Northwestern Nigeria experiences a mixing of cultural traditions as various ethnic groups enter the region following the disintegration of Hausa and Yoruba states and the organization of the Sokoto caliphate in that region. To the southwest, Abeokuta becomes a celebrated center of Yoruba woodcarving as noted sculptors establish workshops there, while its neighbors to the west, the Anago and Ketu Yoruba, develop the gelede masquerade. Elsewhere on the Guinea coast, ex-slaves from Europe and the Americas return to Africa and settle at Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other points along the coastline. Their ranks are augmented by liberated slaves confiscated by the British Navy as it enforces its ban on the international slave trade. Well-educated and highly skilled, these populations comprise a successful mercantile class that constitutes an economic and cultural bridge between European and African peoples. The Asante and Dahomey states continue to expand their economic and territorial interests, but by the latter half of the century their ascendance is checked by the emerging European colonial presence.
The gelede masquerade tradition develops in the Ketu region of Yorubaland, in present-day western Nigeria. This large-scale festival celebrates the spiritual powers of elderly women known as aworriya wa, “our mothers,” who protect the community’s well-being. The masks consist of a human face with an elaborate, dynamic superstructure frequently composed of several human or animal figures.
In the Anago region of present-day western Nigeria, the Anago Master produces a corpus of stylistically distinctive gelede masks that feature geometrically shaped ears, delicately incised triangles below the hairline, and finely carved coiffures and tiaras.
Striking southward, Muslim Fulani warriors led by Shehu Usman dan Fodio attack the Hausa kingdoms and the northern Yoruba states of Ilorin and Oyo, incorporating them into the rapidly expanding Sokoto caliphate. Further south, beyond the reach of the caliphate’s centralized control, ethnic groups such as the Egba, Ijaye, and Ibadan Yoruba, as well as the Fon, bring a wealth of sculptural styles to the region.
Britain officially ends its participation in the international slave trade and encourages other European and American nations to follow its example. By 1820, both the British and French navies patrol the west coast of Africa to intercept illicit slave ships.
The British government begins its relocation of freed slaves living in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Jamaica to the colony of Sierra Leone. The colony’s population is supplanted by slaves from Central and West Africa seized from illegal slave traders bound for the Americas. Freetown, the colony’s capital, is viewed as a base from which European religious and social values can be disseminated. Fusing European and African traditions, a vibrant creole culture develops in the colony.
King Osemwende of Benin (Nigeria) introduces winged extensions to royal headgear.
Asante king Osei Bonsu (died 1824) oversees major urban projects at Kumasi, his capital (in present-day Ghana). These projects are documented by British traveler T. Edward Bowdich in the lavishly illustrated Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (1818). Streets are widened and straightened and the palace complex is rebuilt. The palace structure, constructed from canes woven together and packed with clay, displays hand-molded geometric and figural designs that reflect religious and political concepts. Bonsu also commissions the construction of a European-style stone and mortar castle.
The Asante defeat of the Akan ruler Adinkra results in the introduction of adinkra cloth, a cotton textile stamped with bark-dye designs, at Kumasi. The cloth is primarily associated with funerary functions and mourning.
King Guezo of Dahomey (modern Republic of Benin) orchestrates his state’s economic and military independence from its Yoruba neighbors. A major source of West African slaves, Dahomey vigorously engages Western trade interests, and its principal urban centers, Abomey and Ouidah, emerge as cosmopolitan cities with international populations. In Guezo’s hands, art and architecture become important tools for fostering national identity and pursuing foreign diplomacy. He commissions and popularizes figural relief decorations for the palace walls that illustrate cultural and political events important to the history of the Fon kingdom and builds a Catholic church at the capital with lifesize statues of the saints imported from France. In the coastal community of Ouidah, memorial altars called asen are commissioned by wealthy trading families. Made of forged metal and metal sheeting, asen take the form of circular platforms mounted on poles that bear figural compositions referring to the history and identity of the deceased.
Liberia is settled by American ex-slaves.
British explorers Captain Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander visit the palace at Oyo-Ile, the capital of Oyo state (modern Nigeria), and leave descriptions of the richly decorated doors, veranda posts, and shrine sculptures they see there. Several visual elements common to Yoruba sculpture, such as equestrian figures and snakes devouring animals, are mentioned.
The Benin court permits local Bini chiefs to be commemorated with sculpted wooden altar heads inspired by royal versions of cast brass.
Liberia is named an independent republic.
Yoruba sculptor Ojerinde (died ca. 1914) establishes a workshop at Abeokuta, in present-day Nigeria. Patronized by the obas of Abeokuta, he is best known for his egungun masks created to honor the ancestors.
Glele succeeds his father as ruler of Dahomey (present-day Republic of Benin) and presides over further elaboration of courtly arts and customs. Feline nose masks wrought in silver, which allude to the ruler’s mythical leopard ancestry, are worn during royal ceremonies. Asserting his status on the world stage, Glele covers the entrance gallery of his palace with mirrors so that it resembles the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Lavish sculptures in silver depicting lions and elephants reflect insights about his reign made by court diviners. The late king Guezo is commemorated with large-scale sculptures in brass and iron in which he is depicted as Gu, the Fon deity of war. Court sculptors Sosa Adede, Akati Akpele Kendo, and Ganhu Huntondji emerge as the principle royal artists of this period.
Britain establishes a colony on the island of Lagos.
Yoruba sculptor Esubiyi (died ca. 1900) establishes a workshop in Abeokuta.
The growing British presence in the Akan region (present-day Ghana) weakens local rulers. Large wood sculptures of seated mothers nursing babies, and akuaba, small wooden dolls with disk-shaped heads that promote fertility, are widely produced at this time.
The British colonial military defeat the Asante army led by King Kofi Kakari and sack Kumasi. Many works from the Asante treasury are removed.
As Britain continues to assert its control over Yorubaland in present-day Nigeria, Yoruba rulers adopt more elaborate beaded royal crowns and costumes in response to the general ebb of their political authority in the region.
The abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1880 results in the return to the Guinea coast of large numbers of liberated slaves from Brazil. Skilled tradesmen, they constitute a wealthy merchant class in urban centers such as Porto Novo and Lagos. Numerous homes, churches, and mosques are built in the flamboyant Portuguese Manueline style popular in eighteenth-century colonial Brazil.
The European powers partition Africa at the Berlin Conference.
Queen Victoria’s Jubilee introduces British royal insignia such as the rampant lion to Akan courtly arts.
The reign of Dahomean king Behanzin, son of Glele, ends upon the French takeover of Dahomey and he is exiled to Martinique. Called “the shark who made the ocean waters tremble,” he is represented metaphorically by a human-size shark-headed wooden sculpture carved by royal family member Sosa Adede.
The British “Punitive Expedition” is launched upon Benin City after a British official is ambushed and killed by Bini warriors. The British sell off the Edo royal treasury to defray the costs of the attack.
The earliest likely use of the ijele mask by Igbo peoples in present-day southwestern Nigeria. An enormous mask approximately five meters high and weighing around 200 pounds, an ijele is composed of multiple tiers of cloth figures and brightly colored drapery supported by a cane substructure. It is danced at funerary functions to mark the deaths of important individuals.
“Guinea Coast, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=afg (October 2004)