The Tsesah Crests of the Bamileke People (Cameroon)

Knowing about the artforms that belong to a culture different from ours is a privilege, because we see what is important to different people. It teaches us about what is important to them, what they find beautiful, and what they care about.

ORIGIN

In the 1700s, the North West Grasslands of Cameroon were booming with creativity and artistic invention. Thanks to the wealth of the local principalities (regions ruled and owned by princes), there was a lot of competition amongst artists to create the newest, most interesting artform for their royalty. One of the artforms created was a wooden crest, or tsesah, which would be used during the rituals. These rituals could include a new Bamileke king being chosen or a king being honoured at his funeral.

RITUAL

It is believed that there are only 15 Batcham tsesaha’s which still exist today. They are roughly one meter high. Examples from far-away regions look similar. Therefore, kings from other kingdoms searched for the best artists to make the tsesah’s, even if the artists were not from that kingdom.The tsesah would be worn by a performer. The performer would move around the group of people who had come to the event to pay their respects. These crests became known as Batcham crests, after the town Batcham which is near the border with Nigeria. During the rituals, there would be a blue and white cloth. This cloth would be 8 meters long and have patterns of crosses and arrows. This would show everyone where the royalty would sit.

WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?

The tsesaha’s are large and carved of wood. They look like a mask but cannot be worn on the face because they are too big. Instead, they rest on the head of the performer. Above the part that rests on the performer’s head, there is a wide mouth. The facial features on the masks are made bigger, bolder and more obvious to catch the viewer’s attention. The cheekbones are carved very deeply into the face. The nostrils face towards you. The forehead extends off the face and into the sky, becoming a thin slab as it grows. On the forehead there are lots of repeating patterns with lines and shapes cut into the wood. Many of these patterns would be inspired by nature. There is a crest whose geometric designs were inspired by the belly of a crocodile.

ANNA BUSUTTIL

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