Sculpture in West Africa

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The countries that make up West Africa are very diverse. Some of them are spread out along the sea, others have no outlet to the ocean. Natural and cultural landscapes are just as varied. Some of these countries have large tropical forests, others are mostly savannah or desert regions. Most of the inhabitants of these countries have settled for a long time, but there is also a portion of these populations made up of nomadic pastors: their arts differ from those of settled populations; they rarely speak in the woods.
West Africa has in the past experienced great kingdoms and empires: Ghana and Mali or the Gao Songhai Empire in the savannah zone. The early Islamization of the merchants of these kingdoms facilitated the preservation of their history in the “tarikh”, written by historians and geographers Arab from the Xth century. The reputation of these kingdoms and empires extended beyond the continent: we remember the pilgrimage of Kankan Moussa to Mecca where he would, because of his liberality, lower the price of gold. Further south, the kingdoms are smaller; they are later than those of the savannah countries: the kingdom of Ife, the ashanti confederation, or the Mossi kingdom are examples.

West African sculpture

The agrarian and initiatory rites, the local religions, the royal courts are the main foundations of West African sculpture. His main genres remain masks and statues. It is impossible to describe them all in this article. We can nevertheless remember that these arts were expressed mainly in wood, ivory, “bronze”, terracotta, gold and silver. Some of the most famous styles are known; their names also correspond to ethnonyms: Senufo and Dan in Ivory Coast, Bambara and Dogon in Mali, Baga of Guinea, Mosi in Burkina Faso for example.
It is in Nigeria that we find the greatest historical depth. The researchers proved that there was a kinship between the various styles that have succeeded each other in this country for at least 2000 years. The Nok terracottas , dates between 900 BC and 200 BC, would form the basis of this family tree. They share similarities with Ifè, the religious capital of the Yoruba world and most of the Gulf of Benin populations.
In Ifè where lives a king, between the XIth and the XVIth century the terracotta served mainly to the representation of realistic characters. In the same period and in the same city are representations of heads and royal characters in copper alloy commonly called “bronze”. The bill is so “classic” that for a long time it was thought that artists of Greco-Roman culture contributed to the training of those of Ifè. In truth it is not so; Classicism is first and foremost the expression of a vision of man, peculiar to a society that has reached a balance both in its social and economic organization. It was probably the case of Ifè from the eleventh century. Other expressions of the Kingdom of Benin and Owo between the 15th and 16th centuries as well as contemporary Yoruba art would be derived from it. It is not unfair to consider the essence of the creations of Ifè and Benin city as an art of court, the character of the king being the center.
Agrarian rites and local religions have given rise to statues and masks found almost everywhere in West Africa. We will discuss here only Tyi-Wara, bambara mask that made famous the art of this people and this region.
The Tyi-Wara shows an antelope. The recurrent representation of this animal invites attention to the agrarian rites and fertility protected and transmitted by different initiations. Antelope is a species specific to forest regions. In Bambara art, it has given rise to multiple stylized representations, sometimes close to abstraction, but all of them fit within the framework given by the essential physical forms of the animal. The sculptor can make it rest on another animal, its horns can be represented perpendicularly or parallel to the body, the animal can be seen in the middle of the race, a man can ride it … The animal representation hides a lot more than it it seems.
Today the image of tyi-wara is common to many cultures that make them the logo of their aviation companies.

Joseph Adandé
Art Historian
University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin

Bibliographic guidelines:


  • Collective (1980), Spirit and Gods of Africa , exhibition catalog, National Museum Biblical Message Marc Chagall, Nice.
  • DELANGE, J. (1967), Arts and Peoples of Black Africa , Gallimard, Paris.
  • SIEBER, R. and WALKER, RA (1988), African Art in the Cycle of Life , National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
  • VANSINA, Jan (1984), Art History in Africa , Longman, New York.
  • ZAHAN, D. (1970), Religion, spirituality and African thought , PBP, Paris.