African art

Western Sudan and Guinea Coast

In this region the style of woodcarving is abstract. Distortion is often used to emphasize features of spiritual significance. The figures of the Dogon tribe of central Mali stress the cylindrical shape of the torso. Some wooden carvings were made by an earlier people, the Tellem. Sculptures such as masks carved of soft wood are homes for the spirits and are discarded once they have been used in rituals. The Dogon have three distinctive styles of sculpture: masks incorporating recessed rectangles, ancestor sculptures carved in abstract geometric style used as architectural supports, and freestanding figures made in a cylindrical style. High-ranking Dogon families often had carved doors on their granaries.

The Bambara people of W Mali are famous for their striking wooden headdresses in the form of stylized antelope heads. The art of the Baga of NW Guinea includes snake carvings, drums supported by small free-standing figures, and spectacular masks. Poro society members in Liberia made ceremonial masks notable for their size, color, and vitality of expression. The Dan are known for their quasi-naturalistic, smoothly carved masks that represent materializations of spirits of the forest. Many of their masks are used to instruct initiates and relate to various social responsibilities, such as fighting fires and making peace. The Dan also carve large wooden spoons with anthropomorphic features used in ceremonies to show the importance of women.

The Baule of Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) carve figures to house the spirits of the dead or to represent a spiritual spouse or soul mate. These have precise renderings in high relief of ornate hairdresses and scarification patterns (see body-marking). The art of the Guro of Côte d'Ivoire consists almost entirely of human masks and of loom pulleys. Senufo masks represent human features with geometric projections and legs jutting out from each side of the face.

The Ashanti kingdom of Ghana employed (18th and 19th cent.) a system of brass weights based on a unit that was used to weigh gold dust, the state currency. These weights are small figures, many less than 2 in. (5 cm) high, which were cast in the cire perdue (lost wax) process found in many W African regions. They portray human and animal forms with a liveliness and spontaneity unusual in African art. Many are associated with proverbs that provide cultural continuity. The artists of Dahomey produced appliquéd textiles, including banners using colorful materials that often depict historical events.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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