9 min read

9 African treasures from Exeter’s World Cultures Gallery

The Africa collections at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery are being re-displayed as part of a major revamp of the World Cultures Gallery. Here’s nine of the objects you will see

Bronze horse and rider

a photo of a small statue of a bronze figure on a horse

Bronze horse and rider, Lower Niger region, Nigeria. © RAMM

This figure is part of a mysterious group of bronzes identified by William Fagg in the early 1960s as being from the Lower Niger Bronze Industry. Archaeological evidence shows that major metalworking centres were operating in the region as early as the ninth and tenth centuries CE and not only were they working in beaten copper, they were also alloying and casting in bronze.

The full history of this industry is currently unknown but this item is part of that long tradition and is believed to date to the 18th century – although it could be earlier in date. It was somehow obtained between 1894 and 1900 by Frederick Marshall, a local auditor in Lagos who had previously worked as a customs supervisor in Accra.

Magistrate’s certificate

a photo of a certificate

South African magistrate’s certificate. © RAMM

Donated by Percy Nightingale who served as Civil Commissioner and resident magistrate in South Africa 1850 – 1878, this certificate is a magistrate’s pass to certify that the bearer, an African named ‘Plaatje Menze’, is an inhabitant of Victoria East District, Cape Colony.


Carved power figure (nkisi)

a carving of a female figure with various other figures standing on its shoulders

Carved power figure (nkisi), Bakongo (Vili) peoples, Kingdom of Kongo, Central Africa. © RAMM

Acquired by Hatton & Cookson ivory/rubber trader Richard E. Dennett between 1879 and 1889, this powerful female figure is in an act of supplication. Her medicine (bilongo) is on her belly and from the base of her back snakes rise and protrude over her shoulders where ancestors armed with flintlock guns stand upon them. Her left arm cradles an ancestor and her right hand holds a bottle of alcohol for libations.

A similar carving found at the Collection Nationaal Museum van Vereldmuseum, Netherlands, suggests that the woman’s interactions are that of a priestess engaged with the forces from the world of the dead (Mpemba).

It is said that this nkisi-type was used to treat physical dysfunction and to enhance one’s social standing. It is possible that this figure was commissioned by Dennett to improve his own position with the Lemba trading guild through participating in a ritually sanctified alliance.

When Europeans first encountered power figures or minkisi (sing. nkisi) in the Congo, they believed them to be man-made deities (‘fetishes’) that were worshipped. However, minkisi belonged to an age-old complex cosmology, one that was centred on a reciprocating universe. This meant that there existed a constant interchange between the visible ‘world of the living’ and the invisible ‘world of the dead’. Minkisi created a physical connection between these worlds.

Their potency included ‘medicinal’ substances (bilongo) that would help to bind the powers of the invisible world to the figure. Bilongo included ingredients associated with the specific ability of the figure. They could be used to heal, alleviate hardship, locate witches or bring harm – they were mainly created for the benefit of people. Minkisi were activated by a specialist called an nganga and were constructed with great care to produce a visual effect. Viewed as items of great power, when not in use they were stored in the nganga’s hut.

Shrine drum

a photo of a complex figure carving with a single drum at its apex

Shrine drum, Bakongo (Vili) peoples, Kingdom of Kongo, Central Africa. © RAMM

Donated in 1866 by Dartmouth shipbuilder Richard Redway whose brother Thomas had a fleet of trading ships that went to Africa. Although it states on the drum that it was taken from an African temple, it is more likely to mean that it was perhaps unethically acquired from an African shrine.

Such a drum would not have been made available for sale to Westerners and was likely abandoned due to insect damage, which happens when wood is left in situ for a great length of time. This is a particularly rare drum as it depicts snakes and ancestors, each motif and gesture has a meaning that is unknown at this time.

There are similar Kongo drums like this one but they are rare. They can be found at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, Royal Museum for Central Africa in Turvuren, Belgium and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Yoruba aluminium dyeing spoon

a photo of an ornate aluminium spoon with deep round pan at one end

Yoruba spoon. © RAMM

Collected by Adire specialist and collector, Nancy Stanfield, whose collection was bequeathed to RAMM in 1998, this aluminium spoon cast from aluminium and likely from reused metals like old pots, was used in the indigo dyeing process for measuring specific amounts of caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).

Indigo dyeing involves natural resources but the technology to make it has changed. This process utilises caustic soda as the alkali medium for the fermentation process instead of ash. This helps to shorten the production time.

Yoruba Gẹlẹdẹ mask

a photo of a white mask crest in the shape of a face

Yoruba Gẹlẹdẹ mask. © RAMM

This helmet crest mask acquired by colonial officer Francis Pinkett between 1895 and 1911 is a Yoruba Gẹlẹdẹ mask that comes from the Republic of Benin. Between March and May each year, masks are danced in pairs by men during the Gẹlẹdẹ masquerade to promote social harmony and well-being in the community.

This mask is carved in the form of a woman with a cloth gèlè, or head wrap. Forward facing gèlè are for young women whose futures are ahead of them.
Tree bark, Bakongo (Vili) peoples, Kingdom of Kongo, Central Africa.

Poisonous tree bark used in witch trials

a photo of a piece of tree bark

Tree bark, Bakongo (Vili) peoples, Kingdom of Kongo, Central Africa. © RAMM

Acquired by rubber/ivory trader Richard E. Dennett between 1879 and 1889 from the Kongo peoples in the Loango coastal region of Central Africa, this a sample of the poisonous Erythrophleum guineensis tree.

It would have been used by an nganga, an operator of powerful invisible forces. The nganga would test a person accused of witchcraft by making them consume this bark. Those not affected by the bark’s effects were shown to be guilty.

Ngangas conducted their services commercially and took advantage of a period of time when senior hierarchies (kings) had lost their authority. For many people, the dominating presence and power of Europeans towards the end of the 19th century, made it feel like their world was crashing down – a time of chaos when order was needed.

Yoruba dress

a photo of a colourful pink and purple dress on a mannequin

Dress, Yoruba, Nigeria. © RAMM

Collected by Nancy Stanfield, this Yoruba dress was acquired in Lagos, Nigeria. The dress pattern was made using an Adirẹ Ẹlẹkọ stencil. Since national independence in 1960, Adirẹ designs have featured in European-styled garments and in the latest fashions.

Ben Enwonwu: The most influential African artist of the 20th century

a watercolour of a truck driving down a tree-lined lane

Watercolour by Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria. © RAMM

This is one of two paintings by the great African artist Ben Enwonwu beqeathed by the collector Nancy Stanfield.

Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE was born in Onitsha, Nigeria in 1917 and as a young student at the Government College in Umuahia his artistic talent was soon noticed and in the 1940s he worked a number of government educational institutions.

In 1944 a scholarship saw him study at Goldsmith’s College, London followed by a place at Ruskin College, Oxford and two years at the Slade School of Fine Art where he obtained a First. He also undertook study in anthropology at UCLA and Louisana State University, Baton Rouge.

Queen Elizabeth II sat for him during her trip to Nigeria in 1956 and the resulting bronze statue resides at the entrance to the Parliament Buildings in Lagos. He became an advisor to the Nigerian government 1959 but by the 1960s he decided to commit his time to his own painting and sculpture.

In 1971 he became a visiting professor in African studies to Harvard University and in the same year was appointed Professor of Art at the University of Ife in Nigeria. He retired in 1975 and passed away in Lagos in February 1994.

A giant figure in African art and arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century, he is remembered for his passion for art and the preservation of artworks in Nigeria. Enwonwu was also a prolific writer and an art critic.

A pre-eminent collection of national and international importance RAMM’s World Cultures collection has Arts Council England’s Designated Collection status.

The World Cultures Galleries reopen on May 1 2018.


Fully refurbished after a multi-million pound redevelopment, the new displays showcase the collections and collectors that have helped RAMM to become one of Britain’s finest regional museums. They tell the story of Exeter and Devon from the prehistoric to the present but, more than a local museum, its internationally important…

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *