Mahogany and teak African masks.
1.27 Mahogany and teak African masks.1

The sculpture discussed in this chapter was created in West Africa and West Central Africa. These cultures changed rapidly after WW I, so this section concerns itself with art created before 1920. As was mentioned earlier the concept of one God who created the Heavens and the Earth existed in most West African societies. God, however, was not a religious or moral leader but a cosmological power that gave a life force to every created thing, stones as well as human beings. The life force could never be extinguished. When a body died, the life force left and entered the sphere of the supernatural.

It was for this reason that Africans attempted to appease the life force before harming a body or after a body had expired. For instance they might attempt to appease the life force of a tree before they cut it to use in a sculpture. West Africans believe that the life force in the supernatural realm, if controlled, could be utilized for the benefit of all life. It was for the purpose of entrapping and influencing the departed life forces that masks, ancestor statues; fetishes and a variety of everyday objects were sculpted. Sculptures made invisible spirits tangible, ensuring constant contact with the forces that protect and strengthen life. Therefore, most sculpture had a social and spiritual function. Few tribes created objects solely for aesthetic purposes, and objects that had been damaged or whose life forces no longer promoted good were discarded or sold to Europeans.

There were many sculptures designed for ritual ceremonies relating to agriculture, initiation and death. During ceremonies, all art forms were employed to reaffirm myths and to recall the life forces of ancestors. For days, the tribe danced, played instruments, sang and recited poetry.

Before we look at sculpture, let’s read a poem that discusses this idea. “The Dead are not Dead- Forefathers”, is the work of Birago-Diop (1906-1989). Birago was a Senegalese poet and story teller who recorded traditional oral folktales of the Wolof people. His work helped to reestablish general interest in the African folktales published in European languages. He was raised in Dakar, Senegal and attended school in France, beginning in 1920. He worked as a veterinarian and wrote poems and folktales. Much of his work has its origins in oral storytelling recited around the night fire by a griot, or professional entertainer. He also served as the first Senegalese ambassador to Tunisia. The griot is a teacher whose work is to preserve genealogies, history, oral traditions, cultural wisdom, and praise songs.


Listen more often to things rather than beings

Hear the fire’s voice,

Hear the voice of water.

In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.

It is our forefathers breathing.


The dead are not gone forever

They are in the paling shadows and in the darkening shadows.

The dead are not beneath the ground.

They are in the rusting tree.

In the murmuring wood.

In the still water

In the flowing water.

In the lonely place, in the crowd;

The dead are not dead.


Listen more often to things rather than beings.

Hear the fire’s voice.

In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.

It is the breathing of our forefathers

Who are not gone, not beneath the ground,

Not dead.


The dead are not gone forever.

They are in a woman’s breasts.

A child’s crying, a flowing ember.

The dead are not beneath the earth.

They are in the flickering fire,

In the weeping plants, the groaning rock,

The wooded place, the home.

The dead are not dead.


Listen more often to things rather than beings

Hear the fire’s voice,

Hear the voice of water.

In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.

It is the breath of our forefathers. 2


Read the above poem again. What phrases does the artist use to convey the idea that the life force of the ancestors is all around? Does he “give life” to things that we might normally think of as inanimate? Do we think of the fire, plants, rocks and water this way?


There are at least “54 separate and unique countries and over 3,000 diverse African tribes.”3 Even with all of this diversity, the art of African cultures shared many beliefs. This course will focus on a few works of art and look at how they are similar. First we will consider a deble, or rhythm pounder from Senufo on the Ivory Coast. It was used in agricultural ceremonies which commenced when young men entered the ritual area beating the earth with tall wooden figures attached to a heavy cylindrical base. Their slow rhythmic blows were accompanied by the sound of heavy trumpets, rattles made from gourds and the mourning sound in the secret language of the Lo society. The deble had a dual purpose. First, it called the life force of deceased ancestors to participate in the ceremony and second it asked the goddess, Katieleo to purify earth and make it fertile.

Female figure, deble rhythm pounder
1.28 Senufo, Ivory Coast, Female figure, deble rhythm  pounder, 42×4 ¾x4”, Brooklyn Museum.4

Most rhythm pounders suggest female anatomy and rise from a pedestal at the bottom to a long narrow cylindrical torso and neck capped by a small head. Although all parts of the body are evident, shapes are not naturalistic but geometric and abstract. The face is obviously abstract delineated by deeply incised lines. What is the first impression? It is strength emanating from the face and body, yet restraint due to the tall, upright design. What aspects of form create such an impression? The wide shoulders, long curved arms in front of the hips, a silhouette organized into a balanced, symmetrical form and clenched fists create a sense of closed space. The alternation of rounded forms with the angular forms of chin, breasts, and elbows cause the deble to appear self-contained; it reaches out to nothing outside its own form; emotion is contained and restrained by alternating the rounded with the angular forms of the chin, breasts, and elbows.


Male Chi Wara Headdress, wood, Brooklyn Museum
1.29 Male Chi Wara Headdress, wood, Brooklyn Museum, 33 1/8x8x10x3″, late 19th or early 20th century.5
Female Chi-Wara Headdress, Bamana people of Mali
1.30 Female Chi-Wara Headdress, Bamana people of Mali, 20th century, Huntington Museum of Art.6

















From the Bambara people of Mali, we see the Tji Wara or chiwara headdress. It was worn to bring success to the planting and harvesting. The mask was intended to call the creator god, the mythical spirit of work. During the ceremony, see Figure 1.31, the Tji Wara are attached to basketwork on heads of costumed men imitating movements of mating antelope. Above the small body of the male rises a curved neck decorated with open triangles and a short mane topped with a solid narrow head. Out of the center of the forehead grow two long slightly curved horns. The female tji wara, carrying a small antelope on her back, is even more simply designed. Her neck is straight and narrow without mane, and a single majestic horn rises straight above the head. Intricately carved geometric designs adorn the female’s body. While tji wara designs vary, the horns and the manes must be covered with diagonal lines in order to be an effective symbol of mythical power.

Animal headdresses differ from other works of sculpture in that they are designed to be viewed in profile. Nevertheless, they are symmetrically composed, alternating curved with angular forms. Triangular, conical and cylindrical shapes are combined to suggest a horned animal. The Bambara have not naturalistically represented an antelope, but rather, symbolized the animal whose beauty and serenity will please the spirit of the god and other life forces. Although sculpture was intimately involved with the lives of the people, not all sculptures are utilized in ritual ceremonies.


Chiwara/Tji Wara crests worn during a mask dance demonstration in Bamako, Mali, June 2010
1.31 Chiwara/Tji Wara crests worn during a mask dance demonstration in Bamako, Mali, June 20107


Mask of the Kifwebe, Songye region, Democratic Republic of Congo, 19th-early 20th century, wood, painted, Museum Rietberg, Zurich.
1.32 Mask of the Kifwebe, Songye region, Democratic Republic of Congo, 19th-early 20th century, wood, painted, Museum Rietberg, Zurich.8

The mask, another art form utilized in ceremonies, was designed to absorb the life force of a dead being. During ceremonies the anonymous mask wearer danced in costume while the drums spoke and the tribe members chanted. In the course of the dance the mask wearer became possessed by the life force of the mask, thus renewing his own life force. Masks were particularly important in West African societies because the head, the seat of wisdom, was thought to be the last refuge of the soul. Masks are intended to be seen in movement in a dance. The mask is part of the costume which is worn while the dancer moved to the music. It is only when all these elements are present that the mask comes to life and becomes inhabited by the spirit. To see a mask in a museum is to see the only the wood, because it has been taken out of context.

The Basonge mask from West Central Congo, see figure 1.32 is an aggressive image of power. The shape reminiscent of a rooster’s head, but the features are sharp and protruding. Large bulging eyes often suggest power in African art and are the symbol of an ancestor. The contrast of the linear circular motif to the sharp angles of the solidly formed features creates a sense of unresolved tension. Whatever its purpose, its design is abstract, with geometric shapes suggesting facial features. The shapes are few, simple and precisely defined. They create a closed form to contain a spirit or life force. The linear circular motif has sharp solid features which create tension. The abstract geometric shape is clear, defined, and closed contain. The inner eyes allow the wearer to see the spirit world, and the outer eyes see the temporal world. Under the influence of the spirit, ordinary eyes swell to accommodate inner eyes, the eyes of God.


Gabon, Bakota, Ancestral Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), Late 19th-early 20th century, 20 3/4 x 8 3/8 x 2 1/4"
1.33 Gabon, Bakota, Ancestral Figure (Mbulu Ngulu), Late 19th-early 20th century, 20 3/4 x 8 3/8 x 2 1/4″, Brooklyn Museum.9

The Bakota people of Gabon created funerary or ancestor figures that were placed atop woven baskets containing the bones of the deceased. While some authors believe that these wood figures, covered with sheets or strips of brass and copper, were merely symbols of the dead others maintain that the figures were in fact the deceased-themselves. Whether or not the spirit of the dead was thought to reside in the statue, the reliquary figure was intended to encourage the spirit to strengthen the forces of good for the clan’s benefit. The heads of this type of figure are oval with round or pointed chins. The size of the head, the seat of wisdom and power, emphasizes its importance to the African. Facial features are formed using geometric shapes and some tribal scarification is present. The small neck and arms on which the head rests are decorated with geometric designs. Again the figure is self-contained, perfectly symmetrical with a tension between the round and angular forms. The sculpture is designed to be viewed in its frontal aspect only, so there is no illusion of movement.


Ashanti, Ghana, Stool of the King, wood, Brooklyn Museum, 14x24 1/4x12 ½".
1.34 Ashanti, Ghana, Stool of the King, wood, Brooklyn Museum, 14×24 1/4×12 ½”.10
Figure 1.34 is a stool for the king of the Ashanti people of Ghana. It is covered in silver, although most stools made by these cultures were not. The stool in West Africa has traditionally symbolized the king’s power and was sometimes thought to contain the soul of an ancestor or to be the shrine of a king. In the Ashanti kingdom of Ghana, according to legend, a golden stool descended from the sky during a storm. The man whose powers caused the stool to descend and rest on the king’s knees told the Ashanti people that “this golden Stool contained the soul of the Ashanti people and that their height and welfare were in it.” This stool belonged to King Kofe in 1873. It is carved of wood and covered with silver and it exhibits geometric and natural designs. The form is extremely simple and each side resembles the other. The circular center section was identified with a proverb that says that the circular rainbow encircles the neck of the nation.



Look back at the sculptures in the last few pages of this chapter. You will be able to see common features in them:

  • The parts are abstract and geometric
  • The arms are before the hips and they are balanced and symmetrical
  • They are all closed form. The fists are clenched. There is no suggestion of movement
  • There is an interplay of rounded with angular lines in the chin, breasts, and elbows
  • Most often the material is impermanent



So what are some of the values and beliefs of these cultures?

  • Idealism
  • Control of forces
  • Calm, serenity
  • Energy, expression, inner tension=life; rhythm, humanism
  • Material has a life force and must be treated with respect and care
  • Reevaluate life periodically
  • They search for universal qualities such as a spiritual value
  • The life forces of mask wearer and ancestor become one
  • They are a conservative, conformist, collective society that copied prototypes and the basics of religious social order from other cultures
  • Art is functional, in the service of religion
  • This is a reflection of social stability
  • Illustrates the strength of the religion; life is valued
  • Artistic diversity creates masterpieces
  • Changes required reevaluation
  • West Africans lived in present



All sculptures were carved of the same medium, wood. Wood was plentiful in certain areas of West Africa, while other materials were not, but there are other reasons related to culture and tradition which explain why wood was so frequently employed. Since the dead were buried in a forest, the souls mingled with spirits of trees, making them sacred. Before a tree could be felled, it was necessary to consult a priest, who in turn asked forgiveness of the tree. The wood, then, embodied the life force before it was carved, so it is not surprising that it was such a popular medium. Wood, however, is not a long-lasting medium, particularly in hot, humid, climates where termites abound. This fact, perhaps, enhanced the value of the wood for West African cultures for several reasons:

  • The value of the spirit or life force was measured by the prestige of the sculpture’s owner and the success of the tribe. If these were not successful or if any evil befell the community, the sculpture was demoted in the cult’s hierarchy. Several failures would doom the sculpture to destruction. A material more expensive than wood would not have been so easily discarded.
  • Wood sculptures seldom survived more than 100 years, while many were damaged by termites much earlier. It was, therefore, necessary for people to review, and reaffirm their beliefs in new carvings, thereby preventing the culture from becoming too static or rigid. The impermanence of African art is also indicative of the West African’s attitude toward history.
  • “Immediate forefathers (were) believed to be present to assist the living, but those who lived two or three hundred years earlier (were) felt to be strange and remote.” It is evident that W. African cultures were concerned with the present and those ancestors of the recent past. If we examine again the rhythm pounder, the animal headdress, the Basonge mask, the Bakota reliquary figure and the sacred stool, we see simple geometric forms combined to create very different works of art.
  • It is not by chance that virtually all West African sculpture suggests a highly abstract interpretation of the human and the animal world. “West Africans simplify their carvings because they wish to express the spiritual world, not the natural world. West Africans seldom portrayed a particular individual, but rather the universal idea of that individual’s function. Simple, abstract forms, then, are used because they express or suggest abstract ideas relating to a whole attitude toward the universe since the individual is only a small cog in that universe, he is rarely acknowledged in art.


Although sculptural forms are rarely naturalistic, and individuals are seldom depicted, West African art is humanistic. Every statue embodies living energy, and the most commonly used symbols relate to humans and their needs. Women’s breasts emphasizing fertility and large eyes and heads suggesting wisdom and power are just two examples of concern with human beings’ earthly existence. The basic styles in West African art reveal the intimate relationship of sculpture to the society. Most sculptured works are abstract, geometric, symmetrical, balanced, self-contained, immobile, and alternate round and angular forms; thus, they are similar. Some of the important values peculiar to West African cultures are reflected in these characteristics. They suggest that West Africans are primarily concerned with the present and with the lives of all living beings in their communities. Their art is an instrument used to enhance the quality of their lives.



1 Photo by Zivax, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saly_Senegal2.JPG
2 From An African Treasury, Selected by Langston Hughes, Pyramid Books, New York, 1961.
3 Andrew Hofmeyr, “African Culture, African Tribes & Traditions: Cultural Tours in Africa,” African Budget Safaris, December 13, 2018, https://www.africanbudgetsafaris.com/blog/african-tribes-african-culture-and-african-traditions/ accessed 1/26/2022
4 Photo by Slick-o-bot, CC By 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_1989.51.12_Rhythm_Pounder_Deble_with_Female_Figure.jpg,
5 Photo by Slick-o-botUniversal Public Domain, CC0 1.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_75.189.9_Male_Chi_Wara_Headdress.jpg , .
6 Photo by Daderot, CC0 1.0, Universal Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chi_Wara_Headdress,_Bamana_people,_Mali,_20th_century,_wood_-_Huntington_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC05130.JPG
7 Photo by Souleymane Keita, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/03/Danse_Ciwara.JPG/648px-Danse_Ciwara.JPG
8 Photo by AndreasPraefcke, Public domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Songye_Maske_kifwebe_Museum_Rietberg_RAC_302.jpg
9 Photo by Slick-o-bot, CC BY- SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_56.6.19_Reliquary_Figure_Mbulu_Ngulu.jpg
10Photo by Slick-o-bot, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Ashanti_stools#/media/File:Brooklyn_Museum_1996.117.8_Stool.jpg


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book