Making Faces: The Expressiveness of African Tribal Art

This is the second of 3 instalments which explores the expressive art works of the tribal world. Today, we shine the spotlight on Africa, the world’s second largest continent, home to a rich tradition of art from virtually every tribe. The expressive works featured here testify to the genius of peoples who have been dismissed for too long as being artistically naïve and unsophisticated.

Bura head, Western Niger, 1100 – 1400 AD. Terracota. Height: 16 cm. Private collection.

The clay anthropomorphic heads of the medieval Bura culture in Niger in west Africa are known for their distinctive abstraction and simplicity. This example is one of the most beautiful Bura sculpture in existence. Its rounded forehead and minimalistic features bear a striking resemblance to the cycladic heads from Anatolia which are more a thousand years older.

Dogon ancestor figure, Mali H: 59 cm. Circa A.D. 1318-1430

Female statuette called Jonyeleni, Bamana, Mali, Africa. Wood. H: 47 cm.

The Chokwe of Angola use a beautiful mask called Mwana pwo in their initiation ceremonies. Although they are exclusively worn by men, these masks represent female ancestors and emphasize the features that are most admired in young women. They are worn worn over the hips in a dance that mimics the graceful gestures of women and transmits fertility to the male spectators. Here are two examples.

Chokwe mask, Angola. Wood. H: 20 cm. Though his eyes are closed, the pronounced curve of the thick eyelids, slender ridged nose and the twist of the lips showing teeth project a quiet but resolute countenance to the person represented by this mask.
This mask is exemplary in its serene expression and fine symmetrical facial features accentuated by the half-closed eyes.

A rare mask from the Rungu peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Wood, pigments, raphia. L: 31.5 cm.

Senufo female figure, Ivory Coast. Wood, 41 cm. Late 19th century.

Ashanti doll. Ivory Coast. Wood. 19th century. Also known as fertility dolls, these figures were given to a tribal woman who is hoping to become pregnant.
Kota reliquary figure, Gabon, Africa. Wood, brass, copper, iron. H: 66 cm. 19th century.

The Kota reliquary figures of Gabon have become icons of world art and are now instantly familiar to Western viewers with their striking affinity to modern abstract sculptures. As seen in this example, the basic elements of this tradition are distinctive and found nowhere else in either Africa or the rest of the world. Carved in wood, the human head is rendered with graphic geometrical shapes in a flattened, mostly two-dimensional shape, rising vertically on an integrally carved cylindrical neck above an open lozenge. The front of the sculpture and sometimes also the back is covered with an arrangement of flattened metal attachments, often in varying colours and with chased geometric motifs.

This particular kota has a distinguished provenance. Helena Rubinstein owned it up to the early 1930s, when it acquired by David and Carmen Kreeger, eminent American collectors of Modernist and Impressionist art. The next owner was the famed art scholar and curator William Rubin who exhibited it in the seminal 1984 exhibition at MoMA, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern to demonstrate how African art influenced the evolution of modern art, particularly in the work of avant-garde artists such as Alberto Giacometti whose standing figures recall the Kota’s striking profile. This kota was sold to a private collector by Christie’s France in 2015 for US$6.13 million dollars!

Here is another example.

The next example is a sublime mask, also from Gabon.

Even with eyes closed, this Tsangui dancing mask from Gabon has a powerful presence.
That stare – a Lumbo reliquary figure from Gabon, Africa.
– A Fang reliquary figure, Gabon, Africa. Blackened wood. 19th century. Such figures are associated with the veneration of lineage ancestors and founders, leaders, and fertile women who made significant contributions to society during their lifetime. After death, their relics, particularly the skull, were conserved in cylindrical bark containers and guarded by carved wooden figures such as this mounted atop the receptacles.

The ever-charming face of a Mumuye figure, from Nigeria, Africa. Within Nigeria’s Benue River Valley region, such figures have been associated with a range of functions, including reinforcement of the status of male elders and use by healers and diviners to arrive at diagnoses.

If you have an artistic taste for bold, clean lines, you’ll find the highly sought-after ceremonial Songye masks of the Democratic Republic of Congo appealing. Here are three examples.

Mende figure, Sierra Leone Wood, H: 31 cm.

So’o Mask, Hemba people, Makutano locality, Zaire. Wood. H: 17 cm.

Hemba art like this So’o mask was little known to Westerners until the second half of the 20th century. What seems to us as a wide grin is actually a grimacing open mouth that in no way suggest friendliness or good humor. Such masks were used in funerary celebrations where it is interpreted as an allegorical figure of death.

Gurunsi mask, Burkina Faso, West Africa. Wood and old pigments. H: 29cm.

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