traditional african art from
This covers a large area from the Atlantic in the West up to Nigeria in the East, and Mali to the North. Some of the most prolific creators of art were the Dan, the Baule and the Senufo in the Ivory Coast, the Mossi and related tribes in Burkina Faso, and the Dogon and the Bamara further north in Mali.
The heritage and the religion of all the people covered in this region is so vastly different that they can’t really be lumped together, except for the one reason of geographical location over a very widespread area.
The Mossi name of these totem style masks is Karanga. The masks were worn at funeral ceremonies, where they honoured the deceased and allowed the spirit to depart on the long journey to the land of the ancestors. The pattern on this very tall mask represents the “path of the ancestors”. The graphic lines and shapes illustrate the various rules which the living need to obey in order to receive the blessings of the ancestors. The crocodile was one of the protector spirits who would watch over a particular clan, so the mask belonged to the whole clan and not to any individual. The mask is worn upside down with the tail towards the sky.
These masks were held on the shoulders of the dancers, as they are too tall to wear for a long period of time. They are representing a spirit called A-MANTSHO-NGA-TSHOL, mostly displayed as a snake, which is the patron of the To-lom society, the society which is responsible for initiation ceremonies. It is a very colourful mask even though the colours have faded over time. The mask is in excellent condition, except for one area which has deteriorated as a patch of wood on the side has gone soft because of prolonged contact with moisture. The whole impact of the mask is that of a stunning and extremely decorative piece of art.
These plank masks, called Loniake, are unique to the Tussian in south western Burkina Faso. During initiation ceremonies, the initiate wears complete head and body covers based on his personal traits, in this case a bird. He then imitates his animal namesake as close as possible, the bird initiate will spread his arms like wings, while the warthog mask, as an example, will roll in the mud and grunt. This provided lots of fun and laughter for the spectators. Only blacksmiths were allowed to carve these wooden masks
The Bambara have various male societies who are responsible for preparing boys for manhood. Each society has it own area of expertise with it’s relevant types of mask. Antelope masks are worn when teaching the boys to farm, as the antelopes in Bambara mythology were the mythical beings who gave humans the knowledge of farming. Unlike the famous crest marks, which feature the typical long antelope horns, this is a face mask and of a very delicate design with some outstanding and unusual details.
The Dogon have moved to their present location around a large plateau in the 16th century. Most of their villages are built into the escarpment cliffs on the southern edge. These two statues are religious and cultural ancestor pieces. The sculptor evokes the spirit of the ancestors with proven traditional concepts and style. Typically in Dogon art, precedence is given to powerful form over appealing details. These statues are thought to interpret and reflect on events in the Dogon mythology as a reminder and guide for the living.
Dogon masks evoke the form of animals associated with their mythology. All masks have large geometric eyes and stylized features. This is a very powerful mask, emphasised by the simplicity of the design and the lovely contrast between the smooth facial parts and the foreboding rough forehead. At first sight the mask might look more like a monkey’s head, but the long jaw and snout reveals the crocodile. This simplified stylisation is typical for most of Dogon art and distinguishes it as being unique to them.
Dogon art is very versatile. Dogon people residing West of the traditional cliff dwellings have been influenced by the Bambara and Bobo for many years which is evident in the features of this statue with its crested coiffure, angular body configuration, hanging ears which are pierced to hold metal rings, and other finer details quite unrelated to pure Dogon tradition.
Bugle masks were actually made to frighten people and were displayed during pre-war ceremonies. The mask shows characteristic features with horns on the forehead over strongly emphasised eyes and an exaggerated mouth. To emphasise the war-like atmosphere, the dancers created disturbances and disarray amongst the onlookers in order to create maximum impact.
This type of mask is also known as a racing mask. It is typical for it’s large circular eyes, which are enhanced with the metal sheeting. At celebrations, the wearer of this mask was chased by unmasked runners. If a chaser wins, then he in turn wears the mask and will be pursued by others. Traditionally these races were used for the training of men to fight, and the winners gained tremendous social recognition. Nowadays it is a fun sport, but the winners are still being celebrated.
Toma masks usually have the crocodile jaw shape with very basic stylisised human face features. The masks were mainly used at initiation functions and were kept in individual households. Alternatively they were also used for the initiation of members to the secretive Poro society. This mask is a very typical stylised mask, displaying the two horns on top with pointed ears and a square protruding forehead, while the facial features of mouth and nose are extremely abstract.
These important masks were only created by men who had been initiated into the Poro society. The masks are particularly prized and valued not only for their rarity and extensive and elaborate style but also for their high ritualistic importance. Only one is made for each village and preserved with that village for a long time. A common feature in traditional Dan masks are the quite beautiful and serene facial features and expressions. At creation the masks were immersed in mud to create the particular velvet like smooth finish.
The Grebo are an ethnic subgroup within the larger Kru society. The Grebo are ruled by a chief known as Bodio, who lives in the forest in near total isolation from his people. Characteristic features of Grebo masks are a long elongated nose and tubular eyes. Many masks have more than two eyes. These masks are representing ancestors who have the ability to see and judge peoples daily coming and going, and nothing can hiode from them. An unusual and interesting feature of this particular mask is the mouth in the shape of a birds beak.
Gere masks were worn during festivities, celebrations and at preparations for war. This mask was used to single out guilty culprits. It’s power is demonstrated by the protruding horns which are reinforced with rows of round metal pins. The domed forehead and the double row of ears, all to make it look fearsome, are other typical features of “detective masks”.
Another frightening looking mask, used to single out guilty persons. The Gere are closely related to the Wobe and Bete, and while there are similarities in style, the protruding horns are found only on Gere style masks and are a feature of these “detective masks”, probably in the belief that the horns added to the ability to discover the guilty culprits.
A typical bedstead which was used by a noble men of the Baule society. A very basic design with a raised headrest. Most people slept on the ground, which means that the original owner of the bed must definitely have been an influential person.
Carved, engraved and painted doors were widely used in the Baule society. In most cases human figures, various animals and symbolic images were combined, not just to look attractive, but for the main purpose of shielding the house from bad spirits.
This statue represents the symbolic figure of the ancestral Queen mother sitting on a stool feeding a newborn. The Queen mother was traditionally acknowledged as representative of the prime ancestor of the Ashanti people. Both the Queen mother and the stool are of great importance to the Ashanti, Historically the Queen mother has authority to appoint the king. The most famous of all historical Queen mothers was Yaa Asantewaa (1840- 1921). In 1900 she led the important war of the Golden Stool (which referred to the ancestral throne) against the colonial British conquerors. Here is her famous speech: ” How could a brave people like the Ashanti sit back while white men took away their kings and chiefs and humiliated them with the demand for the golden stool. It only means money for the white men, they have searched everywhere for it. If you, the chiefs of Asante behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loin cloth for my under garment.”
The Ashanti are the largest ethnic group in Ghana. They are a matrimonial society and the mothers clan is more important than the fathers family. The artistic style of the Ashanti is also remarkably different to most other African styles. All art and craft is executed by men.
These statues are quite unique in style to most African carvings. In this case the Queen mother sits quite upright and rigid with very elongated and straight legs, compared to the usual more compressed and rounded African style. Her two assistants are also tall and slim, but the posture is more in the traditional style of the African sculptured figure.
All 3 pieces were collected by Nji Mboumbou Arouna Idriss during his travels in these areas between 1950 and 1980.
The Kurumba people live in the north of Burkina Faso and are famous for their antelope head dresses, These large and highly decorative masks were worn during funeral ceremonies. The masks are believed to represent the soul of the deceased. The base of the mask is the actual helmet part that fits over the head. Metal sheeting is expertly covered around the wooden sculpture and colourful geometric patterns were applied. The eyes are strong features and the mouth looks more happy than intimidating.
The influential Poro society is responsible for the traditional education of men from initiation to adulthood. The society is responsible for all spiritual gatherings and also for the style and kind of masks created. This is an unusual mask, with thin slit eyes, a nose shaping upwards, and a little crown on top of the head. The ears are square, but most unusual is the birds beak instead of a normal mouth, which indicates that this is an ancestor mask. Birds, especially hornbills are revered as the first ancestors of the Senufo.
This beautiful item was purchased by Nji Idriss Mbombo in 1986 at a trade fair in Yaounde, the capitol of Cameroon. During and especially after the initiation rites, participants are encouraged to act the fool and make fun of their leaders and the authorities. Horses command much respect by the Bambara They are also seen as a symbol of wealth, as traditionally only chiefs and high ranking members of society could afford them. Historically the SOFAH (horse warriors) played an important role in Bambara history.
The Dogon are renowned for their masquerade festivals, called “dama”. Dama dances are performed to honour the dead and to ensure a safe transition of their souls to the afterlife. Sometimes up to hundreds of men get together and dance, wearing all kinds of phantasy masks. The masks either depict animals or human beings. Some of them like this one have figures displayed on top of the masks. Only men are allowed to wear masks while women must keep away from the performance, only watching from a safe distance.
Various large bird sculptures were used during Poro initiation ceremonies. Some were just standing on the ground while others were held aloft by the initiates. The hornbill was believed to be the mythical founder of the Senufo and features prominently in their rites. This particular statue is a symbol of fertility with the bird held high up and it’s beak touching the prominent stomach. This statue was purchased in 1976 at an art shop in Cape Town. I just happened to walk past this shop when out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed this unusual statue. In between all other items, it stood out like a holy figure with outstretched arms and towering over all else.
Sculptures like these were used during funeral ceremonies of members of the Poro society. They were placed in the centre of the ceremonial ground and during dances pounded on the ground to provide rhythm for the dancers. This statue displays the typical features of Senufo style, a crescent coiffure, heart shaped face and straight nose. They are called “Pombilele”, meaning “those who give birth”. Quite an odd name for something that is used at funerals, but the Senufo believe in afterlife and that the deceased will join the ancestors. The statue is in excellent condition.
Bwa mask represent a variety of different animals or of mythical human ancestors. Masks are made for a family or a clan and the choice of objects depends on experiences or mythology of that clan. Crocodiles are one of the favoured subjects. Bwa masks are face masks and are worn upside down with the tail pointing skywards. The various patterns and colours all have specific meanings.
The Bwa people live across Burkina Faso and Mali. They are known for their plank masks, especially the butterfly and hawk masks. These two crocodile masks are not really planks but beautifully carved and shaped. The thicker and more three dimensional, the higher the value of a mask.The female crocodile has a baby on it’s back.
The We people actually consists of 2 different tribes, the Gere and the Wobe. They share numerous customs and beliefs, but are historically divided. Both tribes create strong and powerful masks. Gere masks are more abstract, while Wobe masks are closer to reality. This mask is typical Wobe style with the protruding globular eyes and enlarged lips. All the adornments are delicately crafted and enhance the value of the mask.
The Krahn are an ethnic group belonging to the Kru language family and are related to the We and Gere groups. This is a very abstract and powerful mask. The huge mouth and bulging forehead are the standout features, but there is a large amount of detail in all aspects of the mask. the eyes are represented with holes for the wearer to see. A really outstanding and fierce looking piece.
To this day Lobi communities have no chiefs or other leaders. They are governed and protected by their strict religion, consisting of numerous spirits who regulate and dictate daily life. This statue is representing one of these spirits. It is a powerful spirit, as can be seen by the distorted mouth and nose and the fact that it is scared to look straight ahead. Lobi figures were always created in pairs, so somewhere out there should be a female partner of this figure.
The Dan have a large assortment of different masks for all occasions. This mask is from the northern area with its smooth finish, high forehead, upturned nose, and protruding mouth. The rich brown patina is achieved by immersing the mask in mud. It is decorated with tin metal strips which are strategically placed to enhance certain features like the eyes, and with natural fibres for hair and beard.
This striking mask is a very abstract carving of an hornbill. Large bird statues also figure prominently in traditional ceremonies and the hornbill is revered as one of the traditional ancestors of the Senufo. The attractive colouring emphasizes the strong features of the mask.
This prestigious container was used by the ladies of the royalty to keep their jewellery and other precious item. It is decorated with lizards on the sides and framed with geometric lines. The head and tail which at first seem snakelike, are in fact representing a horse.
This particular kind of mask was carved for special assemblies to prepare men for war. Typical is the elongated large nose with the nostrils reaching to the sides of the face. The eyes are set beneath a high domed forehead with a distinctive ridge. As there are no more wars to prepare for nowadays, the masks are worn for various kinds of festivities and ceremonies.
This amazing statue at first looks like a monkey, but it is a cleverly distorted female human being. Behind her back in the right hand she is holding what could be a monkey’s tail, but is actually a snake, suggesting a traditional snake cult. The facial expression is unique with a lot of attention to detail, with an open mouth like she is ready talk or lecture.
This lovely figure was originally painted white all over with the paint fading away over time.
This beautifully carved fish bowl was created as a special eating bowl for the royalty. It is a very prestigious piece with exquisite carving. The lid fits perfectly onto the base, with the design of the separate lid continuing perfectly onto the bowl, which is no mean achievement as this had to be two separate carvings.
Blolo Bla figures represent a spouse from the spirit world. The spirit manifests itself through dreams and is then carefully carved under strict supervision of a diviner and then given to the owner who generally treats and feeds and cares for it like an earthly wife. This statue is extremely old and only the upper half remains and was put on a smart pedestal many years ago.
The Gagon mask was used for entertainment purposes. The mouth resembles a birds beak. The numerous little holes are for the attachment of monkey fur which covered much of the frontal part of the dancer’s body. This kind of mask is mainly found in the northern Dan areas.
The Dogon people are known for their large variations of masks, and they are also known to do pottery. But it is very rare to see a ceramic mask. The mask displays an abstract version of a camel carrying a very smart container. It seems to be a portrayal of Arab caravans who sometimes travelled through the area. A really unique piece.
A typical Krahn mask with bulging forehead and large mouth. Beadwork and bells at the base beautify this otherwise rather fierce design. Two sets of triangular holes are provided for the dancer or wearer of the mask to see. The main feature is the enormous mouth with the powerful set of teeth.