with prayers to the deity Amma.

Gestures in African art also convey other religious themes. In Yoruba sculptures, the diversity of such gestures is particularly striking and is used to identify affiliation to a religious association. Sculptures of the Ogboni society, dedicated to the deity of the earth, are recognized by the gesture of left hand fisted over right hand to hide an extended right thumb (see fig.). The sculptures of Ogun, god of iron and war, are characterized both by actions related to smithing and by the holding aloft of fanlike Ogun insignia. Sculptures dedicated to Eshu, the trickster–messenger deity (see §IV, 8 below), are often associated with thumb-sucking or whistle-blowing gestures. Shango, the god of lightning and thunder, is represented both by the action of balancing two celts on top of the head and by gestures in which Shango staffs and rattles are displayed. Memorial twin figures (ibeji) are recognized by their characteristic frontal pose, the hands held rigidly to the side.

(ii) Social roles.

Gestures can be used to convey social roles and identities. This is particularly well defined in the Cameroon Grassfields, where gestures identify works as representing ruler, court servant, criminal, or slave (see Bamileke and related peoples; see also Bamum). Kings are frequently seated, one hand supporting the chin, the other resting on the knee. This is a gesture assumed by judges when reflecting on legal matters, and it underscores the king's important subsidiary role as adjudicator. Royal retainers are most frequently identified by a gesture in which one hand is placed in front of the mouth, a pose traditionally assumed by servants when approaching the king. In other examples, servants are shown presenting objects of state (as would be done at prescribed times during ceremonies). Criminals and prisoners are often shown with anguished, angled and uncomfortable gestures and postures, in marked contrast to the more formally composed gestures of royalty.

Further examples of gestures being used to identify social position are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) among the Chokwe, where powerful men and elders are frequently portrayed in the seated 'hocker' position, with elbows resting on upraised knees (see Chokwe and related peoples). Teke sculptures representing diviner-healers (nganga) are defined by a modified version of this same gesture. Baule elders, in contrast, are often identified by gestures in which the hand touches their carefully braided beards, and Lega sculptures of the Democratic Republic of the Congo representing elderly bwami initiates are recognized through gestural caricature, with rounded back and stooped body suggesting the weight of their years and responsibilities (see Lega and related peoples).

Gestural reference may be used to identify gender and social role. In Yoruba art, female sculptures with hands on the solar plexus are said to represent expectant women. Among the Dogon, pregnancy is suggested by the gesture of forearms resting against the abdomen (see fig. above); sculptures with this gesture are found on altars dedicated to women who died while pregnant. In Kongo art the female gesture of palms against the stomach represents a woman communicating with the child she carries. Another important female gesture shows the placement of hands on the breast. For the Yoruba this gesture suggests the nursing mother and, by extension, the general idea of motherhood and generosity (see fig.). Among the Baule and Asante, hands supporting the breasts allude to the importance of maternal nurturing.

(iii) Emotional expression.
  • Suzanne Preston Blier

Other gestures are used to convey emotion. For the Lobi the arms drawn behind the back imply anguish, while among the Bangwa and other Cameroon Grassfield groups the placement of the arms behind the head represents a brooding person or a child who is contemplating. Gestures used to portray sadness, sorrow, hardship, and distress vary between peoples. The standard image of mourning and sorrow in such Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) cultures as the Kongo, Chokwe, Luba, and Ndembu is the hand drawn upwards to clasp or support the head, neck, cheek, or chest while weeping or pondering in grief. Variations on this basic form include the Chokwe gesture of the hand on the mouth, which signifies someone with no chance in life. In Kongo sculptures sadness is conveyed in a number of ways. Both arms drawn upwards towards the mouth connote enormous grief; arms held aloft indicate crying or lamentation; touching the chin or cupping it with one's hand suggests the state of pondering and sadness; wrapping one arm about the body portrays loneliness and self-comfort; an outstretched arm indicates hunger; the arm crossed in front of the chest communicates coldness and silence; hands placed on the stomach or in an akimbo position express idleness; and a hand hanging loosely by the side suggests shame.

Gestures may be used in place of verbal messages, as an extension of speech. One of the most frequently seen has the hand being brought up towards the chin or mouth. This gesture is common in sculptures of the Bafo and Bakundu of southern Cameroon, where it suggests the action of swearing an oath. A single finger drawn up to the mouth represents the same idea among Kongo and Cameroon Grassfields groups. Pende sculptures that incorporate a hand gesturing towards the mouth define instead the moment of surprise when hearing some shocking news. Similarly, the hand-to-the-mouth gesture in Chokwe art is used to portray one who is startled on receiving secret information. Among the Luba, figures with this gesture are worn by women during childbirth, suggesting the newsworthiness and heightened excitement of the occasion.

Gesture may be used to elicit specific responses in the onlooker. Thus the Mambila gesture of arms outstretched to the side, frequently seen in sculptures of this society, is identified as a pose of protection or guardianship and may be intended to effect in the Mambila viewer a response of either security or fear depending on the person's role and relationship to the sculpture. The gestures of certain Lobi sculptures, believed to have a protective role in the house, can also be best understood in this way. Some figures turn their heads to the side as a signal of attentiveness; others raise one or both arms above the head defensively. Still others are depicted stretching out their arms horizontally to bar enemies from entering the house. Seeing such figures may invoke a response of restraint on the part of those intending harm to the house or its occupants. Gestural forms also play a significant part in helping to channel the viewer's emotional response to a work. A sculpture of an exuberant mother presenting her child in public invites an emotional response with the enthusiastic, forward-thrusting movement of her arms and the child she holds within them. A shrine figure may similarly draw an onlooker to the image through the gesture of outstretched hands, an action that for the Igbo of Nigeria conveys both the idea of a deity's request for recognition and devotion and the wish on the part of his or her faithful worshippers for generous aid.

As the eye will generally follow the dominant line of a work, attention may be directed by gesture to important details. A mother portrayed with hands reaching towards her child, for example, directs attention to the child's face, reinforcing the maternal theme. A hand raised to stroke a beard draws the eye to the beard, underscoring both the masculinity of the figure and his status as elder. In seated or kneeling figures, the depiction of hands resting on the knees reinforces the stability of persons portrayed in these works.


3. Portraiture.

African portraits are simultaneously personal, because recognition of the subject's identity depends upon knowledge of the community and person portrayed, and impersonal, in that they stress social identity rather than individual likeness. Characteristically, name and context particularize the image, and representation of the subject is correct rather than idiosyncratic. Such is the economy of African sculpture that portraits embody individual and social identities simultaneously: the image of a king may represent a particular king and all kings; a woman's commemorative mask may stand for a particular woman and all similarly entitled women.

(i) Introduction.

African portraits identify important individuals within the often overlapping frameworks of ancestor cult, political organization and ritual activity. Most African portraits serve as memorials and so represent specific ancestors whose responsibility it is to aid the living by solving vital problems, by shielding them from harm and by contributing to their material success. Individuals who have demonstrated their capabilities during a lifetime of success are selected as most likely to be efficacious ancestral forces. Thus, African memorial portraits recognize, for example, heads of household, heads of state, women of strength and courage, priests, and ritual actors, presenting them in terms of social identity rather than idiosyncratic personality and holding them up as embodying ideals of society and exemplifying correct behaviour. While portraiture is the successful person's privilege and honour, and remembrance his or her reward, a portrait's generalized nature shows that he or she is not differentiated for individual qualities but for being an admired example of the ideal. Nigerian Ijo funerary screens show the subject of the portrait as a member of a group but distinguish him by centrality and size rather than by physiognomic characteristics. The Oron of south-eastern Nigeria show their respect for successful individuals by the relative articulation of the memorial image: ordinary individuals are represented by uncarved sticks or staffs, leaders by stylized but highly differentiated and elaborately rendered figural sculpture (see Nicklin).

Any account of portraiture in African art is complicated by lack of recognition of images as portraits by cultural outsiders. Factors contributing to this failure include stylized ideals of comportment, an aesthetic of generalization and conventions of identification and record-keeping that differ from Western conventions. The specific identities of many African portrait subjects are unknown, because the works have been separated from their cultural context. Thus many images labelled by scholars 'ancestor figures' are actually unidentified portraits.

The general problem of recognition is demonstrated by Fon commemorative tableaux (see 1985 exh. cat.; see also §IV, 3, (ii) below). In these tableaux the links between object and individual identity are extra-aesthetic and often ephemeral, dependent on cultural knowledge not readily accessible to an outsider. Tableau messages originate in discussions between donor and artist on the sentiments to be conveyed and on the selection of appropriate symbols. No-one is responsible for preserving a narrative explanation of the cryptic visual allusions and metaphoric references in the tableau; so, unless it contains a particularly striking or cleverly conceived message, the meaning will be lost with the passage of time.

The identity of African portraits is established or confirmed by association with the subject through siting, biographical references, use of actual clothing, relics, or—most importantly—name rather than by literal physical description. Because name and context particularize the African image rather than physical likeness, dramatically disparate visual configurations work as portraits. The Kurumba of Burkina Faso, for example, represent high-ranking elders by masquerades depicting the protective antelope (Hippotragus koba), the totem of most Kurumba clans. Headdresses are carved at the death of an individual to enhance his prestige, and, when danced at funerals and public performances following the funeral, the masquerades serve as physical re-embodiments of the deceased and are addressed with his name (see Roy, pp. 198–202; see also §VI, 4 below). In Benin, Battamaliba families honour recently deceased elders by giving them the attribute of youth, portraying them in the form of houses wearing the garments of initiation (see Blier, 1987; see also §IV, 1, (ii) above).

In contrast, the Yoruba of southern Nigeria use generalized human figures to commemorate deceased twins. These diminutive figures are linked to their subjects by being gender-specific and having appropriate lineage and scarification marks. The family addresses the image by name and makes gifts appropriate to the deceased child's place in the lineage (see Drewal). The Dan of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire commission portraits of favourite wives from skilled carvers. These images, made after a meeting between artist and subject, are unusually specific, reflecting individual physiognomies, and, like most African portraits, they also bear the name of the subject (see 1976 exh. cat.).

Even the most representational African portrait, however, tends to be idealized, since the African aesthetic is a generalizing one. A realistic depiction of age or peculiarity implies a lack of respect for the subject (see Brain and Pollock; Ben-Amos, 1980). Completeness rather than verisimilitude may be the representational ideal, as it is for the exceptionally naturalistic commemorative portraits used by the Owo Yoruba (Abiodun, 1976).

An overview of African portrait images produces three broad and slightly overlapping categories. The largest category is that of generalized anthropomorphic images; the others are representational and idealized images and emblematic portraits.

(ii) Anthropomorphic images.

Portraits taking this form are individuated by means of such specific references to the subject as naming. The Okpella of southern Nigeria recognize a woman's commemorative masquerade by personal and praise names. Although such a masquerade may dance in public during the lifetime of its subject, it assumes her name only after her death. It is not obviously distinguishable as a likeness, with its stylized features and elaborate coiffure. Instead, identity is established by its name and its location within the kin group that accompanies the masquerade when it appears in public during the annual ancestral festival (see Borgatti, 1979).

Images may be further identified through specific sculptural references to the subject's coiffure and personal decoration, a method used by Akan artists to personalize commemorative terracotta portraits (see 1977–8 exh. cat.; Preston; Sieber; Soppelsa; Visona). Iconographic devices may also 'name' subjects: for example, portraits of Kuba kings (see Kuba) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) reflect ideals of body image and comportment, individuated only by an emblem shown at the base of the figure (see Vansina; Rosenwald). The 17th-century King Shyaam A-Mbul A-Ngoong is recognized by his game-board, while the 18th-century King Misha Mi-Shyaang A-Mbul (formerly Bom Bosh) is identified by a carved cup with its handle carved in the form of a human hand.

The Edo of Benin depict kings in relief sculpture by associating a generalized figure with specific attributes or images linked to events occurring during his reign. The 16th-century Oba Ozolua, known as 'the conqueror', wears full battledress and carries a shield on his left arm; he brandishes a sword in his right hand and holds the severed head of an enemy in his left. His son, Esigie (1515–20), is portrayed wearing the red parrot-feather regalia of a senior priest of the Ovia cult, which he introduced to the palace during his rule (see Blackmun, 'Remembering …'). More complex biographical references are incorporated into the images of 17th- and 18th-century kings. The early 17th-century ruler Oba Ewuakpe's idiosyncratic headgear and staff and pair of emaciated attendants are explained by oral traditions of the period and the known problems he faced in acceding to the throne (see Ben-Amos, 1983).

Fon memorial tableaux commemorate the honoured dead by depicting them in positions of authority through the idiom of royal dress, stance, or regalia or by showing an individual at work. The subject of the sculpture holds a central position in the composition, with the donor's figure often occupying a more peripheral zone. Although the figures are generic in form, specific names may be directly represented in rebus form within the composition, as in an example where images of fish (hue) and a grinding stone (li) created the proper syllabic references to the subject's name (see 1985 exh. cat., p. 20). Alternatively, visual puns on the family or given name may establish identification, or the name may be spelt out in letters on a small metal plate.

The Ibibio living in the area of Ikot Ekpene in Nigeria celebrate men of distinction with banners of cloth appliqué and patchwork. In the past, the banner-maker would be invited to stay at the compound of the deceased for several months in order to learn his life history, especially his acts of bravery, so that the shrine cloth would portray his achievements in full (see Salmons). A more recent practice is for the artist to absorb information about his subject during funeral ceremonies, where the exploits of the deceased are praised in song and mime.

In southern Madagascar, Democratic Republic of, the Antanosy, Bara, Sihanaka, Antaimoro, and Mahafaly remember individuals with sculptures that present them in the context of their actual possessions or in terms of their life history. One memorial sculpture by the Antanosy sculptor Fesira depicts the subject seated at the side of a large monument comprising two images that recall important aspects of his life: his service with the French authorities as a mounted policeman and his purchase of the first motor-car in the village (see Mack).

Such groups as the Kongo, Bembe, and Bwende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) identify a portrait by incorporating relics from the body of the deceased into the memorial figure. The Bwende artist Makoza of Kingoyi (fl c. 1900) also studied the face and body of the deceased whose mummy he was making in order accurately to represent such features as filed teeth and scarification (see 1981–2 exh. cat., pp. 60–61).

Contextual association of image and subject is stressed by the Baule, whose portrait masks publicly express the admiration evoked by some exceptional quality associated with the subject (see Vogel). In such examples, identification is completed by the subject's partnering the portrait mask in performance. The masks also bear the names of their subjects and often wear clothing or accessories owned by them.

(iii) Representational and idealized images.

Representational images are physiognomic likenesses, the subject (or an appropriate relative) having sat for the artist. Such portraits are found among the Bamileke (see Bamileke and related peoples) and Bangwa of Cameroon (see Brain and Pollock; Lecoq; Rudy; Harter) and the Hemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre; see Neyt and de Stryker). In other cases, the artist may simply familiarize himself with the individual, executing the work without further visual reference to the subject (see Himmelheber; 1981–2 exh. cat.).

Even the most representational African portraits idealize and generalize their subjects, demonstrating what Rowland Abiodun (1976) has called a 'controlled naturalism' in contrast to the idiosyncratic or literal naturalism of much Western portraiture. An Ijebu Yoruba artist's rendering of Queen Victoria based on her 1887 Jubilee portrait clearly illustrates this bias in African portraiture. In keeping with Yoruba principles of representation, the artist has depicted the Queen as a respected and powerful member of society, treating her fan as the equivalent of the Yoruba royal fly-whisk and dramatizing her head and hand to signal their importance. (In Yoruba thought the head is the seat of an individual's luck, wisdom, and destiny and consequently is emphasized, comprising up to a quarter of the total composition.) Additionally, the artist has honoured the Queen with youth, smoothing her wrinkles, firming up her chin, and regularizing her features to reveal the strength and beauty within.

(iv) Emblematic portraits.
  • Jean M. Borgatti

Just as the most representational images may be seen to draw upon the generalizing aesthetic that informs all African portraits, the emblematic portrait takes the cultural and historic markers present in all the images and raises them to a further degree of abstraction. Emblematic portraits use symbolic devices to evoke an image of the subject in the mind's eye of the viewer. They are often non-anthropomorphic and may include an assemblage of goods or visual referents that recall the individual to the spectator. Generally, they may be said to represent an intellectualized vision of the subject and his personality or the spiritual side of the individual not normally visible. The imagery may be either personal and subtle, and therefore dependent upon the viewer's specialized knowledge, or public and dramatic, to impress more firmly on the audience the particular characteristics or achievements of the individual portrayed.

Many Nigerian groups remember male ancestors with non-anthropomorphic characterizations based on shrouds, a classic 'ghost form'. The distribution of this commemorative masquerade follows the path of the Niger and the Benue rivers with a clustering in the confluence area. Among the Edo-speaking Okpella, these Dead Fathers return for an annual celebration with their living kin during a festival of ancestors. The masquerade takes the form of a cloth sack constructed of expensive, handwoven cloth, some of it with ritual significance, held together at the top around a stick that may be used to extend its height. A Dead Father may be simultaneously general and specific: the commemorative masquerade with the greatest seniority represents simultaneously all deceased heads of household in the congregation as well as the specific individual whose name it bears. The masquerade's vigorous performance asserts masculinity in the dynamic expression of energy, and visual references to men's title status may be included to indicate a social ideal of achievement. Relics from the body of the deceased may be sewn into the costume to personalize the representation in an incontrovertible way. Attendants related to the deceased accompany the masquerade, thus placing the apparition in a lineage group, and members of the community salute it by name, using the greetings for welcoming someone who has come back from a long journey and thus offering further evidence of its identity. Comparable commemorative masks for men occur among the Yoruba, the Idoma, the Igbira, the Igala, the Igbo, and other northern Edo groups besides the Okpella. The nuancing of the imagery varies from group to group.

The Fon of Benin (see Blier, 1990) make masterful emblematic portraits in both sculpture and cloth appliqué, relying for identification upon literary reference (proverbs and history) and indirection (using images in a rebus fashion to spell the name of the subject). Fon royal portraits range from such large-scale wooden sculptures as the allegorical portrait of King Glele (Paris, Mus. Homme), depicting a man with the head of a lion, to such two-dimensional works as the wall hanging dedicated to him and featuring the lion image, used because his name-sentence states, 'I am the lion's whelp who sows terror as soon as his teeth have sprouted'. Glele's mission as king was to avenge his father's defeat at the hands of the neighbouring Yoruba at Abeokuta: the name he chose upon ascending the throne clearly states this goal.


    specialist studies
    exhibition catalogues

4. Physical anomalies.

Among the most visually powerful African works of art are those associated with physical anomalies. Although not every African society seeks to portray deformity in its arts, many do. The function of such works is quite varied, and artistic examples of physical anomaly, deformity, and deficiency have important cultural associations. Some, including many of the two-faced figures that show a surfeit of bodily features, use their excess powers to convey greater than normal strength, force, and status. Other works suggest, through the absence or distortion of body parts, ideas of stigmatized behaviour or social incompleteness. Spiritual and physiological sickness is suggested through body deformity as well. Still other sculptures through their inclusion of monstrous attributes are associated with antisocial qualities and those persons who depart from tradition and the interests of the group.

(i) Figures and dolls.

Among the Fon of Benin, certain genres of bocio power figures show body deformation in provocative ways. Known as bocio-bigble ('corrupted bocio'), such works display striking visual and emotional power (see Blier, 1995). While some such figures have missing legs or arms, by far the most common forms incorporate two heads, faces, or bodies. In these works faces may be carved on two sides of the head, or two or more heads set on a single pair of shoulders, or a single pair of legs and hips may support two torsos. Questions of psychological power and social difference are often addressed in Fon bocio through aberrant visual imagery of this sort. These works are identified with individual danger, sorcery, and empowerment. Accordingly they are often employed as guardian figures to protect the house, compound, temple, or city. The perceived ability of multi-headed works to observe activity both inside and outside the compound is of considerable importance. Fon deformity imagery of this sort carries with it important associations not only with protection (and a wish to see in front and behind at the same time) but also with the desire to control one's personal and social landscape through the fragmentation and replication of key body parts. Such works also convey provocative ideas of gender conflation, with many incorporating the sexual attributes of both sexes. Most of these bocio draw their potency from tiny invisible aziza spirits who are believed to inhabit the forests. These spirits are generally described as having a single foot and arm. Also important to bocio figural empowerment are various vodun forces such as the hoho (twins) or Mawu (the solar god), both of whom are said to have clairvoyant, four-eyed vision. Sorcerers and kings are also believed to have this power. Fon deformity figures in this and other ways reinforce the vital interconnections between religion, power, psychology, and art.

Deformity sculptures produced by Lobi artists in northern Ghana are also of interest. Lobi sculptures show a range of physical anomalies, including a head surmounting a single leg, a person missing an arm or leg, a figure with three or more arms, a person with two or more heads, and a person with three or more legs supporting a single torso. These figures, which represent ti bala ('extraordinary persons'), are said to protect the house by frightening away all who would do it harm. Because of their body incompleteness and/or deformities, they are viewed as especially dangerous (see 1981 exh. cat., p. 95).

Deformity figures that show missing or distorted body attributes suggest similarly important sociological concerns in other African cultures (see 1982 exh. cat.). Many are associated with antisocial attributes. Among the Pende of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre), sculptures with a single arm and leg are identified with loneliness, with persons who have neither close relatives nor friends (de Sousberghe, p. 109). It has been suggested that deformity figures of the Lega, another Zaïrean group (see Lega and related peoples), are identified with antisocial individuals as well (see Biebuyck, 1972, p. 17). Thus Lega figures displaying a single arm are described as representing an individual given to quarrelling, the deformity deriving from his aggressive character. A Lega work missing both arms is associated with adultery (see Biebuyck, 1973, pl. 69).

Physiological and mental illness is also suggested through features of physical anomaly. In the Cameroon Grasslands sufferers of disease, witchcraft ills, and spiritual trauma are depicted in figural form through distortions of the abdomen (see Brain and Pollock). With the Nguu of Tanzania illness-causing sorcerers are shown turned on their heads (Cory, pp. 48–9). Illness-causing bush spirits among the Senufo of the Côte d'Ivoire are represented in turn by figures with feet turned backwards or transformed into fins (Glaze, p. 65). A Rotse work with body attributes articulated on only half the figure represents a madness-causing, half-human creature called Mwenda-Njangula or Mwenda Lutaka (Reynolds, pp. 50, 65). Physiological or spiritual anomaly and figural distortion are in this way conjoined.

Carved doll forms that display deliberately underdeveloped limbs also are of interest in the context of physical anomaly. It has been suggested (see McLeod, p. 174) that Asante doll forms known as akuaba (see Asante and related peoples, §4, (i)) lack essential human attributes because of their identity as potential rather than fully realized beings. As McLeod explains, children cannot assume their own characters and roles until much later in life. Robert Farris Thompson notes similarly (see 1974 exh. cat., p. 53) that the lack of feet on many of these figures reinforces their association with social dependency. Doll-form figures that lack full body development or attributes are also employed by the Mossi (Burkina Faso) and Zulu (South Africa) among other groups. These works too may suggest ideas of dependency, disempowerment, and immaturity.

African sculptures that are characterized by a surfeit of features through their incorporation of multiple heads and/or members also form an important corpus of anomaly works. As with the Fon multi-headed figures discussed above, what unites this group is the increased power and presence that is identified with bodily surplus or abundance. Among the Bini of Nigeria, four-legged figures are identified with Ofoe, a death-associated deity who is said to be able to travel readily between the earth and sky (see Ben-Amos, p. 149). With the Dogon of Mali, figures with multiple arms or legs are said to be identified with the increased power of two sky nommo (see Griaule and Dieterlen, pl. 18). A seven-legged figure that is believed to be able to outrun thieves with ease is used by the Mburi of northern Cameroon to protect palm-wine stocks (Gebauer, p. 185). Added power is also attributed to two-faced sculptures because they have increased sensory properties. The Teke of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) employ such figures as a special prerogative of great chiefs (Lehuard, p. 37).

(ii) Masks and masquerades.
  • Suzanne Preston Blier

Among the Igbo, Ibibio, and neighbouring Cross River peoples in Nigeria, masquerades displaying physical anomalies also have important power associations. With the Ejagham some such masks portray humans with distorted features including huge noses or off-centre mouths. These 'beast' personifiers often wear dirty or torn costumes and display aggressive dance steps and fierce actions (see Jones, 1945, pp. 194, 196). M. Ruel states that the Ejagham 'beast' masker Emanyankpe 'presents the more “fearsome” aspect of the association and when it appears non-members are expected to flee and hide' (p. 266).

Among the nearby Ibibio, Ekpo members wearing masks with various physical anomalies represent ancestors of bad character such as murderers, sorcerers, poisoners, paupers without kin, and stealers of sacred objects. These ancestors are said to be responsible for the sickness and accidents of their descendants and townsmen (Messenger, pp. 120–21). Maskers of this sort, which are known as idiok ekpo ('evil Ekpo'), often have exaggerated features that jut out from the mask surface at irregular angles. Many such works combine human and animalistic elements in terrifying compositions. Others portray horrible deforming diseases such as lupus, yaws (gangosa is an indicator of religious impurity), syphilis, and leprosy (see Jones, 1984, p. 77; Messenger, p. 122). These diseases are represented in such features as sores, split tongues, twisted or eaten-away lips or noses, protruding teeth and tongues, mouths out of line, and flapped eyes (symbolizing blindness). Skulls, snakes, lizards (witch familiars), and tortoises are often incorporated into these masks as well. Reinforcing the dangerous identity of these masks, associated performers carry weapons such as machetes or bows and arrows. Their choreographed actions are frequently wayward and violent, with related maskers often shaking their bodies furiously, running through the village, climbing trees or houses, destroying property, or harming people.

Okoroshi and Mwo 'beast' masquerades of the nearby Igbo also display various body anomalies. Southern Igbo Okoroshi masks often have ugly, diseased, and animalistic features, which are either carved into the mask surface or glued on to it with a thick gum. These features include bloody fangs, thrust-forward mouths, furrowed foreheads and eyebrows, protruding, bent, and tubular tongues, broken noses, and twisted mouths (see Deji, p. 177; Cole, p. 38). Northern Igbo Mwo masks display complementary forms. Some of the latter masks are carved to represent terrifying animalistic monsters with a mixture of leonine, elephant, and buffalo features. As with the Okoroshi 'beasts', the Mwo works draw analogies between human aggressiveness and the fierceness and violence of wild animals (Boston, p. 58).


5. Mother-and-child imagery.

(i) Introduction.

The mother-and-child group is for many the most affecting and compelling theme in African art. Partly owing to the biological model of a mother with her baby and partly to the Christian icon of the Virgin and Child, the subject is easily related to art elsewhere in the world, even if information is lacking on its values in specific cultures. The varied uses and meanings of African versions of this representation both illuminate the universal character of the icon and reveal aspects of the richness of African thought.

Female Figure with Four Children, terracotta, 350×215×185 mm, Djenne culture, made in Inland Niger Delta, Sahel, Mali, 12th–17th century (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection, Ascension ID: 2006.51.116); image credit: Yale University Art Gallery

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Renderings of the mother and child have a long history on the continent: paintings on the rock surfaces of Tassili and nearby sites in the Sahara date from c. 3000–2000 bc. The earliest known sculptural versions are pottery figures ascribed to the Nok cultures of northern Nigeria (c. 500 bcad 200). The most important prehistoric cluster of maternities is the corpus of pottery sculptures (c. ad 1000–1500) from the inland delta of the Niger River in Mali (see fig.). Some of these are quite naturalistic renderings in lifelike poses, but others, showing a mother with one or two diminutive ‘adult’ children, are conventionalized and clearly symbolic, although their precise meanings are unknown. The majority of surviving examples of this form, however, come from the vast ethnographic corpus of 19th- and 20th-century artefacts, which, unlike many works from archaeological contexts, are informed by quantities of anthropological and art-historical data. While most maternities of this period are wood-carvings, fine pottery figures such as those of the Akan peoples are also known, as are examples in sun-dried clay or mud, brass, or bronze, and occasional examples in iron, stone, fibre, and appliqué beadwork. Virtually all were made by well-trained professional artists, usually male, although there are pottery examples produced by Akan and Igbo female potters.

(ii) Form and interpretation.

Most mother-and-child images are free-standing wood sculptures destined for shrines, but such representations, including birth scenes, may also be found on masks, chairs, stools, doors, house-posts, wooden gongs, combs, bowls, and other utilitarian artefacts. In rare instances, too, the mother-and-child form may appear in wholly secular contexts, for example on Akan goldweights. Generally, however, the image has a spiritual connotation and use. The prevalence and recurrence of the maternity group attests to its importance in African life and thought (for discussion of the theme of 'increase' see §IV, 1 above), although its uneven distribution among various peoples is difficult to explain. The sculptors and patrons of the Kongo (e.g. Yombe, Vili) and Yoruba peoples, for example, are prolific in their use of the theme, producing many variations in pose, size, shape, object type, and even style. Neighbouring and other Central and West African cultures, for whom the biological imperative of motherhood is no less important, however, have exploited the theme far less fully, and occasionally not at all (e.g. Benin, Lega, Kalabari Ijo). There is no apparent correlation between matrilineal or patrilineal descent in a society and its preoccupation with the mother-and-child image, for the theme occurs unevenly in each. Pluralism in cultural preferences and local tradition seem to be better (although unsatisfying) explanations for distribution patterns. Clearly biological and demographic reality are not the same as artistic and spiritual reality, since productive women are highly valued among all African peoples.

Basic to the elucidation of the theme are the identities of the mothers and children represented. It is easiest to say who they are not, since they are rarely portraits of real people. Even if ancestral images, they are usually not specifically named; rather, they are symbols of lineage or clan forebears, the generalized, idealized, 'incarnate dead'. In other cases the woman may be the primordial mother, the legendary founder of the people. Most Dogon maternities can probably be so identified, and it is certainly true of some large Senufo examples, known as ‘Ancient Mother’. Research indicates that the latter refer primarily to a complex of ideas about culture and social relationships rather than to the biological unit of a mother with her baby. Suckling here does refer to nurture, but the emphasis is not so much on a mother's nutritional provision for her infant as on the Ancient Mother's protection and guidance of all Senufo males during the 21-year cycle of initiation and education, which imparts the ‘milk of knowledge’ and results in the development of ‘complete human beings’ (see 1981 exh. cat., pp. 45–6). In the dualistic opposition between nature and culture so characteristic of African thought, the mother-and-child image refers more often to culture than to nature, while also acknowledging their interdependence.

A well-known ‘maternity’ among the Owerri Igbo of Nigeria is Ala, the earth goddess, who is portrayed larger than (presumed) life-size as the honoured recipient of elaborate temple-like structures (mbari), which are filled with dozens of human images in sun-dried clay. All of these, including the two who sit on her lap or beside her, are her 'children'. Ala also has the pendulous breasts and title regalia of an older woman. As a major tutelary deity, she presides over village morality and health, and, as the greatest of mothers, she yields or withholds children, crops, and animals. She nurtures, but she also kills swiftly when offended. She incarnates cyclical regeneration, life, death, and rebirth. She is revered and feared. All villagers and many deities are her children, and she demands their respect and honour.

It is notable that an intimate, emotional bond between the mother and her child is rarely expressed, even when the baby is suckling. Equally, the sculptor seldom gives the child any real personality. This can be partly accounted for by Africa's high rates of infant mortality. Moreover, children, however much desired by parents, were often regarded as useful property rather than as individual personalities, especially during infancy. Children were not always raised by their biological parents and might be pawned or sold into slavery. High infant mortality also accounts for the tradition of the changeling, the child who, it was believed, was born to die, often just as its parents began to cherish it. Believed to appear on earth several times, dying and being born again, a changeling plagued its parents with its mysterious actions and caused them not only anguish but also expense in the form of sacrifices to avert its death. In such circumstances, an emotional and psychological distance between mother and baby in a work of art and the child's lack of personality or character are understandable.

Mother-and-child sculptures are often called ‘fertility figures’. Human productivity, of course, is crucial to the continuity of the race, and it is certainly true that many shrines and cults emphasize the fertility of women, their health during pregnancy and the infant's survival. Rather than being celebrated in and for itself, however, the biology of maternity serves the more important social states of motherhood and fatherhood, the creation of a family. An African female normally is not recognized as a real woman unless and until she is a mother, and her ideal status is as the mother of a large family. Children are social and economic assets, and they are also expected to honour parents and, at death, to organize a proper burial, which is often in fact a delayed funerary festival (see §III, 5, (ii) above) that in turn ensures their beneficence as ancestors. That there is ancestral intervention in daily life is widely believed, and this helps to maintain the institution of ancestor veneration. It is thought that dead parents, as ancestors, will stimulate and promote the fertility of their children and the productivity of farmlands. Ancestral cults are therefore difficult to separate from fertility cults, and the mother-and-child icon serves both (see §IV, 1 above).

Several such images from the Cameroon Grassland kingdoms (see e.g. Bamileke and related peoples) commemorate royal ancestors, who may occasionally be named; they are placed in ensembles of statuary, housed in kings’ treasuries. Royal ancestors and retainer figures are not themselves the focus of the ancestral cult. They are, however, honoured and attended as memorials to the wealth and dignity of the court and the strength of the dynasty. In addition, they are occasionally brought out as display pieces and backdrops for kingship rituals. Female figures in this genre represent a chief's favourite wives or his queen mother (who is in fact his sister), and they celebrate womanhood, fertility, and maternity. Most, though not all, of these sculptures of women are dressed with ivory bracelets and anklets, which are male attributes of royal status. They embody the frequent coalescing of socio-political and spiritual meanings.

(iii) Religious context.

Elsewhere mother-and-child images were, and still are, housed in shrines of tutelary deities responsible for general protection and well-being. Statuary is more common in such contexts and in diviners' shrines than it is in ancestral cults. Tutelary deities (e.g. Ala) are accorded broad positive and negative powers. In return for blood sacrifices they offer guidance and succour and they regulate human behaviour. Their images are generic, and they may be named after the deity or considered to be his or her children, messengers, servants, or worshippers. Placed beside other shrine images, they refer especially to the protection, nurture, and productivity expected of wives and mothers while also representing the mysterious power of woman as child-bearer and the critical role of wife and mother. Ensembles of family members are common in shrines as projections of idealized domestic life, for the gods in their realm, it is believed, lead lives parallel to those of real people.

Specialist practitioners of the Yoruba, Baule, Igbo, Senufo, Kongo, and other peoples interact with spirits, ascertaining their desires through divining practices (see §VI, 8 below) and passing them on to the clients who consult them. The greatest variety of mother-and-child images is found in the shrines and workplaces of Yoruba diviners and doctors, where they often embellish bowls, tappers, and divining trays. The complexity and the value of such iconography on these implements has been noted by H. J. Drewal (see 1977 exh. cat., p. 5): ‘Images of women in ritual contexts and mother and child figures represent much more than symbols of fertility. They communicate sexual abstinence [of a nursing mother], inner cleanliness [because her menses are suppressed, and therefore], ritual purity, female force, and spirituality’. Many Yoruba maternities show the woman kneeling in a position of respect, devotion and even submission to the gods: an appropriate posture when it is recalled that most women in Yoruba sculpture represent worshippers, not the gods themselves.

Sculptures of mother-and-child groups embellish various types of shrines, where they serve as display pieces, as evidence of the spiritual and material success of the ritualist and as an advertisement for his or her expertise. Accomplished, and therefore wealthy, diviners and cult priests are more likely to have statuary than mediocre ones, so such images can, to some extent, be considered an index of wealth and prosperity, although this also suggests that the presence of sculpture in a shrine may have an arbitrary element.

Mother-and-child imagery is metaphorical and value-laden far beyond its limited biological reference. To see such imagery merely as a collection of fertility figures or specific mothers with their babies is to undervalue the richness of African thought. This prevalent, recurrent icon is an archetype: Great Mother as earth and water, childbirth and initiation as repetitions of cosmogony, the mother as symbol of a compound or village, her children its inhabitants, the genetrix as the source of social institutions. African thought and symbolism accord with those of the rest of the world in creating from this icon a universe far greater than the sum of its parts. Dynamic and regenerative, the mother-and-child symbol reflects the verities and complexities of African spiritual thought and the continuity of culture.


6. Animal imagery.

Images of animals are found in Africa wherever the visual arts exist. Animals are depicted in such contexts as rock art, shrines, masquerades, regalia and jewellery, body decoration (tattoo and scarification), and household settings, forming a major subset within the larger corpus of arts.

(i) Introduction.

In most sub-Saharan cultures, even today, people contend with both wild and domestic animals. These are hunted and herded, chased from fields, and sacrificed in rituals, while their spirit counterparts are consulted in divination and evoked in song, story, and dance. Men are believed to transform themselves into animals, and animal spirits are called upon or avoided because of their mystical powers. Animals killed ritually are divided, each meaningful part being given to a certain person or group according to time-honoured rules.

Animal behaviour is closely observed and well understood, but it is also mythic and imagined. Hence animals figure in many creation myths and arts not as they exist in the forest or plain but as proto-humans, indeed metahumans, furnished with such specifically human traits as language.

They also appear as legendary heroes in proverbs and folktales, as spirits, ancestors, and oracles, often with extraordinary powers. Beliefs about animals are possibly more important to an understanding of this imagery than are empirical facts, since animal images are seldom merely decorative but usually also convey metaphorical and symbolic meanings, even if they are naturalistically rendered in their own environment, as in rock art (see §VI, 16 below). Animal representation is therefore selective and depends on the purpose served by the art object and/or its messages.

(ii) Types.

Although some animal imagery is cross-cultural, the variety of forms employed and the diversity of local significances mean that much interpretation is culture-specific. For example, while leopards and elephants are everywhere associated with leadership and authority, unrelated qualities may be locally ascribed to their representations. Thus an Akan proverb—'rain will not wash the spots off a leopard'—associates the animal not with chiefs or authority but with the idea that people's essential nature is not easily changed.

Animal imagery includes representations of most of the important classes of animals. They fall into two basic groups: the arthropods (crustacea, insects, arachnids) and the vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). Over a hundred identifiable species are found in the corpus of cast-brass goldweights of Akan peoples in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire (see Asante and related peoples). These entirely secular counterbalances of known weight, used in commercial transactions from the 16th century to the late 19th, include miniatures of most animals found in West African forest and savannah zones, supplemented by fanciful creatures.

Many of these creatures, including those fashioned in such other media as ceramics, wood-carving, and textiles, are associated with Akan proverbs, folktales, and aphorisms. It is notable that the owl and the cat are never seen as goldweights, the former because it is a bird of ill omen, the latter because the word for cat, okra, is also the word for soul. In contrast, the rarity of goldweights fashioned into spiders, which are otherwise common in Akan arts and folklore, may be more practical, caused by the difficulty of casting such delicate creatures. Akan goldweights, gold-leaf linguist staffs and Asante cast-gold sword ornaments bear animal motifs the meanings of which are logical to us as well as to their makers and users: the spider is seen as clever, the hen represents a mother or a chief, the porcupine is a warrior, the goat stupid, the chameleon changeable, and the crocodile dangerous.

In addition to such universal symbols, a number of Akan objects bear single or multiple animal imagery with associations that are more arbitrary, involved, and cryptic to outsiders. For example, if an object bore images of a monkey, an anthill, and an antelope, a correct interpretation would depend upon knowledge of a proverb that refers to wishful thinking: when the monkey rubs an anthill, it does not become an antelope (see 1977–8 exh. cat., p. 152). Sword ornaments showing a viper catching a hornbill refer to patience, a meaning understood only in the light of a folktale about a debt, a drought and the viper's long wait at the world's last waterhole, where the debtor hornbill had to come to drink (see 1977–8 exh. cat., p. 16).

Such examples are selected from thousands. It should be remembered that, within and across ethnic groups, variations of meaning arise out of local interpretations that are repeated and then harden into convention. In addition, of course, both the images used and their meanings are subject to temporal change. A further level of complication is introduced by the range of images produced, from highly schematic, compressed symbols to more elaborate representational images.

(iii) Perceived functions.

Leaders throughout Africa have long used animal imagery to consolidate, symbolize, and broadcast their powers. In the kingdom of Benin (see Benin, Kingdom of), for example, the divine king, court and chiefs have used brass, ivory, and some wooden animal sculptures for about 500 years to express values, contrasts and hierarchies seen as parallel in human and natural realms. As P. Ben-Amos puts it (1976, p. 244): 'The ontological distinction between human and animal is expressed symbolically in art, myth, and ritual in the contrast between their respective spheres of activity—the home (the social world of the village) versus the bush (the wild forest areas)'. Within each sphere, relationships are hierarchical and orderly: the king dominates home and bush, day, and night, as the leopard, elephant, crocodile, and eagle dominate their species and habitats. The more accessible, docile, or domestic animals—cow, mudfish, fowl, goat, ram—are associated with home and commoners and may be freely sacrificed, while only the king may sacrifice his mythological and metaphorical counterpart, the leopard, a frequent symbol of royal strength. Images of animals abound in Benin as free-standing brass shrine sculpture, on high-relief plaques used as architectural decoration and on such ritual implements as diviners' staffs. Depictions on the latter include animals considered dangerous and liminal—snakes, chameleon, frogs, and the night heron—because they violate boundaries and order. Their magical powers come from the bush, and they, or their unseen spirits, are invoked firstly by leaders to help them govern, secondly by diviners to read omens, heal, and fight witches, and thirdly by witches themselves to hurt or kill.

Leopard, buffalo, elephant, and eagle sculptures are common in the kingdoms of West Africa (Akan, Fon, Yoruba, Cameroon Grassfields), and in other less famous chiefdoms (see 1992 exh. cat.). Such emblems occur frequently in regalia and are supplemented by such tangible parts of the animals as skins, horns, tusks, and feathers. Depictions of these animals and their parts relate to leadership in many cultures. Also, although less frequently, the lion, shark, python, crocodile, pangolin, scorpion, and other creatures serve as leadership and power symbols. Given that leaders are overwhelmingly the major patrons of African artists, it is not surprising that much animal imagery, directly or indirectly, refers to leaders' putative qualities.

A general distinction can be made between the uses of animal symbols by paramount leaders in large, hierarchical polities and the animal imagery seen among more egalitarian societies. In the former, many of the animals are emblematic, conveying fairly simple political messages to the people. In smaller-scale cultures, on the other hand, animal imagery has stronger spiritual orientations and concerns itself with the complexities of social relationships in daily life, with fertility, the food supply, and threats to the socio-spiritual order. Animal emblems in Fon or Akan kingdoms refer mostly to the varied powers of different kings, while for the Bamana and Senufo animal motifs are constellations of spirit forces, many from the bush (savannah or forest) rather than the village.

The physical, mystical, and metaphorical powers of animals are especially evident in masquerades (see §VI, 4 below). In general, masquerades are more important in non-hierarchical societies than they are in large, centralized kingdoms, although there are exceptions to this tendency (e.g. the Yoruba and Cameroon kingdoms). Masks act as embodiments of unseen spiritual forces and are used to initiate, instruct, regulate, and entertain. All masking cultures have animal masks that use dance and music, mime, free interpretation, and even satire to amplify the character of the animal spirits: antelopes are majestically acrobatic, goats are lewd and stupid, buffaloes are marauding bullies. The danced character sometimes alludes only to the animal, but more often it also refers to human traits, for it is playing in an arena of belief and social force that it seeks to emulate, mock, idealize, or otherwise influence.

Although masks may refer to single animals, artists often interpret these creatures freely, using a kind of structural shorthand. This stylized, symbolic nature is exemplified by the elephant masks danced by Bamileke (Cameroon) and Kuba peoples (Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaïre). Bamileke examples are made of beaded appliqué over cloth, the trunk is a long rectangular panel, and the ears are large circular discs (see also Bamileke and related peoples). These are worn with sumptuous royal cloths by noble, wealthy members of Elephant societies. They are deputized by kings, and in former times the maskers had powerful regulatory and executive roles. Mukyeem masks, used by leaders among Kuba-related peoples (see Kuba), are humanoid helmets made of such prestigious materials as leopard-skin, with a schematic bead and cowrie-covered elephant trunk springing from the crown of the head. In both instances rich costume materials and abbreviated elephant references project the wealth, dignity, grandeur, and authority of chiefs.

Composite animal masks are common in West Africa, if less prevalent than those referring to specific species. Several cultures (Baga, Toma, Senufo, Baule, Bamana, Bobo, and others) have variations on horizontally or diagonally worn three-part (horns, head, snout) masks, which are often a metre or more in length. Because both the artistic structure and the symbolism of such masks are similar, they may all have developed from a single form. Various aspects of crocodile, antelope, buffalo, and wart-hog are imaginatively combined in these composite masks, often with human eyes and noses and sometimes with added eagle feathers and porcupine quills. Most represent aggressive bush spirits, who operate as messengers and mediators in a zone between the gods and mankind, between wild nature and ordered civilization. These bristling, ferocious, magic-laden power-images, often considered ugly and dangerous, are invoked for social benefit by elders and others in authority and are danced in rituals to combat witchcraft, disease, and other forms of evil and disorder.

Numerous animal images decorate the instruments used by diviners and other ritual specialists. Acting as mediators, oracles, and doctors, they tap the esoteric, charged realms of nature and its sources of spiritual energy and arcane knowledge and bring their wisdom to the service of mankind. Pythons, turtles, chameleons, and certain birds serve these specialists and figure in their shrines and equipment because their zone-crossing (i.e. land to water) qualities and their consequent intermediary existence suit the role of messenger between the spirit and human realms. Senufo diviners use images of pythons in mud reliefs, as portable props in shrines, and in amuletic jewellery worn by ritual specialists and some of their clients. Small brass castings of simplified python, chameleon, tortoise, lizard, mudfish, and other animal motifs are worn as protective and redemptive charms by Senufo, Lobi, and other peoples. These symbols of zoomorphic spirits, often mentioned in creation myths, are accorded a variety of special traits. Common among them is their ability to transform themselves into human beings and to cause and cure physical and mental disorders. The mysteries and energies of the animal kingdom are repeatedly brought to bear in the uncertain realm of human affairs in man's ceaseless effort to rebalance the cosmos and maintain health in the specific human body and in the body politic.


7. Equestrian imagery.

  • Herbert M. Cole

Ownership of a horse in tropical Africa indicates affluence. The wealth, elevation, and speed represented by the rider and his mount derive not only from the power and swiftness of a warrior on horseback but also from the symbolic power of a leader or spirit personage. Riders are literally and figuratively superior beings, higher than their animal mounts and dominant over the common people. Such dominance is more important than mobility alone, and African equestrian sculpture thus expresses ideology and belief more than it depicts daily life. The identity of the rider depicted in sculptures varies. In many cases he may be a spirit, a deity, or a legendary ancestor. Some are actual ancestors, while others are feared and respected alien leaders from the 'north', whence horses originally came. Rider sculptures may also commemorate élite hunters, warriors and chiefs. Equestrians appear on rulers' staffs and sceptres and on a number of Yoruba and Senufo doors that were the property of kings and chiefs and symbolized their prestige, wealth and patronage. Most, however, were housed in shrines, where they reflected the powers and leadership traits attributed to spirits and deities, not to mention the authoritative positions of patron priests and priestesses. Sometimes shrine sculptures represented deities, but just as often they depicted worshippers.

The materials, styles, and forms of these works vary considerably. The most common sculptural medium is wood, followed by bronze, then wrought iron, terracotta, and unfired clay. In such exceptional cases as the large bronze castings from Benin (e.g. London, BM), both rider and beast are rendered in naturalistic detail. Simplification and generalization, however, are more usual, especially in the representation of the animal. Indeed these images were frequently conceived as metaphors; horses may thus look more like crocodiles or dogs or unidentifiable quadrupeds with tails and elongated heads. The fact that horse and rider symbolize spirits may help to account for their non-specific character. Other renderings often appear schematic and highly distorted anatomically. The rider is frequently rendered on a larger scale, overwhelming the animal and manifesting what may be called ideological scale, since the human is more significant than the beast.

Among the earliest equestrian sculptures are large ceramic images from Djenné and other sites in the inland delta of the Niger River, dating perhaps to ad 1000. Although these have little firm cultural data accompanying them, it is probable that their riders were prominent leaders. Such peoples of the Western Sudan as the Bamana, Dogon, and Senufo and the Yoruba of Nigeria were Africa's most prolific producers of equestrian statuary. In the areas occupied by these peoples horses were able to survive, whereas in most forested regions they fell prey to diseases borne by the tsetse fly. Despite the hostile environment, however, some leaders of forest peoples imported horses to ride in occasional ceremonies for heightened prestige, for example the Oba of Benin, divine king of the Edo people of southern Nigeria.

Mythology and the legendary ancestors that populate their creation stories 'explain' equestrian imagery among the Dogon, the Bamana, and the nearby Senufo of Mali and Burkina Faso. Dogon equestrians in the form of small, cast-brass finger-rings, as well as larger wooden images of horsemen, probably depict the mythic, primordial hogon, called Lebe, whose priestly, human counterpart is a ritual and temporal leader of great importance. Probably employed as display pieces in shrines, these equestrian images have a wealth of associations set forth in myth, including fertility and the origin of death, as well as referring to wealth, chiefship, and leadership in warfare. Bamana art from Mali includes numerous wrought-iron shrine sculptures of equestrians (e.g. New York, Met.; Paris, Mus. N.A. Afr. & Océan.), which were manufactured by the powerful blacksmith group who act as prominent priests, educators, diviners, and doctors and thus hold critical leadership positions. Iron horsemen represent the smiths and their mythical forebears in their roles as ritual specialists responsible for harnessing and directing spiritual energy for the benefit of society.

In common with other African peoples, the Senufo associate horses with leadership, wealth, status, hunting, and militarism. Riders sculpted by Senufo artists are often armed with spears or hold guns at the ready. They represent the multi-dimensional powers of forest or bush spirits. In equestrian statuary a bush spirit is appropriately shown as a forceful, well-armed leader, since these spirits are capricious, fast-travelling, nocturnal, mysterious, and aggressive. Senufo equestrian figures are executed in many sizes, using wood, brass, and sometimes iron, and they appear on the clay façades of shrines and carved in relief on doors and locks. Such figures are optional display pieces in a diviner's or priest's shrine, where, like much display sculpture in African shrines, they connote luxury, good taste, and prestige (see Glaze, p. 72). Although the equestrian theme is not found in all leadership contexts, wherever the rider occurs the power of leadership is being evoked.

Yoruba equestrians provide the most varied and numerous examples of the rider theme. The forms they take are diverse—small, schematic renderings, sculptures elaborated far beyond observable realities, monumental figures—and they appear as shrine statuary, mask superstructures, divination objects and house-posts and doors for palaces and shrines. Although meanings vary, the power of leaders, whether divine or temporal, is always implicit. Updated versions of the theme, for example cyclists, are also found, especially on doors. Equestrian figures are favoured subjects in the large Yoruba Epa and Elefon helmet masks that are danced in the Ekiti region. The rider here is often identified as the culture hero and warrior Jagunjagun and is depicted as a chief equipped for battle, sometimes with retainers at his side, ideologically scaled down. Ironically perhaps, these massive headdresses themselves 'ride' on the heads of agile young men as they dance a masquerade that, as one of its meanings, identifies them as bearers of their culture, extolling heroes and upholding, as it were, its ancient values. Equestrian figures also support Yoruba divination bowls, which themselves support and contain the sacred palm kernels used by diviners. Such diviners' bowls are understood to be temples of Orunmila (see Fagg and Pemberton, p. 64), and the equestrian theme implies the elevated status of this crucial god of divination, who imparts balance, control, and order to a world beset by chaos and mystery. As the divination bowl supports the diviner's implements, so equestrian house-posts in the palaces of Yoruba kings support the edifice of kingship: ancestral heroes uphold the powers and privileges of divine rulers, who are thereby elevated and idealized in the eyes of their people.

Socio-spiritual aggrandizement and propaganda are no doubt factors among the Yoruba and others in the production of equestrian figures. Yet much more is involved, reaching deeply into the values and psychology of the people. The exercise of power by leaders and the response of those led are complex and critical factors in African life: equestrian statuary has had important, multi-dimensional roles in projecting and reinforcing these values.


8. Tricksters.

In Africa tricksters figure prominently, not only in oral narrative and in such visual representations as those of the Yoruba deity Eshu/Elegba but also in philosophic and aesthetic concepts expressed through iconographic and morphological elements.

(i) Concepts.

A character in universal folklore, the trickster personifies apparent disorder. He is the enemy of fixed hierarchies and boundaries, ordered social and sexual roles and categorical separations. In psychological terms, he is the undifferentiated energy of the unconscious. In whatever form and medium he is made manifest, the trickster expands the terms of discourse by introducing what is selfishly desired within the fixed boundaries of what is socially permitted (see Kerenyi, p. 185). In African folklore and mythology, the trickster is realized diversely in trickster deities, in such characters as enfants terribles and, most elementally and pervasively, in tales about such morphologically ambiguous animals as Ananse the spider of the Akan, Hlakanyana the mongoose of the Southern Nguni, the mantis of the Khoisan, the hare of the Wolof, and the Kagura or the tortoise of the Guinea Coast. The list could be extended to all African groups, since trickster tales are quantitatively the most numerous in African oral narrative traditions. Nevertheless, physical representations of these animal tricksters are surprisingly scarce: the Tiv of central Nigeria fabricate a copy of the hare trickster for their Kwagh Hir puppet tradition, the Nupe of the lower Niger valley of Nigeria create aluminium tortoises for the tourist markets, and wax printed cloths throughout West Africa are now adorned with images of the spider. Contemporary versions of the animal trickster are likely to be borrowed from universal mass-media imagery, which has spread depictions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck almost everywhere, from the walls of ice-cream shops in Mogadishu, Somalia, to commemorative stamps in Sierra Leone.

Implicit in the dualistic concept of order and disorder that generates the trickster character is the 'principle of opposition', which operates at the core of many African cultures. The animal trickster is most representative of this principle in oral tradition, but African artists have also expressed the principle in diverse material forms. Thus in their construction of Eyima, the Fang of Gabon incorporate into wooden ancestral figures such infantile features as large head and torso, disproportionately small legs, a protruding stomach, and a ruptured umbilicus. These contradictory qualities of infantile physical features in an ancestral figure give the Eyima a vitality it would not have if it were simply a figure of an aged person or an infant (see Fernandez, pp. 365–6). In African mythology, the same disproportion between the physical and the spiritual is realized in such diminutive or crippled heroes as Mwindo of the Nyanga of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre) and Sundiata of the Mande. Like the Eyima and all trickster figures, these epic heroes achieve power by disregarding the categorical separation between youthful energy and the cunning of age.

The Tabwa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Zambia use a generic term (mulalambo) to express this principle of opposition, which they perceive in all phenomena, from the Milky Way's division of the sky to the fine line (linea nigra) that splits the human belly from navel to genitals. Tabwa artists give physical expression to this dualistic principle in the two-faced figures they carve on staffs, whisks, headrests, and medicine containers (see Roberts, p. 31). Defying categorical separation by incorporating double-faced motifs, these diverse objects are used ritually to effect transitions from one state to another, and such expressions of transition as gates, doorways, and the advent of a new year are the special province of the African trickster.

Since tricksters respect no boundaries or social conventions, their spirit is manifested in satiric and derisive images. The Mende of Sierra Leone and Liberia mock the Suwi masker, their most sacred image of female beauty, by sometimes making her dance with Gonde, a grotesque parody often constructed from a discarded Suwi mask embellished with junk (Cosentino). For similarly satirical reasons, the Egungun cult of ancestral power and entertainment among the Yoruba of south-western Nigeria brings out a mask called Big Nose. In sunlight its eyes become opaque, its mouth a lipless gash over stumps of teeth. All organic detail is obliterated down to the bone structure. Yoruba audiences laugh at this misshapen horror, and thus Big Nose satirizes the pompous and vain, mirroring their spiritual distortions with physical ones (see Thompson, 1971, p. 379). Both of these 'anti-masquerade' figures highlight the artificiality of categorical divisions, the trickster's special target.

(ii) Eshu/Elegba complex.
  • Donald J. Cosentino

Figure Representing the Male Deity Eshu, wood, cowrie shells, 432×184×140 mm, Yoruba culture, Made in Guinea Coast, Republic of Benin, Nigeria, late 19th–early 20th century (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection, Ascension ID: 2006.51.198); image credit: Yale University Art Gallery

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Yoruba culture provides the most complete realization of the trickster in African art. In folktales, the Yoruba celebrate the misadventures of the tortoise Ijapa (or Obarun), whose motif analogues may be found throughout Congo–Kordofonian oral narrative traditions. But the Yoruba go on to attribute cosmic dimensions to the trickster. In a complex of myths, festival performance, and ritual art, they celebrate the apotheosis of the trickster deity, who is known as either Eshu or Elegba, interchangeably (see fig.). The trickster traits already described—animal cunning, the contrarieties of Gonde or Eyima, the perversity of Big Nose, the liminality of the Tabwa double-faced figure—all reach full development in Eshu/Elegba. His cult has spread from its Nigerian homeland westward to the Fon kingdom of Dahomey, to the Ewe of Togo and Ghana, and across the Atlantic to the diaspora African American communities in Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti (see §VIII below).

Areogun-Yanna of Osi-llorin: Mask, “The Owner of the Deep-Set Eyes” (Oloju Foforo), Surmounted by a Figure of the Priestess of the Goddess Oshun, wood, pigment, string, and fiber, 940×371×160 mm, early to mid-20th century (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection, Ascension ID: 2006.51.298); image credit: Yale University Art Gallery

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In Yorubaland, Eshu takes his p