Objects
Patrique deGraft-Yankson

anonymous
late 19th century
painted wood
199 x 60 x 50 cm
The Veranda Post
origin: Cameroon, location: Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, Germany
the author

Exploring an Enigmatic Piece of Traditional Cameroonian Sculptur

 

The Veranda Post found in Museum Fünf Kontinente is an exemplification of the extent to which indigenous Africans mutually reinforced socio-religio-cultural existence and expressiveness of form through sculpture. Various examples of these artefacts abound in the collections of African plastic artforms found in many museums across the globe. The beauty in experiencing, analysing and speaking about this artwork (as well as many of its kind), lies within the absence of authenticated historical and analytical literature on them. This makes it possible for the observer to exert complete authority of personal perception and interpretation devoid of any fixed attitude that dictates, interfere or curtails aesthetic enjoyments, interpretations and judgements, as attempted in this presentation.   

Patrique deGraft-Yankson
Patrique deGraft-Yankson

 

With the dimensions of 199 x 60 x 50 cm, the Veranda Post found in Museum Fünf Kontinente is one of the numerous examples of the African artistic expressiveness, confirming the artistic prowess of the traditional African. Examples of these artefacts abound in the collections of African plastic artforms which record indigenous religious beliefs, practices and performances that date back from the beginning of African history.

 

As typical of most indigenous African sculptures, this work is not only uncaptioned, but the artist/creator is not known. What is known, however is that, its peculiar characteristics and style makes it easily identifiable and representative within the milieu of popular African sculptures. According to the Museum Fünf Kontinente records, this work was collected from Kamerun. Kamerun was an African colony of the German Empire between 1884 and 1916, which was located in the region of today's Republic of Cameroon (Wikipedia, 2020). Comparing the characteristic features of this sculpture with similar sculptures described by some Art historians as Veranda Posts created as part of ancient African monumental architectures found in the Cameroons Grassland (Willett 1981) therefore, it is not difficult place it within that category. Hence its caption.

 

As can been seen from similar ‘posts’ and judging from the elaborateness of the images created on them, the major reason for the production of these posts was more to afford the sculptor or sculptors the opportunity to decorate the buildings with stories, rather than serving as supports (see figure 1).

 

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Figure 1: Ancestor statues, carved door-frame and verandah posts (Source: Willett 1981)

 

The beauty in analysing and speaking about this artwork (and many of its kind), lies within the absence of historical and analytical literature. The fact that this makes it possible for me (and for that matter any other observer) to exercise personal powers of perception and interpretation without any fixed attitude to direct or curtail their aesthetic interpretations and judgements made it my object of choice for this project at the Museum Fünf Kontinente.

 

Going by Margaret Trowell’s generalisations about African art, this Veranda Post can be classified under the ‘spirit-regarding’ art. Like many others of its kind, this work, which has front and back views, is flanked with human and other figures, ostensibly those of ancestors and is symmetrically disposed about a vertical axis, rendering it frontal at both sides.

 

Analyses of the images created on this pole reveal striking similarities between the age old traditional religious practices of the African and the Western religious beliefs and practices brought in by the earlier missionaries.

 

At the direct look of the object from the front (as it has been positioned at the museum, but actually one of its two sides), a prominent kneeling figure with hands clasped together unto the chest (much like the praying hand) can be seen in a pose that looks very much like the kneeling praying postures at Christian worships. To the African, this posture is not only assumed at prayer sessions as a visual image of submission to God’s authority, but is also exhibited as a sign of respect, humility and total surrender to a superior authority. For the sculptor to present the kneeling man as a central figure and subsequently rendering all other human figures in similar submissive postures therefore makes the theme of prayer, submissiveness and spirituality very strong in the composition.

 

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Figure 2: The kneeling or Praying Figure

 

The kneeling man is placed right below two human faces whose prominence and positioning easily pass them for elders, superiors, or better still, ancestors. Before the ancestors, all supplications are made, and through them, request are carried through to the supreme God.

 

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Figure 3: Ancestor figures

 

The importance of the two faces and emphasis on their superiority is further strengthened by a strong demarcation between them and the kneeling man through a thick rigid contoured line that forms a partition between the elements. This could be interpreted as a spiritual borderline that separate the spiritual world from the physical world. Generally, the African believes in the existence of the physical and the spiritual worlds as separate entities and this demarcation clearly depicts this belief. Also worthy of notice is the orientation of the demarcating border which rhymes with the praying hands of the kneeling figure, thereby visually connecting the figures. This carefully chosen placement of the two faces in the composition alludes to the supremacy of the ancestors and their exclusive existence in the after world as well as their connection with humans.  

 

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Figure 4: The spiritual borderline

 

Another striking imagery is created with the placement of a very visible image rendered in concentric circles. Among many African ethnic groups, the circle represents completeness, holiness, perfection and other such attributes ascribed to the supreme being (God). Among the Akan people of Ghana, for instance, the Adinkra symbol called Adinkrahene (king of Adinkra symbols) is presented as concentric circles. This symbol represents authority, leadership and charisma. The sculptor most likely created a bull’s eye of this symbol as an indication of exactly where this particular post belongs. The post could possibly be one of the furnishes for a palace or the abode of a traditional priest. This could also suggest the likelihood of the prominent kneeling figure being the King or the chief priest. Considering the atmosphere created by these symbols, the circle, with the kind of prominence it exudes could also represent the omnipresence of the supreme being, thereby heralding the people’s belief in the iniquitousness of God and His closeness to mankind.

 

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Figure 5: The concentric circles

 

Other recognizable images of animate and inanimate objects in the work include crocodiles, lizards and geometric shapes. Whilst it is likely that the geometric figures may have been deliberately presented to create balance, simulate a built living environment and arouse aesthetic sensibilities, the images of animals like those of the crocodiles have significant meanings as far as African culture and belief systems are concerned. Among some ethnic groups in Africa, crocodiles are believed to be the souls of ancestors who come back to live with men. Examples are the crocodiles in the Crocodile Pond at Paga in the northern part of Ghana who virtually live peacefully among the people. There are numerous African stories about crocodiles coming to the aid of men to either protect them or lead them to safety. Their inclusion in this particular work therefore is to establish the existence of spirits among men, especially as humans pray to seek their guidance and protection.

 

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Considering where it was created and where it is located now, as well as the current effort towards extracting a meaning out of its symbolism, this veranda post and many other such African artefacts in several museums around the globe have demonstrated how images and symbols resonate relationship between cultural practices around the world. The confluence of symbolic interpretations of the icons in the Traditional African religions and the Euro-Christian religion, as depicted in this veranda post gives justification to Africa’s unquestionable acceptance of Euro-Christianity and all the associated visual cultural practices.

 

For comparison, also read Karin Guggeis' analysis of this object here.

 

References

  • Roy, C. (2019). Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso. Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso. https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/topic-essays/show/38?start=13
  • Wikipedia. (2020). Kamerun. Kamerun. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameroon
  • Willett, F. (1981). African Art. London: Thames and Hudson.