traditional african art from
The name Cameroon originates from the Portuguese word Camaroes (prawns), which were abundant in the Woury River Estuary. In English usage the word Cameroons referred to the nearby mountain range. It is only in 1894 that the Germans used the name Kamerun for the whole of the country.
Tropical rainforest in the south slowly gives way to savanna in the central regions and semi-desert in the North. There are hundreds of distinct tribes in Cameroon. The Bamileke, Bamoun, and Tikar in the central regions who all share common ancestry are the most populous, and also art historically the most important. In their respective kingdoms art was an important part of their culture and was regularly renewed and created for the enhancement of the kings.
The Fulani in the North are very strict and conservative Moslems where the creation of images is not allowed. In the Northwest are the Kirdi tribes whose culture is more closely linked to neighbouring Nigeria. In the southern rain forest, the Fang, the Bulu, and many others including a fair number of pygmy tribes share their heritage more with the neighbouring people of Gabon and the Congo.
male & female bronze leopards
Tikar Kingdom of Bankim, Cameroon
In most West African kingdoms the leopard is revered as a sacred animal, the animal of royalty, and was portrayed as the symbol of the kings power. In many cases bronze leopard castings represented the royal family, and this is quite evident here as well, with both statues looking equally like superb animals but also with an air of divine humanity which leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
These bronze leopaeds were given by the Tikar Chief Mvessia (1914-1944) to Njitoyap, a Bamoun teacher who was also Chief Mvessia’s son in law. The gift was in acknowledgement of the contribution Njitovap had made to the Kingdom of Bankim in terms of education for more than 15 years before he returned to his native Foumban in 1942, where he has kept the artefacts as sacred.
male & female bronze leopards
female leopard with young
Tikar Kingdom of Bankim, Cameroon
Njitoyap started out as a boy servant to one of the great Bamoun king Njoya’s cousins before he became a revered teacher. In those days only commoners were sent to school as royalties were not prepared to have their sons subjected to degrading and disgraceful floggings to which learners were subjected in those days.
Mbankim, one of the main centres of the Tikar kingdom is said to have been founded in 1201, but only became recognised officially in 1653 when the dynasty and monarchy was registered officially. Chief Mvessia who donated the leopard statues took over from his father Gah in 1914. Both statues come to me directly from Njitoyap’s heirs and have never changed hands before.
LARGE BATCHAM MASK
Wood, Height 100cm
These headdress masks were originally thought to originate from the Batcham area only (hence the name), but they have since frequently been found in all the Bamileke regions of Cameroon. The masks were held up high and used only at royal functions of the local Fon (king), mainly for enthronement and burial purposes. New masks were created with the succession of each new Fon. I have heard locals refer to the masks as chairs, the assumption is that the old masks which were created for the previous king were afterwards used as chairs. Dark wood patina, excellent condition.
SMALL BATCHAM MASK
Wood, Height 56cm
This kind of very special head dress mask was traditionally made and presented at the birth of every new royal son. The wood is of a light patina, which has softened with age, but still in excellent condition, except for a small part of the nose which is slightly chipped off and a tiny part of the left ear lobe. Every detail is superbly executed. Looking at the mask from all angles, front, back, and sides, every aspect is masterfully crafted and proportioned. This is definitely one of my favourite pieces.
Height 58cm, Wood, metal inlay
The Bulu live in the tropical forests of Southern Cameroon and are closely related to the Fang. Monkeys were adored by the Bulu. Pregnant women were encouraged to eat monkey meat, hoping that some of the monkeys many positive attributes would get transmitted to the new born. This pipe is an exquisitely crafted piece of art with amazing attention to detail, especially so on the sitting monkey which creates the base of the pipe. The inside of the bowl is lined with sheet metal. It is made from hard wood and is quite heavy. Excellent condition.
DOG'S HEAD MASK
Wood, Length 44cm
Mambila, Cameroon, Nigeria
The Mambila live in the northwestern region of Cameroon. They produce a large number of ancestor statues and very simplistic, but extremely powerful masks, most of them with very pronounced animal features, very often like this particular mask in the shape of a dog’s head. These masks were worn at tribal dances celebrating the end of the planting season. The leading dancer is followed by a row of assistants wearing dog’s head or cow’s head masks. Very good condition.
Wood, White pigment, Height 79cm
Mambila, Cameroon, Nigeria
Most Mambila statues are representing ancestors who were revered as being responsible for the wealth and wellbeing of all people. Most statues have heart shaped flat facial features. Wooden pegs were regularly used as design elements, representing hair or any other important features. The Mambila have lived on the same highland plateau in Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon for more than 4000 years. Over this period they have developed their unique style of art using mainly wood and ceramic materials. This statue is in perfect condition.
Wood, white pigment, 36cm
Mambila, Cameroon, Nigeria
At dance ceremonies the Mambila used to wear animal inspired headmasks, in this case crocodiles which were quite numerous in their region. The masks were paraded at annual tribal dances to commemorate the planting season. A very old and powerful mask, the wood is softened by age, but this only gives it a stronger appeal. It is quite unusual to find Janus type masks like this one with the front and back representing open jaws.
ROUND CEREMONIAL SHIELD
Wood, 54cm diameter
A very striking shield with bold design elements and colours. These shields were produced on the occasions of victory celebrations and were paraded by young would be warriors.
This is a very powerful display of a couple, symbolising their unity, as such joined onto one central leg. This joining of the leg has been used repeatedly in the display of couples, including on some famous old Benin bronze statues.
Wood, Height 58cm
Bulu, Southern Cameroon
Ngi in the local language of the Bulu is the name for the Gorilla, a fearful animal. The gorilla spirit was believed to watch human life and behaviour from the forest and punish any perceived transgressions during the night. A special Ngi ritual was performed against this sourcery. The Bulu are closely related to the Fang and similarities to traditional Fang sculptures can be seen in this statue, like the way the gorilla is resting on his legs and the arms meeting at the stomach. Like many African sculptures it combines both human and animal features. The double row of eyes is probably emphasising the belief that the Ngi are constantly watching the people of the village and nothing is hidden from them. The statue has a carefully created coarse patina, indicating a gorilla’s hairy skin.
DANCING ROYAL COUPLE
Wood, Cowrie shells, Height 97cm
The Bangwa are one of the smaller tribes in the Cameroon grassland and form a small kingdom within the much larger Bamileke society. The kingdom consists of only 9 chiefdoms. The portrayal of the dancing Queen is a well known subject of Bangwa art, but it is quite rare to see statues of the royal couple together. The intricately crafted decoration with cowrie shells makes the figures come alive, one can actually sense the rhythmic movement of the arms and legs.
ngon helmet mask
Oku kingdom, Northwestern Grasslands, Cameroon, Height 52cm
This helmet mask is only allowed to be worn by the king. It symbolises the power the king has over the entire population. At the base of the mask would be a dried grass attachment to fit around the head. The mask also symbolises the richness, abundance and wealth in the kingdom, displayed through the almost cheerful and exuberant depiction of people in togetherness building a new home. A very rare piece. My friend Salim has visited the remote Oku village 5 times between 1997 and 2002 and thanks to him do we know the full story behind this exquisite piece, which at first doesn’t look like a mask at all.
Wood, animal hide, Height 125cm
Ceremonial drums with elaborate carvings are valuable objects in traditional African culture. The large size and the multiple carvings bear testimony to the importance of this drum. The well used leather hide on top gives a sense of usage right up to the recent past.
Wood, Beads, Cowrie shells, Height 50cm
This exquisitly decorated stool would have belonged to a very important person, closely related to the royal household, as most traditional art in the kingdoms was to enhance the image of the king. The seating part is supported by two leopards, the animals of royalty, and by two male figures, probably slaves.
The Namji are famous for their beautiful wooden dolls adorned with numerous multi coloured items. They display very creative usage of beads, shells, and a great feeling for colour. These dolls were traditionally given to brides at wedding ceremonies, as they were believed to enhance the bride’s fertility.
RIDERS ON HORSE
Bronze, Height 28cm
The Sao Kingdom to the south of Lake Chad was at the height of it’s power between the 11th and 16th centuries when large populations lived in walled cities. Important artefacts from that time have been found in this now sparsely populated area. The three riders seem to represent two armed warriors with a captured enemy.
SAO FETISH FIGURE
Terracotta, metal, wood, Height 30cm
Many terracotta pieces of old Sao history have been found over the years and are still being discovered today. The interpretation or meaning for most of them is mostly very unclear. This elaborate sculpture was obviously an important spiritual statue created to shield against, and also to get rid of bad spirits.
Wood, Height 180cm
These tusks were originally created for, and were in possession of the Nji-Nfou family. Nji was a famous princess of the Bamun and a special favourite daughter of King Njoya (1860-1933). She went to study Islam in the area of Adamaouwa, and later got married to Vji-Njudam who was first Imam to king Seidou (1902-1992). After his death the tusks were passed on to his son Amadou Rengou, who was Imam of the Central mosque of the Bamoun court in Foumban, while the tusks remained at the original homestead. After he passed away his assets were left jointly to his daughter Rongou and his son Rengou.
Wood, Height 200cm
At a royal ceremony quite recently, the couple were officially introduced and elevated as members of the royal court by King Sultan Ibrahim Mbobo Mbobo in Foumban. In a quite complicated scenario, the brother is the official leader of his clan, but is not allowed to make any decisions without approval by his sister. Both decided to relinquish the tusk which were still at the original homestead of Princess Nji from her marriage in Tikar land. They approached my friend Salifou Mboumbou Mpetit to find a new home. The wood has become softer over the years. and some sections have tropical lichen grown onto them, but this makes the piece even more exciting.
Wood,metal, Height 80cm
A very old and extensively used pipe.
Wood, Height 111cm
Diviner statue with separate lid
Wood, horn, leather, pigment, Height 170cm
The Ekoi people of western Cameroon and south eastern Nigeria are the only people in the area who used to cover wooden masks with skin. It is said that historically human skin from enemies or slaves was used as cover material, we don’t know if this is true, but later on this was definitely changed to antelope hide. The Ejagham people live in the southwestern corner of Cameroon and also across the border in Nigeria along the Cross river.
Wood,horns, leather, pigment Height 170cm
Janus faced masks like this one where normally worn with the dark (male) side, in this case blue, facing forward and the lighter female side to the rear. Helmet masks which are decorated with horns are depicting an elegant female hairstyle, said to represent a beautiful young woman that is ready for marriage. Both these masks are very old and there are only small scraps of some bits of original leather covering left behind.
Wood, Beads, Height 50cm
This beautiful beaded table, also sometimes used as a stool, comes from the village Lebia-Allem in north western Cameroon where it was part of the inheritance of the local chief. The four legs are constructed with powerful buffalo heads and a striking geometric pattern is displayed on top. The Kom live in the north western mountainous regions of Cameroon, close to the border with Nigeria. The Kom are rule by the Fon (king) who is assisted by a council of elders. Every village on the kingdom is governed by a chief. These chiefs, advised by the elders are responsible for selecting the Fon.
Wood,beads, Height 80cm
This unusual statue comes from the Lay-Nkum village. It was carved by the village’s master carver Tata Nqwen George after the first pornographic images made their appearance in the area. Apparently that was in 1906. The piece was later officially handed over to the settlements chief traditional healer where it was used to assist in treating impotence of men. The beaded table and the pornographic study look similar in style and finish, so it is assumed that both were created by Tata Nqwen George. Both pieces are in superb conition.
wood, height 58cm
It is almost inconceivable that the image above and the one on the right are actually the same identical mask. Three powerful guardian warriors present the crownlike top with two sets of tusks framing the face. The set of wide teeth could belong to a gorilla while the round eyes remind of a buffalo. The nose is created in typical Bamileke style and is sometimes shaped as a reminder of male sexual organs.
wood, height 58cm
This mask comes from my friend Abraham who treasured it for many decades as an important gift from his father, who was given this mask in 1960, when he spent many years travelling through Central Africa passing on his knowledge to the locals.
WOOD, ANIMAL HIDE,FIBRES, height 71cm
A very worn and used old drum. Lizard images are carved around the upper section and antelope heads around the lower part. The lower section is quite eroded, probably from standing on wet soil for a long period, but the drum still balances on it’s legs and stands upright. Drums were used for sending messages to the people of the local village, but also to inform neighbouring clans, and of course for providing the rythmic beat in many celebratory functions.
ivory, length 47cm
These tusks belonged to a Bamun noble hunter called Munchi, who migrated to Magba on the right bank of the Mbam river where he settled with all his belongings, close to the home of his cousins in 1938. These tusks were prominently displayed in his sitting room to show off the exploits of his hunting. It is not known when exactly they were carved, all we know is that they were already in his belonging when he moved in 1938.
wOOD, height 50cm
Most statues of the Bamileke as well as their neighbours, the Bamun and the Tikar were created for the royal household. The majority were ancestor figures or included the king, his wives and attendants. This Hunters statue is quite unusual and demonstrates that hunters occupied a prestigious position in the Bamileke society. This hunter used to carry a spear in the right hand, which together with a knife were the traditional hunting weapons. The statue is executed perfectly with realistic detail and a tense stance ready to attack or defend himself. A strange phenomenon are the oddly shaped feet which must have a deeper meaning which we are unaware of.
wood, height 76cmcm
The Sao enjoyed an old and long lasting civilisation in the area around Lake Chad. The sculpture displays the typical raised arms victory sign of Sao war leaders. The Sao civilisation flourished in Central Africa from the 6th century to the 16th century. Unfortunately there is no written history, but artefacts show skilled works in copper, iron, and ceramics. Today several ethnic groups claim descendancy of the Sao, especially the Sara, so this wooden figure will in all probability stem from them, people who live in the area of the Sao kingdom.
Terracotta, black paint height 28cm
These 2 pots are part of a very old collection. Here is the history. Nji Pamfeyouo was known as a powerful healer who had the gift of knowing the virtues of herbs for treating mankind. He officially held the title of NKOM (member of the royal council, in charge of traditional affairs) until his death in 1982. Like so many noble men in African society, he was polygamous and a father of many sons.
One of his sons was Chouaibou Njoya Nkuandi. Struck by severe illness, his family gave him the authority to dispose some of his fathers artefacts in order to raise money for his treatment.
Terracotta, pigment, Height 38cm
Unfortunately he passed away while seeking medical assistance, but not before he had contacted my good friend Abraham Njoya who was recommended to him as the most honourable and knowledgeable art dealer in the country. In his true passionate fashion Abraham committed himself to raise enough money to at least cover the costs for the removal of the corpse to Cameroon. The pottery comes originally from Nigeria where it was in possession of a famous hunter called Munchi who later on resided in Tikar country until he relocated back to Bamoun territory in 1938. The pots were probably created by one of his wives. and were given to NKOM Nji Pamfeyoua for his healing services.
Terracotta,ochre and white paint,height 15cm
The Mambila occupy the regions north of the Cameroon Grasslands and across the border into Nigeria. These figures are in typical Mambila style with bulging eyes, wide open mouth and raised bumps all over the body. The statue on the right is female with a baby sitting on her shoulders, while the shorter figure on the left is more mystical, showing no signs of sexuality and has a long elongated baby figure stretched all over the body, while raising it’s short arms in a gesture of a specific jubilant meaning.
Wood, Height 35cm
The stool comes from Foumban in the Cameroon Grasslands, the heartland of the Bamun kingdom. It belonged to Nji Mboumbou Arouna Idriss, a nobleman in the tier of princes of the Bamoun kingdom, and direct descendant of King Ibrahim Njoya (1860-1933). The spider is the traditional symbol of both wisdom and safety, a well cherished characteristic by the Bamun royalty and nobility. The chair was brought to South Africa by his son as a very special personal item and was handed over to me directly from him.