African colonial statues

African colonial statues

Colonial statues are a kind of wooden figurative sculpture within African art, which originated during the colonial period. These statues depict commonly European settlers (for example, civil servants, doctors, soldiers, and technicians) or they europeanize the African middle class. The figures are often characterized by recurring motifs, such as helmets, suits, official uniforms or tobacco pipes. They are painted in bright colors or they are polished with plant-based paints.

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Colonial statues reached international popularity after World War II and after decolonization. Some people assert that this kind of sculpture was born in response to the colonization and repression by colonial states. Some also argue whether statues were initially seen as caricatures satirizing colonial officials or simply as representations of new players in local styles. Anthropologists wonder if colonial statues originally were meant to be purely ornamental, or if they had a ritual function too.
Today, colonial statues are created as souvenirs in West and Central Africa.

Decorating with colonial statues

The main features of the African colonial statues are: the colors, the big dimensions, the Western costumes portraying different personalities of the social ladder. These factors contribute to offer the ideal solution to give verve, movement and liveliness to your ideal place. If they’re put at strategic points in your home or office, these statues, taking advantage of their considerable size, and maybe even of the correct lighting, are sufficient in themselves to revolutionize your decor. In addition to being pleasing to the eye, they are undoubtedly a touch of originality  and vitality. African Art - STATUE 1Imagine these statues at the entrance of your home, as if they were great and symbolic sentinels. Or, picture them on the landing or along a scale, in places where the heat of these works give an undoubted aesthetic breakthrough.

Unlike the tribal masks and sculptures, these works of art lose their spiritual and social function, highlighting only the strong influence of colonialism undertaken by Europeans in Africa in the 20th Century. All the colonial statues have precisely Western dresses and suits, and they include accessories such as hats, bags, briefcases, which were in fact an European priority. The women wear colorful costumes which recall the fashion of that social period. Despite this, men and women are represented as having great heights (some of these statues are over two meters in height); this is meant to symbolize how the human being is able to rise above everything, even above the foreign domination, becoming ruler of his time and place of origin. Looking at these works, we understand how the African artist is able to express his artistic inspiration, with his simple but direct aesthetic taste, representing the modern African people.

History of Colonial statues

Colonial statues are wooden carvings of colon figures, representing either Europeans or Africans in Western attire. We can find them in societies throughout West Africa. Though bearing elements of European design (like clothes or postures), colonial statues are not originally conceived for the market.

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They were rather conceived for indigenous use. For example, among the Baoulé, statues in fashionable dress were used in the same manner as other wooden statues to represent a person’s “spirit lover” in the other world. In 1980, in his research, Philip Ravenhill has written: “a Baoulé statue in modern garb is neither a replica of a European nor the expression of a wish for a European other-world lover, but rather a desire that the Baoulé other-world lover exhibit those signs of success or status that characterize a White-oriented or White-dominated world”.

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During the colonial period, modern polychrome statues, such as Baoulé spirit mates clothed in European dresses, were not generally sold in the African art market. We know that in 1940-1945, according to various statements, colonial statues had no value whatsoever in the art market; in those regions where there were many colonial statues, called also ‘painted wood’, art dealers and traders used to give them as gifts to customers.
Then, during the late 1950’s, colonial expatriates began commissioning portraits to themselves, as souvenirs to take back home. This gave rise to a whole genre of ‘tourist’ art, which grew out of an indigenous tradition of representing Africans in Western attire.
The colonial style has reached a completely new popularity in the past years, also thanks to a series of auctions in London and Paris, where colonial figures (mostly carved in Baoulé and Gouro styles) sold for significantly more money than they ever had before. In addition, illustrated books about colonial statues and articles on the subject have spread more and more.