The pre-colonial grasslands of the western Cameroon comprised numerous ethnically diverse kingdoms that warred with one another in complex, ever-changing alliances. The ceremonial art of the grasslands is prized for its complex symbolism and variety of forms. Such art was not only a public statement of power, the exchange of such items also cemented alliances.
The two major brass-casting centres were at Bamum and Bagam. Before the First World War, brass was costly, traded in from afar. Castings were small: jewellery, brass ceremonial tobacco pipes, and finials on carved drinking horns. Items were moulded in beeswax, which was then encased in a fine slip and covered with coarser layers of clay to build up the mould. The mould was heated to melt the wax, which was replaced by molten metal. Each item was unique, the mould being destroyed to recover the casting.
After the Second World War, ready availability of spent brass-shell casings and the development of the African art market increased the size and complexity of grassland brass casting.
This ‘mother and child’ fertility figure is a fine example of ‘contact art’, but one that is simultaneously true to grassland artistic traditions and a testament to the sensitivity, stylistic creativity and skills of Bamum brass casters. Near life-size, it was moulded and cast as a single, flawless, three-dimensional piece. It is illustrative of the grasslands love of embellishment: the mother festooned with jewellery, and both mother and child covered with complex designs.
Dr David Dorward