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Unit 6: 1100 - 1980 CE


Images 167-180

Main Ideas:

  • Africa was divided into many small kinship-based societies that each had their own religion and customs based on ancestral and nature worship; this idea is represented as the artworks have these similar ideas but vary in local styles

  • As larger societies & civilizations started to form, communities commissioned artworks to showcase the wealth and power of their king and of their kingdom to encourage other neighboring people to submit to their power



  • Generally uses visual imagery & architecture to showcase the dynamics of the king-subject relationships in various kingdoms

  • The features of the visual imagery represent the cultural backgrounds of various kingdoms, alluding to their own commercial power or their former colonial status

Image 167: Conical Tower and Circular Wall of Great Zimbabwe

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Conical Tower and Circular Wall of Great Zimbabwe


Southeastern Zimbabwe


Shona Peoples


c. 1000 - 1400 CE


Coursed Granite Blocks

  • Shows that the Zimbabwe society had a strong king, but the king lived communally with his subjects & shared goods with them
    • Zimbabwe means "Ruler's court"

      • Has an area for the King's residence as well as 250 clay houses to support around 20,000 inhabitants​

    • The Great Enclosure (Circular Wall): A set of 32-foot-tall walls around a large set of these clay houses

      • The stones fit together very precisely → Represents expert stonework​

      • The walls have gaps between them → They are not meant for war but rather to promote a sense of community between the inhabitants

    • Conical Tower: A storage for surplus grain

      • Shows the political legitimacy and power of the king as he is giving free food to his subjects to care for them​

      • ​Also signifies the fertility and wealth of the area's agriculture​

        • Zimbabwe became wealthy through trade in gold, ivory, and slaves​

Image 168: Great Mosque of Djenné



Great Mosque of Djenné




Founded: c. 1200 CE
Rebuilt 1906 - 1907



  • Represents the Kingdom of Mali's unique architectural style as well as the kingdom's commercial power
    • Architectural style: A West African adaptation of Islamic architecture (cultural syncretism)

      • Made of timber & mud bricks​

        • Mud bricks are prone to wear & tear, especially with the rain​ → Timber helps maintain the structure of the mud bricks and also provides a decorative element

      • There's an annual festival where the community helps replaster the building to counteract the wear & tear of the mud bricks

    • The top of the minarets (the spires) have an ostrich egg, which symbolizes fertility

    • Djenne is an important commercial town in the Kingdom of Mali → This mosque's grandiose appearance emphasizes the kingdom's wealth and unique culture in the face of all the merchants who visit

Image 169: Wall Plaque, from Oba's Palace

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Wall Plaque, from Oba's Palace


Edo Peoples, Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria)


16th Century CE


Cast Brass

  • Shows the dynamics of Benin's king-subject relationships as well as Benin's continued economic relationship with Portugal
    • In 16-17th centuries, Portugal established many trading posts along West African coast for the slave trade → Portugal influenced the culture of many West African Kingdoms, such as Benin

      • Many examples of this Portuguese influence are described below​

    • The Plaque shows an image of the Oba (the King of Benin) in the center, surrounded by his attendants

      • Hierarchy of scale: The Oba is much bigger than the attendants​ → Emphasizes his power

      • The attendants cover him with a coral → Blocks him from the sun

        • The coral is from the Portuguese trade relationships​

      • The Oba is riding a horse

        • The Horse is also from Portugal​

    • There are multiple plaques like this commissioned for each Oba

    • The second image shows the image from the same plaque reflected in contemporary society

    • The brass was melted down from Portuguese manillas (coins), and the decorative rosettes (at the top) could be inspired by Christian crosses

      • Made with lost-wax casting technique (pouring brass into a wax template to make the plaque)​

Image 170: Sika Dwa Kofi (Golden Stool)



Sika Dwa Kofi (Golden Stool)


Ashante Peoples (South Central Ghana)


c. 1700 CE


Gold over wood & cast-gold attachments

  • The stool embodies the spirit of the Ashante peoples
    • A wooden stool covered in gold, believed to have miraculously fallen from the heavens

      • Believed to embody the soul of the Ashante peoples​

      • The King would take care of the stool to protect the Ashante peoples' spirit​​

        • There are bells on the stool to warn the king of danger​

      • The King is raised and lowered over the stool during his coronation, but he cannot touch the stool at the time

      • No one can sit on the stool to "steal" the spirit of the Ashante people → The stool is always tipped over so no one sits on it

    • When the British colonized Ghana in the 19th century, they tried to steal the stool (as they wanted gold), but they couldn't find it → The British made an agreement with the Ashante to not steal the stool

    • When ordinary people become of age (enter adulthood), they also receive a similar stool, but it's not as prestigious or sacred

      • Meant to only embody the soul of that person throughout their life​

Image 177: Lukasa (Memory Board)



Lukasa (Memory Board)


Mbudye Society, Luba Peoples (Democratic Republic of the Congo)


c. 19-20th century CE


Wood, beads, and metal

  • Shows that the history of Luba society is not fixed but is rather a dynamic interactive process that can change based on modern society
    • The royal history of the Luba society is very sacred, and it is a dynamic, interactive oral tradition​​

      • ​Storytellers tell the history of Luba kingship in a ritual manner accompanied by songs and dances ​​→ This history is meant to legitimize the power of the king

    • The Lukasa is a device used to tell this oral history

      • Has many beads of different sizes in different arrangements that dictate different pieces of information​

      • Masters hold the Lukasa in their left hand while touching the various beads with their right hand's fingers

        • They interpret the history of Luba society based on the texture of the beads in order to glorify the current king​

        • Based on the audience, the occasion, or the present-day situation, the master may change his interpretation of the history to please the audience and to glorify the king

          • Shows how Luba society's history is an interactive process that can change​

      • Unlike western civilizations that use history textbooks to tell a fixed history of the world, the Luba peoples believe their history is always dynamic and is representative of their current situation

Masks & Figurines

  • Often are mini abstract representations of kings, ancestors, childbearing women, and other important people that could be kept in people's houses to be worshipped

  • Often activated through a special dance or masquerade that would honor the respective person in front of the entire community

Image 171: Ndop (portrait figure) of King Mishe miShyaang maMbul


The King in Real Life:

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Ndop (portrait figure) of King Mishe miShyaang maMbul


Kuba Peoples (Democratic Republic of the Congo)


c. 1760 - 1780 CE



  • Showcases the identity and intelligence of the Kuba king
    • The figurine (Ndop) of the King of the Kuba people looks very idealized and stylized → Emphasizes his intelligence and royal power

      • Similar to depictions of Egyptian pharaohs​

      • Looks very wise & dignified

        • Appears distant (on a social level) from other people​

      • The smoothness of the head emphasizes his intelligence

    • The decorations and emblems below the waist identify each king's Ndop from previous kings' Ndops

      • This Ndop has an emblem (ibol) which is a drum with a severed hand

        • This is a symbol for King Mishe's reign​

    • The 2nd photo shows a real decorated king with a large headdress (shody) and ceremonial knives and some royal drums

      • The sculptors of the Ndops would imitate the real dressed-up king by carving similar emblems and decorations, but they would idealize the sculpture to showcase the king's intelligence

Image 172: Power Figure (Nkisi n'Kondi)



Power Figure (Nkisi n'Kondi)


Kongo Peoples (Democratic Republic of the Congo)


c. late 19th Century CE


Wood and Metal

  • A container for sacred medicinal substances & disputes that can be activated by a shaman to resolve a community's problems
    • A wooden human figure with visual features that emphasize its strength

      • Wide imposing stance (leaning forward)​ → Emphasizes its strength and importance

      • Elongated belly button with a cowrie shell on its abdomen → Symbolizes fertility, a link to the Kongo ancestors & wealth

      • Wide eyes ensures that no one interferes with the figure's supernatural actions

    • People would put different pegs into the figure's belly whenever they had a problem or an illness → These pegs often were covered in glass inside the belly, creating a reflective surface that would allow the supernatural forces to interfere and resolve the problem

      • Different types and sizes of pegs (nails, sticks, small pegs, etc.) would be used for different severities of problems​

      • A shaman would activate this figurine (in order to solve the disputes put inside the belly) by putting some substances (bilongo) inside the figure's head

Image 173: Female (Pwo) Mask



Female (Pwo) Mask


Chokwe Peoples (Democratic Republic of the Congo)


Late 19th - Early 20th Centuries


Wood, fiber, pigment, and metal

  • Meant to honor women when they undergo the process of childbirth
    • This mask was worn by men, and the men would walk in an elegant stately manner to capture the essence & respect of a woman

      • Meant to symbolize the transformation women had when undergoing childbirth​

    • This society was matrilineal, so women were honored for their bravery in the process of childbirth

    • The visual features of the mask convey this honor:

      • The eyes and mouth are closed: Women who went through childbirth don't need to talk or "prove" themselves to the public since they already went through the respectable and painful process of childbirth​

        • Those who are wise generally talk less and are respected more​

      • Very delicate artistic process (very thin, intricate hair design, etc.) → Highlights the respect that women get

      • Some dots are around the eyes → Represent women's tattoo patterns in Chokwe culture

        • They get tattoos when doing certain things or becoming certain ages → More tattoo marks means more honor

        • Also, this represents their ​spiritual connections

Image 174: Portrait Mask (Mblo)



Portrait Mask (Mblo)


Baule Peoples (Côte d’Ivoire)


Early 20th Century CE


Wood and pigment

  • Worn by men only in ceremonial dances to represent the honor of women and connect to their supernatural spirits
    • Used during gbagba masquerades in early 1900s

      • These masks were commissioned for women, but men wore them during these masquerades to honor women​

      • These weren't meant to be displayed on their own or respected for their beauty; rather, they were only meant for the masquerades

    • Physical features represent the honor and wisdom of women

      • Large forehead & small mouth ​→ Represents wisdom

      • Folds near the mouth → Represents age

      • Downcast eyes → Represents honor and wisdom

      • The mask's shininess → Represents good health

    • This mask was made for a woman named Moya Yanso

      • Shows that she's a respected member of Baule society​

      • Only her husband could wear it in masquerades

      • The crown at the top could likely represent Yanso's inner beauty

Image 175: Bundu Mask



Bundu Mask


Sande Society, Mende Peoples (West African forests of Sierra Leone and Liberia)


19th - 20th Century CE


Wood, cloth, and fiber

  • Used in ritual masquerades to represent the maturation process of girls
    • Has features that represent the adult life of women

      • Face is smaller (in the right center) ​→ Women should be more reserved and not gossip or listen to gossip

      • Stylized neck rings represent fertility, high social status, and good health

      • The mask is idealized and smooth → Represents physical beauty and healthy skin

      • There are 4 lines under the eyes because scars are an ideal aesthetic that women should have

      • The shape of the mask is like a chrysalis (pupa of some insects) → Represents the idea that the girl is slowly becoming a woman

      • The fibers represent a wild hairstyle

    • Used by female dancers in masquerades to celebrate the maturation process of girls to become women

      • Masquerades and dances symbolically represent different aspects of being a woman (how to cook, take care of the home, etc.)​

      • The dances also activate spiritual power to help the women in this transition

      • During the ceremony, girls are also temporarily painted with white clay to make then unattractive because they haven't yet become women

        • Allows for them to more noticeably transition into beautiful well-respected women​

    • Another theory is that these dances could be encouraging young women to mature faster so that they can marry and raise children much quicker

Image 173: Ikenga (Shrine Figure)



Ikenga (Shrine Figure)


Igbo Peoples (Nigeria)


c. 19th - 20th Century CE



  • Symbolizes the power of the individual whom it honors
    • Ikenga means "power of the right hand" → This figurine honors the power, intelligence, and strength of its owner

      • Placed on the owner's shrine in their house; people can look at it and give offerings to it​

      • Has a head & body with some intricate carvings (symbolic of the person it represents)

      • Has ram horns at the top

        • Since rams fight with their head, this symbolizes the strength of the head (the brain) → Represents the intelligence and ambition of the owner​

      • Most ikenga hold a sword in their right hand

Image 178: Aka Elephant Mask

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Aka Elephant Mask


Bamileke (Cameroon, Western Grassfields Region)


c. 19th - 20th Century CE


Wood, woven raffia, cloth, and beads

  • Has symbolic imagery that enhances the power of the Bamileke King when worn in a dance
    • The mask has visual features that enhance the power of the king​

      • Headdress resembles an elephant​ → Elephants represent royal authority

        • Has red feathers from an African parrot → Symbol of wealth and exoticness​

      • Has beads imported from abroad → Represents wealth

      • The bottom part of the mask that's on the body has many chevrons and spotted patterns → Represents a leopard's spots​

        • Leopards are also symbols of power and authority​

    • Generally only the nobility would wear this, and they'd emerge from a large palace and lead a performance

      • This performance had dancers & Musicians, and it would showcase the power of the Bamileke king​

      • The dance also served to activate the divine (as they believed elephants & leopards had some supernatural connection)

        • Thus, the patterns in the mask (that resemble a leopard) are also a portal between humans, the natural world, and the divine​

Image 179: Reliquary Figure (byeri)