Authorship in African Art: The Case of Yoruba Art

Ghana_Akuaba figurine
Akua’ba figurine (Source: British Museum)

Have you ever stood in front of an African mask and wondered about the artist who made it: what was his name, origin, and life like? A few weeks ago, I had an argument with a European friend who specializes in art history, who tried to convince me, a child of mother Africa, that African art does not have authorship. He claimed that while looking at African masks, they were all cloaked with anonymity, and that probably African art traditions prized anonymity. I had to tell him that he needed to stop looking at African art through his tainted European lenses, but rather try it through African tunnel vision. First of all, African art’s function is not similar to that used by Europeans as decorative art. African art actually has functions that go beyond decorative; the art work has meaning, and a real place in society.

Ghana_Akuaba figurine being carried on the back
An Akua’ba tucked into the wrapper of an Asante woman. Photograph by Herbert M. Cole, Ghana, 1972 (

For instance, in the Asante (Ashanti) culture of Ghana, the Akua’ba (Akua’s child) figurines which are among some of the best well-known African wooden figures recognizable by their small disc head lodged on a cylindrical torso with or without arms, were used as legend says by Akua who could not have children; she ordered a figurine which she tied to her back and cared for as instructed by an African traditional priest, eventually being able to conceive; since then, many women desiring children have ordered Akua’ba figurines from artists and gotten them consecrated at shrines, and cared for in hope of conceiving. Also, some of the statues, like fertility statues, serve a particular purpose as the name states.

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century), exposed at the MET

Anonymity in African art is only a myth invented by Europeans as they came in contact with a foreign culture which they tried to explain via their own tainted cultural glasses. In the case of the Yoruba people of West Africa, as we saw earlier in the naming ceremonies [African Naming Tradition], names given at birth are not just used to differentiate individuals, but also serve to identify the essence of one’s personality and destiny called ori inu (inner spiritual head), which in Yoruba religious belief, determines a person’s success or failure in this world and directs his or her actions. The name also gives information about the person’s family, beliefs, history, origin, and environment. It is sacred! With every naming celebration, there begins a corresponding oriki (citation poetry), which grows with an individual’s accomplishments. Leaders, warriors, diviners, and other important persons, including artists are easily identified by their oriki, which chronicles their achievements [The Griot, the Preserver of African Traditions]. In Yoruba culture, there are different kinds of oriki: oriki Olurun (oriki for God), oriki orisa (oriki for gods/goddesses), oriki Oba ati Ijoye (oriki for monarchs and chiefs), oriki Akinkanju (oriki for warriors), oriki idile (oriki for families), to name just a few.

Below is the part of the oriki of Olowe, one of the greatest traditional Yoruba sculptors of the twentieth century; it was collected by John Pemberton III in 1988 from Oluju-ifun, one of Olowe’s surviving wives, and has been found to be instrumental in reconstructing his life and work. Outstanding Yoruba artists like Olowe whose works have been collected and studied by researchers have been identified in scholarly literature only by their nicknames or bynames such as, Olowe Ise (meaning Olowe from the town of Ise); Ologan Uselu (Ologan from Uselu quarters in Owo); and Baba Roti (father of Rotimi). This was done to protect the artist as he could become a vulnerable target to malevolent forces because of his standing in society or closeness to the king’s court, etc; in that case the artist never revealed his full name to strangers. However, when a person’s oriki is recited, it is assumed that anyone who listens carefully and understands it will know enough about the subject’s identity, name, lineage, occupation, achievements, and other qualities so that stating the person’s given name becomes superfluous. This is found on P. 11 – 12 of A History of Art in Africa, Monica Blackmun Visona, Harry N. Abrams (2001). Thus, authorship in African art is not veiled in anonymity, but rather the way authorship is conceived of is different. Enjoy!

Olowe, oko mi kare o

Aseri Agbaliju


Ajuru Agada

O sun on tegbetegbe


Elegbe bi oni sa

O p’uroko bi oni p’ugba


O m’eo roko daun se…


Ma a sin Olowe

Olowe ke e p’uroko


Olowe ke e sona

O lo ule Ogoga

Odum merin lo se libe

O sono un

Ku o ba ti de’le Ogoga


Ku o ba ti d’Owo

Use oko mi e e libe

Ku o ba ti de’kare

Use oko mi i libe

Ku o ba ti d’Igede


Use oko mi e e libe

Ku o ba ti de Ukiti

Use oko mi i libe

Ku o li Olowe l’Ogbagi



Use oko mi i libe

Ule Deji

Oko mi suse libe l’Akure

Olowe suse l’Ogotun



Kon gbelo silu Oyibo

Owo e o lo mu se

Olowe, my excellent husband

Outstanding in war.

Elemoso (Emissary of the king),

One with a mighty sword

Handsome among his friends. 

Outstanding among his peers.

One who carves the hard wood of the iroko tree as though it were as soft as a calabash

One who achieves fame with the proceeds of his carving …

I shall always adore you, Olowe.

Olowe, who carves iroko wood. 

The master carver.

He went to the palace of Ogoga

And spent four years there.

He was carving there.

If you visit the Ogoga’s palace, 

And the one at Owo,

The work of my husband is there.

If you go to Ikare,

The work of my husband is there.

Pay a visit to Igede,

You will find my husband’s work there.

The same thing at Ukiti.

His work is there.

Mention Olowe’s name at Ogbagi

In Use too. 

My husband’s work can be found

In Deji’s palace.

My husband worked at Akure.

My husband worked at Ogotun.

There was a carved lion 

That was taken to England.

With his hands he made it.

France urged to change heritage law and return looted art to Africa

Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century)
Pendant Ivory mask representing Queen Idia, Iyoba of Benin City (16th Century) – exposed at the MET

France, like so many European countries, is being urged to return looted art to Africa. Below is the article. For the full article, go to the Guardian.


A report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron will call for thousands of African artworks in French museums taken without consent during the colonial period to be returned to the continent.

Unless it could be proven that objects were obtained legitimately, they should be returned to Africa permanently, not on long-term loan, said the authors of the report, the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and the French historian Bénédicte Savoy.

They have recommended changing French law to allow the restitution of cultural works to Africa, after Macron announced that he wanted it to begin within five years.

… “I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” the French president said last year in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. “There are historical explanations for this but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums – it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities.” [Politicians always make promises, but never deliver. Let’s wait and see if Macron can do anything. In 2015, Francois Hollande, then French President Acknowledged French Genocide in Cameroon while in visit in Cameroon, without ever apologizing!]

Benin_Fon statue symbolizing Behanzin Man shark
Fon statue symbolizing King Behanzin, the Man-Shark by Sossa Dede (c. 1890) – currently exposed at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris

The extent to which France, Britain and Germany looted Africa of its artefacts during colonialism is not known, but according to the report, which will be released this Friday, about 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage currently lies outside the continent.

The report’s authors travelled to Mali, Senegal, Cameroon and Benin and looked through the works held by the Musée du quai Branly, a museum focused on non-European cultures in Paris, and found that about 46,000 of its 90,000 African works were “acquired” between 1885 and 1960 and may have to be returned.

… To start with, they [the researchers] have recommended that palace doors, thrones and statues stolen from Abomey be returned – something the modern-day country of Benin has long requested [especially given that Béhanzin, the King of Dahomey, was one of the last African Resistant to French Colonization, and had been deported to Martinique and then Algeria – Deportation of African Heads of States]….

Europe’s Largest Museums to “Loan” Looted Benin (Nigerian) Artifacts back to Nigeria

Queen from Benin kingdom
Cast Bronze figurine from Benin City at the MET museum

Unbelievable! I had to share this article about European museums loaning looted African artifacts back to Africans. It sounds so mind-boggling! How can someone steal from you, steal your cultural work, the work of your ancestors, your sweat, and then several years later loan it back to you, not even return it? and they call that progress! For the entire article, go to  Europe’s Largest Museums Will Loan Looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria and What do you know about Africa’s looted art treasures.


Major museums across Europe have agreed to loan important artifacts back to Nigeria for a new museum the country plans to open in 2021. The African nation’s Royal Museum will house a rotating display of artifacts, including the Benin bronzes that were looted during the Benin Expedition of 1897. The agreement marks a significant step after years of negotiations among European institutions and Nigerian authorities.

Art from Benin kingdom (18th century)
Benin City art exposed at the MET Museum, NYC

… Together, museum leaders from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain agreed to facilitate a display at the planned institution within three years. Further specifics—including which objects will be loaned over what period of time—have yet to be confirmed.

… The objects in question were looted by the British army during a so-called “punitive expedition” in 1897. The army took around 4,000 intricate sculptures, including bronze works now known as the Benin bronzes, from the king’s palace in the former Kingdom of Benin.

A century later, the vast majority of these bronzes have ended up in some of the world’s most important museums, including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. …

Benin City-Cast_brass_plaques_from_Benin_City_at_British_Museum-1024x721
Cast brass plaques from Benin City at the British Museum. Photo: Andreas Praefcke

African Art has inspired Great 20th Century Artists

Picasso art work on Daley Plaza in Chicago, US

I already knew that the great Pablo Picasso had been inspired by African art (just a look at his sculpture on the Chicago plaza reminds you vividly of a Fang mask of Cameroon, Gabon, or Equatorial Guinea), but this is the first time I read it clearly in the BBC, an international magazine. It is about time that the world knew how much Africa has inspired the world, and this throughout the ages from ancient Egypt to modern-day Congo as in the case of Picasso, Matisse, and others. See… and then we are told that our ancestors were not savvy: have you ever looked at an African mask? The geometry, symmetry, symbolism, and emotions are amazing! Enjoy! This is just an excerpt of the article by Fisun Güner of the BBC. For the full article go to the BBC.


A small seated figurine from the Vili people of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was instrumental in the lives of two of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. The carved figure in wood, with its large upturned face, long torso, disproportionately short legs and tiny feet and hands, was purchased in a curio shop in Paris by Henri Matisse in 1906. The French artist, who liked to fill his studio with exotic trinkets and objets d’art, objects that would then appear in his paintings, paid a pittance for it.

‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Pablo Picasso (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet when he showed it to Pablo Picasso at the home of the art patron and avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, its impact on the young Spaniard was profound, just as it was, though to an arguably lesser extent, on Matisse when the compact but powerful figure had fortuitously caught his eye.

For Picasso, his appetite whetted, visits to the African section of the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro inevitably followed. And so precocious was the 24-year-old artist that it seemed that he had already absorbed all that European art had to offer. Hungry for something radically different, something almost entirely new to the Western gaze that might provide fresh and dynamic impetus to his feverish creative energies, Picasso became captivated by the dramatic masks, totems, fetishes and carved figures on display, just as he had with the Iberian stone sculptures of ancient Spain which he also sourced as material. Here, however, was something altogether different, altogether more dynamic and visceral.


artists were struck by a directness, a pared-down simplicity and a non-naturalism that they discovered in these objects. But no thought was given to what these artefacts might actually mean, nor to any understanding of the unique cultures from which they derived. The politics of colonialism was not even in its infancy.

Pablo Picasso (Source:

The Trocadéro museum, which had so impressed Picasso, had opened in 1878, with artefacts plundered from the French colonies. Today’s curators, including those of the Royal Academy’s Matisse exhibition in which African masks and figures from the artist’s collection appear, at least seek to acknowledge and redress this to a small extent. A similar effort was made earlier this year for Picasso Primitif at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, an exhibition exploring Picasso’s life-long relationship to African art. The sculptures, from West and Central Africa, were given as much space and importance as Picasso’s own work and one could appreciate at first hand the close correspondence between the works.

Paul Gauguin, perhaps the quintessential European artist to ‘go native’, …, had long felt a disgust at Western civilisation, its perceived inauthenticity and spiritual emptiness.


Nok Civilization: The Era of Terracotta

Nok Sculpture from the Louvre museum
Nok Sculpture from the Louvre museum
Map of Nok area
Map of Nok area

Ever since I saw an image of a Nok figurine on the cover of my history textbook in 6eme (grade 5), I have been fascinated by this civilization. These neighbors of ours, had a civilization which flourished in the Jos plateau in the northern part of modern-day Nigeria between 800 BC and 600AD. The Nok civilization is considered the oldest African terracotta civilization. They were very advanced, and many people have mentioned similarities to the Egyptians. Their work shows great mastery of the firing process as emphasized in their sumptuous sculptures and artistry.

Nok soldier, dating 800 BC
Nok soldier, dating 800 BC

Nok art work is unique and detailed. Most sculptures found so far represent kings, queens, dignitaries, wizards, animals, etc. One thing that stands out the most when looking at the Nok sculpture of a woman is the hairstyle. It makes me feel so proud to see that 800 years BC, Nok women wore elaborate braids, cornrows, etc… the same way we African, no Black women wear our hair today. Imagine going back 2800 years ago and meeting beautiful Nok women with hazelnut eyes looking at you with the same hair-do as yourself!

Nok sculpture of a woman
Nok sculpture of a woman

Nok sculptures vary in size and can reach up to 1,20m. How were the Nok able to make such life-size terracotta statues without having them explode or shatter into pieces during the firing process?  Well… they used branches from trees and trunks as the central core of the sculptures.The website Memoire d’Afrique has a detailed account on the Nok Civilization ingenuity. Check it out: and wikipedia:

Ousmane Sembene: the Father of African cinema

Ousmane Sembene
Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembene, was indeed the Father of African cinema. To think that this was a man who had stopped school in 6eme, and written one of the most interesting books in Africa (God’s bits of Wood)! To think that this man became the Father of African cinema is impressive!  This is a man who fought injustice, and fought for equality. He loved Africa with everything he had! After writing books, he realized that most people in his country spoke Wolof, and some of them could not read his books, he switched to cinema! He would tour villages in his country Senegal to show his movies, and other countries in Africa. He apparently came to Cameroon once to show the movie “Le Mandat“,

Ousmane Sembene en tenue Bamileke
Ousmane Sembene en tenue Bamileke

and a police officer came to him and asked him where he had found the story… and Sembene to tell him, he just thought of it… and the officer to say “It actually happened to me“! That was Sembene, a man who could connect with people, and discuss African issues. He showed that it was possible to make a movie in an African language! His movies and books dealt with immigrants in Europe, colonialism, female genital circumcision, African beggarism, etc… “La Noire de …” was the first feature film produced by a sub-saharan African filmmaker. This man was simply a genius! He went from fisherman, railroad worker, docker in Europe, to writer, and filmmaker. He was one of the founders of the FESPACO, the festival of African cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. A statue now stands in Ouaga, in honor of Ousmane Sembene!

God's bits of Wood
God's bits of Wood

The last movie of Ousmane Sembene was “Moolaade“, a gem of African film… it was ranked among the 10 best movies of the year 2004 by the Boston Times. I actually own the movie, and it is simply outstanding! Can you believe that it was ranked among the 10 best movies in the USA, and won an award at the Cannes festival? Wow… I wish Sembene had lived even longer… but I know his legacy lives forever!

The New York Times wrote about him:

CNN also made a piece on Sembene and 2 other brilliant African filmmakers… check it out: Driven by His Convictions

Check out the videos:

Le Fespaco, plus grand festival du cinéma africain, fête ses 40 ans

A renowned African stylist: Pathe’O

Pathe'O, the "princes' stylist"
Pathe’O, the “princes’ stylist”

Pathe’O is a renowned African Stylist.  Nicknamed “the princes’ stylist,” Pathé Ouedraogo is from Burkina Faso and established himself in Côte d’Ivoire in the 70’s. He is an outstanding stylist, just like the late Malian stylist Chris Seydou who revolutionized the use of Bogolan.  Pathe’O is a baobab of African couture.  He even made ‘Madiba‘ (Nelson Mandela)’s clothes. Yup… that’s right! Pathe’O designed clothes for Madiba! Do you remember when Madiba opened the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 1996? Guess who designed that beautiful

Nelson Mandela clothed in a Pathe'O shirt
Nelson Mandela clothed in a Pathe’O shirt

shirt Madiba wore (Mao/African style)?…Pathe’O! From then on, many African leaders have switched from 3-piece suits to Pathe’O!

Well, then… you can read more about an African genius on his own website:

I also found a nice article: Newsweek also had an article on it: