A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
African Sculptures and associated tribes
Small Daima clay figures. Neolitic period
Although wood is the best-known medium of African sculpture, many others are employed: copper alloys, iron, ivory, pottery, unfired clay, and, infrequently, stone. Unfired clay is and probably always was the most widely used medium in the whole continent, but, partly because it is so fragile and therefore difficult to collect, it has been largely ignored in the literature.
Small figurines of fired clay were excavated in a mound at Daima near Lake Chad in levels dating from the 5th century BC or earlier, while others were found in Zimbabwe in deposits of the later part of the 1st millennium AD. These imply an even earlier stage of unfired clay modeling. About the time of these lower levels at Daima (which represent a Neolithic, or New Stone Age, pastoral economy), there was flourishing farther to the west the fully Iron Age Nok Culture, producing large, hollow sculptures in well-fired pottery, some of the stylistic features of which imply yet earlier prototypes in wood.
African wood sculptures are carved with similar tools throughout the continent. An ax may be used to fell the tree, but an adz, with its cutting edge at right angles to the shaft, is used for the substantive work of carving. The skill achieved with this tool is astonishing to the Western observer. Thin shavings can be removed with speed and accuracy, creating a surface (especially when the form is convex) that shows slight facets that catch the light and add to the visual interest. More intricate work is done with knives. A pointed iron rod heated in the fire may be employed to bore holes in a mask for attachment to the costume and to permit the wearer to see. The surface of the sculpture is sometimes polished with the side of a knife or sanded down with rough leaves. Details are commonly picked out by a method involving charring with a red-hot knife (as among the Ibibio of Nigeria), or the carving is immersed in mud to darken its surface before oiling (as among the Dan people of Côte d'Ivoire).
The Bambara live in the region around Bamako, the capital of Mali. Their
traditions include six male societies, each with its own type of mask. The Ntomo
is for young boys before circumcision. Their masks have a line of vertical
projections placed transversely over the human face, representing man as God
first created him. The Komo is the custodian of tradition and is concerned with
all aspects of community life--agriculture, judicial processes, and passage
rites. Its masks are of elongated animal form decorated with actual horns of
antelope, quills of porcupine, bird skulls, and other objects. Masks of the Kono,
which enforces civic morality, are also elongated and encrusted with sacrificial
material. The Tyiwara uses a headdress
representing, in the form of an antelope, the mythical being who taught men how
to farm (see
The Kore, concerned with the sky and with the bringing of rain to make the crops grow, employs masks representing the hyena, lion, monkey, antelope, and horse. In addition there are masks of the Nama, which protect against sorcerers. Ancestor figures of the Bambara clearly derive from the same artistic tradition as do many of those of the Dogon; so also do their sculptures in wrought iron. Rectangular intersection of flat planes is a stylistic feature common to Bambara and Dogon sculpture.
These are two towns situated on the inland delta of the Niger River, Mali. They are notable as centres of the cloth trade and for their architecture. Moreover, in their immediate vicinity many sculptures in pottery of uncertain age have been found. They may have some association with the empires of Ghana and Mali (7th-13th and 13th-16th centuries, respectively). For all their extensive trade contacts across the Sahara, these medieval empires did not significantly change the basic structure of society in the western Sudan.
The Senufo of northern Côte d'Ivoire produce a rich variety of sculptures, mainly associated with the Lo society (known more widely as the Poro), to which all adult men belong and which maintains the continuity of religious and historical traditions, especially through the cult of the ancestors. During initiations, headpieces are worn that have a flat, vertical, round or rectangular board on top, decorated with paint or pierced work. Many wood carvings of male figures depict these headpieces, sometimes on rhythm pounders used by young initiates, who beat the earth to call upon the ancestors to take part in the ceremony and purify the earth. Several types of mask are used. The kpelie, a human face with projections all around, is said to remind initiates of human imperfection. Animal-head masks usually combine characteristics of several creatures--hyena, warthog, and antelope. A type of animal mask called waniugo has a cup for a magical substance on top; these masks blow sparks from their muzzles in a nighttime ritual protecting the village from sorcerers. Among the Naffara group of the Senufo, masks of similar form but with an interior cavity too small for a human head are carried on the top corner of a rectangular, tentlike costume called kagba. This mask is the symbol of the Lo, which only initiates may see. In the Korhogo region, deguele masks appear in pairs at funerals. They are of plain helmet shapes topped with figures whose bodies are carved to resemble a pile of rings. Figures of the hornbill are used in initiation, and groups of birds on a pole are trophies for the best farmer. Figures of male and female twins and of horsemen are used in divination. These represent the spirit familiars enabling the divination process. The diviners themselves are women, forming the Sandogo society. Shrine doors and drums are carved in relief, and small figures and ritual rings are cast in bronze. For many years the Senufo have been producing large quantities of carvings for the Western market.
This is the forested region of West Africa, where Islam was not a dominant influence until recent years. Political organizations in the past tended to be small in scale, with government sometimes in the hands of chiefs, sometimes by assemblies of men, sometimes by secret associations manifesting their attributes in masquerade ceremonies. State systems developed toward the eastern end of the region, particularly in areas inhabited by the Ashanti (in present-day Ghana) and Fon (Benin) and in the Yoruba Oyo empire and the Edo kingdom of Benin (Nigeria). These states capitalized on trade both with peoples of the savanna and, from the late 15th century onward, with Europeans.
Guinea Coast sculpture displays a greater tendency to naturalistic styles of representation. Some of the best-known traditions of the area are the following.
In the Bijagos Islands of Guinea-Bissau, the Bidyogo carve rather simplified human figures seated on stools, bowls supported by human figures with human and animal forms on the lids, and staffs with figures on them. They also carve naturalistic masks of wild bulls, which are carried on the prow of the royal war canoe and also used in dances. Their buildings are round and often painted.
The Baga, 15th- or 16th-century migrants from the Sudan now occupying the coastal region of Guinea, carve anok, or elek, bird heads with human features styled in a manner resembling western Sudanic work. They had rich traditions of mask and figure sculpture, many of which were suppressed with the advent of Islam. The best known of these is the massive dumba mask, with its great cantilevered head supported on the upper part of a female torso, carved so as to rest on the shoulders of the wearer, who sees out through a hole between the breasts, his body hidden in raffia fibre. This mask appears at the harvest and threshing of the rice crop. Tall drums supported by a human figure are also carved.
The Mende of Sierra Leone are best known for smooth, black, helmet-shaped masks, representing the Sande society, which is responsible for initiating girls into womanhood. This is the only women's society on the continent known to use masks. Because the mask is "found" beside a stream deep in the forest, where the Sande spirit is said to live, and is supposed not to be an artifact at all, the carver in this case is anonymous. Members of the corresponding male society, Poro, also wear masks, although they are of differing form. The women's Yasse, a divination and healing society, employs slender human figures called minsere. Large, ugly gongoli masks are also used, but entirely for entertainment. In preparing their rice farms, the Mende often uncover figures carved in soapstone and known as Nomoli, which they set up in shelters to protect the crop. The figures are similar in style and are thought to be similar in date to ivories carved in the 16th century for Portuguese traders in the adjacent Sherbro area.
Ashanti and Baule
The Ashanti region of southern Ghana is a remnant of the Ashanti empire,
which was founded in the early 17th century when, according to legend, a golden
stool descended from heaven into the lap of the first king, Osei Tutu. The stool is
believed to house the spirit of the Ashanti people in the same way that an
individual's stool houses his spirit after death. The Ashanti also carve akua-ba
(dolls with disk-shaped heads embodying their concept of beauty and carried by
women who want to become pregnant) as well as staffs for royal spokesmen, which,
like the handles of state swords, are covered in gold foil. The success of the
Ashanti empire depended on the trade in gold not only with Europeans at the
coast but also with the Muslim north. Gold dust was the currency, weighed
against small brass weights that were often geometric or were representations
recalling well-known proverbs. Ashanti weavers developed a style of weaving of
great technical mastery, incorporating imported silk (see
Baule gold weights are similar to those of the Ashanti, but the Baule also have types of sculpture that none of the other Akan peoples possess: masks (which, like their low-relief doors, seem to indicate Senufo influence) and standing human figures, apparently sometimes used as ancestor figures. The figures and human masks, the latter reported to be portraits used in commemorating the dead, are elegant--well polished, with elaborate hairdressings and scarification. More roughly finished are the gbekre figures, representing minor divinities in human form with animal heads. Masks are made also to represent the spirits of the bush: antelope, bush cow, elephant, monkey, and leopard. Boxes for the mouse oracle (in which sticks are disturbed by a live mouse, to give the augury) are unique to the Baule, whose carvers also produce heddle pulleys, combs, hairpins, and gong mallets.
The Fon Kingdom of Dahomey, with its capital at Abomey (now in the People's
Republic of Benin), was also founded in the early 17th century. The palace is
decorated with painted relief panels modeled in clay, representing the different
kings and the events of their reigns. The kings are represented also by iron
staffs and messengers' staffs with openwork iron symbols on a wooden haft, as
well as by a small number of large wooden statues combining human and animal
attributes. The thrones of the kings are similar in form to Ashanti stools but
are much taller and are preserved as cult objects. Small figures cast in brass,
often in groups, are prestige items employed also to decorate the royal
tombs. Brightly coloured appliqué cloth is used on state umbrellas and chiefs'
caps. A popular art is calabash carving. The greatest achievements of Fon art,
however, are the large sculptures for Gun, the god
of iron and war, made from sheets of copper or iron (see
The northern and southern parts of Nigeria can be considered part of the western Sudan and Guinea Coast, respectively; but, because of the wealth of evidence for an artistic tradition of some 2,000 years, it is convenient to consider Nigeria separately.
The earliest known sculpture of large size in the Sudan is that produced in
pottery by the Nok culture, which flourished extensively in northern Nigeria
from the 5th century BC into the early centuries AD (see
Ife and Yoruba
The Yoruba peoples inhabit a large part of southwestern Nigeria. Their art traditions are of considerable antiquity. Excavations at Ife, in central Yorubaland (the site of the creation of the world in some Yoruba myths), have shown that naturalistic sculpture in brass and pottery was being produced sometime between 1100 and 1450 AD. The sculptures may represent royal figures and their attendants, and life-size portrait heads in brass were perhaps used as part of funerary effigies. During this time, Ife appears to have had widespread importance, and the naturalism of its art seems to have influenced the basic development of Yoruba sculptural style. Throughout Yorubaland, human figures are represented in a fundamentally naturalistic way, except for bulging eyes; flat, protruding, and usually parallel lips; and stylized ears. The evolution of these characteristics can be observed in a number of pottery sculptures at Ife, which, on stylistic grounds, are considered to be relatively late.
Within the basic canon of Yoruba sculpture, many local styles can be distinguished, down to the hand of the individual artist. Individual cults, too, have their own characteristic requirements of form and ethnography. Staffs for Shango, the thunder god, bear the symbol of a double ax. On his altars are placed carved mortars, for the pounding of food in a mortar sounds like thunder; on the wall behind hangs his leather bag, with a motif based on the extensive gesture of a Shango dancer. Because Shango was king of Oyo, largest of the Yoruba kingdoms, his cult is mainly restricted to areas that were once under Oyo domination.
Typical of Ekiti is the Epa cult, which is connected with both the ancestors and agriculture. The mask proper, roughly globular, has highly stylized features that vary little; but the superstructure, which may be four feet (122 centimetres) or more in height, is often of very great complexity--for example, a king on horseback, surrounded by two tiers of attendant warriors and musicians. The most widely distributed cult is of twins, ibeji, whose birth among the Yoruba is unusually frequent. Their effigies, made on the instructions of the oracle, are among the most numerous of all classes of African sculpture. Carved doors and house posts are found in shrines and palaces and in the houses of important men. Fulfilling purely secular functions are bowls for kola nuts, offered in welcoming a guest; ayo boards for the game, known also as wari, played with seeds or pebbles in two rows of cuplike depressions; and stools, spoons, combs, and heddle pulleys.
To the north is Esie, where about 800 sculptures in soapstone were found by the local Yoruba population some centuries ago. Their origin is obscure; they are by no means certainly Yoruba. The city of Owo, to the southeast of Yorubaland near the frontier with the Edo-speaking peoples, developed an art style--indeed, a whole culture--that is a blend of Yoruba and Benin traditions. Ivory carving is especially important, and wooden heads of rams and of humans with rams' horns are used on ancestral altars. Second-burial effigies, life-size and naturalistically carved in wood, have been made during the 20th century but were developed from wickerwork forms such as are still used in Benin and in Igbo towns that were formerly under Benin influence. Excavations in 1971 revealed a large number of pottery sculptures that are clearly related to those of Ife but with some Benin features. The site was dated by carbon-14 to about the 15th century AD.
According to tradition, the Kingdom of Benin was founded from Ife, whence, in the late 14th century, knowledge of brass casting may have been introduced into Benin City for the manufacture of commemorative heads for royal altars. These heads have been grouped in stylistic sequence from moderate naturalism through increasing stylization. The brasses also include figures in the round, groups on a common base, and plaques. The rectangular shape of the plaques, their narrative content, and in some cases their attempt at perspective have been attributed to the influence of illustrations in books carried by the Portuguese, who were in contact with Benin from the late 15th century. The technique of brass casting, however, had been introduced at least a century earlier. Bronze bars had been imported, probably from the interior, as early as the 13th century, but these were made into bracelets in Benin City only by smiting and chasing techniques, not by casting. There were certain limitations on the use of brass, and also ivory. Cult objects (such as memorial beads) were made of wood when intended for non-royal purposes but of brass for the king. Regalia, if made for the king, were of ivory, but otherwise of brass. The regalia of king and chiefs also included coral beads and red cloth, the color red signifying a mystical threat to the enemies of the kingdom. Wood was used for staffs commemorating ancestors, and these were placed on their altars. Pottery heads were made for shrines in the brass casters' quarter; and life-size groups of royal figures in mud are still made for the cult of Olokun, divinity of the sea and of wealth.
Outside Benin City, the Edo peoples live in villages that have many localized cults of nearby topographical features and founder heroes. The Ekpo masquerade, occurring to the south and east of Benin, is performed by the warrior age group in ceremonies to purify the village ritually and to maintain health. At Ughoton, to the southwest of Benin, a different type of mask is used, in the cult of the water spirit Igbile. Both the cult and the sculptural style seem to have derived from the Ijo.
A number of bronze castings found in Benin have been classified tentatively as the Lower Niger bronze industries. They include pieces from Tada and Jebba in the region now inhabited by the Nupe people, who regard them as relics associated with their own mythical ancestor, and other pieces from various parts of the delta of the Niger River.
The Niger Delta is occupied by Ijo fishermen, whose masks for the cults of the water spirits are made in the form of aquatic animals, especially hippopotamus and crocodile. The western Ijo use ejiri figures, in which the head of the household is represented upon a highly schematic quadruped that is said to represent the guardian spirit of the family. Similar objects are made by the Edo-speaking Urhobo, to the north of the Ijo, where they are used in a cult of aggressiveness by the warriors. Among the eastern Ijo, shrines for the water spirits have figures that are often large though frequently kept hidden. They also have masks, similar to those of the western Ijo, worn by men of the Ekine society. In addition, there are shrines that contain sculptures for the village heroes and ancestors. In some Kalabari communities, rectangular screens are fashioned by carpentry into a low-relief frontal group in which a commemorated ancestor is flanked by supporting figures--much like the king in Benin plaques, by which the screens may have been inspired about two centuries ago. All Ijo sculpture exhibits a four-square schematic style that contrasts starkly with the relative naturalism of surrounding styles, such as those of Yorubaland or Benin.
On both sides of the Niger, but mainly to the east, live the Igbo. Traditionally, they have lived in small and often isolated settlements scattered through the forest. Only on the northern and western edges of the area, under influence from Igala and Benin, are hereditary rulers found. In Igbo society there is strong social pressure toward individual distinction, and men can move upward through successive grades by demonstrating their achievements and their generosity. One of the traditional representations of this was the ikenga, that part of oneself enabling personal achievement, with cult figures representing the attributes of distinction.
The lack of overall centralization among the Igbo-speaking peoples has been conducive to the development of a great variety of art styles and cultural practices. The earliest sculpture known from Igboland is from the village of Igbo Ukwu, where the grave of a man of distinction and a ritual store, dating from the 9th century AD, contained both chased copper objects and elaborate castings of leaded bronze. The earliest artistic castings from black Africa, these pieces consist of ritual vessels and other ceremonial objects with intricate surface decoration, often small animals and insects represented in the round.
A very great variety of masks is found among the Igbo. The masks, of wood or fabric, are employed in a variety of dramas: social satires, sacred rituals (for ancestors and invocation of the gods), initiation, second burials, and public festivals, which now include Christmas and Independence Day. Some masks appear at only one festival, but the majority appear at many or all. Best known are those of the Northern Igbo Mmo society, which represents the spirits of deceased maidens and their mothers with masks symbolizing beauty. Among the Southern Igbo, the Ekpe society, introduced from the Cross River area, uses contrasting masks to represent the maiden spirit and the elephant spirit, the latter representing ugliness and aggression and the former representing beauty and peacefulness. A similar contrast is found in their Okorosia masks, which correspond to the Mmo of the Northern Igbo. The Eastern Igbo are best known for masquerades associated with the Iko okochi harvest festival, in which the forms of the masks are determined by tradition, though the content of the play varies from year to year. Stock characters include Mbeke, the European; Mkpi, the he-goat; and Mba, which appear in pairs, one representing a boy dressed as a girl mimicking the behaviour of a girl, the other representing the girl being satirized.
Most impressive are the ijele masks of the Northern Igbo, which are 12 feet (366 centimeters) high. Consisting of platforms six feet in diameter, supporting tiers of figures made of colored cloth and representing everyday scenes, they honor the dead to ensure the continuity and well-being of the community.
Wooden figures are carved for ancestors of both sexes, varying from less than one to more than five feet in height. Those representing founders of the village are kept in a central shrine and sometimes become patrons of the market. A great many other decorative wooden objects are made, including musical instruments, doors, stools, mirror frames, trays for offering kola nuts to guests, dolls, and a variety of small figures used in divination. Shrines called mbari, which contain elaborate tableaux of painted, unfired earth, are made in honor of the earth spirit in villages near Owerri in southern Nigeria; and in Igbo communities to the west of the Niger, elaborate pottery groups representing a man and his family are made for the yam cult. There seems to be no tradition of pottery sculpture in other Igbo groups.
The Fulani are in origin nomadic pastoralists who range from Senegal to the Cameroon grasslands. They are particularly known for their body decoration and for their engraved milk gourds. In addition, in Mali they have settled groups of artists such as goldsmiths, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, weavers, and potters.
Northern Nigeria has long been dominated by the Muslim Hausa who, since the 19th century, have been ruled by Fulani amirs (emirs). For centuries their buildings have been decorated inside with molded and painted low-relief decorations, which have more recently been applied to the exteriors. Both decorative and of a high technical standard are their crafts: leatherwork for saddles, bags, hilts, and sheaths; gold and silver jewelry; ironwork; pottery; weaving and embroidery.
The Nupe have been Muslim for some centuries and are best known for their weaving, embroidery, beadmaking, wood carving, and sheet metalwork. They have produced many doors carved in low relief in a blend of decorative designs. Carved and painted masks are made for the elo, a purely secular performance intended only to entertain (nowadays on the Prophet's birthday). The elo mask has a human face with a motif (sometimes a human figure) rising above it, flanked with stylized horns. The gugu masquerader wears a cloth mask decorated with cowrie shells, but sometimes Yoruba masks are used. The ndako gboya appears to be indigenous; a spirit that affords protection from witches, it is controlled by a small secret society that cleanses communities by invitation. The mask consists of a tall tube of white cotton supported inside on a bamboo pole about 12 feet long.
That Nupe art should have been influenced by the Yoruba is not surprising. Yoruba live among the Nupe, and there are bronzes in the Nupe villages of Tada and Jebba--one of them apparently an Ife work, and another in a more recent Yoruba style. Others of this group, which include the largest castings ever made in black Africa, share features with Benin sculpture and have other elements that are widely distributed in time and space on the Lower Niger. Nupe tradition says these sculptures were taken from Idah, the Igala capital, in the early 16th century. Many were probably already ancient, but nothing is known of ancient Igala bronze casting.
Other groups in northern Nigeria
There is a great diversity of sculptural tradition among peoples inhabiting the Niger and Benue valleys, the mountainous regions around the Jos Plateau in the centre of the area, and Adamawa to the east. This is altogether an area of astonishing diversity little understood beyond a confusing list of "tribal" names. Some of the better known traditions include the Igala, Idoma, Afo, Tiv, and Jukun, all of the Benue Valley
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