Cultures & Traditions

Tobacco and Pipes in Africa

The Portuguese introduced tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum and Nicotiana rustica) to West Africa in the 17th century after they discovered it in the Americas. Tobacco usage in sub-Saharan Africa is recorded on an elaborately decorated Ifa divination tray that originally belonged to a Yoruba king of Adra, in present-day Benin, and was taken to Ulm, Germany, before 1659. Among the motifs is a standing male figure smoking a long-stemmed pipe that was probably made of terracotta and is an example of the earliest type of pipe that has been excavated. Other explorers and merchants, including the Dutch and Arabs, reintroduced tobacco at different times and at various points along the west and east coasts from which it spread to the interior of the continent.

Access to tobacco, whether in the form of leaves or snuff, was a prerogative of African rulers. Chokwe sculptures, for example, portray rulers holding snuff containers, other tobacco paraphernalia, and beautifully carved containers for storing the substance. The Dallas Museum of Art's large terracotta pipe (1999.60) is an example of a pipe belonging to a Bamum ruler. Because tobacco was too expensive for ordinary people to obtain, the resorted to substitutes. According to a late-19th century visitor, it was not unusual to see the Chokwe smoke lighted charcoal in place of tobacco.

Tobacco usage inspired artists to create pipes for their patrons, who may have been African or European. The Ovimbundu pipe in the form of a seated female (1980.44.A-B) is carved in the characteristic light colored wood used by sculptors; while the rare Kanyok water pipe (1969.S.18), of which only three are known, is carved in the form of a seated woman with a swollen abdomen, which serves as the water chamber in which the smoke is cooled before being inhaled. Water pipes were used by bilumb women who were possessed by ancestral spirits and functioned as diviners. They sat on the chief's stool while performing the divining ritual.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 284-285.

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