IN AFRICA, art in the European sense was unknown. Wood sculpture was largely utilitarian, produced either for housekeeping or for ceremonial purposes. The predominant forms of sculpture, masks and figures, were generally made for religious ceremonies. Wood was often decorated with clay, shells, beads, feathers or shredded raffia, and sometimes bronze and ivory.
Styles are distinctive to different areas and tribes: The Guinea Coast has a highly abstract style, seen in spectacular Senufo masks; in Nigeria, there are Yoruba polychromes, Ibo ceremonial masks and Benin ceremonial art; in Gabon, the Fang tribes use decorative motifs--on spoons, stringed musical instruments and drums--in which the human figure is naturalistic but often elongated. In Zaire, Bakongo sculpture is naturalistic; small fetish figures are made by the Bateke tribe.
The tools used by the traditional carver are simple and limited. The matchete is used for the felling of trees and the cutting of the blocks into shape. Adzes of different calibers serve for the more detailed work. In the final stages, a small knife or awl is used, and the surface of an object is smoothed with abrasive leaves or sandpaper.
The variety of household articles made from wood is enormous: wooden spoons, scoops and ladles; decoratively carved cups, weaving bobbins and cosmetic boxes, and door panels, bolts and house posts sculpted with elaborate geometrical designs. There are food vessels, Ashanti dolls, palm-wine cups, head rests, bow stands and musical instruments. Artistic elegance reaches a degree of perfection in the caryatid stools of the northeastern Luba in Zaire. Such tools are found throughout Africa. The Bamileke in Cameroon, for example, carve leopards, baboons, spiders and elephants in the form of caryatids.