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.

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 …

The Power of Words

Painting of faces, some listening, some speaking.

The ‘word’ in West African cultures, once loosened from the lips as if drawing back the strings of a talisman pouch, diffuses a special force, the primal energy of creation itself. To speak is to exhale an active essence, Oro according to the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin. For the Mande — ranging from coastal …