African Sculptural Art

(African Votive Sculpture)

Papers by Herbert E. Roese,
(continuing web site with addenda)
(Do quote from these papers but, please, acknowledge author & web site.)

[<<Papers] . [Illustrations>>] . [Addenda] . [Links] . [Contact]

In sub-Saharan Africa, sculpture is made and used for particular, practical purposes. In many instances it is used to mark events or stages of life, like fertility, birth, transition, death. For example, among the Yoruba in Nigeria, Ibeji twin-figurines (from ibi=first born and eji=two) are produced at the birth of someone's twins (a common occurance in this ethnic group). Among the Ashante in Ghana fertility figurines are carved, the Akuaba doll (akua=born on Wednesday and ba=child), to be worn by a young female in order to ensure her fertility. Ikenga figures embody protective spirits for worldly success and to protect the house-hold. Ancestor figures remind the people of those gone. Other carvings are used for initiation and coming-of-age rituals, for harvest festivals and celebrations, for funeral occasions.

As sculptures in African society had a practical purpose, they were made for these occasions only, i.e. on commission from a patron. The client and the artisan would discuss the purpose of the work and agree a price before the sculptor set to work. The client would then rely on the artist to produce a familiar form in a familiar style. For him only the object would be important, not the carver. As most sculptures in Africa have a limited life span due to the climate (humidity, dampness, heat) and insect attack (woodworms, termites), carvings had to be replaced frequently. Nevertheless, "the artist is not a passive copyist, even though one of his major responsibilities is to replace destroyed works" (from African Art in the Cycle of Life, by Roy Sieber & Roslyn Adele Walker, 1887:20). In fact, in this way he represented his generation's link with the past. In other words, "each sculpture had its particular reason for being among the people that supported it" (ibid:17).
Each culture developed its own sculptural style, which thus had a limited geographical distribution. Hence, in terms of style, most Africans would have known little of what was produced at any distance from their home areas. African patrons of sculptures make no evaluation of quality. To them all carvings associated with their culture are good and beautiful because they are accepted and consecrated in the codes of their cultures. A carver is expected to produce a sculpture in the style, size, colour and material expected of him by his clientele. Skill rather than creativity is the ability to create recognizable, acceptable variations of a shared stylistic, formal and aesthetic norm (ibid:14). Talent in a carver was recognised and if a piece was particularly well made was limited to use as an object associated with high status. Such carvers ended up working exclusively for Royal households, chiefs and the priviledged.

African sculptures only became "Art" in the Western sense of the word in the late 19th /early 20th century when artists and critics in Europe discovered it for themselves, e.g. Modigliani, Picasso, Brancusi and the expressionists. They applied it to their own work as a means of introducing new forms to break away from the established, traditional European styles, regarded by then as aesthetically bankrupt. "Studied for its formal impact on Western Art, no attempt was made, however, to discern the role, meaning or aesthetics from the point of view of the African producers" (ibid:14). As a result, only parts of the original forms have frequently been preserved, e.g. a mask without its costume, leave alone all the other associations like music, dance, drama, myths and beliefs that surround the carving. The sculptures that survive in Western collections are, therefore, often but a small part of the full object for which they were originally made, e.g. the Chi-Warra head dresses.

The issue, however, has not always been quite as clear cut. From the 16th century onwards when Europeans first made trading contacts with West Africa, carvers and sculptors already produced work for some traders, and later as of the 19th century, wooden carvings were sold to explorers and colonial officials who began to collect them. For example, Baule carving style and level of care were not only used at the highest level of their own society but also made for French colonials. They sought the most finely carved, refined examples of carving from the talented Baule, thereby helping to foster the proliferation of Baule carving tradition in the last century. Also, high-quality ivory carvings and bronzes, were already produced for Portuguese traders in 16th century Benin. 19th century acquisitions, now in Western collections, had their provenance recorded as proof. Therefore, African sculptors, it seems, produced figurines on commission for all kinds of clients, as long as the produced work was of a style and quality that both agreed upon.
C.B.Steiner writes in his book African Art In Transit that: "In the course of this fascinating trans-cultural journey, African art acquires different meanings. It means one thing to the rural villagers who create and still use it in ritual and performance, another to the Muslim traders who barter and resell it, and something else to the buyers and collectors in the West who purchase it for investment and display it in their homes". Occasionally there is a shortcut. Susan Vogel shows a photo of a Baule carver at work with the subtitle: " Zehue Koffi Nestor carving a small mask for sale [directly] to Muslim traders" (African Art Western Eyes p.286), thus cutting out the rural consumer.

One could therefore argue that today's African carvings for the tourist trade might be seen in a similar light, even though they are not strictly on commission for an end-user (if one discounts the itinerant trader). They could thus be regarded as a continuation of a long tradition, especially in view of the constantly decreasing local market. Furthermore, one should not forget that some carvers have always produced the occasional figurine and mask for stock. Producing art on commission was also a common method in Europe during the Middle Ages. The works of famous icons of the western art world, paintings as well as sculptures were produced in workshops on commission for the Church, or for wealthy merchants and the privileged.

The other day I heard on the news that the American sculptor Jeff Koons has a staff of 150 helpers who make his sculptures for him - under his guidance, of course. So, one does not have to go back to the Middle Ages to encounter the system. And as the prices for his works are usually in the six figure bracket, it is obvious that his output is also reserved for the wealthy and priviledged.


Ancient Sculpture of SOUTH AFRICA.

19thCent. Sculpture of WEST AFRICA.

Unusual Sculpture of Ghana

Modern Sculpture of Zimbabwe

African Miniature Sculpture.

Female & Male Chi-Warra headdresses from SouthWest Mali (Bambara)

For more pictures click here

from Cote d'Ivoire

from Cote d'Ivoire

from Cote d'Ivoire

Dan /Gunye ge
from Cote d'Ivoire

from Burkina Faso

from Ghana

from the Rep.of Benin

from Nigeria

from Nigeria

from the Dem.Rep.of Congo

from the Dem.Rep.of Congo

from the Dem.Rep.of Congo

  • In the paper on WEST AFRICA attention is drawn to the observation that many a stance of African figurines is based on the position an African dancer adopts during her/his performance. The illustrations below are relevant examples. There are several photos of dancers in typical dancing stance in the book "The Dance, Art & Rirual of Africa", figs.189-191, 1978, Collins London, (see Dancers from Chad, scroll down for entry No.22).
    Susan M.Vogel writes in her book "African Art Western Eyes" (p.156) : "Baule dancing in general [for example] can be characterised as symmetrically balanced and essentially vertical (the dancer's knees may be flexed but the head and torso are held upright)". She adds :"... female solo dancers will advance very slowly...The body and neck are held upright, the hands extended in front...palms up...The facial features are impassive, the eyes downcast...", which corresponds with the illustations below and Alphonse Ti�rou's explanations.

    ... ...
    excerpt from 'The Dance, Art & Rirual of Africa'.

    An even more explicit example is provided by Mr. Mottas (Switzerland), who describes a Fante figure in his collection as follows: "It represents a dancing woman. She is clearly identifiable as a dancer if only by the musical instrument (a small bell � a "grelot" in French) attached to her left wrist. The dancer's up&down jumping motion is emphasized by the plats of hair and the breasts which beautifully evoke the dance movement, as well as the break at the waist. There is, in fact, an old description of this dance among the Fante by James Alexander, ca. 1830, quoted by Robert Farris Thompson in "African Art in Motion", Berkeley & Los Angeles 1974, p. 37 & pl. 42.

  • In the paper on "Two Unusual Sculptures from Ghana", it is noted that the hairstyle depicted is most unusual in an African wood carving, yet in reality it is a very popular hair style. The photograph next to the figurines shows how the hair is dealt with, to create this style. The image is taken from R.Sieber & F.Herreman's book "HAIR in African Art & Culture" (2000, Prestel, Munich, p.11).
    The provenence of the figure is unknown, but by comparison with others it is thought that its appearance & elements suggest an Anyi/Akan origin. If anybody reading this paragraph is able to determin from where in Ghana it might have emanated, please contact the author.

    . .

    The paper is also mentioned in TRIBAL ART FORUM, which asks for comments and is an ideal platform for discussion. See under Archived Essays & Discussion'

  • .

  • Another enigma is the scarification on an Ibeji figure which has been identified by the Yale Guy Van Rijn Archive of African Art as coming from Ilorin and surroundings in the Oyo region in Kwara State of South West Nigeria, some 100 miles (164km) north of Ibadan.

  • The scarification is tribal and identifies the group the family belongs to, i.e. they are an identification of "membership" of one of the major subtribes among the great people of Yoruba: Igbomina, Oyo, Ijebo, Egbado, etc. The marks can be vertical or horizontal. In this case there are 2 pairs of four short horizontal marks on each cheek. There is also one vertical cut through the middle bridge between the two sets of scars. What that is doing there is as yet a mystery (if anybody knows, please contact the author). Four horizontal scars, in a number of variants, are typical for the Oyo region in Yorubaland. These tribal marks ("abaja") in quadruple form, repeated twice, were apparently used by some of the noble Oyo families of the 19th century (see M. und G.. Stoll: Ibeji, Zwillingsfiguren der Yoruba, M�nchen 1980).

    for 'Modern Paintings from Africa' click HERE

    Art in Africa
    by Prof. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe

    Smithsonian Institution Libraries
    . . Sites
    relating to African Art.

    [Paul Nieuwenhuysen
    Vrije Universiteit Brussel]

    T H E Y A L E U N I V E R S I T Y A R T G A L L E R Y
    V A N R I J N P H O T O G R A P H I C A R C H I V E
    With over 130,000 photos, it is the best tool to search a provenance,
    to find bibliographical references and to visually compare dozens of similar objects

    Exhibitions, Museums and Archives on African Art


    This web site is now also available as a booklet of 85 pages.
    To order it on-line
    please click the picture,
    or contact the author for details.


    . [Home] . [Index] . [Illustrations] . [Links].


    � 2000-2007 Nijii, All rights reserved.