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Location: Grasslands of Western Cameroon
Population: 8,000,000

Arts: The Bamileke are an enormous culture, part of the so-called "Grasslands" group, who are spread widely over large parts of western Cameroon. Though there are many smaller groups, the Bamileke, Bamun, and Bamenda-Tikar are dominant. The art of the Bamileke is a royal art, dedicated to the veneration of the regional leader, or "Fon." Most of their carvings, beadwork, and metal items are produced as gifts for, or representations of, the Fon. Styles across various groups and regions are rather uniform, making out-of-context attributions a daunting task. While there is much standardization, the Bamileke do excel in certain areas, like large beaded prestige items of great intricacy and beauty. These come in many forms, from statues, to beaded animals and stools, produced by the tedious application of tiny beads, in a riot of colors. The pieces have a fabric base for the beads, sometimes over wood, and are highly-prized by collectors. There are also enormous wooden masks, with bulging cheeks, protruding eyes, and a crowned hairdo. Similar masks are also made by the Bamun. Perhaps the most-famed carvings of the Bamileke, and again, also the Bamun, are the enormous standing figures of the "Fon" himself, which are prized by their owners and frequently displayed outside their huts. This exposure to the elements accounts for the spectacular, encrusted patina found on most genuine pieces, which are quite rare and enormously expensive when they come on the market. Figures are portrayed standing, with wide open, menacing mouths. In their hands they can be found holding priestly objects or weapons. There are even statues shown holding the severed heads of their enemies. These amazing pieces demand attention from the viewer, and their power cannot be denied. There are also innumerable smaller objects in a variety of forms.

History: Though there is little known about their distant past, we do know that the Bamileke at one time lived in an area to the north called Mbam, which today is occupied by the Bamenda-Tikar. The Fulani cavalry invasions of the 17th century, which changed the cultural map of much of West Africa, forced the Bamileke to move through Bamun territory. There was much assimilation with the Fulani and also with the Bamun. Those who chose to avoid their conquerors eventually established homelands to the south of the Bamun, where they remain today as one of the largest groups in Cameroon.


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