Tanzania comprises the former territory of Tanganyika under British, and formerly German administration, and the island and former British protectorate of Zanzibar, lying off the east African coast. It became an independent, united republic in 1964. Most of the country is high savannah plateau, between 1000 and 2000 metres. Mount Kilimanjaro, in the north near the Kenyan border, is the highest mountain in Africa (5895 metres).


The Tellem are believed to have occupied the Bandiagara ridge, east of Mopti and south of Timbuktu from the 11th century CE. No living trace remains of them. The Dogon took refuge on the same ridge, under pressure from the Mossi Islamic authority, from about the 15th century CE. They slowly absorbed Tellem culture having migrated to the area over an extended period.


The Tetela live in central Congo. They have a war-like reputation and joined with the Arabs from the north in their slave raids. The name is thought to be derived from their god, Tamatola, meaning 'the one who never laughs'.

The Tetela appear to share many of the cultural features of their Songye neighbours to the south, but their figures and masks are rare. Very little is known about their precise purpose.

Yaka and Suku

These two ethnic groups recognise common origins and share the same religious beliefs and the same customary rites. They live on a high-plateau with a sub-tropical climate, much of it savannah grassland just north of the Angola border. The Yaka spread into northeastern Angola and share characteristics with their neighbours, the Zombo. The men were traditionally the hunters while the women tended the farms.


The Yaure are geographically and culturally sandwiched between the Guro and the Baule. Their masquerading and artistic tradition has characteristics of both, but masks retain distinctively straight, narrow noses and oblong faces. They are often surrounded by chevron decoration culminating at the chin in a stylised beard appendage.

Additional Material

Yombe and Vili

The Yaure are geographically and culturally sandwiched between the Guro and the Baule. Their masquerading and artistic tradition has characteristics of both, but masks retain distinctively straight, narrow noses and oblong faces. They are often surrounded by chevron decoration culminating at the chin in a stylised beard appendage.


The Yoruba occupy a heavily populated area in south-west Nigeria and the Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey and unconnected with Benin City). They are thought, on linguistic evidence, to have occupied the area since the first millennium BCE. They are essentially an urban people.


The Zande inhabit a large area which includes the north-east area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, south-western Sudan and the southern part of the Central African Republic. Their political organisation is hierarchical, based on a number of kingdoms. In each the king rules personally over a central province, whilst other provinces are ruled by his sons or sometimes by a brother.


African objects can be displayed in a variety of ways. They can be displayed in isolation, enshrined in a glass case, lit with spotlights that bring out their formal characteristics. They can be surrounded by objects collected among the same cultural group. Or they can be withdrawn from exposure altogether, and remain hidden for secret use only.


It seems self-evident that the maker of a thing is the person (or group) who physically manufactures it. However, an object comes into being in the first place often as a result of a commission from a patron (who may also be a collective rather than an individual). The patron may play a considerable role in determining what the object looks like, either by describing it or by stating that it should look similar to an already existing example. These processes demonstrate the importance of tradition in determining the form of an object (or indeed a performance or display).


Materials come with a number of associations. Because trees grow, and can generate and regenerate, they can connote life. Clay on the other hand, is widely regarded as dead matter. Such natural symbolism can affect the perceived appropriateness of materials - clay pots can contain the ashes of the dead, but a wooden figure may be preferred for the purpose of contacting the spirit of the deceased. The rarity of some materials, limited access to their ownership, or the difficulties of working them contribute values beyond those of natural symbolism.


The term 'bronze' is often used in a broad sense to include true bronze (copper/tin alloy), brass (copper/zinc alloy), either of these mixed with lead, and sometimes copper which in its natural state may have included small percentages of other metals. Zinc is difficult to isolate and use, and most African brassware was probably made from imported brass. It is known to have been imported from at least the 11th century CE across the Sahara desert from the north.

Cire-Perdue Casting

For solid casting the object to be cast was modelled in bees wax (or, if available, from latex obtained from the Euphorbia tree or from certain types of cactus), covered in a clay slip and then covered with a coarser clay mixed with charcoal to allow gases to escape. Wax rods led from the mould through the encompassing clay, forming ducts when melted.


Usually elephant ivory, but also hippopotamus tusk, were used especially among the Congo tribes. Various types of horn and, for smaller objects, the teeth of warthog were also used.


The word style has had a difficult history. It originates from stilus, a Latin word for a writing implement. By transference, it came to mean not just what the writing looked like, but what words were used, and the order in which they were placed. Thus appearance and content became confused. It will be helpful here to try to separate them again.

Affinities (Tribal/Modern)

Has African art anything in common with modern art? Can we point out affinities between modern and so-called tribal art?


How did the thousands of African art objects that form the collections of contemporary ethnography museums find their way to Europe and the United Kingdom? Who decided that such objects were valuable enough to be collected? What kind of value were they given? And how was value established in the interaction between the collector and the African trader of the object?

Ethnography on Display

Ethnographic museums were established towards the end of the nineteenth and in the course of the twentieth century. They were meant to illustrate the ways of life of the populations on which new knowledge was made available because they had just been brought under colonial control. Colonial administrations required knowledge about the subjected populations, and part of that knowledge was produced by anthropologists.

Museums and Galleries

"An effective educational museum might be described as a collection of labels bearing instructions, each of them illustrated by a carefully selected specimen."George Brown Goode, Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian, 1896

A display of non-western objects
A display of non-western objects