Lesson 12: Empowering Leaders: Leadership Arts of the Cameroon Grassfields, Africa

Summary and Objectives. A study of the leadership arts of the Cameroon Grassfields provides opportunities to consider how integral the arts are to notions of power and leadership. Students study the works and then consider their functions from background information they have been given. An additional activity centers on a short film, “Pageantry in the Palace,” and students discuss and develop in writing their reactions to the film. Students will

  • Explore the integral connection between art and power in the Cameroon Grassfields through research and creative word games.
  • Gain insight into the culture of the Cameroon Grassfields by viewing and analyzing a short film on royal pageantry.
  • React and respond to notions of pageantry among peoples of the Cameroon Grassfields and compare these to practices in their own lives.


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Background Information

Background Information

From precolonial times to the present, Africa has been rich in arts that support leadership and governance. The arts have served to uphold and strengthen those in power and their domains. In turn, rulers have often been patrons of the arts with the volume of artistic production dependent on their ability to marshal ample resources.

Among the most powerful leadership arts in Africa are those from the kingdoms of the Cameroon Grassfields, a mountainous region of western Cameroon. The Bamum, Bamileke, Bangwa, and other kingdoms share many cultural traditions. For centuries extensive trade networks, political interactions, and royal gift-giving facilitated cultural exchange and the creation of royal arts in the area. The oldest known Grassfields kingdom of Bamum dates to the sixteenth century.

Communities in the Cameroon Grassfields have historically been organized around large centralized authorities or rulers, known as fon. Prior to the colonial period, fon were religious, economic, and political leaders who were also considered to be divine. Fon redistributed wealth, controlled trade, and were great patrons of the arts. The fon’s best artists often received noble titles for their service, demonstrating the importance of the arts to Grassfields royalty.

The colonial administrations of the twentieth century challenged the authority of fon and diminished their position within Cameroon Grassfields societies. Prior to German colonization, the Bamum Kingdom, for example, was highly stratified, with its hierarchy supported by the kingdom’s stunning artistic accomplishments. As the fon’s power was restricted by colonial authorities, the amount and quality of royal art diminished. Nevertheless, fon have remained important leaders and artistic conventions developed centuries ago have been carried through the colonial and postcolonial eras, continuing to empower those who rule in the eyes of those who are ruled.

The imposing mask shown on the cover of this lesson (fig. 3.1) was owned by Msop, a men’s association that honored leaders in Bamileke society. Msop masks have been observed at enthronement ceremonies, mourning festivals for significant people, and during the tso dance, performed at the funerals of kings and queens. During the tso dance, the mask was worn on the forehead of the performer, looming over the audience. When worn, cloth or fiber may have hung from the bottom of the mask.


About the Artist

Both men and women created works of art for Grassfields royalty. A 1920 illustration in Suzanne Blier’s book The Royal Arts of Africa (1998, 196) shows women creating pottery and baskets and men carving and sculpting. A large number of artists were necessary to create the accumulation of art for the royal treasury and the best artists were rewarded with noble status for the work they produced. The large tsesah mask in the Empowering Leaders section (fig. 3.1) was most likely collected in Bamendjo or Bandjoun by the French Protestant missionary Reverend Franck Christol in the very early twentieth century and then entered the Wellcome Collection in 1932. Approximately a dozen similar masks have been attributed to the Bandjoun or Bamendjo workshop, each carrying its own name and belonging to a specific ruler. A kingdom possessed only one such mask at a time. The oldest known masks were made by artists in the nineteenth century, and as late as the 1980s, artists at Bandjoun were still making copies of them.

Suggested Activities

1. Arts and the Fon

Activity. Distribute copies of Handout LEADERSHIP ARTS OF THE CAMEROON GRASSFIELDS so that students can read about power and the arts in this region. At the bottom of the handout there are twelve scrambled words—all are referenced in the narrative—that are to be unscrambled and circled in the accompanying Handout WORDSEARCH. Photographs of the twelve art objects named make up the Handout ARTS AND THE FON with each of the photos labeled with a letter of the alphabet. On the following Handout READING ABOUT THE FON, students will write the twelve words, unscrambled, in the appropriate blanks and will insert the identifying letter in the box at the end of each sentence. A Teacher’s Key follows.


2. Pageantry in the Palace

In the accompanying video for class viewing, narrator Usmanou Nsangou returns to his Cameroon home. The film shows market day near his village and a special biennial Nguon festival. Here we see people filling the city, and we hear their music, sense the rhythms of their dance, and experience their group pride in their heritage

Activity. As you show the video, have students consider the following questions:

  1. How is pageantry played out in front of the palace? People surround the king, singing, preceding him by walking backwards, sounding horns, shooting guns into the`air, thrusting up and down the umbrellas that shade him, performing with a variety of rhythms, headdresses, and masquerades.
  2. What do we see that tells us that we’re in the presence of the king? His garments can be worn only by the king and his ministers, he sits on a royal throne, he is surrounded by ministers, people come to pay him respect.
  3. How do the people honor their king and what do they do to impress him? People offer him gifts, they perform for him.
  4. How does the king show care for the people? He sits in front of the palace where visitors can freely come to see him.
    The gate is always open. 
  5. What objects seen in the video are like those in this section of the exhibition? You will see a tsesah and other masks, a fly whisk, and beaded regalia.
  6. What comments does the narrator make about the masks we see danced? What reactions do the students have to the masquerades? Ngoua says that the masks represent spirits and can be feared or revered. The features are enlarged and distorted. When a person dons the mask you don’t see that person any more.
  7. What memories are brought back to the narrator? He has memories of coming to the town with his grandmother, of the music and pageantry, of happiness.

Activity. Pageantry has transformed the community. The video ends with people returning to their outlying homes and the town growing quiet. Have students contrast the lively mood and excited ambiance that pervades the celebration with the empty streets and quiet atmosphere following. Their work could take the form of a “Now/Then” poem. Or they could develop a poem as a group effort, deciding together what they will cite and then contributing lines to describe the event. Some suggested elements:

Colorful umbrellas twirling
Curved sticks finding rhythms on drums
Horns sounding out their calls
Rifles shooting their announcements to the sky
Motorcycles caravanning through the town
Gongs ringing proclamations to the people

Activity. Encourage students to recall an event with elements of pageantry (parades, fairs, holiday celebrations, performances, weddings). What kinds of memories do these events evoke and how did students feel being a part of these events?

Useful Readings

Blackmun Visona, Monica, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris, eds.
2001 A History of Art in Africa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Blier, Suzanne Preston
1998 Royal Arts of Africa. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Geary, Christraud M.
1992 “Elephants, Ivory, and Chiefs: The Elephant and the Arts of the Cameroon Grassfields.”
In Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture, edited by Doran H. Ross, 229–257. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Poynor, Robin
2001 “Cameroon Grasslands.” In A History of Art in Africa, edited by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris, 338–352. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Ross, Doran H., ed.
1992 Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Photograph Captions

A. Beaded headdress for elephant mask, Bamileke peoples, Cameroon. Before 1880. Fiber, textile, beads, wood. H: 47 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Mr. William Lloyd Davis. X64.86

B. Drinking horn, Bamum peoples, Cameroon. 19th century. Horn, pigment. H: 29.5 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Peter J. Kuhn. X91.410

C. Chief’s stool, Western Grassfields, Cameroon. Late 19th–early 20th century. Wood, plant fiber.
H: 42 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.1617

D. Pipe bowl, Bamum peoples, Cameroon. 19th–20th century. Terra-cotta. H: 25 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Mary Hastings Bradley. X63.405

E. Ceremonial Chair, Central Western Grassfields, Cameroon. Early 20th century. Wood. H: 81.3 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.1621

F. Beaded Gourd, Bamileke peoples, Cameroon. 19th century. Gourd, glass beads, textile, felt, thread, cowries. H: 62.5 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.5813a,b

G. Elephant mask, Bamileke peoples, Cameroon. 20th century. Beads, cotton, wood. H: 150 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Anonymous gift. X82.569

H. Beaded gourd, Grassfields, Cameroon. 19th–20th century. Gourd, glass beads, textile, felt, thread, wood, cowrie shells. H: 50.8 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.5815a,b

I. Fly whisk, Bamum peoples, Cameroon. 19th century. Raffia cloth, glass beads, horsehair, iron, nails, raffia thread. H: 121 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of George G. Frelinghuysen. X67.2052

J. Prestige collar with buffalo heads, Bamum peoples, Cameroon. Late 19th–early 20th century. Brass, copper. Diam: 26 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.8228

K. Mask (tsesah), Bamileke peoples, Bamendjo, Cameroon. Late 19th century. Wood, paint, iron dowel, plant fiber, plant gum. H: 53.34 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of the Wellcome Trust. X65.5820

L. Crest mask, buffalo, Oku peoples, Western Grassfields, Cameroon. 19th–20th century. Wood.
H: 31.7 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Anonymous Gift. X77.935

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the third section of the exhibition called Art and Power. In this gallery works are introduced that serve to define and assert power. See “Unit Three—Art and Power” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

More Unit Lessons