SAAM Interactive Experience
Date: 19th-20th century
(Click image for high resolution photo)
There is a portion of northwestern Cameroon that is made up of open fields, forests, rolling hills, and royal courts known as the Cameroon Grasslands. In this region are the Bamileke and Bamoun peoples who, among other aspects of traditional art, are known for their elaborate palaces
While these grassland kings, known as fons, held court among their noblemen and the king’s visitors, they did not do so within the palace. Instead, the throne was placed outside and the palace served as a heavily decorated backdrop for the seated monarch. The palaces of the Bamileke and the Bamoun are a couple of stories tall and have a large floorplan that accentuates the enormity of the structure. While enthroned, the seated king is surrounded by carved statues and architectural pillars. While some of these works of art may represent historical events or royal lineages, many of these pillars, such as the one you see here, are decorated with carved renderings of royal attendants.
How Do these pillars show status?
When looking at the wide variety of royal arts that surround the king, there are most common representations of multitudes of people. This artistic tendency in the grasslands springs from what people consider a symbol of high status. Among the many other symbols of heightened status in the Cameroon Grasslands, exhibiting your role as a father figure in the community, through representations of those who are your dependents is a symbol of heightened status. In the grasslands, your status in society is determined by the number of people who would be considered those for whom you are their patriarch. For a commoner, his wives, children, and servants would be considered his dependents. The more of these dependents he has, generally the higher his status is within the kingdom. The fon’s status within the kingdom, along with the fact that he is descended from a royal lineage, is also built upon the notion that all of his subjects in his kingdom look up to him as a father figure. As the patriarch with the greatest number of dependents, the fon, without question, would be considered the highest-ranking individual in the kingdom.
Another symbol of status, in the Cameroon Grasslands, are the number of people who are part of your entourage, serving you. A high-ranking individual in a Bamoun or Bamileke kingdom would be tended to by his many wives, surrounded by others who serve him. The fon would have the greatest number of wives and servants tending to him as well as a royal court populated with noblemen who bow before and serve their king.
While it may be tempting to view these pillars, which are decorated with representations of men and women, as some sort of totemic object. In actuality, these architectural pillars are quite different. Instead of representing something from the spirit realm, these statues represent the many people who look up to the king as a father figure. While there are examples that are not painted, there are others, such as the example featured here, that have been colorfully painted.
“Life in the Cameroon Grasslands - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Museum of Art.” , Page 1 - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. Accessed July 10, 2021. https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/topic-essays/show/12.