Culture


The collective heritage – the shared perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and interactions – that at once differentiate and unite the peoples of West Africa. Behind the material expressions of culture, (i.e. language, art), lie the more intangible societal values that create and refine these diverse West African identities.

The Masons of Djenné

Annual plastering of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Photography of a master mason spreading plaster on the wall of the mosque while other masons climb the scaffolding in the background.

  “When an Agama lizard sees you coming, it jumps onto a wall. It doesn’t fall because it has ‘special’ powers. Those powers are the same that we masons use. Those are secret.” ― Master Mason Konbaba Tennepo   The Master Mason The master mason makes his way through the maze of twisting alleyways, staircases, …

Ode to the Kola Nut

Abstract painting of figures gathered around a bowl of red kola nuts, fruits that are cherished throughout West Africa.

“The word friendship in our society comes from this fruit. You must split it in two; one hand cannot clap; it takes two to make a sound. Everything that I do in art, as a visual form of expression, is [inspired] by this fruit. The kola nut, which has ritual and divine representation in the …

Twins

Twin Festival, a vodun cult of twins, in Ouidah, Benin

Whether kicking up red Sahelian dust or the sands of the lower-lying coastal plains, the footsteps of twins throughout West Africa leave an indelible print along a customarily unified, synchronous path. The Temne of Sierra Leone tell of mythological twin brothers miraculously stitching together two diverging roads, forever fusing their destinies. On whatever West African …

The Puppeteer

The heads of two West African puppets articulated at the mouth and adorned with cowrie shells, awaiting the puppeteer.

The West African puppeteer lurches, leans and sways, giving himself over to the demands of his carved creation. He is at once ajogi, a Yoruba dancer of the wooden image, and nyamakala, a Malinke force-handler, as he pulls on the ropes and rods of some of the oldest and richest of Africa’s surviving puppetry traditions. …

Rhythm

Hands creating a rhythm on a djembe drum.

“Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” ― Babatunde Olatunji   The Integral Nature of West African Rhythm So synonymous is rhythm with life and movement, that many sub-Saharan languages, like Igbo, Efik, Hausa and Yoruba, do not have a distinct, disambiguating, …

Joking Relationships

Painting of African women speaking, babies on their backs and bundles on their heads. Scenes like this play out every day in the course of joking relationships.

In most cultures, it would be rude to openly mock a complete stranger, absolutely insulting to call them a slave, and downright criminal to waltz into their home and steal their television. Within the context of joking relationships — or “cousinage”, sinankunya in Mali, rakiré in Burkina Faso — these things can be perfectly acceptable …

The Griot

Three paintings of a griot in three different phases of praise-singing, accompanied by his talking drum.

Above the din of everyday culture — from the spontaneous chatter of the marketplace to the polyphonic rhythms of the traditional shuttle loom, anvil or pestle — rises the acoustic poetry of the West African griot. If it is through the beautiful cacophony of the day-to-day that people assert the present, then it is by …