Reintegration / Ancestors

By Monica Demott
(formerly University of Iowa)

NigeriaIjo artist

Male figure

Wood, pigment

H. 72.4 cm (28 1/2")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.157


In general, the term "ancestor" is synonymous with "forebears" and refers to one's late grandparents and great-grandparents.  For many African cultures, the term has a more complex definition.  For instance, among Dogon and Senufo peoples, there are primordial ancestors who, not unlike Adam and Eve, are the original male and female pair that gave birth to humanity.  Clan ancestors are familial progenitors who led a full and honorable life and died in old age. This figure of an ancestor of the Ijaw people in the delta of the Niger River in Nigeria wears a top hat, a symbol of status based on personal achievement in 19th-century coastal Africa.  The figure served as a dwelling place for the spirit of the deceased and both localized, stabilized and confined the spirit to form a channel of communication between the living and the dead.

Kenya; Kambe artist

Grave post


H. 113 cm (44 1/2")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art, 78.14

Among Kambe peoples of Coastal Kenya, the graves of honored ancestors were marked by placing posts such as this example over them.