ELSEWHERE

Black Africa’s anima

Animal representation - sometimes in symbolic form - is common to all civilisations. But clearly it is the peoples of Africa that have been able to express with the most power and compelling beauty the proximity of nature that marks the bond between the mystic and human worlds.

Antelope – Bamana (Mali) Headdress worn by dancers. The antelope is often used as a fertility symbol and figures in agricultural rites. Some headdresses depict a female antelope with thin straight horns, supporting their offspring on their backs, while others feature a male antelope with a virile penis. © Archives Musée Dapper et Hughes Dubois
Antelope – Bamana (Mali) Headdress worn by dancers. The antelope is often used as a fertility symbol and figures in agricultural rites. Some headdresses depict a female antelope with thin straight horns, supporting their offspring on their backs, while others feature a male antelope with a virile penis. © Archives Musée Dapper et Hughes Dubois
Bird – Dan (Côte d’Ivoire) This black mask consists of an enormous hornbill beak and a smooth human face. Even though it belongs to the natural world, the hornbill is purported to have founded culture by bringing the first ever oil palm nut. Former Georges de Miré and Charles Ratton collections – Private collection. © Archives Musée Dapper/Mario Carrieri
Bird – Dan (Côte d’Ivoire) This black mask consists of an enormous hornbill beak and a smooth human face. Even though it belongs to the natural world, the hornbill is purported to have founded culture by bringing the first ever oil palm nut. Former Georges de Miré and Charles Ratton collections – Private collection. © Archives Musée Dapper/Mario Carrieri
Lion – Bamana (Mali) Korè dyara mask from the Koutialia region, depicting a lion’s head. Dancers wearing this mask and a grass costume, and carrying a long staff in each hand, mime the lion’s movements and behaviour © Archives Musée Dapper et Hughes Dubois
Lion – Bamana (Mali) Korè dyara mask from the Koutialia region, depicting a lion’s head. Dancers wearing this mask and a grass costume, and carrying a long staff in each hand, mime the lion’s movements and behaviour © Archives Musée Dapper et Hughes Dubois
Fish – Ijo (Nigeria) Munich/S.Austrum- Mulzer © Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich/S.Austrum-Mulzer
Fish – Ijo (Nigeria) Munich/S.Austrum- Mulzer © Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich/S.Austrum-Mulzer
Fish – Bidjogo (Guinea-Bissau) The rostrum (saw-like snout) of a real sawfish adorns these two masks. River and maritime tribes devote rituals to these fish-spirits to prevent them from putting a curse on fishing or fishermen. © Archives Musée Dapper/Hughes Dubois
Fish – Bidjogo (Guinea-Bissau) The rostrum (saw-like snout) of a real sawfish adorns these two masks. River and maritime tribes devote rituals to these fish-spirits to prevent them from putting a curse on fishing or fishermen. © Archives Musée Dapper/Hughes Dubois

Alfred Adler, an expert in African culture (1) wrote that, despite their great diversity, all African traditions share the belief that differences between species (both animal species as well as between animal species and the human race) are not fundamentally any different to those within the human race, whether they be classed as ethnic, tribal or clan-based. Animals are omnipresent in all African cultures and vary from region to region, featured in masks, decorative objects, rock paintings, oral literature and founding myths. According to numerous African accounts of the creation of the cosmos, animals pre-dated humans and bequeathed them with values and rules of conduct.

For example, the Babembe tribe (Democratic Republic of Congo) believe that chimpanzees and gorillas were once men who, in times past, possessed language but stopped speaking to escape the domination of other humans. The Moundang tribe (Chad) believe that monkeys have served as valuable role models for the care of women in labour and for the circumcision of boys. The chief of the Shilluk tribe (Sudan) is a descendant of the founder hero, Nyikang, who was said to have created his people from animals, mainly insects and fish, of which traces can still be found in totemism(2).

According to Stefan Eisenhofer from the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich, many Nigerian tribes believe that animals have the ability to link the human world with that of ancestors and gods. They believe that animals see and know things that are hidden from ordinary mortals. This is true not only in Nigeria, as readers can see. A picture is worth a thousand words.


Christine Rugemer

  1. The quotations in the French version of this article were taken from the book Animal, published by Musée Dapper (Paris) and edited by Christiane Falgyrettes-Leveau, for the exhibition by the same name (11 October 2007 to 20 July 2008), and have been translated freely for the English version.
  2. Totemism is a complex and controversial notion that is not present in all African civilisations. It is the belief in kinship between human social groups and an animal, plant or object (totem). The totem incarnates the life force, and a mystical relationship is said to exist between group members and the totem.

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