Cultures & Traditions

Icons and Symbols of Leadership and Status

Governance in pre-colonial sub-Saharan societies was either centralized or decentralized. Centralized societies, such as the Yoruba and Edo in West Africa and the Chokwe and Kuba in Central Africa, were ruled by kings and chiefs who presided over complex political structures. These paramount rulers were considered political leaders as well as religious personages endowed with extraordinary powers and authority. As living representatives of the creator-god, they were responsible for the well-being and welfare of their peoples. Leadership in decentralized societies, like those of the Lega of Central Africa, was vested in an association or council of elders.

The authority of those in positions of leadership—whether held by a paramount king or an association of elders—was reflected in their surroundings, their attire, and the ornamentation of their personal possessions and symbols of office. Art was used to identify and glorify their elevated status. It was more elaborate, more complex, monumental. It was made of durable materials, such as hardwood, ivory, and metal. It was decorated with rare or imported materials, such as cowrie shells, glass, and porcelain. Often, it was labor intensive, requiring many hours of craftsmanship. These attributes confirmed one's political position or status in society and help scholars determine an object's purpose and, perhaps, its owner.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 39.

Web Resources

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