"Heroes": Principles of African Greatness Part 4—Our Ancestors Lived Free

Join us for the fourth of 7 dispatches from "Heroes," exploring artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history, through art, biography, quotes, interviews, and music.

By Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness Exhibit Entryway (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A long-term permanent collection installation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.  

Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Heroes Exhibit Banner (2019) by Sakinya WashingtonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment—epics that outlast heroes themselves. Africa’s history abounds with such tales.

Heroes Exhibit at the National Museum of African Art (2019-01-01) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Our Ancestors Lived Free

I salute you all, sons of Mali . . . I have come back, and as long as I breathe, Mali will never be in thrall—rather death than slavery. We will live free because our ancestors lived free. 
—Sundiata Keita, in Djibril Tamsir Niane et al, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

In the stillness of this grove, it is hoped, the ancestors’ voices can ring clear. Shrines, groves, or other sacred locations in which communing with the spirits of ancestors is enhanced are part of the cultural and religious traditions that many of the artists  artists in this section share. 

The aim of this space, both within the Heroes gallery and here in the text as well, is similar—to provide a metaphorical “ancestral grove” (in this case, centered on the ambiguous image of Bvu Kwam’s portrait of King Bay Akiy) in which to focus our mental image on the principles that the featured artists and heroes illustrate for us.

As the only section in Heroes to focus exclusively on Africa’s historical art genres, this ancestral grove then offers a moment for concentrated reflection on the principles and heroes modeled by generations past. 

So trained, it is possible to remain grounded in the certainty that Sundiata shared with his people (“we will live free because our ancestors lived free”)—a certainty to carry one through the sea of 20th- and 21st-century troubles navigated elsewhere in the exhibition.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness Story 4 Themes (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Each principal in Heroes is represented by an artwork and a specific historic African person who embodies the value expressed in the selected work. In this fourth dispatch we explore art and heroes who are Renewed, deserve Honor, are Victorious and Constant Creators, and maintain their Indigineity, while remaining Strong.

You can find all of our other dispatches from Heroes here.

Odudua (mask) (18th century) by Edo artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Reenacting an origin story.

Odudua (mask)

Benin, Edo State, Nigeria
18th century
Copper alloy, iron
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-2

This type of mask is worn during the Odudua ceremony, which protects the oba (king) and commemorates the founding of the Benin kingdom. Named for the creator deity the Benin kingdom shares with Yoruba religion, this mask danced an origin story about the Benin kingdom’s founding...

...and about the centrality of the royal house to that history. Benin has been ruled by the Eweka dynasty since at least the late 13th century.

One of the through-lines of political history in the kingdom is the need for obas to frame, reenact, and often performatively embody that history, through art commissions and ritual performances, such as the Odudua ceremony. A mask such as this, then, worked on both levels, serving as it did to perform, and thus renew, the kingdom’s royal history.

Ewuakpe 1 Hero In History Medallion (1700/1799) by Edo ArtistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ewuakpe I

Humbled by his people, Ewuakpe I learned to place limits on his rule.

c. 1670s–1712, Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria
Reigned c. 1701–12 over Benin kingdom from Benin City

Ewuakpe I - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Altarpiece dedicated to Oba Ewuakpe I

Edo artist
Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria
Early 18th century
Copper alloy
Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin–Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Photograph by Claudia Obrocki

Iyase̩ lend me twenty cowries 
Esọgban lend me twenty cowries
Esọn lend me twenty cowries
To buy a basket and a bag
For marketing in the Agbado market. 
—Song Ewuakpe I played on his harp during his exile, showing his dependence on the other titled members of the Royal Executive Council

· When permitted to return to the throne, he reclaimed political authority by ending a detested law that transferred Edo chiefs’ properties to the king upon their deaths. 

· Ewuakpe I instituted a system whereby the title of oba (king) passed to the the first-born son (primogeniture), lowering the potential for future periods of dynastic conflict and ensuring the continuity of the monarchy.

Nsodia (commemorative head) (1850/1899) by Akan artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Great accomplishments merit monuments that outlast us. 

Nsodia (commemorative head)

Akan artist
Eastern or Ashanti Region, Ghana
Late 19th century
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-163 

This terracotta head commemorated a member of a royal family who lived in what is now south-central Ghana. Such sculptures did not adorn graves but were kept instead in a grove known as the asensie, or “the place of the pots,” located outside of town.

Such clay heads are stylized portraits of the departed, incorporating some specific trait(s) including a subject’s hairstyle, beard, or pierced ears. 

In this case, the raised ornamentation on the face depicts scarification, while the protruding knobs further back on the head suggest a traditional hairdo of the late 19th century. This was likely the work of an accomplished female Akan artist.

Asantewaa Hero in History Medallion (1850/1900) by Friedrich RamseyerSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Yaa Asantewaa

When the men would not rise, she led the women (and men) into war.

1840–1921, b. Besease, Ghana
Ruled within the Asante Empire from Ejisu

Yaa Asantewaa - Simulated live video from photo (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Image missing

Yaa Asantewaa, queen mother of Ejisu, in batakari kɛseɛ battle dress Unidentified photographer (possibly Friedrich Ramseyer), before 1900 

Yaa Asantewaa AI enhanced photo (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king . . . Is it true that the bravery of the Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be!

I must say this—if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight until the last of us fall in the battlefields.
—Yaa Asantewaa, March 1900

(Enhanced photo.)

· The queen mother of Ejisu, Yaa Asantewaa, became regent of Ejisu, a chiefdom of the Asante Empire, when the British exiled her son, its ruler, and the asantehene (king), Prempeh I, in 1896. 

 · In a foolish act of hubris in 1900, the British governor demanded the Golden Stool—the spiritual and symbolic heart of the Asante nation—which had been hidden since the exile. With the backing of the remaining Asante leaders, Yaa Asantewaa took up arms and became the leader of the Asante fighting force.

Enhanced photo.

Yaa Asantewaa AI enhanced and colorized photo (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

· The Yaa Asantewaa War forced a small party of British invaders in the Asante capital of Kumasi into a six-month siege as Asante warriors held them at bay. 

· Eventually overtaken and deported, Yaa Asantewaa passed in the company of the rest of the Asante court-in-exile in the Seychelles, three years before Prempeh I returned to Kumasi in 1924.

· The British never touched the Golden Stool. 

Enhanced and colorized photo.

Yaa Asantewaa AI created living image (2021) by Marc BrezfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Applying artificial intelligence to a 120 year old photo, we animate Yaa Asantewaa's likeness, to breathe life into a still image.

Bamum Mask (1866/1933) by Bamum (Pa Nje subgroup) artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Hail, the conquering Hero! 


Bamum (Pa Nje subgroup) artist
Manje Nkoutou, Grassfields region, Cameroon
Late 19th to early 20th century
Wood, horn, plant fiber, spider silk
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-95

Figure of King Bay Akiy (1801/1833) by Possibly Bvu KwamSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Figure of King Bay Akiy

Possibly Bvu Kwam 
Active early 19th century, Isu kingdom, Grassfields region, Cameroon 
Early 19th century 
Wood, ivory, pigment, human hair, bone, cloth 
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-

Figure of King Bay Akiy and Bamum Mask (1800) by Bumum artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

These two works are power—in all of its complicated nuances—personified. The mask, which might have accompanied or stood in for a royal presence in performance, grips the viewer with deep, yellow eyes. 

The eyes of this mask are covered with silk taken from spider egg sacs or the lining of the nest of the ground-dwelling tarantula. Ground spiders are used by specialists in divination practices in the Cameroon Grassfields region as a way of gaining access to divine knowledge.

This mask may, however, merely serve as a herald for the true power of its respective kingdom, embodied here by the animated yet ambiguous figure at the center of Heroes’ ancestral grove. 

This masterpiece has a particularly emotional expression that may be associated with the personal style of Bvu Kwam, an early 19th-century master sculptor working in the Grassfields region. According to one field informant, the figure is of King Bay Akiy, the fourth ruler of the Isu kingdom, who reigned in the late 18th century.

Figure of King Bay Akiy (1801/1833) by Possibly Bvu KwamSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Depicted returning from victory over the Nshe, a neighboring group, he is seated on a dangerous animal, probably a leopard, and holds a weapon... 

...and a human head. This pose relates to a regional tradition of representing personal achievement, though the identity of the head itself is uncertain. The head could belong to a defeated enemy, or it could be the revered skull of a local ancestor.

                 The openness of that final, central symbol remains part of a larger set of unresolved questions that revolve around this incredible figure. Yet, even as he stands now, this image of King Bay Akiy, with two potential readings, may speak to some of the central ambivalences of power—namely, that to hold authority successfully over life and death requires the capacity for considerable piety and reflection as well.

King Ibrahim Njoya Hero In History Medallion (1900/1933) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ibrahim Njoya

He was a warrior—with words.

c. 1860–1933, b. Fumban, Cameroon
Reigned 1877–1933 over Bamum kingdom from Fumban

Ibrahim Njoya - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ibrahim Njoya (1888/1918) by UnknownSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

King Njoya in German dress uniform
Unidentified photographer, n.d

· The 17th fon (king) of Bamum, Njoya’s rule overlapped with German colonial occupation.
· A skilled diplomat, Njoya shrewdly negotiated autonomy for the Bamum kingdom from the Germans. This included gifting artworks to the kaiser in Berlin.

Image missing

· Njoya created an innovative new script for the Bamum language and was a leader in efforts to preserve Bamum culture.

Image missing

 · Despite the German colonial presence, Njoya used deft diplomacy and canny cultural policies to build a legacy that outlasted the occupiers.

Enhanced and colorized photo.

Ndichie (male figure of an ancestor) (1900/1966) by Igbo artistsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


In the human realm, it started with him. 

Obu figure

Igbo artists
Abiriba, Abia State, Nigeria
Early to mid-20th century
Wood, pigment
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-81 

An Igbo community’s founding ancestor, this was one of a large number of monumental figures kept in the men’s meetinghouse to guard private areas from intrusion. It likely was part of a group that included the founding ancestor’s wife and other members of the village, such as warriors and hunters.

Beside its monumental size, its most striking feature is the broad, bold use of color that reinforces the strength of the carving. Typically, such figures are sculpted by Igbo men and painted by women. This figure could be said to embody and honor the generative, creative capacity of a revered predecessor.

Such ritual spaces, and the devotional practices that preserved, activated, and renewed them, were historically essential for the religious and social integrity of an Igbo community.

Chinua Chinua Achebe Hero in History Medallion (1959) by Eliot ElisofonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Chinua Achebe

He invited readers to empathize with places once outside the reach of English literature.

1930–2013, b. Ogidi, Nigeria
Worked in Enugu and Lagos, Nigeria; Amherst, Mass.; Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; and Providence, R.I.

If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own. —Chinua Achebe, interview in The Paris Review, 1994

Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to freedom of the human spirit—in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever. 
 —Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, 1984

· Africa’s most widely read and celebrated novelist, Achebe cemented his reputation with Things Fall Apart (1958), which sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

· Writing from an unabashedly specific, African point of view, Achebe’s novels critiqued both colonial arrogance and the failures of postcolonial governments.

· In his lifetime, Achebe was granted more than 30 honorary degrees from universities in the United States, Europe, and Africa and awarded the Man Booker International Prize as well as honorary memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Nigerian National Order of Merit.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist

Fela Kuti – “Zombie”
Lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Zombie. Coconut Records, 1977.

Eyema bieri (reliquary guardian head) (1866/1933) by Fang artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Those eyes see all—through generations past, present, and future. 

Eyema bieri (reliquary guardian head)

Fang artist
Late 19th or early 20th century
Wood, metal, oil
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, 2005-6-98 

Through the byeri religious rite, Fang peoples once both honored their families’ ancestors and asked for their help. Community members memorialized ancestors’ names and recited their deeds in byeri practice, while their physical relics were stored in a bark wood box guarded by an attached, carved wooden head or figure.

This head—with its prominent forehead, open relentless gaze, small mouth, and older style hairdo or wig—was not an individual portrait but an idealized representation. Its characteristic shine results from frequent rubbing with tree oil. This mobile guardian stood for the continued presence of ancestral memories among a people forced to migrate throughout the 19th century.

Eyes wide open, both to guard against threats but also, perhaps, to see and think into the future, such figures are open to new possibilities—indeed, they were themselves born from the necessity of invention.

Jean-Hilaire Aubame Hero in History Medallion (1961) by Eliot ElisofonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Jean-Hilaire Aubame

Aubame had to keep eyes focused on allies and enemies, in both Gabon and France.

1912–1989, b. Libreville, Gabon
Worked in Libreville

Jean-Hilaire Aubame - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The children of Gabon will never forget that, for shameful reasons, a handful of French have destroyed in a day a friendship woven in 125 years, preferring the friendship of a man to that of a people . . . This intervention is an intolerable interference in the internal affairs of Gabon, an assault . . .

—Jean-Hilaire Aubame, denouncing French intervention in the restoration of President Léon Mba, August 1964

Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1961
Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

· During World War II, Aubame sided with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and worked to rally fellow Fang peoples to the antifascist cause. He later represented Gabon in the French National Assembly. 

· A political rival to the first president of Gabon, Léon Mba, Aubame nevertheless resolved to compromise with Mba in the interest of building the postcolonial state. Aubame was Gabon’s first foreign minister.

· A 1964 military coup against Mba’s increasingly imperious, French-backed rule briefly installed Aubame as president. The French, however, soon intervened, and Aubame was cast aside without support. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor and 10years exile. In prison, he became a symbol of opposition.

· Built on layers of business and political support, and years of connected history, Gabon remains one of France’s closest allies in Africa.

Ogoni Mask (1933/1966) by Ogoni ArtistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


Belonging to the land.


Ogoni artist
Rivers State, Nigeria
Mid-20th century
Wood, pigment
Museum purchase, 2004-1-1

This unusual Ogoni mask, which appears to blend human and animal features, may in fact be a statement about the rootedness of Ogoni peoples to the land itself. Ogoni peoples are perhaps the oldest settlers of the Eastern Niger Delta. 

Forms of Ogoni face masks range from human with a movable jaw to a horned antelope to this, the rarest kind of all—a blend of human and horned creature. Historically, masks were worn in ritual performances for funerals and when yams were planted and harvested.  More recently, they appear at Christmas and New Year celebrations and to welcome important visitors.

Ken Saro-Wiwa Hero in History Medallion (1995) by Tim LambonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ken Saro-Wiwa

His was a voice—for environmental justice, and for the Ogoni peoples—that could not be stopped.

1941–1995, b. Bori, Nigeria
Worked in Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Ken Saro-Wiwa - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future. 
 —Ken Saro-Wiwa   

I am more dangerous dead. 
 —Ken Saro-Wiwa 

Photograph by Tim Lambon, 1995
Courtesy Tim Lambon/Greenpeace

· Alternately a writer, television producer, professor, and civil servant, Saro-Wiwa turned to activism as global oil companies’ environmental damage to Ogoniland grew. 

 · Saro-Wiwa helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to bring global attention to the destruction of the Niger Delta—still one of the earth’s most polluted places.

· Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were summarily arrested and executed in 1995 by the military dictator ruling Nigeria at the time.

· As a martyr, Saro-Wiwa’s voice grew exponentially. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of  Nations until the return of democracy.  

Selections from the Heroes Playlist

Al Quetz – “Ken Saro-Wiwa (Ogoni Spirit)”
Lyrics by Al Quetz
Drums Come From Africa. Still Muzik, 2011.

Nneka – “Soul Is Heavy”
Lyrics by Farhad Samadzada, Nneka-Lucia Egbuna, Talib Kweli Greene
Soul Is Heavy. Nettwork Music Group, 2011.

Edjo (female figure of an ancestor) (1866/1933) by Urhobo artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art


She can push farther, bound higher, see deeper than us.

Edjo (female figure of an ancestor)

Urhobo artist
Delta or Bayelsa State, Nigeria
Late 19th to early 20th century
Wood, pigment, kaolin
Museum purchase, 97-17-1

This powerful and potent female figure may represent an Urhobo edjo, or spirit—one manifestation of singular and collective forces that exist throughout the world. A Urhobo community may have several different kinds of edjos, although one may be recognized as the town’s primary spirit. Wood sculptures are the physical manifestations of these spirits. A single shrine building (oguan redjo) may contain a dozen carved edjo figures presided over by an elaborate hierarchy of titled priests and priestesses.

This figure is a vision of solidity and strength. She stands and faces forward...

...arms held rigid at her sides...

...and feet planted firmly on her base. 

Her chest swells with potential energy. 

She likely depicts the wife of the community’s warrior-founder. To that end, she is a portrait of accomplishment. She conveys the authority of having supported the founding of her community, of nurturing intellectual, creative, or even athletic achievement—indeed, of being perhaps capable of rather extraordinary feats at an earlier phase of her own life.

Blessing Okagbare Hero in History Medallion (2014-07-31) by Cameron SpencerSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Blessing Okagbare

Blink, and you’ll miss her.

b. 1988, Sapele, Delta State, Nigeria
Works in Los Angeles, Calif., and Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria

Blessing Okagbare - Principles of African Greatness Intro (2019) by Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Blessing Okagbare celebrates in the Women’s 200m

Commonwealth Games, July 31, 2014

Photograph by Cameron Spencer © Cameron Spencer/Getty Images 

I’m determined to compete on the big stage and prove myself.
—Blessing Okagbare, April 28, 2014

· Born to an Urhobo family, Okagbare is a track-and-field athlete specializing in sprints and the long jump. She won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she was 19. 

· She has medaled consistently in World Championships, Commonwealth Games, and the African Games in the past decade.

· Okagbare holds the Commonwealth Games women’s record—10.85 seconds—in the 100m dash and is the African record holder—22.04 seconds—in the 200m.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist

Waje, Victoria Kimani, Vanessa Mdee, Arielle T., Gabriella, Yemi Alade, Selmor Mtukudzi, Judith Sephuma, & Blessing Nwafor – “Strong Girl” Lyrics by Waje, Victoria Kimani, Vanessa Mdee, Arielle T., Gabriella, Yemi Alade, Selmor Mtukudzi, Judith Sephuma, Blessing Nwafor
One Campaign. ONE, 2015.

Credits: Story

Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Story Design by Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Photos of Odudua, Nsodia, Mask, FIgure of King Bay Akiy, Ndichie, Eyema bieri, Ogoni Mask, and Edjo by Franko L. Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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