eke Elephant masks
|ileke cowrie shell elephant mask.
An older piece in our opion
|Red feather headdress- Cameroon elephant masks.
Used in tribal funerary ceremonies. Each feather quill is encased in a black silky fabric (on the reverse side). Inverts onto itself to
form a 13 inch high bundle with 11 1/2 inches across the bottom. Bottom has a leather loop and a coarse rattan type finish (similar
to Kuba textiles). Size: 29 inches across x 9 inches high.
|Beaded flywhisk with horse hair.
These objects were used in conjunction with the elephant masks.
|Cameroon elephant maskers in the Bamenda highlands (Nsaw group).
Photo: Paul Gebauer, 1930s
|Bamileke Kuosi elephant masqueraders
in full costume
The northern part of Cameroon has been Islamized and has no sculpture; on the other hand, the savannas of the west, the
Grassland, are composed of three ethnic groups with ancestors in common. There are the one million Bamileke spread
over the southwestern plateaus, in communities that have from 50,000 to 100,000 people; the 500,000 Bamenda-Tikar in
the north; and, finally, the Bamum in the northwest, with a population of 80,000. The Bamileke resisting slave raids with
suicide or rebellion, contributed very little to the Black population of the New World. The artistic production of the people
living in the Grassland of Cameroon is closely associated with royal and societal ceremonies. Large figures, thrones and
prestige paraphernalia are used by the king to assert his power.
The Grassland was divided into ninety kingdoms governed by a king, the fon, supported by non-secret societies. In the
past, he was believed to be endowed with supernatural powers that allowed him to change into an animal – an elephant,
leopard, or buffalo. He ensured the protection of his people and guaranteed the fertility of the fields and the fecundity of
the women. The fon was responsible for rituals of planting and harvesting, for the annual festival of the dry season, for the
opening of the collective royal hunt, and for expeditions of war. The fon was appointed by his predecessor, who chose him
from among his direct heirs, excluding the eldest. Art objects were symbols of position in the hierarchy; their number, the
materials from which they were made, and their iconography changed progressively as one descended or ascended the
social ladder. Competition among sculptors was often great, for the artist’s “office” was not hereditary. Sculpture’s goal was
to commemorate and celebrate the royal ancestors of the present fon. In the fon’s palace, next to the ancestral figures and
the masks, one would also find headdresses, beaded thrones, bracelets, necklaces, pipes, leopard skins, elephant tusks,
swords, commanders’ sticks, fans, dishware, horns, and terracotta bowls.
In Bamileke territories, the fon entrusted the guardianship of the sculptures to certain members, for to spread around
portions of the treasury was an insurance against the frequent fires. Masks that elicit fear and apprehension are the work
of societies responsible for repression. In spite of the ethnic and stylistic variations found in the Grassland area, similar
types of mask have been produced. All young boys belong to associations based on age classes, covering periods of five
years each, focusing on military and technical apprenticeship. The various societies also had their masks; some of them,
according the tradition, had been created and consecrated by the ancestors themselves, others inspired great fear, there
were masks decorated with beads, copper, and cowrie shells. Most of the kingdoms used the buffalo, stag, elephant, birds
masks, and masks presenting male and female human heads. They are usually worn during state ceremonies such as the
funeral of an important dignitary, or during annual festivities. During these ceremonies, the leading dancer wears a n’kang
mask which bears a false beard, a coiffure split in two symmetrical parts and is often covered in royal paraphernalia such
as cowrie shells and beads. The n’kang mask is followed by other masks representing a woman, a man or an animal. The
buffalo and elephant masks represented strength and power, and the spider mask, intelligence, but most of the meanings
are now lost.
Bamum social life was oriented toward the conquest of surrounding chieftainries, and forays were made into neighboring
lands: from this stems a warrior mythology and an abundance of material symbols of strength. The Bamum produced large
figures encrusted with beads and cowries. Noteworthy elephant heads cast in bronze. There are also: dance masks in the
form of a long head and a high neck, also in animal-head form; footstools and thrones decorated and supported by animal
or human figures. In the small kingdom of Bangwa, the heads of statues and masks feature puffed-out cheeks. The very
characteristic sculpture in the round attains its apogee in a depiction of a horn-player who wears traditional headgear in the
shape of a tiara; the thick double arc of his eyebrows overhang, and the mouth is treated in parallelepipedal relief under a
heavy nose featuring well-shaped nostrils.
The wood used for masks is not always completely hollowed out, for the mask does not cover the face of the wearer but
rather tops a kind of bamboo cage surrounded by a tufted collar of palm fibers, which conceals the head. These masks,
instruments of societies with political, administrative, judicial, or theatrical functions, were kept in special storage houses;
they were brought out at the first rainfall. Then, the king himself would appear masked and dancing. The buffalo joins the
leopard, elephant, and two-headed python as an image of royal power is frequently found in the decoration of works from
A large number of prestigious items of paraphernalia were produced within the Grassland area, including large house-
posts, door and window frames carved with human and animal figures, thrones, stools and tables decorated with small
heads and figures, large bowls, carved horns for royal feasts, anthropomorphic terracotta and bronze pipes. Musical
instruments such as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic drums, as well as metal gongs, were played during royal and state
Secular celebrations such as New Year (1 January), Youth Day (11 February), Labor Day (1 May), and National Day (20 May) include public parades involving public officials, party loyalists dressed in commemorative cloth with party insignia, and schoolchildren as well as dance troupes.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts. Artists are mostly self-supporting, although 7 percent of the national budget was devoted to recreational and cultural activities in 1996 and 1997.
Literature. The Fulani are known for their oral literature, including poetry, history, stories, legends, proverbs, magic formulas, and riddles. Since the colonial period, written literature has had a strong history in the southern areas. Ewondo and Douala authors have contributed classics to modern African literature.
Graphic Arts. Many groups produce pottery, textiles, and sculptures that are used as everyday household objects. Grassfielders (including the Bamiléké and Bamoun) are noted for blue and white royal display cloth, elaborately beaded calabashes, and sculptures that include royal reliquaries.
The Bamoun are known for lost-wax bronze sculptures. The graphic arts of pastoral groups such as Fulani and Hausa are largely related to cattle herding.
DRUMING IN OUR COUNTRY
Performance Arts. Music and dance styles are essential to the celebration of funerals, weddings, and succession to high