Bamum and Bamileke Peoples:
Cameroon Grasslands, West Africa
In the lush countryside of the Cameroon Grasslands of West Africa there are a number of small tribal kingdoms whose oral traditions suggest that their ancestors migrated into the area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the colonial era the northern groups became known as the Tikar; the Bamum and Bamileke peoples occupied the southern and eastern regions.
Among the southern settlements, the Fon, or king, was paramount. In Bamum society, political and social life was organized by the central authority of the king, surrounded by royal and commoner lineage titleholders. The power of the Fon was expressed in his wealth and in the privileged use of the images of the leopard, elephant, and buffalo in the iconography on thrones, stools, calabashes, drinking horns, and other royal regalia.
For the Bamum peoples, beaded art was an expressive form that distinguished persons of political rank and economic wealth, and was a means of establishing social identity. By the middle of the nineteenth century, major long-distance trade routes linked the Bamum peoples with the Atlantic coast, the Cross River Basin to the west, and northern Nigeria, the source for brass, glass beads of all types, and cloth. Artistic splendor became the hallmark of the Bamum court, which held a monopoly on the trade and use of beads to embellish wood sculpture created by skilled carvers from the Grasslands. These artists created thrones, stools, face masks, drums, verandah posts, architectural elements, and figurative sculptures, which were beaded with designs of great aesthetic imagination.
Bamileke society, like that of the Bamum, was organized under a king and a group of titled nobles, essentially as a hereditary aristocracy. The nobles were organized into two warrior societies; they alone were permitted to wear an elaborate mask known as an elephant masquerade (mbap mteng). The elephant masquerade, shown in a number of fine examples in this exhibition, consists of a beaded mask with human facial features, large, “floppy” ears, decorative panels on the front and back, and often a surmounting crest or headdress. It was and still is worn for state ceremonies, such as the funeral for a Fon or the biannual assembly, when the ritual dance of the elephant (tso) is performed before the people of the kingdom. The elephant masquerade is a dazzling visual experience when it is seen in motion, “danced” by its wearer.