The Bamileke tribe was originally from an area to the north known as Mbam. In the 17th century traders moved southward and are currently in the grasslands of western Cameroon. Today their population consists of about eight million people. Although the Bamileke are primarily farmers, they are also hunters and traders. Women are responsible for planting and harvesting due to the belief that women make the soil more fruitful. The major crops grown are yams, peanuts, and maize. The men in the tribe help with clearing the land and hunting.
The Bamileke tribe worships a supreme god and their ancestors. Ancestral spirits are embodied in the skulls of deceased ancestors. Skulls of ancestors are kept to give the spirits a place to reside to prevent them from causing trouble for the family. If a skull is not kept a ceremony must be done to compensate.
The Bamileke tribe is governed by a village chief who is supported by a council of elders. In the past, the chief was believed to have supernatural powers that allowed him to turn into an animal (elephant, buffalo, or leopard). The chief is responsible for the protection of his people, dispensing supreme justice, and ensuring the fertility of the crops and fields.
Many of the art produced by the Bamileke tribe associated with royal ceremonies. Most Bamileke statues represent the chief. Art objects showed the position of a person it the hierarchy. As a person descended or ascended the social ladder the materials used and the number of pieces changed. In a chief’s residence one would find ancestral figures and masks, as well as headdresses, bracelets, beaded thrones, pipes, necklaces, swords, horns, fans, elephant tusks, leopard skins, terracotta pots, and dishware. All of this was used to assert the chief’s power. Beadwork and masks are common in this tribe. Masks were decorated with copper, cowrie shells, and beads. They were carved to represent male and female heads, stag, buffalo, birds, and elephant. The elephant masks and the buffalo masks represented power and strength. Bamileke masks were usually worn during ceremonies and rituals such as funerals and annual festivals. The art styles of the grassland tribes are had to differentiate because of the complex migration patterns of the region.
Bamileke masquerader with a
beaded Leopard crest.
In the Bamileke, the Kuosi society, who reports directly to the king, is responsible for dramatic masquerading displays. This was formerly a warrior society, whose members today are made up of powerful, wealthy men. Even the king may don a mask for an appearance at a Kuosi celebration which is a public dance held every other year as a display of the kingdom's wealth. In the image to the left, you see the Kuosi masqueraders with their beaded elephant masks and feathered headressses. These feathered headresses were also worn by themselves with a cloth costume. The Kuosi society masks can resemble elephants or leopards, both of which are royal animals.
While Bamileke masks and masqueraders may appear in royal festivals, they are normally associated with various men's societies, most of which are ultimately linked to the palace and the King. The societies are closed to outsiders, and only those who have the authrization to partake in the various activities may do so. Each society has its own special house, its own masks, costumes, dances and a secret language, and acting on behalf of the king to establish order and to preserve social and religious structures of the kingdom.
One such society if the Kwifo (meaning 'night') society, who acts as a policing force while the king hears complaints and councils his people, carrying out punishments and executions at night. Acting as the kings agent, the Kwifo also mediates significant conflicts and pronounces sentence in both civil and criminal cases.
Each Kwifo society has a mask which serves as a spokesman and representaive. Known as Mabu, this mask presents the decrees of the society to the community. It ushers the members of the Kwifo through the village, alerting the people of the approach of the group, and compelling them to behave appropriately. Other masks are credited with supernatural strength generated by the 'medicine' of Kwifo, and embody the aggessive and terrifying nature of the society. Because of the gravity of the events surrounding their arrival, the wearers do not dance.
Kwifo masks are usually worn in groups of anywhere from eight to thirty, accompanied by and orchestra os drums, xylophone and rattles. When they make special apperances at the burial and commemorative death celebrations of a member of the group, they are viewed with awe and reverence.
The mask large, and helmet-shaped, would be place on top of the head where it is worn at an angle, the masquerader's head would be covered with a cloth through which he would be able to see. The carved headdress alludes to that of a prestige cap worn by kings and high dignitaries, (see below) thus reminding viewers of the importance and high status of this society. The Kwifo society masks are also known to be carved with the earth spider motif (see picture above) which alludes to the awesome power of the ancestors and spirits.
The hairstyle shown in this kwifo mask is commonly seen among the Bamun, Bamileke and Tikar, and a frequently featured on brass, bronze, and wooded sculpture. This royal headdress is known as The Ndam Tcheu Dop in the Bamenda region, and as Tcho Dung Dung in the Bandjan region of Cameroon. It is the coiffure most commonly reproduced by sculptures when creating their masks and commemorative statues. It's origin is from a royal cap that was worn, the cap was knitted or crocheted from raffia or vegetable fibers. It featured two lobes or prominent lateral sections. It's uniquness comes from the fact that each lobe is spiked with a multitude of tails, bumps, blades, or tiny rolls of cloth, each concealing a slim wooden peg to stiffen it or keep it upright.
To the right is an example of the afore mentioned cap, collected in the Bali-Nyonga kingdom of Cameroon in 1911. It is believed to have been used by royals in a ritual context during initiation ceremonies and the enthronement of an important individual.
Bamileke Tribal Art