Southward Mande migration and the Muslim revolution in the Futa Jallon push populations from the southwestern Sudan into the upper Guinea coast (modern Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the coast of present-day Guinea). These migrations lead to the diffusion of systems of belief and aesthetic motifs. Prospering from the trans-Saharan gold trade, the Akan kingdoms (in modern Ghana) compete for regional dominance. The kingdom of Asante, under ruler Osei Tutu, prevails and promotes the growth and dissemination of courtly arts. In what is now western Nigeria, the Yoruba state of Oyo employs its formidable cavalry to gain economic hegemony over its neighbors, including the nascent kingdom of Dahomey to the west. Finally, the kingdom of Benin suffers a nearly century-long period of political turmoil and economic depression, but reemerges in the eighteenth century as an important trading power and center of artistic production.
First-hand accounts by Dutch travelers to the court of Benin provide information about its urban architecture and royal sculpture at this time. The palace is composed of rectilinear wood buildings crowned with thatched roofs decorated with cast-brass pythons and birds. Inside, wooden pillars and beams are covered with cast-brass plaques depicting court ceremonies and battles.
The extended southward movement of Mande peoples into the Guinea coast region forces local peoples further southwest toward the Atlantic. Some Mande populations in the interior of modern Sierra Leone are integrated into the Kissi, Bullom, Loko, and Temne cultures to form the Mende cultural group. These Mende peoples migrate to the coast in the nineteenth century.
Independent Portuguese merchants, called lançados, and their British equivalents settle along the shores and rivers of the Guinea coast as middlemen between European and African trading powers. They are absorbed into local African society and give rise to a new Euro-African mercantile class. In addition to facilitating exchange, this population introduces new architectural forms and spreads elements of Christianity.
Based in the city of Oyo-Ile, the Yoruba state of Oyo expands its territory through effective use of cavalry and archers. One of the largest states in coastal West Africa, the Oyo empire covers an estimated 18,000 square miles at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Shrines dedicated to Shango, the Yoruba deity of thunder and an early king of Oyo, house wooden sculptures such as figures, dance wands, and bowls that are central to royal court ceremony. Architectural sculpture such as ornately carved wooden doors and veranda posts, as well as equestrian warriors representing Ogun, the Yoruba deity of war and ironsmithing, are important aspects of Oyo art. Oyo Yoruba colonization along the empire’s frontiers and the practice of holding political hostages from client states, such as Dahomey, at court introduces elements of Yoruba culture and statecraft to other peoples.
Benin’s Oba Ohuan dies and leaves no successor. Dynastic struggles and civil war cause a general decline in Benin’s prosperity and regional prominence through the end of the century. Traditions of court art and apparel must be adapted to the reduced availability of luxury materials such as brass and coral.
Continued involvement with the trans-Saharan gold trade results in the steady growth and consolidation of several Akan states in present-day Ghana. By 1690, Denkyira emerges as the dominant state of the southwestern region of modern Ghana and western Côte d’Ivoire.
The Golden Stool appears before Osei Tutu, legitimating his right to rule the Asante kingdom. At this time, all gold regalia is reportedly melted down and recast in new forms for use by loyal chiefs and officials.
Asante grows into an empire whose borders in 1750 are essentially those of the modern nation of Ghana. During the era of expansion, the inclusive Asante court adopts art forms and rituals of kingship from throughout its territories as a sign of domination and state unity. Gold, considered an earthly equivalent of the sun and a signifier of spiritual force (kra), is fundamental to court ceremonies and attire.
After nearly a century of civil war, dynastic order is restored in Benin by two dynamic leaders, Obas Akenzua I (r. 1715–35) and Eresonyen (r. 1735–50). Cast-brass sculptures, including a royal staff and ikegobo, or altar to the hand, incorporate imagery that reflects Akenzua I’s victory over rivals. Resumed trade with Europeans, particularly in ivory, brings wealth back to Benin and new art forms and ceremonies are introduced that augment the prestige of the court. Cowry shells are imported in such great quantities that they are used to cover the interior walls of important buildings. Ivory becomes an increasingly important medium of royal art and court artisans create intricately carved armlets, tusks, staffs, and vessels. Under Eresonyen, a form of cast-brass mask called odudua is used in ceremonies honoring the line of Benin rulers founded by Oranmiyan, a prince from the Yoruba city of Ife. Odudua is the name of the Yoruba earth deity who founded Ife and sent Oranmiyan to Benin.
The Fulbe Islamic revolution in the Futa Jallon of central Guinea drives several ethnic groups, most notably the Baga, to the coast of the present-day nation of Guinea. Historically associated with the Mande culture group of the central Sudan, the Baga bring with them elements of Mande aesthetics that find expression in wooden sculptural forms.
The Fon kingdom of Dahomey develops (in modern-day Republic of Benin) along the western border of the Yoruba Oyo empire. Linking the inland capital of Abomey to the commercial centers of Whydah and Allada, Dahomey develops its economy through agriculture and slave trading and expands its population by welcoming immigrants from neighboring regions. The kingdom remains a client state of the Oyo empire throughout the eighteenth century and only develops into a major regional power after Oyo’s decline in the early nineteenth century.
“Guinea Coast, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=afg (October 2003)