Ninana (Ancestral Figure)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Horsemen in 1500 created the Mossi states by conquering what is now northern Ghana into the basin of the White Volta River and imposed political authority over the farming groups occupying the land. The descendants of the horsemen are the Nakomsé, which means 'children of the nam'. The word 'nam' refers to the right and power to rule.

Mossi society is divided in two different strata, the Tengabisi and the Nakomsé. The Nakomsé held all political power in traditional Mossi society before French colonisation and has maintained some level of it even after. The group still has substantial power at village level today. The Nakomsé subjugated the Tengabisi, which translates to 'children of the earth'.

Although Mossi society has been ruled by the Nakomsé, the descendants of the Tengabisi have right of first ownership of the land and therefore exercise all authority over its use. So in a way, the two groups complement each other—the Nakomsé maintain order by using powerful ancestors to benefit the community while the Tengabisi manipulate the forces and appease the spirits of nature for the common good.

Because each group has a different responsibility to the wider Mossi society, the Nakomsé and Tengabisi each produce a different type of ritual object. The Tengabisi create masks while the Nakomsé make figures called ninandé (sing. ninana). Ninandé are male and female royal figures intended to represent their ancestors and validate Mossi rule. Generally speaking, Nakomsé use ninandé to represent Mossi ancestors and call upon them to help control and manipulate outside forces.

Mossi ninandé figures serve as memorials to specific chiefs from past military and political powers that established the Mossi states. Ninandé are used to give tangible form to ancestral Mossi spirits. In the case for burials, wooden ninandé replace the corpses of deceased chiefs. They can be used ceremoniously in the village to honour a chief. At year-end ancestral sacrifices called Na-poosum, ninandé figures are dressed in earrings, strands of beads and small cloth wrappers imitating traditional female dress. At these celebrations, the ninandé are displayed publicly and are called upon to provide favourably for the community.

When not in use, ninandé are stored in a hut called the kimse-roogo, the ancestral spirit house for the chief’s clan.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all ninana figures:

  • Common features among all ninana figures:
  • Carved of single piece of wood
  • Freestanding figure
  • Height = 40 - 50 cm
  • Face slightly concave in profile
  • Heavy, overhanging brow
  • Planes of face often flattened
  • Attenuated, cylindrical torso
  • Forearms parallel to thighs
  • Arms extended rigidly at sides
  • Sex usually clearly indicated
  • Interchangably male or female (the ideal chief represents both the men and women of his community)

Sub-type variations (female figures):

  • Tall, central ridge that runs from front to back of head (gyonfo hairstyle)
  • Pendulous breasts
  • Prominent umbilicus
  • Incised facial and ventral scars
  • NOTE: There is a lack of style homogeneity in Mossi figure sculpture, and objects by two artists in neighboring villages may vary greatly in form.

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