The Tikar people (approx. 12,000 people) live in the eastern part of the Bamun region in the Cameroon Grasslands. Their works are primarily remembered in African art through their headdresses, casts and masks (Schaedler, 1994: 365). The Tikar also produce three dimensional and partly flat wooden figures (with heights between 22cm – 45cm), which do not seem to fit into the image of African art. We find these in museums (including the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac [71.1930.29.318 and 73.1969.5.1], American Museum of Natural History [90.2/ 7129], Brooklyn Museum [48.214.13], Royal Museum for Central Africa – Tervuren [EO.1968.7.21 and EO.1968.7.22], and Musée d’ethnographie de Geneva [ETHAF 012358] among many others) and private collections.
The earliest illustration of a work by the Tikar can be found in ‘Figures in Wood of West Africa’ by Leon Underwood from 1947. The artist selected the works on the basis of their aesthetic qualities. This figure is now in the possession of the British Museum (formerly in the collection, M. Cockin, Esq.) and was acquired by the museum in 1978 from the collection of Mrs Celia Barclay. Cockin and Barclay were the heirs to Sir Cecil Armitage, who served in Togo/Ghana. Presumably, Underwood mistook the figure for an akua ba fertility figure and labelled it ‘Ashanti, Gold Coast’.
In our eyes, they appear to be Disneyesque or alien-like figures that seem to have no roots in Cameroon. Even so, these works were already in German collections before 1914. They depict mostly human figures or, more rarely, animal-human hybrid creatures (they look like representations of dancers with dance masks).
Gebauer (1979: 187, P46) suspects that these figures, which he offered on the market in 1937, are purely souvenir items, specially made for sale to Western customers. “The origin of these flat figures and their companion pieces is debatable. The three were collected in 1937 in Dschang Market, Bamileke art area. French art dealers claim Bamun origin. ( ) …In 1973 we saw a figure of this type in a Bamun antiques shop, marked as having Mbum origin. ( )…We now consider these controversial objects to be early attempts of northern craftsmen to turn traditional cult designs into marketable Hausa trade goods. They may be regarded as art forms in transition.” Fagg adds (1981: 141): “It must have been a new style, perhaps used for early tourist pieces for the British.”
I agree in part with Fagg and Gebauer, a majority of the figures have no patina and were probably produced as commissioned works. When the production of these souvenirs began is not certain, I suspect the historical origin of these figures to be around 1900, a time when production began in Cameroon of objects that were offered for sale to Europeans. In addition, these early commissioned works usually have round holes in the ‘hair’ in order to be able to mount the figures better on the wall.
The range of iconographic features is remarkable. The figures found in public and private collections are mostly couples or single figures. Due to missing gender characteristics, it cannot be determined whether the figures are male or female. Twenty-seven different types of hairstyles/head coverings can be distinguished in the known figures, as well as seven different gestures of the hands and eleven basic shapes of faces.
This type of figure seems to me to have been very popular around 1910-30 and to have been offered in markets throughout the Cameroon Grasslands. German (1911: 8) points out in this context that handicraft carvings “often end up in areas that are far from the place of manufacture” and that some families and groups have specialised in specific types of handicrafts (German 1911: 8ff). The figures become larger after 1914 (up to 45 cm) and flatter—they lose their three-dimensionality.
The perspective that most travellers and ethnologists had on Africa in colonial times was that of a pure, “primitive” Africa, yet unspoiled by the West. The expectation of seeing African art in a supposedly traditional context was so important for the visitors that they ignored modern trends (fashion, technology, etc.) imported from abroad. It was believed that the proselytizing of Africa by Christianity and Islam would lead to a decline in cultures and the traditional.
The new art form that arose, as a result, did not fully fit into this world of ideas, not only the hybrid Christian art (Thiel / Helf, 1984: 203) in Cameroon but also the establishment of artisan guilds. These objects were made by local artists in Cameroon to sell to a western audience. They were thus manufactured as commercial goods (Kasfir, 2007).
What is exciting, however, is what happened to these objects in Europe. After these works had been acquired as handicrafts in the markets of Cameroon, they transformed into rare authentic works of art from Africa (Monroe, 2019) in European trade. In the collection of Russel B. Aitken or in the trade inventory of Merton Simpson we find works of the Tikar as well as in the museum collections of the western world. This gave these objects the nimbus of the “supposedly” authentic, as they were upgraded through museum consecration (Appadurai, 1986).
Whatever the scenario, we are unlikely to find the right answers to our questions. This type of figure needs further research and it is hoped that new results will emerge in the future.
Dr. David Zemanek is a German ethnologist, expert of African and Oceanic art and a public sworn auctioneer for non-European art (Auction House Zemanek-Münster, Würzburg). He is an author of several articles and publications about African art.