Colorful Curiosities: Colonial Figurines from West Africa

Colorful Curiosities: Colonial Figurines from West Africa

Catrin Morris
May 5, 2011

One of my favorite things about visiting my parents' home in Australia is the incredible collection of folk art they have amassed from their travels around the world, particularly in Africa. Among my favorites are the "Colon" figurines and statues, referring not to the large intestine but to the Colonial era in West Africa. They are playful and bright but also striking and original.

The figures vary in height, from less than a foot tall to the height of the average 8 year old. But they are almost uniformly lanky and lean, providing a dramatic and modern silhouette. Most of the statues were made by the Baule tribe of Ivory Coast, a former French colony and are an enduring reflection of the complex relationships between the colonized and the colonizers. Compared with some of the more reverential carvings created by indigenous Africans, the Colon statues appear to be relatively lighthearted caricatures of an imperialist cast of characters.

My parents purchased their statues in Johannesburg in 1995, during the "heady days when South Africa was first liberated from apartheid and the enterprising young were selling African art and artifacts in the formerly wealthy whites-only areas," my mother explains. "Africans from other countries were now able to come to South Africa and sell their things in the markets that were springing up everywhere."

According to Zanizibar-Trading, the Colon figures represent "the linkages between and perceptions of the colonizer and the colonized". Originally, they may have been carved as other-world spirit mates, an embodiment of a person's ideal husband (or wife).

1 A tall Colon soldier welcomes visitors to my parents' home in rural Victoria, Australia. He appears to be dressed in a French Foreign Legion uniform.
2&3 Carved characters from Tin Tin, much loved by the French, on a mantle in my parents' sitting room.
4 Two figurines displayed in my home in Washington, DC.
5 3.5" tall safari hunter from Colonial Soldier, $150.

6 Genuine Africa.
7 Colonial businessman.Casanova Gallery, $85.
8 Rakuten.

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