In the cultures of western and central Africa, the spirit world and the physical world are deeply intertwined and have the ability to influence one another. Accordingly, a great deal of African sculpture is made to establish a link between these worlds through ritual. In addition, African cultures also influence one another. As shown in this collection of sculptures as well as in the displays of masks and of tourist-trade art in this exhibit, these cultures frequently interact and exchange ideas. They adopt artistic forms and styles as well as cultural practices and belief systems, adapting them to their values and applying them in their rituals. African cultures, therefore, have never been static; they are active and interactive, both with each other and across the physical and spiritual realms.
Reliquary guardians are figures attached to containers (reliquaries) that hold the bones (relics) of the deceased. The traditional religion of the Fang culture focuses on the veneration of ancestors, and they developed the practice of collecting their ancestors’ relics, depositing them in reliquaries, and making the associated reliquary guardian figures during a period in the 18th century when they were migrating from one region to another. Fang reliquary guardian figures are idealized representations of the deceased and often have bulging arm and leg muscles, which are considered beautiful among the Fang. The figures wear calm expressions and hold their arms in front of their bodies, both of which indicate a cool composure. This figure also holds a horn container of powerful, protective substances. Researched by Nicholas Deckard
Like the Fang reliquary guardians, Kota reliquary guardians are figures attached to containers of the skeletal remains of ancestors, to protect these relics from both spirits and trespassers. Kota reliquary guardians are much more abstracted than the Fang figures, with most emphasis given to the head and to rudimentary legs that form a diamond-shaped hole. Especially on the later figures, the head is abstracted down to its most idealized, geometric shapes, with an oval face, round eyes, a pyramidal nose, and simple mouth; the crescent shapes on the top and sides of the face are simplified representations of elaborate Kota hairstyles, while the flaring tips may represent ear ornaments. The diamond-shaped legs either provided a place to lodge the long bones of an ancestor, or it was used to tie the figure onto the top of the basket or barrel that housed the relics. Sheets of copper, brass, and other precious metals cover the surface of these wooden figures, arranged to provide visual contrast, to draw attention to incised geometric scarification designs, and to give added prestige to the ancestor whom the figure guards. Researched by Nicholas Deckard
While there is very little scholarship on rhythm pounders made by the Yoruba culture, these percussion instruments are very similar in form, style, and function to rhythm pounders made by the Senufo culture, also of western Africa. Like the Yoruba rhythm pounder, Senufo rhythm pounders have a human representation as a superstructure, although the Senufo pounders usually use a complete figure. The Senufo figures also have high-crested coiffures and narrow heads along with facial scarification, which is a traditional mark of beauty, maturity, and status.
During Senufo funeral processions, two rhythm pounders are carried in front of the pallbearers, and they are struck against the ground as the procession moves forward, as if to clear a path for the dead on the way to the graveyard. The pounders are then buried with the deceased. Thus, although the wear on the bottom of this rhythm pounder suggests that it might have been used in a funeral procession, this object was likely made and sold as a tourist-trade object, as rhythm pounders are typically buried with the deceased. Researched by Nicholas Deckard
Very little is known about Adan small standing figures, but they are quite similar to sculptures from the neighboring Akan, Fon, Ga, and Ewe peoples, who are in close proximity to the Adan and likely shared many cultural practices. If Adan figures are similar in function to, for example, Fon culture bocio figures, this figure may have been originally intended to be a part of a larger assemblage of figures that were used together. Among these cultures, roughly carved, small figures such as this were used by commoner-status people as a means to acquire power; libations and other powerful substances would be applied to the figure, transforming it into a source of power for certain functions. If many different and opposing powerful substances were brought together, however, a great deal of volatile power might be concentrated on the figure that would be dangerous to certain individuals; because of this, spiritual specialists were consulted, and such figures were placed in specific spaces in the community or in the home, which served to distract or distance the harm from vulnerable members of the community. This Adan figure is clean except for some spots of red and blue pigment, which suggests that the figure has been stripped of any power substances or libations, and it is therefore devoid of its former power; alternatively, the figure may be clean because it had not yet been used for traditional purposes or because it was made for sale in the tourist trade. Researched by Nicholas Deckard
Mancala is an African game that dates from ancient times but is now popular around the world. All versions of the game involve two players who take turns spreading game pieces or counters, one-by-one, into consecutive holes, with the objective being to gather the most counters while moving around the board. Mancala can be played simply, with stones and circles or holes in the ground, but it is also played with luxurious counters made of precious materials on an elaborately carved wooden board. Many different variations of the game have also developed; the most common game board has six holes on each side, but game boards are made with sixteen, twenty-four, or as many as eighty holes in a four-by-twenty grid.
This sculptural game board has twenty-eight holes on a four-by-seven grid, indicating that it is most likely designed for the version of mancala known as kisolo or chisolo, a variation developed by the Songye culture. The human head on one end of the board also resembles Songye mancala boards; however, the style of the head is distinctly different than Songye sculpture, suggesting that this type of game board was adopted and adapted by another culture. Comparison of the head to other African sculpture reveals that it was likely made by members of the neighboring Kuba or Luba cultures, who carve figures with similarly styled faces and simple headdresses. The rectangular hole opposite the head is unusual among African mancala boards, but likely served as a “home space” or possibly as a place to store the counters in between games. Researched by Nicholas Deckard and Moly-Elsabeth Owens