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People / wood carvings

Moba People

Moba People

Location: NE Ghana and NW Togo

Population: Estimated 500,000

Arts and History: Knowledge of the Moba as a culture is based almost entirely on their famous abstract wooden figures known as "tchitcheri." These amazingly simple but powerful carvings are "prescribed" by the diviner when normal ancestral offerings fail to produce a desired outcome. Their exposure to the elements allows many of these figures to acquire a breathtaking, weathered surface, giving them a ghostly, alien appearance. Since the turn of the century, it has been thought that the owners of tchitcheri carved the statues themselves. Recent studies have shown however that specialized artists carve the figures, once they have been commissioned by the diviner. In addition to the tchitcheri, the Moba also carve chunky, abstract stools which acquire a similar patina. The size of the "tchitcheri" can range from under 10 inches to 60 inches, and their size can give us information on the how the figures were used and where they were placed. The smallest figures are for personal use and are known as "yendu."

Placed in personal shrines, which all adults possess, these small carvings do not represent individual ancestors, but function as an owner's direct link with god. During non-agricultural periods, Moba men will sometimes forge these personal tchitcheri out of iron. These are likewise placed on personal shrines, as well as used for currency in rare instances. The mid-sized carvings, known as "bawoong," are kept in a family compound shrine, and these represent recent family ancestors, like grandparents, and thus some may actually have facial features. The family consults directly with these figures for guidance. The largest tchitcheri, known as "sakwa," evoke the memory and protection of the clan's founding member, and are found outside, exposed to the elements.

These largest of figures will receive offerings, chants, and libations in order to maintain social order and guarantee a good harvest. Little is known about the history of the Moba. The fact that they speak a Gur dialect probably indicates a western Sudanese origin via the Benue River basin. Though limited to stools and the mysterious tchitcheri, Moba artworks have acheived an enduring mystique among modern collectors. See Kreamer, "Moba Shrine Figures," 1978.

 

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Yombe (Kiyombe) People

Yombe (Kiyombe) People

Location: Far NW Tip of Democratic Rep of the Congo and Rep of Congo

Population: 350,000

Arts: It is virtually impossible to define the difference in Yombe arts and that of their larger neighbors, the Kongo. Their long association with, and domination by, the Kongo has resulted in the absorption of most of the familiar Kongo art forms. Like the Kongo, they produce imposing power figures, the "nkisi" and "nkonde," beautiful initiation masks, and gorgeous maternity figures, known as "phemba." Prestige items are also important. For a discussion of the art of the Yombe, distinct from the Kongo mostly in academic terms, see the write-up under "Kongo," found under the list of peoples.

History: The Yombe are thought to have migrated to the tip of the two Congos, from what is today Gabon, during the 14th century. Oral traditions link them with the old Mayomba Kingdom, from which they took their name. The expansion of the Kongo Kingdom in the late 17th century forced the Yombe to move from banks of the Congo River, but they stayed in the general area, heavily influenced not only by the Kongo but also by Portuguese colonists.

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Zande (Azande) People

Zande (Azande) People

Location: NE Democratic Rep of Congo/Sudan/Central African Republic

Population: Est. 750,000

Arts: Though limited in quantity, the arts of this fascinating culture are quite famous in collecting circles, and include numerous masterpieces prominently displayed in private collections and museums. The most well-known forms are the unique, small statuettes known as "yanda," used by the "Mani" secret society, which venerates women in magical ceremonies. The "yanda," with their abstract, triangular heads and squat bodies, are sometimes decorated with beads and hoop-like earrings or nose rings. Large, angular ancestor statues are known, though they are somewhat rare. They are quite unique, with their surprised expressions and stubby, zigzag arms and legs. Masks used in important Mani rituals and during funerals, are very rare. They are impressive and powerful, with white faces, open-work round eyes, and a fierce mouth, often with bared teeth. They are hard to differentiate from those of the Zaramo. The Zande produce magnificent figural harps, similar in shape to those of the Mangbetu, their neighbors and bitter enemies. In addition to the harps, there are other musical instruments, like finger pianos and drums, as well as fly whisks, stools, and elaborate metal weaponry. Zande art is a fascinating mix of styles from the northern parts of the DRC, southern Sudan, and even northeastern Tanzania. Their work remains popular and sought-after by collectors around the world.

History: The word "azande" means "people who possess much land," which is appropriate considering the wide swath of land that they occupy today. Thought to have originated in The Sudan, they were a warrior people who relocated during the 18th century to the northern part of the eastern Congo, along the Uele River. Their system of "government" is based on the royal lineage whose origin is traced to the family "Avangara." The king rules with the help of his sons, who fan out into the various provinces. The Zande have been constantly at war with the Mangbetu for over 200 years. Unlike their neighbors however, their art is not a court art, but is linked primarily to rituals of the Mani Society, which helps to balance out the power of the ruling family.

 

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Zaramo People

Zaramo People

Location: East-Central Tanzania

Population: 200,000

Arts: The arts of Tanzania as a whole are poorly understood, and styles tend to overlap to a great degree. Additionally, the "crude," though appealing, carving methods used on much of Tanzanian works make identification a challenge. The Zaramo undoubtedly are responsible for many wonderful works, but the one form that can be traced with any certainty to the Zaramo is that of the "Mwana Hiti," a stylized, doll-like creation with split hairdo and, often, seeds for eyes. They are produced for protection and fertility, but their origin is nebulous. The Mwana Hiti image can be found on a wide variety of objects. There are other groups, like their neighbors the Kwere, who craft similar figures. A wide variety of carvings have been attributed to the Zaramo, from marionettes to zoomorphic stools and chairs to small masks resembling those of the Lega, but unlike many African carvings from more heavily-studied areas, there is almost always a question of an exact attribution. Of all the groups in Tanzania, only the widely-scattered Makonde have established a following among collectors and scholars sufficient to produce a documentable style.

History: The Zaramo number around 200,000 and their ancestors can be traced back at least 1000 years. While some of the Zaramo have been Islamicized, primarily as a result of slave raids in the 18th Century, many have held onto their original beliefs. The traditional Zaramo believe in a supreme being, Mulungu, who they associate with rainfall. Their ritual life revolves around the appeasement of Mulungu, and the invocation of family spirits, usually through the intervention of the ubiquitous "diviner." The Zaramo choose leaders for each of their small communities, based on their maternal lineage and/or ownership of land. While most of their leaders are men, they do have women leaders. Due to ecomomic hardships, which are endemic to much of Sub-Saharan Africa, many Zaramo have migrated to the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.

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Zigua People

Zigua People

Location: Northeast Coastal Tanzania

Population: Less than 200,000

Arts: Zigua art, like most art from Tanzania, is poorly understood. Though they surely have a vibrant tradition of ritual carvings, many of their pieces are undoubtedly misidentified. There is so much overlap in styles from east to west in Tanzania that further research is vital, given the sheer volume of pieces now emerging from the country. Even the form most identified with the Zigua, the so-called "mummy" figures thought to be protective in nature, have been attributed to numerous other culture, mostly the Pare. These small carvings have a curious, quizzical face and a body virtually "shrink-wrapped" by soaking the cloth wrappings in secret liquids. There are masks and divining objects linked to them also, but again, they are all subject to a range of interpretations and origins.

History: The Zigua are thought to have fled east to their current homelands to avoid the slave trade. They are now credited with the establishment of Goshaland, which was granted autonomy in the 19th century. Of Bantu origin, the Zigua, like all Bantu peoples, can trace their origin back thousands of years. The Bantu have since spread throughout Africa to account for two-thirds of its current population.

 




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Tiv People

Tiv People

Location: Benue State, Cross River Region, SE Nigeria into Cameroon

Population:Disputed, but large, 1,000,000 to 2,000,000

Arts: Though the Tiv have produced a large variety of art objects, identifiable examples are rare on the market. This is the case with many Cross River peoples, where there are numerous belief systems which require art, but also a mix of styles and overlapping populations. The Tiv tend towards the production of rather crudely carved objects, most associated with "akombo," the fear of magical spirits and bad luck. Fetishes are produced to ward off these evil spirits, and it is said that every family will have them, in one form or another. Like the Vodun fetishes of the Fon of Benin, they are not required to adhere to any strict artistic tradition. They tend to be either stick-like, with crude human features, or squat and vague. They might even be crude heads attached to human or animal leg bones. They can be male or female, and are placed near doorways, often in pairs, for the protection of the household. There are also smaller fetishes kept inside the house. Though most figures in Nigeria and elsewhere are connected in some form to ancestor veneration, this is not thought to be the case with the Tiv. Almost all of their art is produced to protect against evil spirits, disease, and to insure fertility. Most are personal, not used in a village-wide fashion. Some terracotta figures and heads which are known are much sought-after, and have faces with curious, but distinctively Nigerian expressions. There are also utilitarian objects like spoons, pulleys, some cast metal objects in the Igbo style, bizarre flutes thought to possess great power, and rings and axes. The flutes, which might me also made from a human leg bone, reportedly emit the sound of a screeching owl. Most of these smaller items are prestige pieces used for gifts and displays of power among the leaders, though some, like the flutes, have apotropaic uses as well.

History: The Tiv came originally from Cameroon, and settled in the Benue region in Nigeria in the 17th century, affected, as most peoples were, by the intrusive and violent Muslim Fulani horsemen. The area where they settled, the small port of Makurdi, was a busy place for commerce, and the farthest point of penetration for the slave trade. At the time when the Tiv were moving into in the area, the slave trade relocated, concentrating instead on the larger populations of the Igbo and Ibibio. At some point the Tiv formed a buffer zone, forcing the smaller Idoma to move south. Though there is this well-documented written history, the Tiv prefer to believe that they originated in a mystical place called "Swem Mountian," though this region has yet to be located. The written history subsequent to the early 18th century is a complicated tale of alliances and uprisings. This is the case for many of the peoples in the Benue/Cross River region, which still today is rife with petty conflicts and political intrigue.


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Zulu People

Zulu People

Location: ZwaZulu-Natal Province, Eastern South Africa


Population: 3,000,000

(AmaZulu)

Arts: The famed artistry of the Zulu lies primarily in their skills at beadwork, and the weaving of remarkable baskets and textiles. These objects display an amazing array of colors, and an ingenious use of available materials. Though a number of famous wood carvings have been attributed to them, these are still of questionable origin. The Zulu do produce utilitarian objects out of wood, primarily spoons and bowls, which are highly-prized and ritually important within individual families.

Baskets made by the Zulu have been famous for many years, and are considered among the finest in the world. They combine fine abstract patterns with an extraordinarily tight weave, capable of storing even liquids, like beer. Beer baskets, some of enormous size are, in fact, the most famous baskets of the Zulu, and are sought-after by collectors, decorators, and galleries around the world. Zulu baskets can take on many forms and sizes, are ceremonially important, and are cherished possessions of both men and women. They are made from the young leaves of the Ilala palm (Hyphaene coriacea), and larger baskets can take over a month to make. For contrast, they use dyes made from roots and bark, and even battery acid. The traditional role of these baskets is not only for rituals, like funerals and ancestor worship, but also a primary source of income for rural families.

A new and exciting form of basket-making has emerged over the last 40 years, using colorful rubber or plastic-coated telephone wire in place of, or over, the traditional Ilala splint. Known as "mbenge" in their native tongue, this has not only allowed the Zulu to express themselves with new colors and designs, but has added another important source of income.

In addition to baskets, the Zulu are also skilled beadworkers. Beads are used not only on market items made for sale, but on items of clothing used for daily wear, and special events like weddings. There are elaborate beaded women's hats, necklaces and aprons, as well as stunning beaded vests, worn by powerful men and diviners.

Wood carving, though a minor art form, still has an important role in Zulu society. Simple but elegant wooden spoons, each with their own basketry container, hold an especially revered place. The arrangement of spoons around the communal food dish has to be exact, and it is bad luck to leave one standing in the bowl. Special sets of spoons, carved by men only, are made for presentation to new wives. These spoons accompany the gift of a goat, and are essential for a proper marriage in households with more than one wife. The goat is known as "the goat of the spoon." Wood is also used for bowls and platters which are rarely decorated. There are several famous figural wood carvings attributed to the Zulu, but most modern scholars are now skeptical about their origin.

History: The AmaZulu are thought to be the descendants of Zulu, who was the son of an Nguni chief then living in the Congo Basin. They are of Bantu stock, and migrated south during the 16th century, brutally conquering peoples along the way. They incorporated into their language the distinctive clicking sounds made by the San bushmen, whose ancient homelands they had invaded. This forced many of the San westward into the deserts of modern-day Namibia, where most remain today. Modern Zulu history essentially begins with Shaka Zulu, the third-born son of Senzangakhona, who in 1816 launched his brutal series of conquests which established the Zulu as the major military power in the region. The territory over which Shaka reigned at the time of his assassination by his brother Dingaan in 1828 was truly vast, having expanded from 100 square miles to 11,000. Dingaan then became ruler but was killed by the Boers at the Battle of Ncome in 1838.

The Zulus won the battle, however, and Cetshwaya, Dingaan's brother took the reigns. The next major confrontation was in 1879, when the Zulu defeated the badly outnumbered(and outwitted!) British in the Battle of Isandlwana. Though they won this battle, the British military rapidly consolidated their power, and in 1887 they annexed Natal, which was to become what is today ZwaZulu-Natal.

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Tabwa People

Tabwa People

Location: Southeastern Democratic Rep of Congo

Population: 200,000

Arts: The elegant art of the Tabwa has only been considered distinct for about 30 years. The majority of pieces collected prior to the 1970's were identified as Luba, who are their neighbors to the west. Tabwa art is produced primarily to venerate ancestors, and in that respect it reflects one of the most predominant of Congo ideals. The Tabwa produce small to mid-size ancestor statues, which often feature beautiful triangular scarifications thought to represent the new moon; long, braided hairdos which can extend down the back almost to the waist; and a curious mouth posture with protruding tongue. Often the face appears to be looking slightly skyward, eyes wide open. These ancestor carvings, called "mikisi, and the rituals associated with them, allow certain families and traditional leaders to consolidate their power, using the"special" knowledge of the ancestors to their advantage. It boils down, in many ways, to the politics of fear, West African-style. Unlike the Luba, whose statuary is predominantly female, the Tabwa carve both male and female figures. Another reflection of their recent Congo heritage is the production of small prestige objects like combs, stools, and small ivory and bone figures. Though a few impressive helmet masks do exist, their purpose is unknown. Their appearance strongly parallels that of their statuary. Tabwa statues are among the most charming in all the Congo, though masterpieces are rare. History: The distant history of the Tabwa is lost. Even their presence in the Congo and their consolidation as "one people" under the name "Tabwa" is poorly documented. It is thought that they originated somewhere in East Africa, perhaps Tanzania, and fled across Lake Tanganyika in small groups to escape famine and wars. Once in the Congo, small villages popped up along the western shores of the lake, and over time they came under the power and influence of the Luba. It is ironic that unrest in the eastern Congo, brought on mostly by refugees from the Rwandan civil war, has led to so much chaos that many Tabwa now find themselves crossing back across the lake into Tanzania, in yet another search for peace.

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Pare People

Pare People


Location:North-Central Tanzania

Population: Unknown

Arts and History: The artworks of the Pare are almost completely undefined, though recently there have appeared on the market small statues tightly bound with cloth, resembling mummies, with the classic minimalist Tanzanian facial features. The area in which the Pare live, just south of Mt Kilimanjaro, is one of most spectacular areas on earth. In fact, one of the small mountain ranges in the region is named for the Pare. Despite this, the Pare are extremely small and heavily integrated with larger cultures like the Chaga and Shambala, so their arts, what there are of them, look much like those of their neighbors. The existence of the Pare in the Kilamanjaro area can be documented back at least 600 years, which is unusual in a country where many groups are fairly recent migrants. Many of the Pare live in the village of Chome. The land on which they live is extremely fertile and they make much of their living off of growing coffee and other crops. Income from tourists visiting this magificent area is also vital to their survival. The historical intermingling of Tanzanian cultures has made the identification of their artworks a daunting task, as the social rituals and carving styles vary little from region to region. This difficulty in attribution does not, however, diminish the haunting beauty of Tanzanian sculpture, and it's popularity continues to grow among serious collectors.

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Adja People

Adja People


Location: Benin/Togo border area

Population: Est 500,000

Arts: The Adja appear to blend in with the dominant culture they live closest to. Among the Adja in Togo, there is less dependence on Benin-style "vodun," and a greater dependence on community shrines, in which they place small, abstract, wooden figures as offerings, hoping to solve a problem or grant a wish. These figures are quite unique, often painted white and only vaguely human in shape. They are usually devoid of facial features, and crudely carved. The Adja in Benin produce "vodun" fetishes, which strongly resemble those of the Fon, using a variety of materials and magical additives.

History: The Adja are an ancient group of people now living in Benin, and in small parts of Togo along the Benin border. There is very little firm scholarship on them, and what there is can be contradictory. Some report that the Adja migrated to what is now southern Benin in the 12th or 13th centuries from Tado on the Mono River, and in the early 17th century, three brothers, Kokpon, Do-Aklin, and Te-Agdanlin, fought for the kingdom and in the end divided it amongst themselves. Two of the important Benin towns founded by the Adja are Abomey and Porto Novo. The Adja living in Abomey mingled and intermarried with the locals, creating a new people known as the Fon, who today are the largest ethnic group in Benin. Though the Fon are the culture most identified with West African "vodun," it is thought that the Adja were its first practitioners, and there continue to be devotees in Benin today. Vodun is quite a complicated religion, closely tied to nature and, for lack of a better term, "witchcraft." It revolves around a dependence on priests, special chants, and an astounding range of magical materials, in order to solve problems. Vodun is not, however, a force for evil as is widely believed, and its practices can most accurately be described as "prayers."

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Anyi (Agni) People

Anyi (Agni) People

Location: Coastal Region of Southern Cote d'Ivoire

Population: Est 100,000

Arts: The Anyi, like most of the so-called "Lagoon" peoples, are known primarily for their strikingly beautiful female figures, used ritually to promote fertility. Statues of the Anyi, like those of other groups in the area, are some of the most ravishing in all of Africa, combining the best features of Baule artistry with a unique "lagoon" appearance. They can be found either standing, or seated upon a classic Akan stool, and usually have lovely blackened patinas. Anyi pieces do show Baule influence, in their faces primarily, but Lagoon carvings are stronger and bolder, more daring, with massive volumes offset by muscular, stubby arms. The effect can be exquisite, even extraordinary. This body shape is in stark contrast to the more linear figures of the Baule.

History: The Anyi are one of the so-called "Lagoon" cultures, who are from the Akan group. The Akan are recognized as one of the original cultures to live in the areas now known as Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, and can be traced back to the 13th century. The rise of the Asante Kingdom, a large and aggressive member of the Akan, led to the dispersion of many smaller groups, who fled to the south and west, primarily along the coast, away from their heavy-handed, intrusive neighbors. A handful of smaller Akan settlements, including the Anyi, Ebrie, and Attye, became known as the "Lagoon" peoples, acquiring this description as a result of establishing their homelands in the isolated wetland areas of coastal Cote d'Ivoire, notable for its many lagoons and estuaries. This change in geography led the Lagoon peoples out of Ghana, away from Asante dominance. Here they came under the artistic and social influence of the Baule, another large Akan culture, who had also fled Ghana early on, settling in Cote d'Ivoire.

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Ambete (Mbete) People

Ambete (Mbete) People

Location: Gabon and Republic of the Congo

Population: Unknown

Arts and History: The Ambete are thought to be descendents of the Kota, and like most other cultures in the area, use "guardian figures" to protect as well as venerate the bones and memories of their ancestors. The Ambete are known almost entirely for their distinctive and rather large guardian figures, which are wonderfully abstract. The faces and body are often white from the application of kaolin, and have a striking triangular face, often with bared teeth. The abdomen is somewhat rounded with arms fixed to the sides. Figures usually have a cavity carved out of the back of the figure, used to house relics like old bones and other smaller artifacts connected to the ancestors, in much the same way as European Catholics venerate certain saints through the preservation and display of relics. The faces of most Ambete figures strongly resemble those found on the masks of the Vuvi and the Mitsogho, even though Ambete masks are virtually unknown. Because of the scattered nature of most of the peoples of the Gabon, primarily due to the invasion of the Fulani into the area 200 years ago, there is almost nothing known of their history. Also the very nature of Gabon, being so densely forested, makes the study of its residents a daunting task.

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