These themes examine the diversity, dynamism, and the global influence of Africa's peoples and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment. Objects both historical and contemporary from the Museum's collections tell evocative stories. Throughout, Africans comment on their history and culture through selections from contemporary interviews, literature, proverbs, prayers, folk tales, songs, and oral epics.
Today as in the past, African peoples create wealth through the exchange of goods and ideas. Wealth takes various forms: money, knowledge, and connections between people. Many Africans highly value wealth in people—the loyalties of family members, clients, and patrons that ensure hard times are weathered, good times shared, and accomplishments honored. In this section discover African wealth of many kinds.
The exchange of objects - beautiful, useful and sacred - creates a wealth of relationships. These exchanges mark changes in status and honor the ties between people.
In universities across Africa, as elsewhere, diplomas are a mark of educational achievement. This gown (Figure 2) is from Ghana’s premier institution of higher learning, the University of Ghana at Legon. The gown’s colorful kente cloth border connects the proud graduate with the richness of Ghana’s cultural heritage.
The Sande mask’s high forehead, elegantly braided hair, and delicate features express the physical strength and inner beauty of a mature Mende woman. The mask is danced during coming-of-age ceremonies for adolescent girls. Women’s Sande societies in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea conduct these ceremonies initiating girls into womanhood.
Historically, female relatives of a Tunisian bride gave her a wedding tunic and headdress, hand-embroidered with threads of silver and gold. The gift marked her new status as a married woman and proclaimed her wealth. Inspired by 17th-century styles in Spain, the headdress also demonstrated the young bride’s cosmopolitan outlook.
Even in mourning, there is cause to celebrate a life well lived
For Ga people in Ghana, well-attended funerals demonstrate the rich relationships that the deceased established over a lifetime—his or her great wealth in people. Those who in life served their communities, in death become ancestors honored and remembered on a daily basis. The journey to join the ancestors begins as mourners carry the coffin through town, affording the deceased and friends a final chance to bid farewell.
"I’m an artist. I am always busy with my work," says Paa Joe. He began working at age 15 as a carpenter’s apprentice to his cousin Kane Quaye, who created designer coffins. Later, Paa Joe founded his own workshop serving local people and producing designer coffins as art works for museums around the world. His work has been featured in documentary films and books.
This airplane coffin confers the deceased with all the prestige and mystique of travel and proclaims the family’s prominence and wealth. It connects the spiritual
Although rectangular coffins are the norm, designer coffins are becoming more common in Ga communities. Coffins in the shapes of vehicles, animals, farm produce, and Bibles celebrate the accomplishments of the deceased.
A few specialized workshops produce these coffins for local and international clienteles. Paa Joe’s workshop in Nungua, Ghana, made this airplane coffin.
From the Malian village of Kolokani to Paris fashion runways, to the walls of international art galleries, mud dyed cloth called bògòlanfini is reaching the world. Originated by the women of Mali's Bamana culture centuries ago, contemporary hand dyed cloth speaks of many types of wealth: cultural and environmental knowledge; money earned in sales; and human connections formed as the cloth moves from local to international markets.
"There has always been bògòlanfini in the world.... This is history."
Textile artist Nakunte Diarra, Kolokani, Mali, 1992
Since the 1950s, Nakunte Diarra has made her own mud dyed cloth in her hometown of Kolokani, Mali. She learned her craft from her grandmother and mother and has in turn passed this knowledge on to her son, her granddaughter, and the many students who search her out. Now the world comes to Nakunte, with clients from around the world seeking out her gifted creations.
For centuries, Bamana women and men have used bògòlanfini to mark major life transitions. The cloth’s traditional patterns refer to Bamana culture and history. While Nakunte uses many of the old symbols, she also juxtaposes old and new patterns in unexpected ways. She calls the old patterns Bamana expressing the cloth’s deep roots in her culture. She calls her new patterns Mali because they have been developed since Mali won its independence in 1960.
At age 16, Chris Seydou was sewing in the tailor shops of Mali; at 26, he was designing clothing in Paris; at 39, he returned home.
Seydou embraced Malian mud cloth as part of his heritage and delighted in its graphic quality. He simplified older patterns and tailored the cloth into Western style garments that reflected the urban lifestyle Seydou loved.
"I make all kinds of bògòlanfini, from many materials, because I work in a different technical dimension than its originators."
In 1993, Seydou founded the African Federation of Fashion Creators. After Seydou's death in 1994, designer Yves St. Laurent recalled his friend as the "hope of African clothes design." That hope lives on with each succeeding generation of African fashion designers.
"I use bògòlanfini to draw Malians back into their own culture...to bring something new to international contemporary art."
Ismaël Diabaté’s paintings have helped transform mud-dyed cloth, a distinctly Malian medium, into an internationally recognized art form. In 1981 he began using this technique and considered it part of cultural revival.
Diabaté’s own work combines mud cloth techniques with other media and styles. He has created herbal and mineral dyes, added colors to the mud cloth palette, and developed new dye application methods, such as spray painting.
Goods are available in abundance — and easy to find at Makola market. Stalls that sell the same type of product, such as fish or yams, are located together. Most are owned by women. In hundreds of stores on surrounding streets, men sell appliances and machinery.
Accra’s 17 major markets are essential to the city’s growing population. From 1960 to 1990, the population quadrupled, reaching 1.6 million. Although many city dwellers have small farm plots, most of their goods are trucked in from afar.
As long as people can remember, a market has been standing on the site of the “31 December Makola Market.” The date reflects both Ghana’s history and the economic power of market women.
It harks back to the day in 1981 when Flight Lt. J. J. Rawlings staged a coup and became Ghana’s head of state. He has since been elected and re-elected as president.
It refers to the 31 December Women’s Movement, organized in 1982 to represent women’s economic and political interests.
"See to the welfare of the women. If someone is sick, I try to help out. When someone gives birth, I visit."
Accra, Ghana, 1996
For 34 years, Comfort Kwakye has sold yams, the vegetable mainstay of the Ghanaian diet. Responsible for 64 yam sellers, Comfort is also a member of the 31 December Women’s Movement, which represents women nationally and runs a market child care center.
Several of Comfort’s children are in school. One son attends a technical college; one is an apprentice mechanic; the third attends secondary school. "I take the money from selling yams and put it to their education," she says.
"In Ghana, selling kola is women’s work."
Accra, Ghana, 1996
For 30 years, Adama Salifu and her two sisters have been selling kola, a bitter-tasting nut with an honored place in West African cultures. Adama’s parents were in the kola business, and large family farms still supply produce.
The kola trade has a long history in West Africa. By the 13th century, West African kola nuts were traded in North Africa, where Muslims valued kola as a stimulant and symbol of hospitality. Later, European pharmacists used a caffeine-rich extract to concoct the forerunners of today’s cola drinks.
As kola queen, Adama collects money from the other sellers and uses it to buy the nut wholesale, which the sellers then retail to customers from near and far. “Because of kola, I meet people from all over Africa,” says Adama’s sister and business partner Mariama.
"Imported enamelware comes from Indonesia; the glasses are from Brazil. The frying pans are made in Ghana.."
Adjoa Dwamena gauges consumer demand to adjust her international inventory. She sells goods for a range of prices to customers who often travel long distances. "Many come from the village to buy and then return home and sell the goods," she explains.
A married woman with two children, Adjoa began running her father’s housewares shop after she completed secretarial school. She plans to open a second shop in another city.
"The newest cloth design is called ‘God knows.’ Young girls always need fashionable things."
Accra, Ghana, 1996
Customers flock to the cloth stall of Ernestina Quarcoopome and her daughter Marjorie Botchway to see the latest design of Ghana’s classic blue-and-white cloth.
Marjorie uses skills learned during secretarial school to help her mother run the business. The mother-daughter team joined an association of about 100 cloth vendors who contribute monthly to a revolving credit system. Once every two years, each contributor receives 10 million cedis ($5,000 in 1997) from the fund to buy cloth in bulk.
Images and words on factory-made textiles offer wry commentary on relationships, economic success, and politics. Popular TV programs also find their way into cloth. Messages on West African fabrics may be in African languages, English, or French.
Although farming remains the bedrock of most communities, Africans engage in many kinds of work and celebrate its value through ceremony and art. In their work, Africans apply old and new technologies and deep knowledge of the environment. Work—such as herding and mining—in turn transforms the environment, giving rise to new challenges. In this section, discover links between work, environment, and culture.
Across Africa today, millions of people produce their daily food, sell the surplus to cities, and grow crops for export. They celebrate this work - so essential to life - in ceremony and art.
Bamana people in Mali mark the first rains with a ceremony that honors ci wara, the mythic animal ancestor who taught them how to farm.
Women sing as two men dance, wearing headdresses that resemble roan antelopes and embody the ideal qualities of a farmer: strength, tenacity, and grace. The dancers call on ci wara to bless the harvest.
In recent times, the ci wara headdress has become a powerful symbol for Bamana ethnic identity and for the nation of Mali itself.
A Bamana artist from Mali, Siriman Fane carved many ci wara headdresses. He spent his career making masks and puppets, along with farm and household tools. Active until his death in 1983, Siriman was acclaimed for his blacksmithing and carving. Many generations of men in his family taught their sons and nephews these crafts.
For 2,500 years, Africans have shaped metals into tools for farming and hunting, emblems of wealth and authority, protective talismans, and burial offerings.
During most of that time, iron was the king of metals. Today, Africa’s industrial mines yield over 60 metals and other minerals, contributing significantly to African economies.
Most African metalworkers are men. Skilled craftsmen, they are esteemed for their knowledge of ores and fuels and for their technical command of complex physical processes.
In the past, many Africans viewed smelting as a powerful act of creation. The smelter controlled the fire’s intense heat to transform ore into useful metals, an act that was likened to human fertility and birth.
Although industrial processes have replaced the smelter, modern smiths still work metals to provide essential goods.
Modern metal workers carry on the blacksmith’s legacy. Some work in heavy industry, while others rework scrap metals. Car parts, copper wiring, and food tins find new lives as machine parts, oil lamps, and farm tools.
Adama Traore used to farm during the rainy season and repair tools during the dry season. “I moved to Bamako to try to make a better living,” he said. “Along with my partner, I make about 10 trunks a week.” Their trunks can be found in homes and stores around Bamako.
For many Africans, recycling is a way of life that conserves limited resources and helps the environment.
While plastic and metal bowls can be found in many African kitchens, the handmade ceramic pot remains a common household good. Its technology has stood the test of time, as evidenced by 10,000-year-old pot shards uncovered in the Sahara Desert.
Today, most pots are still made by women who cooperatively dig the clay, fire, and sell their pots. They use local resources to produce pots that serve life’s essentials: cooking, storage, and transport of food and drink.
Pots—with their bellies and necks—are frequently compared to the female body. A pot’s decorations often evoke scarification marks that adorn the body. Making and firing pots can be likened to fertility and birth, as women transform the raw materials of the earth into fully formed pots.
When Ladi Kwali was a child, she began making pots with her aunt. Today, her elegant water jars grace collections around the world.
Early in her career, Ladi mastered hand-built pottery, in which the potter circles the pot, adding clay coils by hand. Later, in the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, she worked with stoneware, a clay that can be glazed and that appealed to the export market.
Working from the Gwari tradition, Ladi Kwali created pottery that kept the basic shapes and design of traditional Gwari pots while adapting them for new uses. She flattened the bottoms so they would not fall over and she used glazes that added strength and high gloss
African living spaces are far more than shelter: They affirm the foundations of family and community. Places of history, warmth, and beauty, they create connections among people and generations, even in times of rapid change. In this section, discover the many uses of private and public spaces.
Buildings made of coral stone connect Zanzibar to an ancient legacy of Swahili stone cities along East Africa’s coast. By the 1800s, the island was the “capital of an Afro-Arab dynasty...a gateway to Africa. Through its portals passed not only slaves, spices, and ivory, but also missionaries, explorers and conquerors,” explains Zanzibar historian Abdul Shariff.
Zanzibar’s impressive stone houses were made from coral stone cut into bricks. Wealthy merchants erected Stone Town in the 1800s, and although much has changed, owning a stone house remains a sign of prestige. Less affluent people lived outside Stone Town, in wooden or mud-walled houses with grass or palm-leaf roofs. Today, Stone Town is part of the modern city of Zanzibar.
Monumental stone walls guard family privacy, while massive doors signify the owners’ wealth.
Doorways, historically the first part of a stone house to be erected, lead to interior courtyards and intimate rooms. Outside the house, narrow lanes lead to main streets that converge at public plazas.
Born on the island of Lamu, Kenya, Ali Helewa carved these doors sometime before 1900 in the classic Zanzibar style. Across the top, he engraved a proverb chosen by the door’s owner.
Ali’s father, Kijuma, a Swahili poet and carver, nicknamed his son Helewa, which means to understand, because the child was clever and quick to learn.
At the edge of a Chewa village in Malawi is a clearing—a center of community life in times of celebration and of mourning.
During funerals, these spaces become crossroads between village and graveyard as animal masks perform ritual dances.
The final dance of the antelope mask, called Kasiyamaliro, or “Let’s Stop the Funeral,” signals the return of well-being to the community as the deceased’s spirit enters the world of the ancestors.
Students in Malawi wrote essays about Kasiyamaliro, the antelope mask, its ceremonial dances, and Nyau, the Chewa men’s society that conducts young boys’ initiation rites and is associated with the mask.Here are excerpts from the students’ essays:
"Boys under 11 years must be sent to Nyau where they learn traditional customs of their forefathers," student Mackson Msokera explains. Through the rites, men help adolescents mature into responsible adults, both accountable to and active in their local communities.
"When there is death, the burial ceremony is done by Gule Wamkulu [masqueraders]. This dance is for spirits." Jephter Banda
"I feel and believe the Kasiyamaliro is a kind of transfigured ancestral spirit as it is said by the elders of the dance" Matthews Msatsi
"The mask brings out trouble, danger, and happiness among the people." Mackson Msokera
"Nyau dance is deteriorating since people are forsaking their culture, which is not good at all!" Jimmi Njirisi
"When I see this mask I feel happy that my tribe ‘CHEWA’ is existing, since each tribe is best known by its culture." Postani Kawala
Kongo people of Central Africa consider life a process shared with the ancestors, spirits, and a Supreme God. Since 1491, they have added Christian teachings to these beliefs. Symbols that invoke the sun's journey across the sky enable Kongo people to open portals to the invisible world and call on their ancestors for guidance. Enslaved Kongo people carried their beliefs to the Americas, where enduring respect for the ancestors sustained them through adversity. In this section, learn about Kongo beliefs in Africa and the Americas.
To invoke their ancestors, Kongo people may go to an actual crossroads like a river, where water meets earth, or draw a dikenga, a symbolic crossroads. The circle pierced by a cross represents the physical boundary where living people and ancestors meet. Other boundaries, such as the horizon, can represent similar junctures of the material and spiritual worlds. As enslaved Kongo people were taken to the Americas, they brought with them their spiritual beliefs and symbols. These dikenga designs appear in religious art in Africa and the Americas.
Kongo graves are an intimate point of contact with the spirits of the dead. Personal gifts and statues, such as these wooden figures, are left at the graves of ancestors—those who persevered in life and who in death can lend strength to their descendants.
African American communities sometimes mark graves in ways similar to Kongo people—with sea shells, pottery, glassware, lanterns, and clocks. “You put all the things they used last like dishes and the medicine bottle. The spirits need these same as a man. Then the spirit rests and doesn’t wander about,” Ben Washington, Eulonia, Georgia, 1940.
African American communities sometimes mark graves in ways similar to Kongo people—with sea shells, pottery, glassware, lanterns, and clocks. "You put all the things they used last like dishes and the medicine bottle. The spirits need these same as a man. Then the spirit rests and doesn’t wander about," Ben Washington, Eulonia, Georgia, 1940.
To enlist the aid of spiritual powers, Kongo people craft objects called minkisi. Priests affix medicines that bestow these objects with power. Priests direct minkisi to assist people—whatever their needs may be. In the early 1900s, Kongo author Nsemi Isaki described minkisi as “a hiding place for people’s souls, to keep and compose in order to preserve life.”
After 1509, Kongo King Afonso I worked to institutionalize Catholicism. As in other parts of the continent, the meeting of indigenous and world religions led to conflict, coexistence, and change. As Catholic priests competed for authority with priests of local religions, Christianity came to be practiced as an evolving synthesis of local practices and church doctrine. Kongo people who adopted Christianity applied key terms from the local religion. For example, the word minkisi—objects containing a powerful spirit—was used for “holy.” Today the majority of Kongo people are Christian.
According to Kongo beliefs, the sun’s journey mirrors that of the soul through birth, maturity, death, and rebirth. This belief followed the Kongo people to Brazil—where more than one-in-three enslaved Africans were taken during the Atlantic slave trade. In artworks like this Brazilian caboclo sculpture, Brazilians illustrated the journey of the soul and the sun. Each point in the sculpture marks a moment in the sun’s journey across the sky as it rises, peaks, sets, and returns to the underworld, paralleling the journey of the soul.