The Bamileke describes a collective of peoples living in the Bamileke region of Cameroon. Culturally they have strong traditions of masking and the region surrounding Bamenda, although famed for their masks and costumes, also produce statues in materials such as earthenware, bronze or wood. This particular piece was collected in 1947 and is a tourist piece.
This small brass sculpture depicts a man dressed in a loose headdress and holding a spear, atop an ornately decorated rearing horse.
Notes: This small brass sculpture depicts a man dressed in a loose headdress and holding a spear, atop an ornately decorated rearing horse. Given his formal attire it is entirely possible that this piece mimics one of the only obvious traditions of Bamileke art in representing the fon, or king. Generally however, styles of Bamileke art are hard to define given the constant flow of migration of peoples within the Grasslands. Whilst this is a tourist piece it serves as a perfect example of traditional artisanal crafts being commercialised for a European market.
The Bamileke describes a collective of peoples inhabiting the Bamileke area of the Cameroon Grasslands, all speaking a language of Benue-Congo origin. Having been supposedly forced southward from Mbam by Fulani invasion during the 17th century, individual kingdoms now refer to themselves either by their own names or by the collective term 'grasslanders'. Typically the Bamileke rely on farming as their primary occupation and historically were noted as key traders with the European colonists. Amongst the Bamileke, whilst there is a single god which they revere (Si) the religious focus is on ancestor worship with skulls playing a key part in most religious occasions.
The western and north-western Highlands of Cameroon are noted for the diversity of their craft and art work. The Bamileke speakers who inhabit this area produced much bronze and brasswork. This bronze figurine, of a military horseman, is typical of the area. In political terms, the Bamileke are divided into a number of chiefships headed by a ruler (called a fon) drawn from a patrilineal royal lineage. There are many such Bamileke chiefships – the most famous for their brasswork being Fumban, Bafoussam and Bamenda. This figurine might have been produced in any one of them.
However, small though it is, it tells an interesting historical story. War horses were used in West Africa, mainly in the ecological east-west zone between the southern Guinea forest (where they could not survive because of tse-tse fly) and the Sahara to the north. There was an indigenous history of local horse use. However, it was the importation of larger and more robust horses of Arab or Barbary stock via the Saharan trade routes that led to the breeding of war horses.
It was influence from the same direction that also led to some of the features we see in this figurine. The rider is a warrior, carrying a spear and wearing protective headgear. His mount has (probably quilted) protective armour, and the bit and bridle arrangement that came into western Africa from the north. The figure is reminiscent of the Islamic warrior horse cultures of the Bamileke’s immediate northern and western neighbours – the great states of Borno, Hausa and (from the early 19th century) the Sokoto Caliphate. Fighting on horseback flourished in this area right up until the arrival of European – German, French, and British – colonialism. Cavalrymen were, however, elite men. Horses were difficult and expensive to breed and sustain. So, the figurine represents a man of some substance. This perception of the relationship between cavalrymen and power is reflected in Bamileke political ideology. Government in the various fon is commonly likened to the riding of a horse; a master horseman is a good ruler, but the ‘unruly’ horse is a metaphor for incompetent government or even political anarchy.