Iconography: Traditional African Iconography

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Africa is enormous, and the diversity of peoples and complexities of cultures in sub-Saharan black Africa warn against generalizations, especially when discussing visual images, the significance of which is inextricably linked to local religious and aesthetic sensibilities. Hence, in order to understand the iconography of traditional African religions, one must use a comparative approach. Only by examining the religious iconography of a variety of cultures can one fully understand how visual images represent distinctive ways of experiencing the world for the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.

Ancestors and Kings: Two Case Studies

On the granary doors of the Dogon people of Mali, rows of paired ancestor figures called nommo stand watch over the precious millet stored within. Similar figures, at times androgynous, are placed next to the funeral pottery on ancestral shrines of families and on the shrine in the house of the hogon, the religious and temporal leader of a clan. Their elongated, ascetic bodies and proud, dispassionate faces image the Dogon's myths of origin, as well as their perception of themselves when life is filled with spiritual vitality, nyama.

Oral traditions recall a great drought in the fifteenth century that occasioned the migration of the Dogon in two successive waves from southwestern regions to the area of the Bandiagara cliffs and plateau. There they displaced the Tellem people, whose shrine sculpture they retained and used, and established themselves in small villages, often situated in pairs. In an environment largely devoid of permanent watercourses, the Dogon dug wells to great depths, cultivated subsistence crops of millet, and fashioned houses, shrines, and granaries of a mud-masonry architecture using the geometrical forms, such as cylinders, cones, and cubes, that can also be seen in Dogon wood sculpture.

The Dogon trace their descent to the "four families" who made the legendary migration, but this history of origins is inextricably intertwined with an elaborate creation mythology which profoundly informs their social and religious life. The variations in the myth, as in the sculptured forms expressing it, reflect the strong sense of individuality that each Dogon village possesses. It also permits the free play of the sculptor's imagination, whose work then generates new mythological interpretations.

Dogon myth, ritual, and iconography express a view of life in which, through a process of differentiation and pairing of related beings (nommo ), an ordered, fruitful world is to be created. But the creative process of complementarity, or twinness, contains within it the potential of opposition and conflict. The primordial being, or nommo, who was a blacksmith, stole iron and embers from the sun and descended to earth within a well-stocked granary. It was he who led the descendants of the eighth nommo in civilizing the earth. Thus creation involves human participation through ritual actions that restore life and maintain an ordered world. Among the materials of the ritual process are village shrines representing a set of twins; shrine sculpture, as well as granary doors with their bas-relief of paired figures, snakes and lizards, zigzag patterns, and female breasts, all symbolically associated with the creation myth; geometric patterns or "signs" on shrine walls, which refer to the basic ontological properties of the world; funerary masquerades and dances through which the deceased is transformed into a venerated ancestor; and secret languages through which the incantations and texts describing the creation of the world and the appearance of death are conveyed from one generation to another. These are the means by which the Dogon can act effectively in their world, strengthen the creative process, and at the very least provide a momentary stay against confusion.

Among the Edo people along the coastal forest of southeast Nigeria, the iconography of the Benin kingdom reflects a culture with a very different spirituality, one shaped by a monarchical tradition. The present dynasty traces its origins to the fourteenth century, beginning with Oba Eweka I, who was fathered by Òraǹmíyań, son of Odùduwà (Odua), the Yoruba creator-god and first king of Ife (although, according to oral tradition, even before Eweka, the Benin kingdom was said to have been ruled by the Ogosi kings). Thus, for centuries the political and religious life of the Edo people has focused upon the person and powers of the oba, or king.

The magnificently carved ivory tusks projecting from the top of the bronze memorial heads on the royal ancestral shrines (until the British punitive expedition of 1897) symbolized the powers of the kinghis political authority and his supernatural gifts. While his authority depended upon statecraft and military conquest, it was by virtue of his descent from oba s who had become gods and his possession of the coral beads, said to have been taken from the kingdom of Olokun, god of the sea, that the oba had ase, "the power to bring to pass," the power over life and death.

Over the centuries the royal guild of blacksmiths created more than 146 memorial bronze heads of deceased oba s, queen mothers, and conquered kings and chiefs; and the royal guild of carvers portrayed on 133 ivory tusks the king, his wives, chiefs, and retainers, as well as leopards and mudfish, emblems of his power over forest and water and of his ability to move across boundaries distinguishing disparate realms. Although the memorial heads and the carved tusks were created in honor of particular oba s, and the rites that are performed before them are always in the name of an individual oba, the bronze heads and carved figures do not portray the individuality of past oba s in either form or expression. It is an aesthetic and a religious principle in Benin culture that the particular is subordinated to the general. The reigning oba depends upon the collective royal ancestors and yields to their commands, and the same is true of the iconography of the ancestral shrines and ritual artifacts of the Edo people generally. Thus, the ancestral shrines and their sculptures are not merely memorials but also serve as a means of communication with the living dead.

As in most other African religious traditions, the Edo distinguish between a high god, Osanobua, and a pantheon of deities that includes Olokun, god of the sea and bestower of wealth, Ogun, god of iron, and Osun, god of herbal leaves, whose shrines and rituals articulate the religious life for king and commoner as one of response to the powers upon which individuals are dependent but over which they have relatively little control. However, in a monarchical society, with its divisions of labor among craftsmen, hunters, farmers, warriors, and traders (with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British) and its high regard for individual enterprise and prowess, the Cult of the Hand, ikegobo, also known as ikega, provides a means for celebrating the ability of the individual to accomplish things and, within limits, to achieve new status. Containers for offerings to the Hand, crafted in bronze for kings and in wood for titled persons, bear images of power such as an oba sacrificing leopards, a warrior holding the severed head of an enemy, Portuguese soldiers with guns, or the tools and emblems of office for the blacksmith, carver, or trader. All shrines for the Hand bear the image of the clenched fist, showing the ventral side, with the thumb pointing upward and outward. The directness with which the ritual symbolism is expressed is unusual in African religious art but quite consistent with a ritual of self-esteem.

Form and Meaning

Notwithstanding the particularity of traditional African iconography, it is, in general, essentially conceptual and evocative. It is not representational and illustrative, and it is not abstract.

Although the principal subject of African art is the human figure, there is rarely any concern to portray individual likeness, even where a sculpture has been commissioned to commemorate a particular person, as in Akan funerary pottery, Yoruba twin figures, or, as noted above, the Benin bronze heads on royal ancestral shrines. And there is rarely any attempt to visualize in material form spiritual powers, although an elaborately constructed masquerade of cloth, wood, and raffia or a sculpted figure on a shrine may "locate" for ritual purposes the ancestral presence, the god, or the spirit. Rather, African iconography is primarily concerned with expressing the essential nature and status of those powers to which one must respond and with providing models of appropriate response to such powers.

Presence of power

Among the Ìgbómìnà Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria the costumes of the masquerades for the patrilineal ancestors, eguńguń paaka, combine materials of the forest with those of human manufacture, such as layers of richly colored cloths, bits of mirror, and beaded panels. The carved headdress portion often melds animal and human features. Packets of magical substances are secreted within the costume. It is the peculiar state of being of the living dead, who cross boundaries and move between two realms, who dwell in heaven yet profoundly affect the well-being of the living, that is materialized, for masquerades are created to reveal a reality not otherwise observable and to evoke an appropriate response, such as awe and dependency, on the part of the observer. Thus, among the Pende the concept of mahamba signifies an object, such as a mask, or a ritual given by the ancestors to the living for the common good and through which the ancestors periodically manifest themselves and communicate with their descendants.

A similar observation may be made about the reliquary figures of the Kota people of Gabon. Referred to as mbulungulu, "image of the dead," the two-dimensional figures consist of large ovoid heads above simple, diamond-shaped wooden bases. On a shrine, the sculptured form is seated in a bark container holding the bones of several generations of ancestors. The ovoid face and coiffure are created by applying thin sheets or strips of brass and copper to a wooden form in a variety of interrelated geometric patterns. In every case, it is the power of the eyes that holds and penetrates the beholder, expressing the bond between the living and the deceased and the protective power of the ancestors in and for the life of the extended family.

It is not only the reality of the ancestral presence that Africa's religious art presents. Among the ̀gbá, ̀gbádò, and Kétu it is the power of "our mothers" that is celebrated in the spectacle of the ̀f̀/Gld festival of masquerade, dance, and song at the time of the spring rains. "Our mothers," àwn ìyá wa, is a collective term for female power, possessed by all women, but most fully by female ancestors and deities and by elderly women in the community who are thus able to sustain or inhibit the procreative process and all other human activities upon which the entire society depends. Balanced on the heads of the dancersfor they always appear in pairsare sculptures depicting the composed face of a beautiful woman, above which there may be a dramatic scene of conflict between snakes and a quadruped, or scenes depicting domestic activities or social roles. The total sculpted image is perceived as a visual metaphor, often understood as having multiple levels of significance. Likewise, in the deliberate pairing of the delicate face masks and the massive forms and aggressive imagery of zoomorphic helmet masks of the Poro society among the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast one also observes images that refer to the complementary roles of female and male, both human and spiritual, by which life is sustained. In these masquerades, as in Kuba helmet masks worn by the king, African artists are not concerned with the representational illusion entailed in copying nature. Rather, they concentrate on that which they know and believe about their subjects, and they seek to construct images to which the distinctive spirituality of a people can react.

This is also true of emblems of office, such as the beautifully carved bow stands owned by Luba chiefs. The bow stands are considered sacred and are usually kept with ancestral relics, where only the chief and special caretakers are permitted to see them. The work images Luba political and spiritual power. It is through the maternal line that chiefs inherit their office. In the sculpted female figure at the top, woman as genetrix is conveyed in the lifting of the maternal breasts, the elaborately scarified abdomen, and the exposed genitals. The closed eyes of the serene face convey the inner, cerebral power that contrasts with the reproductive and nurturing power of her body. And the soaring three-pronged coiffure, expressing her status and beauty, repeats as an inverted pattern the sculptural treatment of the breasts and the legs, each of which frames a central vertical element. On ritual occasions, the chief's bow and arrows, signs of his political authority, would rest in her elaborate coiffure at the top of the staff. Below her, the metal tip of the staff is thrust into the earth, the realm of the ancestors. It is maternal power that provides the link with the ancestral power on which a Luba chief's power depends.

Models of response

Ritual sculpture provides not only images of the powers on which the living depend but also models for appropriate response to gods and spirits. The naked male or female with arms at their sides or touching their abdomens which appear on Lobi shrines in Burkina Faso, as well as the figure of a kneeling woman with a thunder-ax balanced upon her head and holding a dance-wand for the Yoruba god Saǹgó, are images of man and woman as devotees, as inspirited and powerful. They are images through which persons see their spirituality and by which their spirituality is deepened.

The distinction between imaging the nature and status of spiritual powers and imaging the religious self in the posture of devotion and power cannot in most instances be clearly drawn: much African iconography combines the two processes, less so perhaps where there are ancestral associations and more often where the reference is to gods and spirits. On the shrines of the Baule people of the Ivory Coast, men and women place figures representing the spouse that they had in the other world before they were born. The figure is thus the locus for one's spirit-spouse and the place where one attends to the claims of that other. But at the same time the sculpturesmany of them carved with great skillpresent idealized images of male and female, often in the maturity of life, the hair or beard carefully groomed, the body decorated with scarification patterns and adorned with beads, the face composed, the stance well-balanced. Likewise, among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, the tutelary gods of a town are imaged in wooden figures based upon an idealized human model, for the gods not only have life-giving powers but are also the guardians of morality. The sculpturesfor they are often in groupsare looked upon as the "children" of the deity honored. Hence, in their presence the devotee is confronted with conceptions of the self that constrain him or her in thought and action to a deepened awareness of the self that that person is and is not.

Perhaps the most extraordinary images of self and of personal power are carvings that incorporate magical substances (in or on images) to the extent that they alter the human form of the image. They are found for the most part among the Songye and Congo peoples of the lower Congo basin. Some figures have an antelope horn filled with "medicines" projecting from the head, others have nails and small knives pounded into the body, or a magic-holding resin box embedded in the belly. They are visualizations in the extreme of ritual action as manipulative power. Using such carvings in conjunction with words of invocation, the priest or owner of the image engages with the evil in the world, either to project or deflect its aggressive power.

Ritual Activity

It is evident that the iconography of African peoples must be understood in the context of ritual activity, where the world as lived and the world as imaged become fused together and transformed into one reality. There are essentially two types of ritualsthose in which a person or group undergoes a change in status, usually referred to as rites of passage, and rituals of world maintenance, through which a person or group affirms and seeks to secure in the words and actions of sacrifice a worldview.

Rites of passage

Among many African peoples the masquerade is associated with rites of passage, as, for example, the seasonal rituals of sowing, tilling, and harvesting among the Bwa and Bamana, the funeral rites of the Dogon and the Yoruba, and the rituals of initiation of youth into the societies of the Dan and Mende peoples of West Africa.

Among the Mende people of Sierra Leone, Nowo, a female spirit, appears in dance and masquerade to girls being initiated into the Sande (also known as Bundu) ceremonial society. As far as is known, it is the only female mask danced by a woman in Africa. Although primarily associated with the Sande society and thought of as the Sande spirit, Nowo also appears in other ritual contexts. Her image is carved on the finals of the rhythm pounders used in the boys' initiation rites, on the staff carried by the leader of the men's Poro society, and on the carved mace of the Mende king, as well as on divination implements, women's ritual spoon handles, and on weaving-loom pulleys. But it is only to the female initiates into Sande that Nowo appears in the fullness of the masquerade and the movements of the dance.

In the rituals, Nowo is a spiritual presence and images the beauty and power, the nobility, of woman. Thick, dyed-black fiber strands, suspended from a wooden helmet mask, cover the dancer's body. The carved headdress depicts a composed face with faintly opened eyes that see but may not be seen. The head is crowned with an elaborate coiffure into which are woven cowrie shells and seed pods, symbols of wealth and fertility. Black is said to be woman's color, the color of civilized life. The glistening black surface suggests the lustrous, well-oiled skin with which the initiates will reenter the world. Nowo thus provides an image of the physical beauty and the spiritual power of woman to those about to take their place as adults in Mende society.

World maintenance rituals

The role of iconography in Africa's rituals of world maintenance is no less important than in rites of passage. Among the Yoruba, to cite only one example, paired bronze castings of male and female figures joined at the top by a chain, dan, are presented to an initiate into the higher ranks of the secret society that worships Oníl̀, "the owner of the earth." The society is known as Ògbóni in ̀ý and the region once under the influence of the ̀ý Empire in the eighteenth century. In this instance Oníl̀ has feminine connotations and exists in a complementary relationship to Olódùmarè, the high god, who is usually thought of in masculine terms. Among the southern Yoruba, the same society is called Òùgbó, who also worship Oníl̀. However, the pronunciation of Oníl̀ requires that the term be translated as "owner of the house." The house is the cult house, which is thought of as a microcosm of the universe. (Yoruba is a tonal language. The word il̀ with a high tone on the concluding letter means "house," and with a low tone and shortened vowel refers to the "earth.") The secret, visualized in the linking of male and female, appears to refer to a vision of life in terms of its completion and transcendence of time.

The titled members of the Ògbóni/Òùgbó society are the elders of the community. They are beyond the time of procreative concerns. For them, sexual differentiation is no longer as important as it once was. Furthermore, kinship distinctions are secondary to the worship of Oníl̀, because identification of person by patrilineage is replaced by the allegiance to the unity of all life in Oníl̀. Thus, the Ògbóni/Òùgbó elders participate in the settling of conflicts that divide the body politic. The sacred emblems of the society, the dan, are placed on those spots where the relationships among persons have been broken and blood spilled. Expressing the unity of male and female, they possess the power of reconciling and adjudicating differences and atoning through sacrifice for the violation of the essential wholeness of life, whether imaged in "earth" or "house."

The seated male and female figures present to the viewer the signs of their power and authority, à. The female holds a pair of dan, as she would twin children. The male figure, with clenched fists, makes the sign of greeting Oníl̀. Four chains with tiny bells are suspended from the sides of each figure's head. The number four, as well as multiples of four, are important in Ifa divination; ̀ruńmìlà (also called Ifá), the divination god, knows the secret of creation and the sacrifices that will make one's way propitious. Above the spare, ascetic bodies, the heads of the paired figures radiate with their à. Twelve chains are suspended from the plate below each figure. Twelve is a multiple of three and four, also numbers associated with Ògbóni/Òùgbó and Ifá ritual symbolism. In their combination, there is completion and wholeness born of the secret knowledge of Ògbóni/Òùgbó and Ifá, a secret readily revealed to the informed eye.

See Also

Dogon Religion; Edo Religion.


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