1. Firespitter Mask

2. Kpelie mask

3. N'ndomo Mask

4. Ere ibeji figure

Introduction to the Exhibition

     The works in this exhibition represent the tangible expression of the deeply-rooted spiritual beliefs and ancient mythologies of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. As varied as the 47 countries that comprise present sub-Saharan Africa with its clans, tribes, and kingdoms that have existed for millennia, what we call the arts of Africa collectively speak of a profound relationship to the family, the environment, and the cosmos.

     Masks comprise the better part of the collection at the SDMA and represent a wide range of types. They were worn to endow the wearer with supernatural powers for the purposes of expressing complex ideas involving the forces of fertility and protection, or for initition rites, funerary rituals, civil or religious ceremonies, instruction, or story-telling. Others represented status.

     The Senofu Firespitter Mask, known as "kponyungo" [1] combines elements of important totemic animals, such as the frightening warthog, buffalo and, crocodile. Its intimidating aspect is believed to be effective in warding off evil. Other masks, such as the Senofu "kpelie," [2] represent female perfection and fertility, although they are always worn by men. They play an important role in initiation rites, as well as in funerary rituals and harvest festivals. "Gelede" masks have been used in rituals by the Yoruba-nago peoples, as well as by part of the Fon and Mahi communities, at harvests fesivals and during critical periods of epidemic or drought. The "n'domo" mask [3] is used by the Bambara peoples in initiation rites involving the preparation of boys for adulthood and the instruction on the origins of mankind. Each vertical element in the upper part of the mask symbolizes the attainment of a certain level in the n'domo society.

     The sculptures-in-the-round in this exhibition also have played important roles in ancestor and spirit worship, funerary practices, and fertility and initiation rites, among other rituals. The "ere ibeji" figure
[4] belongs to the cult of twins of the Yoruba peoples and is believed to represent the spirit of a deceased twin. As a means of mourning and honoring the dead child it is carried by the mother in her clothing. The "blolo bla" figure [5] represents the spiritual wife for Baule men. A woman of physical perfection, she offers comfort and refuge from the imperfect earthly wife.

     Demonstrations of status and prestige are important elements in Africal societies. The display basket [6] is decorated with cowrie shells, believed by many African peoples to represent wealth and the powers of the earth. Bodily adornments, such as the ivory bracelet [7], also reflect the wealth of their wearer.

     Orthodox Christianity has been practiced in Ethiopia since the 4th century AD. Following Orthodox practice, religious icons based on Byzantine traditions are common [8], but are distinguished by their presentation of distinctly Ethiopian dress.


5. Blolo Bla Figure

6. Basket

7. Bracelet

8. Cloth Icon