Gallery 4

SAAM Interactive Experience

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Bamum Pipes

(Bah-moo-m)

Date: 19th-20th century

Culture: Bamum/Bamileke

Geography: Cameroon

Medium: metal (bronze)

In the northwestern portion of Cameroon, there is a mountainous region that is a combination of open fields and forests, known as the Cameroon Grasslands. In this region, there are three major ethnic groups, the Tikar, Bamoun and Bamileke. Despite being distinct ethnic groups, because of ongoing diplomatic relationships between these groups, there is a lot of overlap regarding the cultural practices between these three groups

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One notable similarity between these groups is the importance of kings and their royal courts among these groups. Within these systems of the hierarchy are symbols of status that reinforce a person’s position in society. While there are many status symbols used in the Cameroon Grasslands, one of the most notable is the tobacco pipe.

"The extensive use of tobacco and its related cultural observances points to long acquaintance and usage in Africa." (Gebauer, 28).

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Tobacco pipes of the Cameroon Grasslands can range from small, clay examples smoked by farmers, to large bronze pipes smoked by noblemen or even kings in their royal courts.. The very act of smoking tobacco was itself seen as a luxury. The history of this perspective about tobacco  stems significantly from the fact that it was a crop from the Americas, introduced by Europeans, that was historically rare and relatively expensive. The smoking of tobacco would eventually become integrated into peoples’ everyday lives in the form of smoking breaks while doing manual labor, smoking among friends at home or smoking in a stately manner using a pipe with the size and craftsmanship to emphasize one’s aristocratic status.

 

Indeed, as an aristocrat in the Cameroon Grasslands, you would often have attendants holding and tending to your pipe while holding court. It would be the fact that attendants are serving you your pipe, as much as the smoking of the pipe, that would highlight your elevated status. The decoration on the pipe being used as an example clearly exhibits that point. Aside from the fact that this pipe is made out of bronze, enormous and elaborately decorated, there are figures on this pipe that provide the viewer with a window into court life in the Cameroon Grasslands. 

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On the front of the pipe, nearest to the pipe’s bowl, is a gentleman with a knit hat and holding a cow’s horn, which serves as a drinking glass. On either side of this high-ranking aristocrat are two women who tend to him. It is customary for aristocratic men to be tended to by their multiple wives and it is very likely that this is what we see being represented on this pipe. One of the attendants is holding the pipe of the gentleman, while the other attendant is holding a gourd container that is used to serve palm wine, a favorite drink of the aristocracy of the Cameroon Grasslands. Another aristocratic symbol on this pipe is the representation of elephants. The use of representations of powerful animals to symbolize royal and/or aristocratic power is not unique to the Cameroon Grasslands. Other animals, such as leopards and lions have been commonly used by other kingdoms in Africa to represent the power of different kingdoms in western and central Africa. Due to their formidable size and enormous strength, it is understandable why such an animal would be seen as a symbol of political might.

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Sources:

 

Gebauer, Paul. “Cameroon Tobacco Pipes.” African Arts.Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter, 1972). 28-35

“Ki (Smoking Pipe):” ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, March 15, 2019. https://www.imodara.com/discover/cameroon-bamum-ki-smoking-pipe/.