Tribal Art Combines Beauty and Ritual

BaKota ancestral funerary figure
Baule ancestral figure
Dea mask/Poro secret society
Bambara antelope
Fang Ancestral Figure
Ibeji Twins
Ashanti Doll

Out of Africa’s central forests have come beautiful examples of tribal art. These collectible works are important in their own right, but also have influenced the works of major 19th and 20th century Western artists, including Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Klee, Vlaminck and Derain.

While living in New York City in the 1960s, I was privileged to photograph African art in the prominent collections of Allen Alperton and Irwin Hersey and at many Madison Avenue galleries.

Translating the beauty and form of these fascinating pieces to film has been a wonderful personal adventure. Each piece shown here is exceptional, yet typical of their tribal origins, rituals and expressive styles that evolved over hundreds of years.

Today, the best art from the tribes represented in these photographs will list for $10,000 to $100,000 at major auctions.

First are “Ibeji” twin figures from the Yorubaland tribe. The birth of twins is considered to be an unusual and mystical event. The Shaman may advise the parents to have a pair of Ibeji twin figures carved, according to the sex of the children. Or, the carvings may be postponed until one of the twins dies. The figure of the dead twin is then cared for, ritually fed, cleansed, and clothed in the same fashion as the surviving twin.

The Bambara antelope dance head dress represents the spirit “chi wara.” It is attached to a wicker cap and worn by young men of the “flankuru” (an agricultural cooperative) at planting and harvest rituals. Antelope were common in the area and the young men would leap like antelope while performing their dances.

The Baule tribal carvers are noted for their highly polished and finely detailed ancestral wooden sculptures. The attention paid to the scarifications and the intricate hair weavings, expressions details of the face, arms and fingers are distinctive of the Baule tradition. This is a head dress worn at ceremonial events.

Here we have the most beautifully carved example that I have ever seen of a “Dea” ceremonial mask used by the Poro secret society of the Dan tribe of the Ivory Coast and Liberia. The masks are carved to look like beautiful women.

BaKota ancestral figures are distinctive in their two-dimensional aspect. These are covered with brass and copper sheeting in geometric designs. The metal coverings contain samples of bone from an ancestor.

Fang ancestral figures from Gabon are most interesting for combining the qualities of ancestors with those of a child. They usually are placed upon a box containing some of the ancestor’s bones. These sculptures are carved with great skill and finely polished.

The carved wooden “Akua mma” fertility doll expresses the Ashanti ideal of beauty – a high forehead, long neck, round flat face and a small mouth. The women are instructed not to look at deformity of any kind, so that their children will be beautiful. Pregnant women usually carry these dolls.

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  1. Philip Adkins says:

    Dear Mr. Shuman,
    The photographs are wonderful. What became of Mr. Hersey and his collection?

    Many thanks,
    Philip Adkins

  2. hello I have a sculpture african tribe