The Kingdom of Ashanti which became an important power among the Akan Group has been of great cultural interest for the past two and a half centuries. With the accession of King Osei Tutu in 1700 the Kingdom of Ashanti rose steadily until the end of the nineteenth century, when its power was broken by the British Government. Guided by Okomfo Anokye, a state priest and wise counsellor, who is supposed to have invoked from heaven the famous Golden Stool of Ashanti which it is believed contains the soul of the nation, King Osei Tutu laid the foundations of his kingdom.
Osei Tutu embarked upon expanding his kingdom through a series of military campaigns and negotiations. Successive Ashanti kings followed in the steps of this famous king and within a century the nation was a dreaded power to the people of the coastal regions and their 'trader allies' who had built forts along the coast to carry out their trade in gold, ivory and slaves.
The Ashanti and the Akan in general held the concept of the one omnipotent God or 'Nyame', who is the creator of all things and King of the Heavens, and 'Asase Yaa', the Goddess of the Earth. There are other deities through whom the Great One manifests himself, like rivers, lakes and some physical phenomena. The Ashanti practised ancestor worship and had great reverence for departed spirits who had carried their work into the other world, still guiding and guarding the soul of the nation.
The king represented the Sun and his symbol was gold. The queen‑mother represented the Moon and her symbol was silver. Thus at court, all articles of paraphernalia for the king's use were made of gold and for the queen‑mother's, silver. The splendour at court called for artists in gold and silver to make innumerable ornaments, and wood‑carvers to make the different types of stools which were the symbols of authority. There were also special weavers of the traditional cloth, the 'Kente', who designed exquisite patterns for the king and his court and for respective clans.
Court artists and craftsmen held a respectable position in society. It was a great honour to be called the chief woodcarver to the king.
Ceremonial rites for certain important days of the year, like the 'Adae' Festival of purification, provided the opportunity for works of art to be used.
The Ashanti at the peak of their power had a very unique system of weights and measures and a monetary system. Gold dust was the foundation of trade and various units of weight were designed and
registered at the king's treasury which formed the basis of exchange. These are what are now widely referred to as 'Ashanti gold‑weights' which are little figures and geometrical shapes made of brass by the cire‑perdue process of casting.
It would be unrealistic to limit cultural development in this area to the Ashanti. North of Ashanti live the Bron who in the early times before the Ashanti became a nation had a lively kingdom with a progressive culture. It was from them that the Ashanti learnt the art of weaving and shared the concepts of the Cosmos.
The Fanti, Akim and the Akwamu of the Akan group all hold customary rites and religious beliefs similar to those of the Ashanti, and speak dialects of the same language‑a fact which confirms their common origin. They are all matrilineal groups in which the woman holds an important place in the society, Children inherit through the female line, with the uncle (mother's brother) filling an important role. They belong to the clan to which the mother belongs. Thus in the court it is the queen‑mother's child who may succeed as king and not the king's son.
The Kingdom of Ashanti which was destroyed by the British has now been restored and Ashanti forms part of the new Republic of Ghana.
The Fong tribe in Dahomey, which is of Ewe origin, established itself as a kingdom of significance. It became a very important state in the slave trade as it was the source from which many Africans were sold into slavery to work in the cotton fields of America. It is, however, for its artistic attainments that it is to be remembered, as much artistic activity took place at the court of the king. There was brass_
casting and weaving, and the making of gaily coloured applique cloths. The palace of Abomey was filled with excellent works of art. Some of these have in recent years been restored and may be seen by visitors.
The Yoruba Kingdom east of Dahomey achieved a high level of artistic development. Notable are the bronzes and terra‑cotta of He which were so aesthetically pleasing and realistic that it was at first thought that they had not been made by the indigenous people of Ife. Since the first discovery of these early works from He other works have been found from time to time, revealing the genius of Ife art. The Yoruba are very good carvers of wood and stone. Their masks are dramatic and colourful and full of vitality.It is Benin that has captured by far the most worldwide publicity. The Kingdom of Benin is noted for its excellent bronzes. Under the rule of the 'Obas' kings) art was patronized by the court and some excellent works produced, depicting various scenes of men in armour. The Obas wielded much power. They were regarded as semi‑gods. It is generally believed that it was in the reign of Oba Oguola, about 1270, that the art of bronze‑casting was introduced into Benin from Ife. But Benin developed it into court art and produced innumerable works of great importance until the British expedition of 1897
The Baga live in the Republic of Guinea. They belong culturally to the Mandingo group. It is believed that they migrated from the Futa jalon mountain range near the source of the Niger.
Baga wood‑carving is vigorous and dramatic, The most typical style is seen in the 'Nimba' statue.
The 'Nimba' is supposed to be the guardian spirit of Baga villages. It also controls fertility, and gives protection to pregnant women. 'Nimba' statues are installed in sacred groves near the villages and are supposed to protect the people against all evil.
The 'Nimba' is sometimes made in the form of a huge mask, which the dancer wears by carrying it over the shoulders with the body hidden beneath a big grass skirt. This is used in connection with the worship of the Goddess of Increase by the Simo Secret Society. The Baga have resisted the influence of Islam and have stuck to their own traditional concepts of religion.
The Bambara are a tall, well‑built people of Mandingo tribal origin who live in the Savannah grassland of Mali in the Western Sudan. They are noted for their excellent stylized antelope forms called 'chi‑wara' which are also made for the headdress used in connection with rites for fertility of the fields and for agriculture. In Baml5ara folklore the antelope (chi‑wara) is supposed to have taught the people how to cultivate corn.
Being predominantly an agricultural people they are more dedicated to the land and animals around them. The antelope design can be seen in almost all their everyday life.
At the collapse of the great Mali Empire of Western Sudan during the seventeenth century, the Bambara founded the Kingdoms of Seeu and Kaara which lasted for two centuries until they were conquered, and the great development of the Bambara was disrupted.
The Bambara reveal a deep sense of rhythm and pattern both in their antelope forms and their tigures.
The Mende who live in Sierra Leone are an agricultural people and depend mainly on tilling the land. They have preserved their traditional concepts and institutions, of which secret societies are the most notable. There are three important societies:
The Poro Society‑(men) The Bundu Society‑(women)
The Yassi Society‑(magic healing) The Bundu mask worn during the 'Sande' or initiation ceremony of girls is one of the popular masks of the Mende. It reflects the Bundu concept of ideal womanly beauty‑a creased neck, a small mouth and fatness. A grass or fibre skirt is attached to the mask which covers the whole body of the wearer when she dances during the ceremony.
Mende figures are carved with great skill and talent. The head and beautiful hair‑do, long cylindrical and creased neck, breasts, buttocks and calves of legs are exquisitely executed.
The Dan and Ngere tribes together with a number of sub‑tribes are spread across Liberia, Guinea and the lvory Coast.
They are held together, culturally, by the influence of the Poro Secret Society, which all the respective tribes have in common.
Dan Masks are simple and oval in shape with either a slight slit or a round hole for the eye, while Ngere Masks are rather grotesque and strong. This group forms one of the great wood‑carving centres in West Africa.
Other sub‑tribes associated with the Dan and Ngere, who hold a common culture, are the Wobe, Toma, Kran, Kru, Geh, Gio and Yakuba. Works of art are very similar but there are slight tribal differences in style.
The Senufo of the Northern Ivory Coast and parts of Mali and the Upper Volta are agriculturists. They are very good carvers in wood and also work in brass. The Senufo are a conservative people who have stuck to their traditional concepts and religion which centres around the Mother Goddess.
The cult of the Poro Secret Society has inspired their works of art. Their masks which are of either human or animal motif are full of vitality.
Senufo figures are equally interesting. Of these the 'Deble' representing the Mother Goddess, used by the Lo Secret Society at initiation ceremonies and fertility rites is most popular.
The Baule are one of the artistic group of peoples in West Africa and excel in wood‑carving. They lived together with the Ashanti until two centuries ago when they moved westward and settled in the Eastern Ivory Coast.
Their masks are of an extraordinary beauty and charm, and reveal a great attempt at stylized realism. Faces show a straight nose, small mouth and arched eyebrows which remind one of the Ashanti fertility doll, the 'akuaba'. Equally interesting are their figures which are usually shown in a resting pose seated on a stool.
The Guro of the Central Ivory Coast have a culture similar to their neighbours, the Baule. The Guro style which is closely related to the Baule also shows beautiful sweeping curves in design in the carved heads of the pulleys used on their looms.
Their antelope masks made for the Zamle Secret Society show an excellent sense of design and pattern.
The Bobo live in Upper Volta and are mainly agriculturists. They are noted for their masks used for agricultural rites. There are three main subtribes‑the Bobo‑Gbe (white Bobo), Bobo Ule (Red Bobo) and Bobo Fing (Black Bobo). Of these the Bobo Fing who live around Bobo Diulasso display most artistic talent. Most of their masks which are carved in hardwood are very bold and usually oval in shape with an animal or human figure on top of them.
The Lobi live in north‑west Ghana and Upper Volta and are neighbours of the Bobo. They are conservative, and practise their traditional rites for which sculptures are made. The Lobi are noted for their portable travelling stools incorporating an antelope head design.
The Dogon tribe lives in Mali around the inhospitable rocky plateau on the Niger bend near Timbuktoo. Their style of work is rather individualistic. The 'Kanaga', a mask surmounted with a carved frame‑work in the form of a human figure with arms raised, is very peculiar to the Dogon.
The Ashanti, Bron and Fanti all belong to the Akan group and hold similar cultural concepts. Of these the former is very well known owing to its dynamic military activity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and its struggle with the British government towards the end of the nineteenth century.
The Ashanti are noted for their gold‑weights and their fertility doll, the 'akuaba'. But throughout Ashanti and in fact other Akan sub‑tribes such as Akim, Kwahu, Fanti, Akwamu and in Bron country, there are excellent works of art in wood, terra‑cotta and gold. In his book, Panopo of Ghana (Longman, London, 1966), Dr Kyerematen puts the artistic development in traditional art in Ghana in good perspective. Reading Sacred State of Akan (Faber, London, 19 5 z) by Eva Meyerowitz will also give some idea of Akan beliefs and concepts.
The Ewe are good potters and wood‑carvers. They are noted for their weaving and appliqu6 work. Drums and musical instruments are made for their vigorous and exotic dances. The Ga are known along the coastal board for their fishing. They produce objects of cultural importance in connection with their tribal festival of 'Homowo' during which they chase away the Spirit of Hunger.
The Guan are natural craftsmen in wood and metal and also good agriculturalists.
In Northern Ghana there is some wood‑carving but more of the 'minor' arts: weaving, dyeing, calabash carving, leatherwork and metal‑work. The wood‑carving of the Dagomba and Frafra has some similarity with that of the tribes of neighbouring Upper Volta. In the north‑west corner of Ghana, the Lobi skilled in the art of carving in wood form an interesting group.
The Fong tribe of Dahomey is one of Ewe origin. Apart from the ancient crafts of brass‑casting, weaving and the making of gaily coloured appliqu6 cloths, they also carve masks and figures in wood.
The Ibo and the Ibibio live in the eastern bank of the lower Niger region, in what was at one time referred to as Biafra.
The lbo tribe is made up of a number of energetic sub‑tribes each with ideas peculiar to them. Consequently there is a conglomeration of varied styles of art work in this region. Ibo figures, of which some are life‑size village statues (the 'Ikenga'), meant to protect the people and bring prosperity, are very dynamic and awe‑inspiring. Equally interesting are their female death‑masks.
The lbibio who stem from the same group as the lbo carve masks of demons to inspire fear. Their figures are noted for their hinged and movable limbs, which is a feature rare in other parts of West Africa.
Both the lbo and Ibibio have a traditional type of carved marionette for social entertainment.
The Koro of Northern Nigeria live on the Jos Plateau. Their figures reveal a rather unique style with strong angular shapes.
The Ekoi of south eastern Nigeria are made up of the Ekoi and sub‑tribes of Anyang, Banyang, Boki, Keaka and a few others. They are noted for their masks used in the Ekpo Secret Society which are finished by covering the wood with animal skin to make it look human.
The Ijaw (Ijo) inhabit the Delta Region of the Niger and are mostly fishermen and agriculturists. They believe in the concept of reincarnation and in the existence of water spirits. They produce masks representing these spirits for their cult. There has been considerable influence of European contact since the eighteenth century.
The Idoma, who live in Lower Benue are neighbours of the Igala. They have a number of dance secret societies. Their sculpture is creative, and shows a high standard of achievement.
The Cameroon is represented in this book by the magnificent stool with leopard and human figures as support from Bakum. There are however several tribes which could be treated in detail in a special study of the Cameroon.