African Art Along the Ages

African Art

For over fifty years artists, students, and collectors have been stirred by the aesthetic qualities of African art forms found in museums and private collections of Europe and America. Yet it is still difficult for the interested individual to find the information about their creators and cultural background that would give a richer understanding of these works of art. It is the purpose of this chapter to survey the material known to archeologists and ethnologists but not found in any one volume on African art, either general or iconographic in nature. African art forms of the prehistoric, precolonial, and modern periods are discussed in terms of their cultural setting and the dynamics of change expressed in the creativity of their makers.

The Prehistoric Period

Among the best-known forms of prehistoric African art are the vigorous rock drawings and paintings of South Africa and Rhodesia, and of North Africa as well. These portray men of different cultures and animals of the veldt and near desert. Done in ochre, red earth, charcoal, and white clay, whose colors are still fresh, they show a startling degree of movement and action in scenes depicting hunting and warfare. Relative dating is possible in some instances, as when drawings of Bantu and Europeans overlie those of animals.

Aside from the rock drawings and paintings, which have survived only on surfaces protected by overhangs where neither sand nor rain could obliterate them, prehistoric African art consists of work in stone, metal, and fired clay, which neither rain nor insects could destroy. The richest finds of ancient art in stone have been made in West Africa by French and British archeologists. Thus far, however, we have only the most fragmentary knowledge of the cultures which produced the small, roughly carved human heads in stone that are found from Dakar to Lake Chad and from the Sudan down to the Guinea Coast. It has been sug­gested that these heads are related to the hundreds of mysterious stone figures in a sacred grove near Esie, Ilorin Province, in southwest Nigeria; one-third to one-half life size, they exhibit a combination of naturalism and stylized proportioning still common to contemporary, traditional forms of this area of West Africa. Nothing is known about their origins; they stand today as mute testimony of a people sophisticated in art forms and stone-working technique, a people who seem to have been of wholly African origin, for only Negroid features are depicted.

The most dramatic of the ancient terra cotta art forms are the natu­ralistic modeled heads and half-figures of Jos and Ife in Nigeria. The discovery in the Jos tin mines of small terra cotta heads, so similar to examples of more refined style found earlier in life, aroused speculation that they were actually part of the same tradition, though not contem­poraneous with each other. The Jos finds, now identified with the Nok culture, have been dated by radiocarbon analysis as about three thousand years old (between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 200, most probably 900 B.C.); the Ife heads and half-figures are probably a thousand years younger. Terra cotta forms extend to the Lake Chad area, where French archeologists have discovered what appears to be a similar ancient culture with walled cities and many objects of modeled clay.

The naturalism of these terra cotta art forms, more successful in some pieces than others, demonstrates what appears to be a gradual perfecting of style, perhaps by a specialized group of artists. The earlier heads are simple, with striated facial markings; but later ones, such as those of Ife, are more detailed and elaborate. A head shows a more stylized face, but with careful attention given to the decoration of the hair. Pottery that has survived the ravages of time includes containers once used for Ifa divination by more recent Yoruba. Modeled in high relief, the earlier pots depict various small animals and reptiles that serve as messengers of Yoruba deities. Frobenius’ account of fired bricks with one face decorated in bas-relief on the palace at Ife, which had probably stood for centuries, suggests a relationship to the bas-relief designs in clay on the walls about inner doors in palaces and titled compounds in Benin and Dahomey. Stylized terra cotta heads of early workmanship still appear on the ancestral altars of titled members of the brass workers’ quarter in Benin City. Their explanation is that while only the ancestors of the king could be depicted in large heads of brass or bronze, the titled members of the guild who married daughters of the king were allowed to have a life-sized head of terra cotta to represent them after death.

Continuity and Change in African Cultures

in traditional history beyond the memory of the present inhabitants, though there are legends among the Khoisan peoples of the time before the coming of the Bantu that tell of their use. If iron art forms were made anywhere in ancient Africa, nothing remains, for iron does not long sur­vive oxidation in the tropics without either deliberate preservation or repeated sacrifices of palm oil.

The people of Benin, however, have elaborate iron standards for the god of medicine, Osain, for some of which great antiquity is claimed. These standards, wrought in iron and standing the height of a man, have many branching arms at the top, each surmounted by a symbol of the needs and powers of man. The Bini also used lamp holders of wrought iron in basket shapes, some as large as sixteen inches in diameter, and made iron inserts in the eyes and foreheads of the carved wooden heads (uhum elao) of traditional chiefs used on family altars. The earliest known iron inserts are found on a great stone at Ife, whose origin is lost beyond traditional history; they form a pattern in a straight line, which has been interpreted as a record of some sort rather than as an artistic decoration. More recent are the Yoruba male figures of iron associated with Ogun, god of iron and war, some of which are mounted on horse­back and carry a shallow circular dish on the head, thus serving as a lamp.

The Dahomean art forms in iron are still more modern, the earliest known being dated as not over two centuries old. They are discussed here because they are forerunners of an important art tradition in Dahomean culture. One technique was a wrought-iron plating attached to large, carved wooden forms of birds and animals that symbolized families of the royal clan. In one case, a wooden bird was covered with thin sheets of brass, and wings of wrought iron were attached. A more delicate tech­nique in wrought iron produced the standard placed on the shrine of a high-ranking male member of the royal clan who had become governor of an area under the king or was perhaps the son of the king. This standard is a straight iron rod, four or five feet long; it has a pointed base to insert in the earth and is surmounted by a small round platform edged with pendants of brass or iron. Standing on the small platform are wrought iron or brass symbols depicting forms such as animals or plants whose generic terms suggest tonal patterns similar to the names of the man and his family. Ceremonial gongs, common through West and Central Africa as musical instruments in percussion orchestras, were, and still are, made in unusually elaborate forms. Some of those in the old style have as many as three gongs connected by a stylized human figure.

Copper, silver, and gold, all fairly easy to abstract from ore at a low heat and readily worked in pure form, seem to have been in use from early times. Legends are vague about their origin and use. Copper ornaments in the form of bangles and bracelets are mentioned by Dapper as used by the commoners of Benin in the late seventeenth century, but they seem to have disappeared with the introduction of harder brass through European trade. The rest of Africa south of the Sahara appears to have had knowledge of copper through trade or actual smelting, but its path of diffusion and the extent of its use is clouded with speculation.

Gold and silver were used for personal ornament and symbols of rank in West Africa. These metals seem to have been most used by the ancient kingdom of Ghana in the western Sudan for repousse work on symbols of authority, and by the Ashanti, whose gold weights indicate the early weighing of gold dust. Travelers’ accounts and the traditional histories of the Ashanti tell of thin sheets of gold used to cover the royal stool and of gold jewelry worn by members of the royal family. Small “masks” of gold, perhaps used as pendants and done in gold wire technique-as is most of the gold jewelry-are in the form of human faces and rams’ heads. The Arabs discovered gold in use on the east coast in what is now Mozambique and forced the Africans to lead them to their small mines, which were then enlarged and worked for centuries, supplying a large portion of the Moslem world at that time with its wealth. Nothing is known of the forms into which this gold was worked by the Africans.

For a long time it was believed that bronze was used only for gold weights of the Ashanti and the art treasures of Benin, but discoveries since 1935 have given a fuller picture of the use of the medium in sub-Saharan Africa, though it does seem to have been concentrated in southern Nigeria. There are only scattered reports of its use to the west among the Ashanti and beyond. It should be made clear, however, that adequate metallurgical analyses have not been made on all the art forms which, from the patina usually associated with this medium, appear to be bronze. Actually, the alloys produced by African smelting in ancient times were of copper and zinc-that is, brass-and of copper and tinbronze-though the percentage of zinc or tin seems to have varied greatly with the individual smeltings and in different areas.

Small figures, armlets, and containers were made. Among the Ashanti, African brass or bronze was most commonly used for the small, delicately modeled gold weights, small brass and copper masks, and brass kuduos or decorated jars which were probably intended to hold gold dust. The gold weights display less delicate modeling in genre human and animal subjects, geometric designs, and miniature artifacts, but this may be due to their small size and the simplicity of the casting process. A more complicated method of casting seems to have been used on larger pieces, such as one which represents the entire retinue of a chief who is being carried in a hammock, though this composition is itself not more than five inches in length at the base and two and a half inches high.

The African bronze or brass of Yoruba, Benin, and Nupe origin are more dramatic to Euroamerican tastes than the cast forms of the Ashanti to the west. The Yoruba are represented by the realistic, life-sized human Ife heads, the Obalufon mask, and a small torso in the costume of an Oni of Ife. There are a number of smaller pieces, such as figures and swords, but these are more stylized and do not have the perfect naturalism of the heads that brought them instant fame when they were discovered. In Nupe territory, to the north of Ife and Benin, are to be found a number of fine cast figures of what are known as the Tada and Jebba schools, probably influenced by Ife artists. The Tada figure is of a seated man done in a highly naturalistic style and has acquired a polished brown patina; the Jebba piece is much more stylized, suggesting the more rigid representations of Yoruba wood carvings.

The variety of bronze and brass forms extant in museums and private collections of Europe and America give a picture of Benin consistent with the descriptions given by travelers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the most dramatic and informative of these Benin pieces are the plaques which in the sixteenth century covered the wooden audience gallery of the king’s inner courtyard. These depict the only landscapes in traditional African art, with scenes of hunters beneath trees, aiming bows and arrows at birds in the branches above. The plaques also record the deeds of nobles and the king (oba), with almost every type of rank indicated by the accouterments of the figures; these include many kinds of headdress, coral and jasper beads, tapestry cloth, leopard skins, tasseled skirts, and metal bells. Pendants on the dance costumes depict the face and headdress of members of the royal family, with heads of leopards to symbolize royalty and of rams, the beast sacrificed over the ancestral altars of royalty and nobles, also shown. Figures on plaques and pendants and free-standing forms accurately represent the Portuguese soldiers and explorers who visited Benin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The balance of the Benin bronzes are intended for the shrines which each king had for his ancestors along the walls of a great inner courtyard of his compound. They include groupings of small figures of earlier rulers with their retinues, standing on a hollow base provided with an opening through which sacrifices to the spirit of the dead king could be poured. There are also a variety of bells, square at the top with flared sides, used to call the attention of the dead king to the sacrifices made for him; life-sized heads of royal princes having open tops into which were inserted great carved ivory tusks; and small oval heads with feet above and below symbolizing the messenger (Effoi) of the god of death (Ogiso). Large bronze leopards, which flanked the entrance to the audience chamber of the king, are the most prominent of the animal forms represented, though small leopard figures, which may have been sent with envoys as proof that they were from the king of Benin, have been found. To complete the list, swords, costume fasteners, and many other lesser accouterments of the royal household and favored nobles would have to be mentioned.

European brass, introduced to West Africa in the latter part of the fifteenth century, was traded to the interior, in some cases without the recipients ever having knowledge of its real source. Later, brass rods brought as gifts to the rulers along the coast became a standard of value, and in the nineteenth century they were as common as the earlier “manillas” of iron or brass used for currency. Wherever European brass was received, it was used for jewelry and art forms, in keeping with the tradition of other metals that had preceded it. Each society worked brass in its own way; some in repousse technique, some in casting, and later, in East Africa and the Congo, by heating, hammering, and forming it into coiled arm and leg bands, earrings, and neck pieces. It was sometimes reserved for the use of rulers and deities, but some rulers allowed lesser nobles and commoners to have it. European brass was used by the Ashanti to cast gold weights, by the Yoruba and Bini for ceremonial forms, and by the Dahomeans for elaborate repousse work on large wooden bases. The Bakota hammered it thin and nailed it to ancestral figures, as the Pongwe farther to the east did to religious figures, and the Ubangi made great coiled pieces of jewelry for their women, to cite but a few examples of its use.

Ife emerges as an early center of fine cire-perdue casting from the analysis of the early pieces and from the traditional history and early travelers’ reports of Benin. It is said that small castings were sent by the king of Ife in the thirteenth century as gifts to the king of Benin, whose admiration for them caused him to request the king of Ife for a brass worker to teach the people of Benin. The Yoruba artist who was sent, so the account goes, remained in Benin, marrying a daughter of the king and founding the famous brass workers’ quarter of Benin City. In Ife casting of the quality of the famous heads does not seem to have survived much later than this period, though the casting of smaller pieces continued-wands linked by chains for the Ogboni society, small figures of Esu, the messenger god, and others whose dating is uncertain.

In Benin, on the other hand, the casting of African brass or bronze flourished. It is not possible to say that the simpler pieces were the earliest and that they grew more complex and artistically better as technical virtuosity progressed. According to the traditional brass workers today, talented artists and poor designers could have worked side by side or lived in different centuries. Since the figure of a dead king for his altar is always modeled by his first-born son, the ability of the heir to the throne also has to be taken into consideration.

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries Benin expanded through southern Yoruba territory to the west and across the Niger to the east. The Bini arts expanded with the kingdom, and even today scattered evidence remains of their passing, as in the style of the Ijebu Yoruba brass castings and the few Benin castings which have turned up in Onitsha in Ibo country. By the eighteenth century more powerful Yoruba and Ibo groups were pushing the Bini back to their original territory; civil war and internal political strife drained the royal treasury, and for about two centuries apparently little art work was done. Traditional history reports the introduction of certain elements into the costumes of rulers and nobles which help the dating of later pieces. For example, wings of jasper beads were added to either side of the traditional crown of the king in approximately 1812, and the bronzes depicting these are thus no earlier than that time.

During the sack of Benin City in 1897, when the Bini fired their grass roofs and fled north into the forests and smaller villages, leaving everything behind them, the brass workers, wood carvers and ivory workers were among those who escaped. It was not until 1915, after the death of the exiled king and the ascent of his son to the throne of Benin City, that these artists were called back to their traditional home. Their work has received constant encouragement ever since from both the king and the British administration. The head of the brass workers’ clan, who is also titular head of the quarter of casters and carvers, has been employed by the administration to teach not only the younger men of his family but outsiders as well. The work they produce, which is technically excellent but which strives for naturalism, is sold in a workshop with the work of the wood carvers. The rest of the extended family of brass workers, without encouragement from anyone in particular, continue in their ancient art in the back streets of the quarter, after working during the day as laborers or mechanics.

The Dahomean tradition of brass work is more recent than that of Ife, Benin, or the Ashanti. African bronze or brass was not worked, and European brass did not come to the capital, Abomey, in any quantity until the middle of the last century. Earlier, the king had founded a quarter of wood carvers, weavers, and embroiderers near his palace, and with the introduction of European brass and cloth, brass workers and applique workers were added. At first large wood carvings of birds and animals were covered with thin sheets of the metal, while the iron standards for the ancestors were topped with brass. Large forms of this type, once stored in the king’s small treasure house, are now housed in the museum in the restored palace at Abomey.

Some technique for casting must have existed as a basis for the present cire-perdue work, but it was probably restricted to the casting of earrings and arm bands in gold and brass. The Dahomean tradition of brass-casting is now well known in West Africa as well as in Europe and America, for the enthusiasm of French officials for the lively little human and animal figures has seen to their wide distribution. Casting is now being done by many members of the extended family which comprise the brass workers, and a great deal is produced for tourist trade; but the excellent quality of some of the early pieces is duplicated when special orders are given by discriminating customers, either African or European.

The traditional brass-casting of the Cameroons is centered chiefly in Barnum in the French Cameroons, though a small group of casters moved to Bamenda in British territory. The earlier work appears to have been made of European trade brass, which was cast into arm, neck, and leg coils, and into neck bands resembling the Portuguese “manillas” formerly made of iron. Though much of the later work is produced for commercial purposes, such as tiny genre figures, some is made for use in the indigenous culture-masks, both large and small, decorated with feathers for ceremonial dances, or elaborate pipes, based on those in modeled clay.

Earlier Work in Ivory and Bone

The extent of ivory- and bone-carving in prehistoric and precolonial times may never be completely known, for without particular care objects made of them-like those of wood-may perish in a tropical cli­mate. Among the better-known centers of ivory tradition are the Warega in the eastern Congo, the Bapende and the Mangbetu in the northern Congo, Barnum in the Cameroons, and Benin City and the Ekiti or northeastern Yoruba in Nigeria. The Warega forms include highly stylized small figures and masks of half-life-size, though in some larger precolonial pieces a higher degree of naturalism was attempted. Though possessing charm and vigor, the Warega ivory carvings lack the competent handling of technique and design found in the small Bapende mask faces used on ceremonial costumes or in the many small ivory carvings of the Mangbetu. The Mangbetu pieces are of small human subjects and, in more modern times, animal figures, carved pegs of a stringed instrument-each peg the head and shoulders of a woman-and carved pins for the elaborate coiffure for which Mangbetu women are famous, The Benin ivories are not only the most elaborate but the best known.

They were produced by a family in the quarter of specialists in Benin City and were made specifically for use by the king and nobles of Benin and for gifts to other rulers, Very large carved tusks were placed in the hollow top of life-sized bronze heads at either side of a royal ancestral altar; smaller ones were fastened to a projection set in a hole at the back of the wooden ancestral heads on the family altars of nobles. There were also large gauntlet-type bracelets, smaller bracelets, small figures of female worshipers of the messenger god (Esu), and wands for lfa divination. From the earlier Portuguese period come fine small masks for ceremonial costumes, worn on the hip like those of bronze, and ivory gongs. More in European tradition were goblets with representations of Benin warriors and Portuguese soldiers surrounding the base.

In the designs found on the Benin ivories, the figure of the king (oba), dressed as the god of the sea (Olokun) appears most frequently, almost always supported by two figures, priests of the royal gods Ora and Uwen. The leopard represents the royal family, while the mudfish is a messenger of Olokun, as is the serpent.

The Yoruba of Owo were once under the influence of Benin, if not actually subjugated by it at the height of its conquests in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Benin culture left its mark on the costumes and accouterments of the king (Olowo) and his nobles and war captains. Precolonial ivory carvings include small figurines of female worshipers of Eshu, as in Benin, wands for If a divination, decorations for ceremonial costumes, and Benin-type gauntlets and smaller bracelets. In 1952 there was still one ivory and bone carver in Owo, producing work in the old tradition, but his material was primarily elephant bone because of the present scarcity of ivory.

Art of the Late Precolonial Period: Eastern and Southern Africa

We turn next to a survey of the art forms of the various culture areas of Africa south of the Sahara before the beginning of the present century, starting with the Khoisan peoples of the south, the Bushmen and the Hottentot. At this time the Bushmen were already being pushed from their hunting grounds into the Kalahari Desert, while the Hottentots who had replaced them in the south and west were undergoing intensive contact with the white settlers of the Cape. The Hottentots, though they had a more stable economy based on herding and were able to support larger, more organized communities than the Bushmen hunters, never developed graphic and plastic art forms. Rock drawings and paintings depicting Bushmen and Bantu, as well as white settlers, have been attributed to the Bushmen, indicating that they continued this form of art to a relatively recent time, but by the early twentieth century it had apparently disappeared.

Africa map
Cultural areas and political divisions of Africa

The Bushmen and Hottentot made copper jewelry, iron points for arrowheads and spears, and pottery containers, but their art is simple, consisting of such decorative patterns as seriated incisions on Hottentot pottery and chevrons incised by the Northwest Bushmen on the ostrich egg shells used for storing water and on their stone and bone pipes. Skin bags were also ornamented with similar patterns, and occasionally wooden utensils and sticks were decorated with burned line designs.

In the East African Cattle area, stretching from the headwaters of the Nile to the Cape, the cultural focus is on cattle, and it is in terms of these beasts that the cultural values are expressed. Some peoples are nomadic pastoralists, but the majority practice subsistence farming as well as herding. So little graphic or plastic art is found, compared to the Congo or the Guinea Coast, that the area is often dismissed entirely. The Tutsi of Ruanda-Urundi-exposed to the Congo influences-and their sedentary neighbors like the Ganda did some wood-carving, but in most of this area plastic art consists of modeled clay figurines of cattle and humans, grass masks for puberty ceremonies, wooden masks for similar occasions made by the Makonde, and small wooden female figurines of the same people. Decorated pottery forms are found among the sedentary cattle peoples farther south and southwest, and the Lozi of the Zambesi River carve the great wooden bowls on whose lids are stylized elephants, rhinos, and other animals which serve as handles.

However, these forms are not the sole outlets for aesthetic expression and creative imagination. There is a profusion of beads, plaiting, brass rings, forms of hair dress, molded clay pipes, leather karosses, simply decorated shields, and beautifully proportioned and balanced spears of iron and wood. Costume, carefully designed for ceremonial occasions, becomes a means of aesthetic expression and is a distinct art form. Color photographs of the peoples of east and south Africa demonstrate that their expression is not limited to carving and casting, or by any of the restrictive definitions of graphic and plastic art of the Euroamerican world. Even the decoration of their houses with skins, mats, and pottery becomes by their arrangement a matter of creativity and aesthetic pleasure.

East Horn art need be touched upon only briefly here, for it is marginal to the rest of Subsaharan Africa. The art forms of the nomads resemble those of their neighbors in the East African Cattle area, but where Coptic sects flourished, as among a portion of the present Abyssinian nation, there are paintings in Byzantine style.


The Congo area, which comprises central Africa west of the Great Lakes, has yielded so many of the art treasures in museums and private collections that it has the reputation of being the richest in the indigenous arts. Herding and subsistence farming are replaced by agriculture and trade, and the regions richest in art have craft specialists who produce articles used by other members of the society, including dyed and woven raffia cloth, ironwork, baskets, mats, pottery, and wood carvings. Interspersed in the deeper forest of the northern Congo area are the Pygmy groups. Farflung political structures are typical only of specific and scattered groups, such as the Bushongo (Bakuba) and Bakongo; nor does one find walled towns, great compounds, complex architecture in clay or terra cotta as on the Guinea Coast, since political organization generally was on a smaller scale.

During the precolonial period, masks and figurines may well have been the only major art forms of such peoples as the Bena Lulua among the Baluba and the Pongwe among the Fang. The art of many Fang groups, such as the Pongwe and Pahouin, has much in common with that of the Azande of the northeastern Congo, whence, according to tradition, they once came. The Bateke peoples are credited with the spread of small figure carvings of spirits or deities through the western Congo, to which they came from the south and the southeast, where these carvings are widespread.
The widespread Bushongo confederation was in contact with other areas whose art styles were mutually influenced thereby. Most of this is conjectural, but elements in their famous box and bowl work strongly suggest Bateke and Bayaka origin, while polychrome masks seem to have been adopted later from neighboring groups. According to their legendary history, Shamba Bolongongo, a Bushongo king in the seventeenth century, introduced both the famous commemorative statues of royalty and raffia-weaving, which reached its greatest complexity among these peoples. Although this is not verified by historical documents, it is just as possible for a single person to have introduced stylistic elements into the art of a society as it is for them to accumulate through the accretion of the work of many artists over a long period of time.

It is obvious that art forms must vary greatly in so large an area as the Congo. Most art forms produced in precolonial times were masks and figurines. As rich in plastic expression as they are by themselves, in their full ritual context they must have been startlingly effective. Almost universally the masks were polychrome and, though seldom so shown in books or museums, they were usually part of elaborate costumes and had great raffia manes, as in the lion masks of the Basonge. Some were worn with full grass skirts without attempt to conceal the dancer’s body, which was decorated with clay, ash, or charcoal. Elsewhere, the entire body was covered with loosely falling cloth and raffia or with a crocheted costume of raffia. Though most of the masks coming from the Congo area are solely of painted wood, some combine cloth, metal, cowrie shells, and trade beads; others are entirely of crochet and knotting. The last two types are seldom mentioned in accounts of African art, but their artistic and dramatic quality in the context in which they were used is undeniable. In firelight or by daylight,in dance solos or in groups, the masks with full costume projected into the onlookers a sense of dignity and mystery of deities and spirits of the natural world, of ancestors, or simply a fear of the unknown.

Carved figurines also vary. They range from a few inches to several feet in height and from fairly crude workmanship to technical virtuosity. It would be impossible to generalize about the function of these carvings even if their cultural role were better known. In one area they are commemorative; in another they serve as temporary containers for the spirits of deities, while elsewhere they are used as charms. Commemorative portrait-statues and containers for the spirits of ancestors are more finished and artistic than figurines used in worship of the gods or for magical purposes.

Carved figurines are sometimes left half-finished, or their designs do not appear to have been considered as an artistic whole; but examples in use show that they may have been intended to be seen dressed in costumes of cloth, raffia, cowries, beads, or feathers and were never thought complete just as carvings.

Combinations of materials were not limited to dressed figures; some Bakongo figurines have feather headdresses, glass eyes, and glass or porcelain inserted in the stomach. Unfortunately, lack of adequate ethnographic material makes it difficult to understand their religious symbolism and their indigenous appeal and restricts our observations to the level of description and speculation about their full meaning.

Except for the Bushongo, little is known of the actual context of the other art forms of the Congo basin. Torday wrote of the remnants of what must have been one of the most aesthetic settings of artistic work in the Congo. He described old villages in which he encountered decorated door frames, grass walls woven in patterns, beautiful thatch work, elaboration of simple furnishings such as boxes and pottery, and care in dress of the elders; all these bespeak a specialized society in which some members engaged in subsistence production and trade, while others were artists. Among the Mangbetu, also, the same careful workmanship that went into the effigy pots and ivory work went into costume, coiffure, painted murals on house walls, and the decorated utilitarian objects.

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