African Art: The Yoruba, Asante, Senufo, and Dogon


Nok, Sculpture, 6th century BCE-6th century CE (photo By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Abstraction was the major style, and the human figure was the principle image in African art. Art assisted in maintaining the physical and spiritual well-being of the community. It helped to organize society and solve its problems. Specially crafted prestige items with restricted ownership identified elite groups. The display of certain objects could indicate kinship, political rank or economic success. Dynamic energies roamed freely, interact with the community, and were capable of intervening and offering advice. They occupy inanimate objects when their knowledge or assistance is needed. The dead are important and especially powerful.

In 1884-1885, the African continent was divided among European nations at the Conference of Berlin. This changed the political structure of the African continent, and the groups and nations that lived there. The European nations did not take into account existing tribal structures and enmities, and, in many ways, set the stage for some of the issues extant on the continent today.

Nok, Male Figure, c. 500 BCE-500 CE and Sculpture, 6th century BCE-6th century CE (photo By User:FA2010 – Own work, Public Domain, and By Daehan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Nok culture, from the area of Nigeria,  began creating terra cotta heads c. 800 BCE, a tradition which continued through c. 600 CE. These are hollow, and were probably originally attached to a superstructure of some kind. They were also formed by allowing the clay to dry to leather hardness, and then carving away the forms. Some of these came from the site of Sokoto, and some pieces appear to be bases for larger sculptures.


Ife, Bronze Head, 12th-15th century (photo By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Map, Historical Yoruba sites

Ife was a Yoruba-speaking Medieval city that was seen as the center of the world, and the place where humans had been created. After its loss of political control, it remained the city from which kings of smaller states received authority. It was known for a naturalistic style and technical sophistication. Bronze casting here achieved a high level of technical sophistication. Art was created to glorify and memorialize the divine kings, the oni, and members of the palace circle. One’s destiny was believed to reside in the head, so the head was emphasized in sculpture. A fleshy body indicated health and physical well-being. The oni was perfect in body, mind, and spirit because he directed the destiny of his subjects. Many of the objects found represent portrait heads of the elite, which were probably placed on altars after their death or were attached to wooden superstructures, dressed, and carried in ceremonial processions. The statues documented royal lineage by reinforcing oral histories with visual images.

The Yoruba feel that art plays an important part in the social and moral world. Yorubaland is the most urbanized ethnic region in sub-Saharan Africa. It is divided into many kingdoms, and traditionally lacked writing. Formalized court singing and oral literature communicated a wealth of historical information. There are many specialized guilds, although everyone generally farms as well. Kinship and religion are important, and the descent is patrilineal. The clan overshadows the nuclear family, with the oldest male member, the bale, having the most authority.

Bamgboye of Odo-Owa (Yoruba), Orangun Epa headdress, c. 1925 and Yoruba, Crown (Ade), 1900s (photo and By Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Olowe of Ise (Yoruba), Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife, 1910-14 and Yoruba, Ere Ibeji Figures, late 19th-early 20th century (photo and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0,

Recent Yoruba arts focus on either the clan and family or on royalty.Most Yorubans are Christian or Muslim, but traditional religion is still important, and centers around several types of supernatural beings. Olodumare and Onile are the two most powerful, and she is the owner of the earth and the patron of motherhood. She is attended by the ogbani. The orishas are a large group of beings that are associated with specific natural phenomena, human activities, or are deified ancestors. They directly influence the lives of mortals, and are served by cults of worshipers. The visual arts often occur in the context of performing arts. Religion is the most important purpose of art, but it is also used as a means of communicating social status. Religion and politics often complement one another. Excellent art is public confirmation of elevated political and religious status. The arts constitute an integrated stylistic system. Objects like the Orangun Epa Headdress, made by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa, c. 1925, shown above, were made for the Epa festival, which lasts for a week, and honors the roles of a stable society. The pillar at the center is the ruler, and he supports the entire societal structure. Royal crowns depict ancestors, Oduduwa (the mythical orisha ancestor of the kings), and Our Mothers. The idea of “Our Mothers” shows the importance of women, even though this is a patriarchal society. The Queen Mother is the only one who can look inside the crown, and place the packet of medicine that protects the king inside. Objects, such as the house posts carved by Olowe of Ise for the verande of the palace of the Oni of Ikere in the early 20th century, also represent this idea of the importance of balance between genders. Yoruba masquerades are also done to commemorate the deceased or appease spirits. The egungun masquerade take place over several weeks, with performances within lineage compounds and public spaces. Some depict the spirit of the recently deceased. Another type of masquerade is done for the Gelede society, which represents an offering to Our Mothers. Each orisha has priests, colors and ritual objects associated with his or her worship. As part of the worship of the orisha, the Yoruba will often turn to a diviner, a babalawo, who mediates between humans and Orunmila, one of the mediators between gods and humans (the other being Eshu), who help keep order. Eshu is the trickster, embodying uncertainty, chance, violence and trouble. There is a tradition of the ere ibeji, or deceased twin figures, that are powerful spirits. The sculpture made to represent the twin participates in family activities, and is not visually realistic, but is conceptually logical. It is an appropriate container for an enduring spirit.

Benin, Bronze Head of an Oba and Queen Mother’s Head (photo By Matt Neale from UK – Benin bronze in Bristol MuseumUploaded by NotFromUtrecht, CC BY-SA 2.0, and By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Benin, Plaque, possibly 1500s-1600s (photo By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0,

Benin was a city founded in c. 1300 by a prince from Ife. It was both militarily and economically aggressive. Benin traded directly with Europeans and gained power. In 1897, a misunderstanding with the British resulted in the fall of the city. The oba refused to see a contingent from the British Navy, as it was festival time. The contingent tried to come the city any, and they were killed by warriors from Benin. This resulted in a puntitive expedition from the British Navy, and the removal of the oba from Benin for a number of years. The oba, or divine king, was magically linked directly with the spirit world. All art was associated with the king and his court, and referred to the oba’s secret powers.The cast bronze heads of the Obas were placed on altars in Benin City after their death. Coral was used often, and signified both the wealth associated with the sea deity, Olokun, and the oba’s right to take human life because of its bloody color. The leopard was the oba’s imperial counterpart in the animal kingdom, and the horse was associated with military strength, political supremacy, and material affluence. Graduated size in sculptural pieces indicated rank not distance. The queen mother was also considered sacred, and is identifiable by her elaborate netted hairstyle and scarification. Cast bronze plaques were placed on the walls of the palace in Benin City, and detailed the importance of the Oba. All art in Benin City referred to the Oba’s secret powers as a divine ruler. Benin art synthesizes naturalistic and geometric styles. This is a living style, the Oba now resides in the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja.

Ashanti, Linguists Staffs and gold weights  (photo By User:Mattes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Geni (Photo by user:geni) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Asante, Kente Cloth, early 20th century and Akua’ba,  (photo By Ji-Elle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Hannes Grobe – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The Asante were a gold-trading kingdom with publicly displayed emblems whose ownership is confined to the politically powerful and socially elite. Divine kings rule with advice from a council of chiefs. Linguists Staffs are used by the principal counselor and spokesman of the king. These men are chosen for their verbal skill, wisdom and wit. Other members of the king’s entourage carry spiritually potent objects related to kingship. One of the most important Asante objects was the Divine Stool, which is believed to have fallen from the sky, and to contain the essence and history of the Asante nation. Prestige objects are non-representational, with a pattern aesthetic overlaid on traditional utilitarian objects. Chairs made in a European style represent contact and trade with the Europeans, especially the Portuguese, and the king’s desire to take on European aspects of kingship in a native Asante. Gold weights were used to regulate the trade in gold dust as an attempt to standardize weights. These were cast in culturally significant forms. Cloths, like kente cloth, are part of the socially significant cloths of the Asante and Akan speaking people. These are strip woven fabrics. Adinkra cloth is stamped with specific, meaningful designs. Batakari tunics were covered in amulets believed capable of protecting and empowering their wearers. Akua’ba (pl. Akua Ma), or child of Akua, sculptures are made for childless women, as charms to assist them in becoming pregnant.  As these objects have become more popular in the tourist trade, their shapes and forms have changed. Lineage, property, and political office pass through women, as the Asante are matrilineal.

Senufo, Female Ancestor Figure, c. 1915 and Kpeliye’e Mask, late 19th-early 20th century (photo See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Senufo immigrated to the Ivory Coast from the inland Niger Delta about 300 years ago under pressure from Islamic groups. The Senufo are organized by gender and age, and live in separate, enclosed kinship districts.Each district has its own sanctuaries and branches of Poro and Sandogo, and the loyalty of each person is ultimately to the group.There are also 2 important gendered societies that are used to pass on Senufo culture and mythology. In each, men and women receive training in gender-specific tasks and education in gender-exclusive ritual information. These societies convert the members into civilized, human, responsible, and contributing members of society. Both societies are complementary and mutually sustaining.The Poro association is the men’s ritual association. It teaches men their social, political and spiritual roles in Senufo society. The society is organized by age groups, and initiation takes place in three phases over twenty years. After a man completes the third phase, he is ready for responsibility and leadership in the community, and is considered completely civilized.One of the important Poro images is that of the primordial couple.  The Poro wear masks embodying the female ideal, which affirms ties with the Ancient Woman, the foremost spirit woman in the matrilineal society. Divination is the exclusive province of women, and the Sandogo society, which is the women’s age-grade society. Members are called sando. Women are more responsible for seeking goodwill and blessings of the supernatural world. All powers and positions rest on the supernatural authority. The Poro society is designed to maintain the right relationship with the Deity and Ancestors, and the Sandogo is designed to maintain the right behavior in the district. There is an importance of the male/female dichotomy in all aspects of Senufo life. Many of the masks represent beautiful ladies. Champion cultivators win elaborate staffs that have finials that represent ideal female beauty. The winners gain prestige for themselves, their lineages and their children, and unmarried champion cultivators have their pick of unmarried women in the village.

Banana Village, Dogon, Mali and Ginna (Hogon’s House) (photo By KaTeznik – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, and By Senani P at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

Dogon, Toguna and Post (photo By upyernoz from Haverford, USA – Ende TogunaUploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0, and By BluesyPete – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dogon, Masked dance (photos By Fasokan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By OBERSON – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Dogon also moved from the Inland Niger Delta, specifically the area of the Bandiagara escarpment in modern Mali, in the 15th century. The Tellem flourished in this region from c. 1000-c.1500, and the Dogon seem to have absorbed many of their cultural forms and ideas. One of the most common sculptural forms of the Tellem are these human figures with raised arms. The encrustations on them represent sacrificial offerings that were poured over the figures. Since the late 15th century, the Dogon have been living in villages of cubical houses and cylindrical granaries near the Niger River in Mali. This is an age-grade, patrilinear society. The ginna, or lineage leader’s house, is usually placed highest in the villiage, and has the most elaborate façade. The toguna, or men’s meeting house, is a male domain. But, the support posts are usually carved to represent the female ancestors that come to assist in the mens’ deliberations, reflecting the Dogon belief in the importance of the duality of male and female. Sculpture is characterized by selective abstraction and a minimalist approach. A male with a beard represents wisdom and social prestige, and a female with a lip plug represents good grooming and fashion consciousness. Responsibility and respect are the foundations of the society. Wood is a precious commodity. They respect the integrity of materials, and so images conform to the cylindrical shape of a tree trunk. The Dogon make a number of masks, most of which are used in the dama, or funerary ceremonies, performed every few years to honor those who died in the period between that and the previous dama, and to move their spirits out of the village. Those honored are primarily the high-ranking male members of the society.


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