Baule diviners carry their vessels by the strings attached to the side. This allows people to identify them as diviners so that they can seek advice. The divination process involves a field mouse that lives in the container, displacing sticks while it is eating. The placement of the sticks is then read by the diviner. The small dish on the top holds the rice used to feed the mouse.
Benin was a powerful kingdom from 15th century until its destruction by the British in 1897. Ancestral altars were in the shrine that was a focal point for rituals within the Queen Mother's and Oba's palace. On these altars are kept bronze heads honoring past queen mothers and obas as well as many other objects relating to rituals, such as this hornblower. This figure shows a hornblower playing a side-blown trumpet. These trumpets are made of ivory and are played to announce the arrival of the oba or other court dignitaries.
During the 17th century the pillars of the courtyards in the spacious palace of the Oba (king) were covered with bronze plaques honoring the Oba's ancestors and representing their physical and spiritual power. This example shows the Oba wearing a beaded crown and necklaces, standing with his attendants. The small figures between them represent musicians.
Poro society masks can have many functions within the society. Those with large features are often associated with trainers of the young men for their adult responsibilities before their initiation. Those with more refined features and ridge down the forehead, like this one, often act as protector of the initiates and bring food to them until they are self sufficient. They are often referred to as Mother Masks. The cowrie shells on the cloth and fur head cover relate to wealth and the beads relate to the feminine aspect of the mask as mother. The metal around the eyes emphasizes the all seeing power of the spirit in the mask at the time of ritual.
The Mano use masks to judge disputes in the community, to collect debts and distribute food at funerals and other celebrations. One of these masks takes the form of a hornbilled bird's beak blended with the facial features of other Poro masks.
The Kran create power figures out of clay from termite mounds. This clay is considered to have great spiritual energy because of the activity of the termites in the process of building the mound. Feathers, which symbolize spiritual connection, have been added to the top. The lifeforce embodied in the power figure can be directed by a shaman to bring fertility or other benefits to the community.
The Zamble mask combines the horns of an antelope and the jaws of the leopard. An athletic young male dancer wears the mask and a combination of colorful cloth and leopard skin as a juxtaposition of bush and village. He also wears a skirt of green palm fiber. Bells on his wrists add to the beat of the drum, which accompanies his dance.
The Sande Society is a women's society which is responsible for the preparation of young women for their adult responsibilities. Unlike most women's societies, Sande uses masks in their rituals. This helmet mask is called Sowei and brings the guardian spirit of the Sande Society into the ceremonies. The crown form on the top of this mask relates to Queen Victoria. Sierra Leone was a British Protectorate and the women of the Sande society admired Queen Victoria for being so powerful. Many Sowei masks in late 19th century and early 20th century had crown forms on them.
The Nkisi cult is responsible for the control of the power figures created by the Kongo peoples. Nkisi is the spirit of a dead person. The materials, such as seeds, teeth, finger nails, hair, etc. are necessary to introduce the ancestor spirit into the figure. The Nganga, priest, is the one who controls the power of the Nkisi by the choice and application of the substances which he has made sacred through ritual. The material is chosen because of its symbolic nature, such as herbs for healing and animal claws to protect a hunter. White kaolin, known as pembe, is an important ingredient because it is believed to be the decomposed bones of the ancestors. These materials are placed in the protrusion on the figures and attached with cloth.
The Ntadi are funerary figures that are placed either in the graveyard or in shrine houses built for the ancestors. The figures act as intermediaries between the living and the ancestors. They are carved in soapstone (steatite) which is a rather soft stone. This figure represents a ruler as indicated by the cap he wears. The object on his shoulder may also be a royal symbol.
The Nkondi are a powerful source of social control among the Kongo people. They have the power to pursue all types of wrong-doers during the night. They can be activated by a Nganga when he drives a metal piece into the figure, while petitioning Nkondi's help. They can also be used to identify a wrong-doer by allowing the accused to drive a piece of metal into the Nkondi, thus releasing the spiritual force. If the person is innocent, nothing happens; if guilty, the person is open to illness and possible death. Therefore a guilty person usually confessed and accepted punishment by the community. The metal pieces in this example are triangular pieces with a pointed end driven into the piece. Nkondi get its power from ingredients placed in it abdomen or attached to it in little bundles.
This drum was used in rituals of the Yolo society. This was a prestigious men's society. To be initiated into this society a young man must have killed a lion or a man in battle. The hand form, that makes the handle of the drum, symbolizes the man killed in battle. It is also decorated with reliefs that relate to designs seen in the raffia pile cloth.
This mask represents one of the three characters that appear in the initiation play of young men. The play tells of the beginning of humanity according to the belief of the Kuba people. Woot, the creator god, sent his two sons and one daughter to populate the earth. Mboom is the brother, who loses the battle and becomes the link with the spirit world as symbolized by the closed eyes and the white beads. Mwaash a Mbooy, who wins the battle with his brother Mboom and thus the right to become the primal father. Ngaady a Mwaash is the sister who becomes the primal mother.
This mask form with conical eyes surrounded by perforations is used by the Bende secret society. The main function of this society is to carry out the police functions. The projecting eyes are symbolic of the chameleon, who is considered to be very aware of his surroundings and that is why he is so cautious in his movements. This trait and the ability to see in different directions without moving the head, because of the holes around the projecting eye forms, are considered important traits for members of this society.
This is a male ancestor figure. The Hemba have a patrilineal society and the art forms tends toward realism and full forms and hair arrangements which end in a cross. This form relates to the four directions of the universe and the ancestors gathering at the crossroads. The closed eyes symbolize the ancestor's inner calm. The hands on the side of abdomen and the protruding navel symbolize the continuity and embracing of the family by the ancestor.
Lilwa society controls the educational, judicial and political as well as many other aspects of Mbole life. This figure is used in the initiation ritual of Lilwa, which follows circumcision and various ordeals proving themselves ready for entrance into the adult community. The Okifa figure is used in the first phase of the initiation to impress on the initiates the importance of not revealing the society's secrets. It represents a hanged man, the punishment for revealing these secrets.
Isikimanji figures are the major sculptural form created by the Ndengese. The heads of these figures closely resemble the Biombo masks. The torsos are elaborately carved with scarification marks and the sculpture ends just below the sexual organs, which are always represented. It is probable that the figures were placed on the altars to commemorate past rulers. Most are male torsos. Political power rests with the leaders of the Ekoho society and these figures were limited to use by them. It is also possible that the figures were involved in the rites of initiation into the society.
This type of mask was used to imitate various members of the community. Characters include the chief, the executioner, the young girl, the hunter and others. They are often colored either red, black or white. The performances are usually satires in which the dancers make fun of members of the community. This one with a carved beard form represents the chief.
The Nkoko Ngombo serves two functions in conjunction with the divination process. The drum is played by the diviner as he enters a village to alert people that he is available for consultation. If healing medicines are indicated by the divination, they are mixed in the cylinder opening. This is a Janus faced example which relates to the unity of male and female to add to the power of the divination.
The Mbala mask is used in the Yaka initiation ritual, mukanda. Mbala masks are worn by young men who have excelled in the bush school and are more elaborate than the ndemba masks worn by other initiates. The animal form on the top is a varan, a rare lizard, which is used by the Yaka shaman to prepare power substances. The initiate holds the mask in front of his face by a handle that projects down behind the raffia. The face is carved from wood and the upper structure is made of cloth stretched over twigs. The intense blue is indigo.
Kopa is a prestige object owned by a chief. It is used in the ritual drinking of palm wine. It is a two mouthed vessel carved from one piece of wood. Upon the death of the owner it is presented to his successor, while the names of all the previous owners are recited along with an admonition for just rule. After its presentation, no one is allowed to touch it without proper authorization.
The term Sao is applied to a series of inhabitants who occupied the area south of Lake Chad from the 5th century BCE until the end of the 16th century CE. Many of these terra cotta pieces have frog or toad features as does this one. The frog and toad appear at the beginning of the rainy season and are associated with fertility by the present inhabitants of this area. The zig-zag design is often associated with the serpent, which symbolizes flowing water. These terra cottas appear to have been buried with the deceased as a way of communicating the desire for fertility.
Within the Yoruba culture there are several Obas, each controlling a certain area. Among the prestige objects of the Oba is a beaded crown with a beaded veil to cover his face. The forms on the crown have symbolic importance. The figure on top, holding the bowl, symbolizes offerings to the oba's ancestors. The bird forms relate to the "mothers", a powerful force within the Yoruba culture. Therefore their support is vital to the oba. The facial form symbolizes Odudua, the creator of the world, who was the first Oni of Ife and spiritual ancestor to all obas. The chameleon probably symbolizes caution, which relates to its hesitant movements. Caution is an important trait for a leader, keeping him from making impulsive decisions.
Gelede masks are danced in pairs with several pairs participating in the ceremonies. Each pair will incorporate different symbols which often relate to the various orisha. One of their most important appearances is at the annual festival of Odudua, the earth goddess. The rituals insure the fertility of the women and placate the destructive tendencies of the mothers. The mothers are women who can turn themselves into nightbirds and draw lifeforce from people, causing them illness. The serpent form twisting around the top symbolizes lifeforce.
Osanyin (spirit of healing and medicine) and Erinle (a spirit of healing and associated with a river) are evoked as part of the healing process. Sickness and death are caused by the loss of lifeforce, often caused by the mothers. These mothers, who are placated by the dancing of the Gelede masks, can transform themselves into birds at night and draw off the lifeforce of their victims while they sleep. This causes illness and possibly death.
Orunmila, the orisha of order and stability, would not let these mothers go forth and kill until they accepted certain things which could protect people from them. One of these things was iron, which contains considerable lifeforce because of the energy used to make it into objects. Staffs used in ceremonies for both Osanyin and Erinle are of wrought iron. Figures on top of the staff are either birds or leaves. The leaves refer to the herbal medicine used for curing. The central, larger bird represents Orunmila and the sixteen smaller bird around him represent the mothers. This symbolized Orunmila’s power to control the mothers and stop them from drawing off a person’s lifeforce.
Shango is the orisha of thunder and storms. Staffs used in ceremonies to evoke his spirit are usually surmounted by a female figure representing his wife Oya. The double thunderbolt ax headdress symbolizes his power and bring thunder and lightning while the female figure of Oya symbolizes fertility from the rain shown by the blue around the double ax.
Historically Shango was the tyrannical fourth Oba of the Yoruba kingdom at Oyo. When he was about to be deposed, he fled to the bush. Reports spread that Shango had hanged himself. His followers were angry and they hired a great magician to bring fire on his enemy’s houses. Several fires occurred and Shango’s followers declared that Shango had ascended into the sky from which he sent fire, symbolized by the red and yellow in the double ax. This one has the figure holding a form, which relates to the rainbow.
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