Ancient Art Of West African Culture

Ancient Art Of West African Culture

The west African art communities of the ancient/traditional cultures cohabit well before the arrival of the colonial era. In most communities, traditional religion strongly controls the art. Works are produced as ancestral figure, fetish object and as masks. West African art culture is generally on the pursuit of freedom and religious beliefs. The west African communities lies on the Savannah plains that are blessed with lots of rainfall and thick forest. This factor was responsible for the choice of materials in the production of the works . Therefore wood carving of ancestral figures is very common in West African traditional art setting.

Cameroon: Bamileke

Bamileke: is one of the three major grassland groups of Cameroon. Their sculpture show crude naturalism but strong and impressive vitality. Some of their figures portrays a lot of bead works. The chiefs sit on elaborately carved and beaded thrones and all the musical instruments and ceremonial items are equally decorated. Every King of the Bamileke has an image made of himself and the mother of his first son. Which are conspicuously displayed as a source of power for his descendant. The king is always with smoking pipes.

The carve in wood ancestral figures which though they are very forceful,they wear the appearance of unfinished art pieces. Such figures are sometimes made on door frames and verandas of houses of ancestral shrines by the natives. Special stools are carved for important personalities (chiefs) in wood. Such stools are surrounded by human and animal figures. Masks are greatly exaggerated with puffed-out cheeks,open eyes in deep hollows, double arches representing the eyebrows, spreading nostrils and small round ears. The mouth is bow-shaped. The use of symbolic designs derived from bats, chameleons, toads, spiders, elephants, buffaloes etc.

Dahome (The republic of Benin)

Fon: The fon tribes are powerful people who settled in the southern part of Dahomey (now known as Republic of Benin). They are of Ewe origin. The artistic work was centered on court art,serving the King. Most of the work included brass work (produced by cire-perdue method) weaving and coloured appliqué cloths. They also produced coloured relief murals which are used to adorn the King’s palace walls. Their wood sculpture is simple and naturalistic and has delicate features.

UPPER VOLTA (Burkina Faso)

Mossi: Mossi Kingdom flourished between the 11th and 15th century. It has strong allegiance to islamic doctrines. Apart from few portraits masks, which were in bronze, arts and crafts in metal, leather and textiles were greatly developed. Their masks are unique and very decorative. The head is slightly stylized and may pass for abstract. The masks have oval abstract faces without the mouth or chin. The nose is represented by a ridge running down the center of the front and the ‘eyes’ by a triangular or circular hole close to it on either side. The mask is usually colourfully decorated with patterns. The masks bear a frontal pair of antelope horns which determine the sex of the mask.

Bobo Mask

The Bobo are mainly the Agriculturistic group of the Burkina Faso, hence the fertility masks. There are different types of masks some flat with concentric circular eyes, diamond shaped mouth. The mask are worn, some in helmet from during sowing and harvesting ceremonies. In some forms, they share similarities with Mossi masks.

GHANA: Ashanti

The Ashanti are the most powerful of the AKAN group of Ghana. They worship many ancestral gods and each of them is deified. Their king represented the sun and is symbolized gold. The Queen mother represented in moon and is symbolized in silver. The Ashanti are noted for gold weights, which come in several sizes and design. Also they carved different types of the famous golden stools, which were said to be symbol of authority. One of their important carvings is the Akua-ba, (fertility doll).

The Ashanti also produce ceremonial traditional cloth called “Kente” which are specially woven and used for special occasions. The art of textile weaving was said to have been introduced to Ghana by an Ashanti craftsman Okia Krabera. He first experimented with raffia which looked like the weave of a basket and so was called “Kenten” or “Kenten toma” (the basket cloth). After some time, the raffia was replaced by cotton. In Ghana today, wool, cotton and silk yarns are among the various materials used for Kente weaving.
Traditionally, kente is woven on four inch-wide loom, and made into strips. These strips are then sewn together into several metres of cloth and made into dresses for male and females who can afford it. However, a contemporary modern weaver, Lionel Idan was able to develop a 49 inches wide loom in contrast to the traditional four inches wide. An historian on culture of Ghana, Dr Kyeremanten indicated that there are four different types of weaves or patterns that are distinguished in a stripe, which together give the cloth a chequered design, namely adwin, akyem, ahwepam, and nkyeretire or nkeyereamo. What determines the name of a particular kente is the manner in which these different weaves are arranged or combined into patterns.

The numerous names of the designs depend on the unlimited imaginative ability of the weavers. There are over 200 kente designs, each with a particular name. Some of the old names of kente patterns include “Adwinassa” (literally meaning exhaustion of all designs). It is said to be the richest and loveliest of kente. Others are ‘Esaane’ (the eye of a Caterpillar), ‘Amponsem’ (the name of a 17th century Denkyira king), and Hye Gya (consumer of fire). The Fatia (Data Nkurumah) ‘the good wife of Nkurumah deserves her husband’ is the most recent and popular kente.
Kente clothing still remains one of Ghana’s national dresses the popularity has extended beyond their geographical domain.

IVORY COAST (cote D’Ivoire)

Senufo: The senufo are settlers of the Northern Ivory Coast, although one can trace their presence also to the neighboring Mali and Upper Volta. Their vocation is mainly agriculture. They are conservative and highly religious. This can can be seen in their works which were mainly in woods and brass. The cult of the Poro and Lo secret society greatly inspired their works of art.

Baule: Baule are very important among the Ivory Coast groups. Their artistic tradition is very notable especially in wood carving where the excel. They migrated from the ancient kingdom of Ghana (Ashanti). They also work on brass casting, courtesy of they relationship with Ghana. They practiced ancestral worship and they also defied such ancestors which are symnolized.


Dan Ngere: Dan and Ngere tribes which other smaller sub-tribes spread across Liberia to Guinea and Ivory Coast. The DAN is savannah tribes speaking MANDE while the Ngere are the KRU forest farmers. They are both governed by the powerful Poro secret societies. The functions of the mask are outstanding.
Channel of communication with their high god.
For invoking the spirit of their dead ancestors.
Used during circumcision.
Used by the Poro society during initiation.
Dan masks are simple and oval in shape and slight slit or a hole for the eye while Ngere are grotesque and strong. Apart from mask they also produce a special long spoon called ‘PO’. The spoon takes various forms from human to animal motifs. The ‘po’ spoon are regarded as living beings. It is a royal symbol to have the spoon.


Bambara: The Bambara are of the Mandingo origin that dwells in the savannah grassland of Mali in the western Sudan. Their artworks consist of ancestral figures, masks and fertility figures.
The Bambara are mainly farmers with very vast investment in agriculture. Their political organizations include strong secret societies which rules and control their social, economic and political life. Such secret societies include Ntomo, Komo, Numu, Kule, Flankuru and Kore.


The Dogon tribe tribe lives on the plateau area of Timbuktou in Mali. Among the Dogon large numbers of old wood carving called “Tellem” figures are produced. The Tellem figures were believed to have been produced by different groups of people who occupied the same territory to that of Dogon. The ancestral figures of the Dogon are treated with special respect as they are usually brought out and placed by the bodies of the dead at burial ceremonies. These carvings are very stylized and have a dignity which can be compared with Egyptian figures. They use hard wood finished with details. The pose is rigid as they appear in pair seated on a stool with the hands, palms, turned inwards and placed on the knees or thighs. The hair is crested. The figure wear small goatish beard on the chin (both male and female). Their masks are not as precious as the ancestral carvings, because the specialist carvers work on ancestral figures while the masks were produced by less skilled individual owners.
The “Kampa” masks possess the human form with arms raised. Some other types of masks are surrounded by four horns and some resemblance to the form of many horned masks.

SIERRALEONE : mende, sherbro, kissi


The Mendes are native of Sierra Leone. Their occupation is mainly agriculture. They are politically strong and have many institutions to which secret societies are the most notable. These include :
* The Poro society (for men)
* The sande society (for women)
* The yassi society (for magical healing)
The Poro society masks are coarce in styles and less impressive artistically unlike the Bundu mask usually worn during the “sande” initiation ceremony for girls. It reflects the Bundu mask has creased neck, small mouth and heap fatness. Hair is arranged in heavy crests, lower eyelids with delicate face. The neck is fat in spiral form. The hairstyle is adorned with heraldic emblems.


Sherbro is a tribe in Sierra Leone with historical and great artistic traditions. Some of such traditions were the stone figures called the “Nomoli” and the Pomtan. Associated with them also were Ivory objects made as a result of their interaction with the Portuguese traders. The sherbro and the Bullom were both occupying the mainland in Sierra Leone before they were conquered and driven out by the Mende to occupy a small strip known as the sherbro island. Other tradition with Nomoli and the Pomtan (stone carvings) were the Mende, Kissi and the Temne further north. But those by the sherbro had peculiar characteristics. Apart from stone figures, the sherbro were associated with ivory objects made as a result of their interaction with the Portuguese traders. This has led to the production of the Afro Portuguese, Ivory spoons, bowls (salt cellar) and so on. One of such is the sherbro Portuguese ivory salt cellar with Janus head on top and four lizards in relief. See illustration.
Some metal objects were also discovered among the sherbro, Bulton and the Temne. The ‘Nomoli’ consist of expressive figures and heads from steatite, chrome slate, granite ets. These were memorial figures for dead nobles, used in the royal ancestor cult.


The Kissi tribe occupies the North-East of Sierra Leone and west of Guinea. They produced stone figures called “POMDO” (plural “Pomtan”). The figures are associated with the people of the dead and are sacredly treated. The stone figures are abstract, tubular in shape and richly adored. The faces of the figures are not prominently treated but atr delicately presented. The eyes are flat and drawn as a curve with pointed chin.
There are other stone figures called ” NOMOLI”. These Nomoli figures have expressive and realistic Negroid faces with large protruding eyes, lips and nose (with inflated nostrils). The protrusion of the lower jaw is so extreme that it carries the head out of the vertical plane.


The art of the Congo covers the central Africa up to the part of it that is lying close to Angola and the costal area of the south of Gabon. There are very many tribes among the Congos and each having its own styles and tradition. These groups Bakuba, Baluba, Basouge, Bambala, Bapende, Bayaka and many other traditions starting with Ba.. eg Bakongo. The rich art tradition of Congo can be seen in each of the groups listed. Although there are many groups of varying styles yet, they have almost the same characteristics and functions that can be reffered to as “regional”. Only three artistic tradition that are popular these are Bakuba, Bakuba and Bayaka

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