Some Arts of Africa



[ Welcome ] [ Assignments ]
I. [ Introduction ]
[ Zones ]
II. [ African Art ] [ Rituals ] [ Women ] [ Afro Beat ]
[ Renaissance Art ] [ Picasso and African Art ] [ 2016 ]
III. Diaspora [ Slave Trade ]
IV. [ Scramble ]
[ South Africa ]
VI. Decolonization

[ Kingdoms of Gold ] [ Swahili States ]
[ 2012 ] [ 2014 ] [ 2015 ]

video--Role of Ceremony and Traditional Art--Go to "Ceremony and Society"--episode #4
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Assignment/Activities for Wed., 02/03/16:
Divide into 8 sets of 2, 1 set of 3;
work with your partner/team to images of the various genres of Africa art
(head/helmet masks, chiwara masks, maternity figures, nkisi figures, stools.)
Find ONE of each
Create a google doc and share it with me and the other members of the class.

With each image, provide a snippet of explanatory text.

Recommended sites
Overview of African art with some useful explanations and illustrations
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Check out the Giotto Crucifixion (right): read it; identify its attributes; what is its message or purpose; what gives it power? What social or educational (didactic) purpose does it serve? This painting by Giotto is in the Arena Chapel, in Padua. How is its location relevant?

African Artistic Traditions PowerPoint

Now, put away all of your preconceptions about art, especially that of the West and the Renaissance.
Traditional African art was never intended to hang on museum walls to be viewed by processions of tourists.
Traditional Western art historians distinguish between art and artifact, defining African expressions as primitive or not as art at all.
African artists and artisans created their works to be used, carried, or worn, to divine the will of the gods,
to connect with the spirit world, to communicate with the forces of nature, to recreate legends and mythologies,
to celebrate rites of passage.
The very functionality and spirituality of African art made many Western art historians determine that it was not art (Cotter B1).
On the other hand, African art has "shown that sound, movement and touch, the very elements we police our museums
against, are essential" to its meaning (Cotter B1).
Much of African art was made from perishable materials (raffia, fibers, feathers, leather, cloth, wood) and has not survived.

A recent exhibit of African art at Yale* divided its collection into psychologically "cool" and "hot" categories:
Coolness equates to serenity, often seen in maternal values;
Hot items were those that projected "volatile, forceful, even violent dispositions" of energy (Cotter B1).

Some of the oldest existing examples of African art come from the Sahara and illustrate a life and lifestyle dramatically different from those of the present day. In approximately 10,000 BCE, northern Africa, actually what is presently the "sand sea" of the Sahara was a lush savanna of grassland, forest, dotted with ample water in the form of rivers and lakes. Lake Chad may have been part of a large inland sea. Pastoralists who herded cattle, sheep, and goats left their artistic record in what is today southern Algeria.

(Brummett, et al. 275)

From the same area, cave art suggests--though perhaps this is speculation--that by 3000 BCE, indigenous people practiced both herding (depicted above) and agriculture; some historians identify the figures in the right hand illustration as women planting or harvesting grain (the dots being the grain) while the figure on the left is clearly hunting.

(Craig, et. al. 178)

African art, on the whole, was not designed to be representational; rather, it expressed beliefs, ideas, emotions.
It linked the faithful to unseen deities and spirits; it played a major part in daily life and activities.
West Africans added or attached beads, feathers, bits of cloth, metal, or other materials to their creations to give them greater power.
Africans did not worship the figures or fetishes but considered them symbolic of something precious, holy, mystical, mysterious.
Three of the oldest cultures to produce artistic masterpieces were the Nok and the Kingdoms of Ife and Benin.

Nok society was centered in West Africa, present-day Nigeria until about the 3rd century CE; its artists produced impressive terra cotta sculptures.

image source for map and sculpture head< >
Nok terra cotta figures and busts represent sub-Sahara Africa's oldest sculptures (200 BCE - 200 CE); the Nok culture flourished in what is now Nigeria. The elaborate hairdos of the heads are thought to reflect their high status; with a fancy hair style, as depicted, the person would have been unable to carry a heavy load. These heads may have been carried in ceremonies atop costumes made of more perishable materials.

(left-- = gone
(right-- site = gone

For more about Nok culture and art, visit the Wikipedia site "Nok Culture."
Even though it is rated "start," the information seems uncontroversial, and I have
found supportive discussion elsewhere

The Yoruba people of Ife, in present day Southern Nigeria, not too far from the earlier Nok society or from present-day Lagos.

image source for Ife map < >
The Ife created sculptured heads of bronze using the "lost wax" process. Artists "first carved their subjects in wax. They then covered the wax sculpture with clay and heated the clay to produce a mold. When the heated wax melted and ran out, it was replaced by molten metal. When the metal had cooled, the artist broke the mold and was left with a piece of sculpture." (Spielvogel, 275) Ife bronzes have been dated as far back as the 12th c CE. The head and head-and-torso (right) represent figures of royaty (or oni); note the holes for attaching a mustache (on the left) and the scarification (on the right.) Archeologists consider that the Nok artists (above) influenced Ife, who influenced those who came later in Benin.

image source for right image < >
For more on Ife, visit the Wikipedia site, "Ife" which, though
rated "start" is also identified as being of "high importance."
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Brief youtube clip of the "lost wax" process < >
"The Head of Ife" < >--advance cursor to 50


Benin, a hundred or so miles from Ife in present day Nigeria, emerged in the 10th c., influenced by Ife (as indicated above) and reached its peak about the time that the Portuguese arrived in West Africa in the late 15th century. The Oba, or divine king, acted as a patron of the arts and expected the court artists to depict the power and grandeur of the reign or dynasty. Artist guilds worked in bronze and ivory (as well as textiles and wood.) Paul Brians' site has flown away, and, alas,
I cannot find better, more powerful images than those above

Benin kings cultivated the artists and used their creations to enhance their spiritual authority and secular power. Benin Obas claimed direct descent from Osanobua, the Creator God. Olokun, his eldest son, came to rule the land and water of earth, to uphold justice, and to punish evil and evildoers. Bronzes, like the one above left, illustrate the technical mastery of their craft achieved by Benin artists. Note the exquisite detail, especially the choker of coral beads. The rulers of Benin exercised a monopoly on the ivory trade, amassing huge stockpiles to be carved by artists from the ivory guild. Ivory symbolized power, coming as it did from the elephant; Benin kings and artists also valued ivory as an artistic medium and viewed its perfect white color as symbolizing purity, prosperity, and peace. The bronze plaque (near right) depicts a Benin Oba in his full ceremonial attire; his attendants are smaller to indicate their diminished importance compared with the king. His garments and their decorations attest to his wealth and power. The carved ivory pendant mask (far right) shows a Queen Mother.
image source left--TCI, 4.2g
image source right < >

Wikipedia has a fine article, "Benin Bronzes" < >

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MASKS (think about the root of the word masquerade)

One of the common art forms in traditional West Africa was the mask, worn in religious or other ceremonies by men,
rarely by women or girls, although sometimes the mask could represent a female or invoke a goddess.
Masks either covered the face, sat on top of the head, or fit over the head like a helmet.
Often the mask would also include some kind of an extended costume that covered or partially covered the wearer's body.
When a man donned a mask, he left his own identity behind, becoming a spirit, an ancestor, or another person,
always invoking the mystical other world or connecting to it.

An incredibly unbelievably rich site on African masks:
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For a wonderful gallery of African masks, visit <>

Many African societies have rich mask traditions. Masks figure prominently in ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations and in festivals marking rites of passage. The different shapes, sizes, and attributes are "readable" and powerful to the people of that culture. Masks--and the dances that incorporate them--are also important for passing on beliefs, traditions, and taboos. As you can see from the Dogon mask (right,) they can be crafted from a variety of materials--wood, bronze, ivory, textiles, raffia, etc. In African societies, the artist or creator of such a mask is held in high esteem, not only because of his skill, but because of spiritual or social significances of the mask itself. Some of the ceremonies and rituals in which masks play a part are secret, only for the initiated to see or participate in. This mask is from Mali: what gives it power?

image source < >

This 4 inch tall gold pendant mask is a human face adorned with horns (to give it more power) and would have been attached to the headdress or forehead of a chief (left) A carved wooden mask from the Yaure people of present-day Cote d'Ivoire stands almost two feet in height. Like the one (left,) the "slit coffee bean eyes" and the "delicate...mouth...create an expression of restraint, dignity, and composure...." Like the cheek scars above, the metal triangles on the cheeks of the mask represent more than facial decoration, lending additional prestige to the wearer. (left)

left image (TCI 4.2b) right image (TCI 4.2d)

The mask (right) from the DRC/Angola area was worn in ceremonies celebrating male circumcision and honoring the virility that would perpetuate the society. The boys had been learning the skills and responsibilities of manhood in isolation; then they come to and participate in the ceremony that acknowledges their transformation, transition to adulthood.

image source < >

Masks, of course, are only part of the ceremonial regalia; watch 1:00 of mask dance from West Africa
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Monkey Mask dances, Burkina Faso, 2007
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Dogon Funeral Dance--An important Dogon tradition is the Dama or masked funeral dance.
By masquerading behind masks, the dancers allow the souls of the deceased to escape
to their final resting place and to join the ranks of their ancestors, thereby restoring order to the universe.
Participation in the Dama is a great honor as it represents the final step in the passage from boyhood to manhood.
Boys eagerly watch the infrequently performed Dama, in anticipation of the day in which they may also participate in the dance.
The village Elders, who are too old to endure the physical exertion of the dance, stand on the sideline, play the music,
explain the meaning of the various masks, and keep the pace of the ritual going.
The Dama is usually performed every five years or so.

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40 more seconds of Dogon dancers (Mali West Africa)
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I feel I must add a caveat here that the dances taped above were probably
performed for tourists. They seem authentic, but watch them with an eye
(or ear) to other motivations.

Many African religious ceremonies, even today, feature masked male dancers. The illustration illustrates a Dogon funeral ceremony in which the dancers drive the spirit of the deceased away.

(Brummett, et al. 274)


My favorite African masks are the headcrest ones that come (or came) mainly from Mali. Those shown here represent different styles, but all invoke the mythical antelope/aardvark chiwara hero who brought agriculture to the Bamana people. The word, chiwara, loosely translated means something like "animal who works."

image source < >
Here is a close-up example of the chiwara "headcrest mask"worn on top of the head. The highly stylized carved wooden antelope/aardvark headcrest mask/headdress is worn--with its female partner (worn or danced by a man)--during "seasonal celebrations of planting and harvesting" as the young men replicate in their dance the mythical creature pounding seeds into the soil. The dancer attaches the headdress to a cap, and attaches long flowing strips of raffia to his waist, enveloping and obscuring his body. The dancer becomes the creature or the spirit of the creature in rituals and ceremonies associated with agriculture (TCI 42). You might remember Okonkwo becoming an egwugwu (ancestor spirit) in Things Fall Apart.


As with so many masks, this one unites the real world of planting, farming, reaping with another world overseen by spirits. The long horns symbolize the Bamana hope for tall millet, or a rich harvest and also evoke male virility. The long pointed nose of the chiwara represents the aardvark digging in the soil. The mask (right) is female, represented by the baby antelope on her back.The Chi wara headdress "illustrates how African artists clothe invisible ideas and forces with visible form, creating magical works of art that convey messages and inspire the spirit" (Woodward 66). The phallic/fertility symbolism of the figures should be obvious.

image source < >

image source < >

Chiwara Dance recorded in the 1960s < >

Although this mask may only be worn by men in a dance honoring the Great Mother, it is an idealized female face respresenting the female qualities of serenity and harmony. The elaborate coiffure and scarification indicate status; the high, broad forehead suggests intelligence. Men wear the mask and dance the dance acknowledging and asking for kindness from their mothers (and perhaps mother earth?) The mask stands about a foot and a half in height and is made of highly polished wood; it comes from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria.

(TCI 4.2o)

For more on African masks, visit

Nimba Mask Dance from Guinea, West Africa < >

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This woodcarving from the Dogon culture of West Africa depicts a man and woman sitting on a stool. Various attributes indicate their status: their earrings suggest that they are honored personages, as does the fact that they are seated on a stool, traditional symbol of high office. Their heads, source of spiritual power as well a wisdom, are unrealistically large; the man touches the woman's breast and his own genitals, indicating the importance of fertility and continuity.

(TCI 4.2t)

Maternity Figures

This maternity figure from DRC reflects the values of the society that produced it and its point of view towards women. It conforms to accepted notions of beauty. It invites the ancestral spirits of the Luluwa people to exercise a positive influence on pregnant women for the health of this child and children. Notice the figure's large feet (sturdy/able to work) and large head with its high forehead (intelligence/will power); her powerful calves also indicate her ability to work. The scarification and headdress indicate her rank and status. For more analysis of this Luluwa sculpture, visit the site indicated below.

image source < >
Compare < >

An African proverb states, "Unhappy is the woman who fails to get children for, whatever other qualitites she might possess, her failure to bear children is worse that community genocide...." The figures depicted here are not identifiable--nor intended to be indentifiable--as real people; furthermore, the focus is on the mother rather than the child. In Medieval and Renaissance depictions of Mother and Child or Virgin and Child or Madonna and Child, the focus is on the infant, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. See if you can de-code, "read" the maternity figure to your right from Tanzania.

image source < >

This carved, wooden female figure from the Baule culture of the present day Cote d'Ivoire represents both the Baule definition of female beauty and female virtues. She stands tall and sturdy, indicating her moral uprightness; her open eyes and high forehead reflect her intelligence and clear vision. She holds her hands at her side indicating respect, obedience, and good character. Her body is robust and healthy; her neck is strong for supporting the heavy loads she must carry on her head, and her calves are strong,enabling her to work hard; her pointed breasts and round buttocks signify sexuality and fertility.

image source < >
The figure was worn by an Asante woman both to induce pregnancy and insure the safe delivery of her infant. After the priest or shaman blesses the figure/fetish, she carries it with her, treating it like a real child. "The statuette illustrates Asante concepts of beauty: a high oval, flattened forehead (achieved by massaging the infant's soft skull); a small mouth; a neck ringed with creases of subcutaneous fat, indicating the good health of the infant."

image source < >


Nkisi Figures

"Nkisi" translates literally into "sacred medicine," and they were important as what we might call fetishes in the present day Congo Basin. They are containers or vehicles that help connect to the spirit world. They usually belong to or are used by diviners, healers, magicians, shamen called baganga (nganga in the singular) and are associated with communicating with ancestors or the dead. 19th century missionaries were appalled by these so-called "devil figures," which they did not understand their context (or seek to understand) in their condemnations.

image source Volakova. Online available.
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Nkisi "power figures" are especially interesting; this one (below)
from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is shown
with a description and from various angles.

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From the Democratic Republic of the Congo comes this "power figure" made of wood with metal (especially nails,) mirrors, beads, and other materials attached to give it greater power. Each piece of metal or nail represents a vow or oath made in the power figure's name or honor. Each piece alerts the power spirit (N'kisi N'kondi) to reward (or punish) the supplicant. The figure is also thought to bind or connect the real with the spiritual world, the living with the dead.

(TCI 4.2e)

Another "power figure," this one from the Yombe people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is covered with nails and bits of metal to give it power.

This charm/fetish takes the form of a two-headed dog who can move between the real and the spirit world, between the world of the living and the dead. Note the muzzle on the left head, perhaps to contain a too-powerful spirit (Bourgeois and Rodolitz).

image source Bourgeois and Rodolitz, online available.
< >--Bourgeois and Rodolitz have a website,
but this image has flown away.


You have noticed scarification reproduced on masks and figures above. In the Yombe region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) this woman (right) demonstrated both bravery and enhancement of her physical beauty in her elaborate body decoration. The woman on the left (from Sudan) depicts rites of passage in her scarification.

(Clarke 18--right hand image)


In many West African cultures, the stool or throne, embodies a set of beliefs and attitudes towards prestige, rank, status, and power. Stools were passed down and were part of royal regalia (like the "crown jewels.") A stool or throne gained significance by items "activating substances" (such as beads, cowrie shells, etc.) or exaggerated animal attributes. In Europe a king was "crowned," while in Africa a king or chief was "enstooled." A king, already identified with rank and prestige, was further empowered when sitting on his stool. When the British conquered the mighty Ashanti in 1900, they made a particular point of taking "the golden stool" of the Ashantehene or chief, depriving him of both his real and symbolic authority.

When I got to the stools/thrones, discussion my brain and fingers stopped
identifying sources. Don't let this happen to you. Will try to correct.
The stool to your right comes from Cameroon. The animal is a stylized buffalo, associated in Cameroon lore with power, especially seen in the prominent, exaggerated horns. The stool was carved from a single piece of wood, according to custom. Seated on his throne, "...the king embodies political power and ritual authority along with strength and leadership visually reinforced by the image of the buffalo."

Also from Cameroon, this royal stool's power is enhanced by beadwork and the animal figure of the leopard, like the buffalo associated with royal attributes.

This royal stool from the Yaka people has anthropomorphic rather than animal attributes, thought to be the image of an ancestor or founding deity. It was stored in a special place, something like an altar, when not in use by the chief. The ruler on the side tells that it is 13.5 inches tall.

For the Ashanti people of present day Ghana, who put up a ferocious but ultimately unsuccessful resistance to British encroachments, the "dangerous, independent leopard...[was]...a potent symbol of tribal leadership." In this rendering, the leopard has a "fiercely snarling head...." Like most African sculptures, notably stools, it was carved from a single piece of wood. The curved seat is typical of Ashanti craftsmanship. The four legs of the leopard, again typically Ashanti, represent the four cardinal points; the king sitting on the stool or throne, might represent the sun.

And finally < >

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bkg/kente cloth--Cable, Mary. The African Kings. Chicago: Tree Communications, Inc.

"African Mothers--African maternity figures." Rand African Art. Online available.
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"African traditional masks." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. online available.
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Atherton, Cynthia. "AR325: African Art on and off the Walls." Middlebury: Middlebury College, 1996.
Online Available.

Borgatti, Jean. "Pre-16th Century Yoruba or Yoruba-related Art." Worcester: Clarke University.
Online Available.

Bourgeois, Arthur and Scott Rodolitz. Remnants of Ritual. Online available.
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Brians, Paul and Richard Law. "Resources for the Study of World Civilizations." Spokane: Washington State University, 2000.
Online Available.

Brummett, Palmira, et. al. Civilization Past and Present. New York, et. al.: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2000.

"Chiwara." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
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Clarke, Duncan. African Art. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1998.

Cotter, Holland. "At Yale, Renovation Puts Africa in Spotlight." The New York Times.
January 10, 2007.

kente cloth line--

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Online available.
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National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution. Online Available.

"Nkisi." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online Available.
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Pojer, Ms. Sue. "African Art." Global History and Geography." Hartsdale, NY: Maria Regina High School, 1999.
Online Available.

Spielvogel, Jackson. World History: The Human Odyssey. Cincinnati, et. al. West Educational Publishing, 1998.

Stephenson, Christie (Digital Coordinator,) et. al. "African Art: Aesthetics and Meaning." Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1998.
Online Available. < >

Teachers' Curriculum Institute. Empires and Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa. Palo Alto: Teachers Curriculum Institute, 1993.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. "Africa: The Cradle of Humankind." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2000. Online Available.

Volakova, Zdenka. "Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo." Rand African Art. Online Available.
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Woodward, Richard. African Art. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1994.


McKee, Peggy. "Some Arts of Africa." Peggy McKee Website. Updated. January, 2014. Online Available.
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(McKee "Some Arts of Africa.")

*for more on the Yale exhibit
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Author: Peggy McKee
Last modified: January, 2014.