TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

CHAMBA (CAMBA, TCHAMBA, WASCHAMBA)

Cameroon and Nigeria

The Chamba, whose number today is estimated at 20,000, live south of the Benue River. They are socially divided into small centralized kingdoms, each headed by a king assisted by a council of elders whose powers are regulated by male and female secret societies. The Chamba kings are also assisted by royal women who serve as queens. After circumcision, young boys received an initiation that included the teaching of secrets. Each clan kept the skulls of ancestors, who were responsible for the prosperity and fertility of the lineage. Besides celebrating the ancestors, the vara cult celebrated the tutelary spirit, a personification of the first mala, or the paternal aunt of the chief. At the time of the masked celebration, she appeared in public, as well as at the funerals of members of the lineage; she would dress in the guise of a masked man in a fiber costume.

The Chamba use a type of mask that symbolizes a bush spirit. The mask has a rounded head with a flattened open mouth and two large backward-sloping horns. From the helmet a muzzle projects forward and horns project backward in a single horizontal plane. The hemispherical dome of the Chamba mask is related to death, for it is said to be like a skull, an ancestral relic taken from the grave of an elder. Other features are related to the wilderness: the open jaws are the jaws of the crocodile, the horns are those of the forest buffalo. The wearer looks through an opening between the two jaws. The mask is linked to dangerous forces. These masks are either female (painted black) or male (painted red). The female mask is often explained as a reminder of their origin. According to the story, a young buffalo/beautiful girl removed its animal skin to take a bath. A passerby saw her, hid the skin, and married the girl. These masks perform at rites of passage: circumcision, chiefs' installations, and diverse funerals. They express the powers and dangers of the bush, where they are stored and from which dancers come, as well as the conjunction of these powers with the spirits of the dead.

Chamba figures are rare and their function uncertain. They are usually covered with an encrusted patina. One type of Chamba figure is thought to be a medium for communication with the spirit world. Small figures were used to cure or protect an individual from snake bites and were attached to iron spikes and inserted into the ground. There is originality in the way the arms are joined to the shoulders: the wide hands separated from the body are sometimes united by a base that cuts through the thighs, the feet reappearing below it. The geometric facial features contribute to an impression of power. Other powerful objects owned by Chamba clan organizations, are linked to their secret knowledge of remedies for illnesses and misfortunes. Among these highly charged works may be ceramics, brass figurines, and musical instruments. All are kept hidden in a bundle or under a large pot. The unseen presence of this sacred material transforms the pot or bundle into an altar, a place of contact between natural and supernatural worlds.

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