Sculpture in East Africa

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As curious as it may seem, for a long time there has not been much interest in the art of this Africa stretching from Nilotic lands in the north to the region of large and small lakes without excluding the Zambezi region. The country is inhabited by breeders who exalt their warrior traditions. There are also farmers. The social organization allows independent, dispersed and highly mobile clans to coexist with mixed “feudal structure” societies based on a contract between the “conquering” pastoralists and the farmers. There are also groups organized around a king of divine essence, leaders responsible for fertility and general prosperity.

Sculpture, when it exists, is also expressed here in two essential forms: the statuary and the mask. In the Nilotic regions, the statuary that one finds is in the service of the cult of the ancestors. She seems to be inspired by the morphology of the individuals by often representing the man, the torso always stretched on long legs, apart, as stiff; the arms are glued to the body and the neck, not very visible, has a round or pyramidal head. This statuary is not made for a public exhibition; it is kept in the huts, sheltered from the sun. They receive libations.

Among the Gato and Konso of South-West Ethiopia the statuary takes the form of poles whose end represents an oval human head, wearing a “cap” whose shape varies from one group to another. If the Gato install their sculptures in the cemeteries, the Konso put them at the entrance of the village but they always indicate the location of the graves. The sculpture can be executed during the life of the person concerned; it is in this case a true effigy whose attributes indicate the exact social position of the disappeared.

Masks are not absent. In this region exist shiluk masks, depicting a leopard head; they are made of fragments of gourd whose concave roundness is covered with clay and dung of cow painted and modeled to indicate the bridge of the nose; perforations make it possible to represent the eyes or the open mouth on one or more teeth.

Among the Makonde, who live on both banks of the Ruvuma River, on the border between Tanzania and Mozambique whose kinship structure is matrilineage, masks are much more present. They are related to the initiation of men. It takes place in the dry season and has a rite of death-resurrection that takes place as close as possible to the rainy season, as nature prepares to turn green again. The Makonde masks , male or female, are extremely realistic human face. Sometimes natural hair implants are found on some; the creators also use beads of wax to translate the scarifications. When it comes to the representation of a woman, the lips are pierced and filled with pearls.

In this culture the sculpture gives a prominence to the representation of the woman. This phenomenon can be explained by the myth that all Konde are born of a female sculpture that has become alive alongside a man who created it. The female sculptures could be probable figurations of this first mother. It is to them that we turn to submit the problems on which depend the vitality of the group, the happiness of families or persons. They are placed standing near the houses; some are tied by a link to their owner and accompany him on the move. Does not the woman always remain the eternal feminine, the one whose fertility continues the species, the one whose immense goodness always allows the child to the heart of the

Joseph Adandé
Art Historian
University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin