altar (n)
surface that serves as a center of worship or ritual

amulet (n)
small container holding special powerful ingredients, often worn on the body as a charm for purposes of protection and sometimes placed inside important objects such as a king’s crown

ancestor (n)
deceased relative, either immediate or distant, from whom a family or larger group traces its origins. In some cultures, ancestors are believed to be concerned with the welfare of the community and able to bring good fortune or punishment to the living. They provide an important link to the spirit world and a source of continuity.

apocryphal (adj)
of dubious authenticity. Christian apocrypha are events from the lives of biblical figures or their writings that are not included as part of the New Testament of the Bible.

archbishop (n)
person having spiritual or church supervision in a particular region

artisan (n)
a skilled manual worker; a craftsperson

Asante (n)
Akan-speaking culture concentrated in the forest area of south-central Ghana. The Asante kingdom was established in the 17th century. It consolidated a number of separate states, each headed by a paramount chief under a king, or Asantehene. Many Asante visual arts are connected to verbal arts, such as folktales, proverbs, jokes, and riddles, that relate metaphorically to various situations in Asante life, such as child-rearing, war, farming, politics, or religion.

attribute (n)
object or characteristic closely associated with or belonging to a specific person or thing; in art, often used to identify representations of known individuals, such as gods or saints

Bamana (n)
Mande-speaking people in southern Mali, sometimes referred to as Bambara. The Bamana are principally agriculturalists, although many people also specialize in commerce, hunting, herbal medicines, occult activities, and the arts. Bamana sculptors are born into art-producing clans. Male sculptors work in iron and wood. Female sculptors primarily work in clay. Together, male and female sculptors constitute a category of artists that also includes blacksmiths.

Bankoni (adj)
The term Bankoni is used to refer to a style of figures with tubular shapes, rounded edges, and fluid contours that reflect the properties of the soft clay from which they were formed. The name comes from the village where archaeologists unearthed one such object, about six miles from Bamako, the present-day capital of Mali. Today this region is home to the Bamana people, whose ancestors made these works.

bas-relief (n)
a French word meaning sculpture in which images project slightly from a flat background

basketry (n)
the art or craft of making baskets or objects woven like baskets

brass (n)
metal commonly used to make jewelry and other decorative, ritual, or functional items; usually an alloy (combination) of copper and zinc

bullroarer (n)
small wooden slat attached to a string that makes a roaring noise when whirled

burrow (n)
a hole or tunnel dug in the ground

byre (n)
cow barn

calabash (n)
gourd-like fruit from a tropical tree or vine. The hard shell of a dried calabash can be decorated and used as a vessel.

casting (n)
technical process that uses a mold to shape an object from molten metal

Chi Wara (n)
literally, “farming beast.” The name of an organization that is devoted to practical and ritual activities that encourage successful farming

clubfoot (n)
a birth deformity of the foot

coiffure (n)
hairstyle

colobus monkey (n)
ferocious long-tailed African monkey able to leap great distances from tree to tree

colonizer (n)
group or nation that endeavors to gain, maintain, or extend control over foreign regions, especially for economic exploitation. In Africa, colonialism usually refers to the direct control over parts of the continent by European nations mostly between the late 19th and mid-20th century.

columnar (adj)
shaped like a column or other rigid, upright support

commission (v/n)
to hire an artist to create a work of art for a patron (individual or group); a work of art created in such a manner

conical (adj)
resembling a cone in shape

cowrie shell (n)
small white shell commonly found near the Indian Ocean. Cultures in West and Central Africa use the rare and beautiful cowrie shells as currency. They are considered a symbol of status and wealth when used to embellish jewelry, artwork, and clothing.

deity (n)
exalted being, such as a god or goddess

divine (adj)
relating to God or a god

diviner (n)
individual with special abilities and training who can facilitate communication between human and spirit worlds. A diviner may perform a variety of tests to discover the causes of and remedies for certain problems or to foretell future events. See also ritual specialist.

dowry (n)
money, goods, or property that a woman brings to her husband in marriage; a gift of money or property by a man to or for his bride.

Edo (n)
groups of peoples, with a shared language also called Edo, living in southern Nigeria. The Edo trace their origins to the kingdom of Benin, which flourished between the 14th and 17th century. Edo groups are ethnically diverse, and their arts reflect cultural borrowing.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (n)
Christian church of Ethiopia headquartered in Addis Ababa. Currently, there are more than 30 million adherents in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although Ethiopia was Christianized in the 4th century, it was cut off from contact with neighboring Christian kingdoms in the 7th century by Muslim Arabs. It thus absorbed non-Christian elements, such as the belief in benevolent and malevolent spirits, into Christian theology. From the 12th century, the Ethiopian church was under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Coptic Church, and it was not until the middle of the 20th century that the Ethiopian church was established as an independent entity.

finial (n)
ornament forming the top of an object, such as a staff

gold foil (n)
very thin sheet of gold used to cover and decorate the surface of an object or painting

hilt (n)
handle, especially of a sword or dagger

homestead (n)
home and adjoining land occupied by a family

idealize (v)
to hold up to a standard or model of perfection, beauty, or excellence

incise (v)
to cut into a surface with a sharp tool; to engrave or carve a design or pattern

infirmity (n)
sickness or disease

intercessor (n)
one who mediates between a person and a deity

Kingdom of Benin (n)
The Kingdom of Benin (established about 1300) is located in the tropical rain forests of southern Nigeria. The oba is the central figure in the kingdom and is considered a divine ruler, descended from the son of a god. He provides a link between the human and spiritual realms and has the power to influence natural and supernatural forces that affect the well-being of the Edo people, the largest ethnic group in the kingdom.

Kongo (n)
groups of Bantu-speaking people living on the Atlantic coast of Africa, from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the north to Angola in the south. The Kongo kingdom reached its height of power in the 15th century, though almost nothing remains of that kingdom today except for certain traditional art forms, which have been passed down orally. Kongo artists produce a wide range of art, including masks, stone and ceramic sculpture, and wood, metal, and ivory regalia, which have been known to outsiders for centuries through early contact with Europeans. The best-known objects produced by Kongo artists are the sculpted minkisi figures.

Kuba (n)
The Kuba kingdom stretches across the western Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and unites 19 different ethnic groups under the leadership of a king. Most Kuba art is associated with leadership: the emblems, symbols, and praise songs establish the leaders as authority figures and as patrons of art.

linguist (n)
one who speaks several languages or who is accomplished in languages; in the Asante culture, the principal counselor of a chief or king

loom (n)
device for weaving cloth

Luluwa (n)
ethnically diverse group in the southeastern part of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, known for their sculpted statues and masks. The Luluwa are united solely by their proximity to the Lulua River and have never organized as a political entity. Religious life focuses around honoring ancestors, fertility, the protection of children, and success in hunting. Arts are commissioned primarily for use in religious ceremonies.

masquerade (n)
occasion combining performers, dances, music, masks, and costumes. Masquerades serve many functions, from entertaining to healing, and may be held on a variety of occasions, including initiation and funerary ceremonies. A masquerade often involves an element of sustained disbelief when the audience temporarily accepts a masked performer as the incarnation of a spirit.

matrilineal (adj)
form of social organization in which descent is traced through the female line

mediate (v)
to facilitate agreement or communication between two parties

medieval (adj)
related to the Middle Ages, the period of history between antiquity and the Renaissance, from about A.D. 500 to 1500

minkisi (n)
in the Kongo language, spiritually invested objects are called minkisi (singular, nkisi)

missionary (n)
person who goes to a foreign country to spread a religious faith or help another group

morocco leather (n)
goatskin converted to fine leather through treatment with the sumac plant

motif (n)
a distinctive and often repeated pattern or image in a work of art

nkisi (n)
In the Kongo language, a spiritually invested object (plural, minkisi)

oba (n)
Edo word for king

ochre (n)
an earth tone, usually red or yellow in color, often consisting of impure iron ore and used as a pigment

ordination (n)
event in which a person is officially endowed with ministerial or priestly duties and authority

pagan (adj/n)
related to or a follower of polytheistic (multi-god) religion

Pan-African (n)
literally, “all-African.” The term is meant to emphasize the connections between all of the ethnic groups in Africa rather than the dissimilarities between them.

patron (n)
person or group who hires an artist to create a work of art

pendant (n)
ornament suspended or allowed to hang free

plaque (n)
flat-backed piece of metal or wood used for decoration in an architectural setting. Plaques are often embellished in bas-relief.

proverb (n)
short popular saying containing a familiar truth or useful piece of advice in expressive, often visual language (example: “Don’t cry over spilt milk”).

raffia (n)
strong, straw-like fibers from the inner skin of the palm leaf. They may be woven, knitted, or knotted to create textiles. Unwoven raffia fibers are often a major component of masquerade costumes in West and Central Africa.

regalia (n)
assorted finery that indicates status and rank; often associated with royalty

relief (adj)
sculpted and projecting from a flat surface

resin (n)
natural substance, usually clear or nearly clear and yellowish to brown, formed in plant sap; used in medicine as well as varnish, printing ink, and plastics

ritual/ritually (n/adv)
ceremony related to religious doctrine or social customs; ceremonially

ritual specialist (n)
individual with special training and abilities who can facilitate communication between human and spirit worlds. A ritual specialist performs many functions in a community, including counseling; mediating disputes; performing rituals; producing medicines, often plant-based, to cure illnesses; and foretelling future events. Often called priest, priestess, or herbalist. See also diviner.

scarification (n)
ornamental scars intentionally created by making small, shallow cuts in the skin of the face or body for cosmetic purposes. The patterns and tactile quality of such scars are considered highly attractive among some communities. Scarification also may mark one’s status as a civilized being, adult, or member of a specific ethnic group or initiation association.

schematic (adj)
of or related to a scheme; outlined

Senufo (n)
groups of people living in present-day Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), Mali, and Burkina Faso. The Senufo are primarily agriculturally based, although there are many non-farming artisan groups, such as blacksmiths, woodcarvers, and brasscasters. Artistic expression is usually employed in the context of rituals of transition, such as initiations or funerals.

Solomonic Kings (n)
Line of monarchs of Ethiopia, believed to have begun in the 13th century with Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel. The last Solomonic King of Ethiopia was Haile Selassie (1930–1974).

symbol/symbolize (n/v)
something that stands for or represents something else; to be a visible sign of an abstract trait or idea (such as a nation’s flag)

tooled (adj)
ornamented by use of a hand tool (as with leather), usually by pounding the textured end of a metal rod with a small hammer, resulting in a pattern

veranda (n)
open porch or gallery, usually with a roof

virtuoso (n/adj)
a person with a high degree of skill; revealing a high degree of skill

Yoruba (n)
group of Yoruba-speaking people who share art forms, sociopolitical institutions, and religious beliefs, and who trace their common origin to the city of Ife in present-day Nigeria. Yoruba art is shaped by interactions with neighboring cultures in Africa as well as Islamic, Christian, and colonial influences. At the core of Yoruba art is the saying “Character is beauty.” When art captures the essence of something, it is deemed beautiful, even when the subject is abhorrent or disgusting.

zoomorphic (adj)
attributing animal characteristics or qualities to a god; animal forms in symbolism, literature, or graphic representation

Zulu (n)
Nguni-speaking people of South Africa. After prolonged warfare with European settlers in the 19th century, the Zulu combined with the neighboring Natal Nguni to form the Zulu empire. The Zulu are known for their utilitarian carvings and dazzling beaded jewelry and clothing, which express the relationships between themselves and their ancestors and those between men and women.