Interpreting African Sculpture.

by Herbert E. Roese © June 6th, 2000

A few years ago the English translation of an unusual French-language book from Africa was published. It is a theoretical work on African dance, the first of its kind written by an African. Alphonse Tiérou is a Francophile of the Quenon people in Cote d'Ivoir (Ivory Coast). Even though the publication deals with the laws of African dance, it is of considerable interest to the study of African sculpture, especially the figurine. Its importance lies in the fact that, for the first time, a study of this kind reveals the close link between African sculpture and traditional African dance.

Illustrations: [Fig.1] [Fig.2] [Fig.3] [bibliography]

differ from western ones, but he goes into great detail when explaining the structure of traditional African dance, its basic movements and techniques. Such dances have been practiced for centuries, from Zulu war dances in South Africa to sensual dances in the Republic of Congo, to the acrobatic dances of Mali.
In Tiérou’s own words: "Dance in Africa is a privileged means of communication and is part of everyday life". This is where the two disciplines meet. Both in African dance and in figurine sculpture the curve and the round are basic criteria of beauty. To an African "The parts of the human body which constitute the true standards with which to evaluate the charm and beauty of a human being are, apart from the face, the neck, the breasts, the stomach, the legs and the buttocks" (ibid:36). A long neck, especially one adorned with rings, was regarded as particularly beautiful. Breasts signify age. Hence, hardly developed breast represent a young girl, fully developed breasts a marriageable woman in her prime, while extended breasts represent the mature woman who has had her children. An emphasized stomach indicates either pregnancy or well-being, either physically or in terms of status. As Tiérou explains: "The attention given to the stomach in African sculpture is…an expression of formal beauty" (ibid:37). The muscularity and chubbiness of legs was more important than their length; bowed legs were actually preferred. Another sign of beauty were developed buttocks, although their predominance on figurines has probably to do with a technicality. In the most basic stance of an African dancer the torso is inclined forward by up to 45 degrees. If a carving was to lean at such an angle it would probably be unstable. Leaning forward, however, does push the buttocks outward. By maintaining the upright stance of the figurine and emphasizing the buttocks, the idea of a forward lean is created.

Hairstyles, too, have always played an important part in African artistic expression. Artistic, because they were certainly never functional. On the contrary, they were often a hindrance to the extent of being responsible for the African habit of using headrests. Neither were the decorations of the latter functional, as they were technically not required. In some areas of the African continent, where sculpture was rare or non-existent, hairstyle art flourished particularly well, for example in Uganda among the Acholi people (Mack, 1995:139). As a rule, therefore, the head required by necessity a lot more space in carving than the other parts of the body.

Without this knowledge, even eminent writers on African art have come to uninformed conclusions, e.g.: "For whatever reason, a figure may often have an over-large head and elongated neck, a torso as erect as a column, distinctly protruding buttocks, very short legs and strikingly large feet" (Schmalenbach, 1988:20). African criteria of beauty also invalidate comments like: "The form of figural art in Africa is mainly determined…by its religious, cultic, ritual and magical function" (ibid:13). Any statement on the continent’s sculptural art is incomplete without the inclusion of beauty in the African sense.

Tiérou reveals that there are certain movements in traditional African dance which are found in every region of the continent. In the absence of written records from African sources, and without uniformity of nomenclature across the continent, Tiérou had to make a choice of naming these movements. He chose the terms of the sacred language of the ‘Grand Masks of the West’ (a society of elders watching over the cultural heritage of West Africa). The choice was approved of by the International Conference on African Dance, held in October 1988 in Yamoussoko, western Cote d’Ivoir. This gave it considerable authority.

According to Tiérou, there are ten basic dance movements. Three of them have proved to be particularly relevant to the interpretation of African figurines, namely: the DOOPLÉ, the SOUMPLÉ, and the KOUITCHIN (Tiérou, 1992:53,56,65). The most natural, most authentic and oldest of these movements is the DOOPLÉ. The dancer stands leaning forward at an appropriate angle of 135 degrees (or 45 degrees from the vertical). His/her knees are bent and kept apart. The dancer’s feet are placed parallel and flat on the ground but apart by a foot’s length. The arms either hang down at the side of the body, or are held slightly in front, or they are clearly raised. The hands remain open, the gaze is fixed straight ahead.

This simple explanation unravels three hitherto perplexing questions for non-Africans:

  1. why do so many figurines seem to be holding their stomachs and
  2. why do they all look ahead without expression and
  3. why do they stand with their knees bent?

Figure 1 is a typical example of the DOOPLÉ stance. The figurine once adorned the top of a rhythm pounder or dancing staff (a third leg, as Tiérou puts it). It represents a young Senufo girl (e.g. small breasts) from the border area of Cote d’Ivoir and Burkina Faso. She stands with knees bent and kept apart, her feet are separated but parallel. Unmistakably she leans forward, despite the extra emphasis given to her stance by her protruding buttocks. Once one’s attention is drawn to it, it seems fairly obvious that the figurine depicts a dancer.



The second most prominent dance movement noticeable in figurative wood carvings from Africa is the SOUMPLÉ. It is in every respect like the dooplé, except that the knees and feet are kept close together (ibid:56). Figure 2 is a good example. It shows a figurine of the Lobi people who also live in the above mentioned border region. Figures like it are known as bateba effigies which have a status between supernatural beings and humans. The legs are markedly bent at the knees and very close together; the carver has not even bothered to separate them. The arms hang down the side of the body and the hands are open, palms facing downward (see explanation above). Again, the buttocks have been emphasized to indicate the slight leaning forward of the dancer.



The third dance movement in KOUITCHIN. It is characterized by bent knees which are kept together as are the thighs. However, the heels and ankles are held apart by the length of the dancer’s foot, while the big toes touch. Figure 3, a Luba/Hemba figurine from the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shows the second part of the move, i.e. the in-turned toes. The legs are still in dooplé. Again, in view of what has been said above, it represents a dancer’s stance.


But there are many other dance movements which one can discover in African figurines. A Mende figure in the British Museum shows the person resting its weight on the outside edge of its feet, while the legs appear to be almost straight. The arms hang slightly angled by the side of the body, but the elbows are turned behind the torso (Meauzé, 1968:142). Again, the whole posture represents a typical African dance stance. Pounding the ground with the outside of the foot is apparently a dance movement widespread throughout West Africa.

In the Pierre Guerre Collection in Marseilles is a Fang figure which holds its hands together as if in prayer in the Christian manner. However, as Tiérou explains, hands held together like that by an African dancer symbolizes the completion of a circuit of energy. It too is a movement frequently used in traditional African dance and is associated with the soumplé (ibid:197).

A much illustrated Dan figurine of a woman carrying a child which is kept in the Musée des Arts Africaines et Océaniens in Paris, shows feet and legs in prominent dooplé stance. Arms and hands are in a half-raised position suggesting wings or feathers, a movement also much used by African dancers (ibid:54)

Two figures, which display the major criteria of African beauty, are an example of Babembe origin from the Republic of Congo, and of Izie origin from Nigeria. The lines of both figures are all curve, their necks are long and their limbs voluptuous (Segy,1975:212/273; Tiérou,1992:78). The palms of their hands in both examples face upwards.

Again, illuminating explanations like these contradict the established western view that: "in Africa…wood figures often manage to stand more securely if their legs are bent at the knee. For a real person such a position would be anything but secure" (Schmalenbach, 1988:22). Or: "animated facial expressions are just as unthinkable here as tension in the muscles of the body" (ibid:18). They are examples of complete misunderstanding of the nature of African culture. Facial expressions are not important to African dancers and mime is unknown to them. According to Tiérou, the richness of gestures is self explanatory in African society, while sign language of the faces is non-existent. What is more, they are superfluous in genuinely traditional African dance, similar to the mudras dances of the Hindus. Gestures, on the other hand, express the condition of the soul fully. All African dancers as well as their spectators know their meanings. Hand and arm gestures are a frequent feature of wooden carvings from Africa.

Interpreting African sculptural art is thus not as straightforward as seems to be believed by many western authors on the subject. However, some have recognized the western shortcoming. For example, Willett (1971:150) already recognized some 29 years ago that many writers, trained in art history, seemingly believe that it is possible to appreciate the arts of the non-western world without any knowledge of the world of ideas which they reflect. Laure Meyer even went so far as to ask bluntly: "What justification can there be for denying values of beauty to sculptures created on African soil?" (1992:9), because "All the features which transcend the merely functional and which serve no practical purpose, are evidently intended to satisfy a need for aesthetic pleasure…" (ibid.).


Gillon, W. (1979) Collecting African Art; Cassell Ltd., London

Mack, J. (1995) ‘Eastern Africa’, in T.Phillips, 1995, pp.117-177.

Meyer, L. (1992) Black Africa – Masks, Sculptures, Jewelry; Editions Pierre Terrail, Paris.

Meyer, L. (1995) Art and Craft in Africa – everyday life, ritual, court art; Editions Pierre Terrail, Paris.

Meauzé. P. (1968) African Art – Sculpture; Tabart Press, New York.

Phillips, T., ed., (1995) Africa, the Art of a Continent; Royal Academy of Arts,

Schmalenbach, W. (1988) African Art – The Barbier-Mueller Collection; Prestel Verlag, Munich.

Segy, S. (1975/4th ed.) African Sculpture Speaks; Da Capo Press Inc., New York.

Thompson, R.F. (1974) African Art in Motion; University of California Oress, Berkeley & Los Angeles, California, USA

Tiérou, A. (1992) Dooplé, the eternal law of African dance; Harwood Academic Publisher, Chur, Switzerland.

Willett, F. (1975) African Art – an Introduction; Thames & Hudson, London.

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