This life-size male figure from the kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon is a visually compelling example of the splendid beaded sculptures Bamum artists created for the royal court in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Resembling other Bamum sculptures, the face is triangular to oval and has large round eyes. The bridge of the nose is flat and the nostrils flare. The narrow, protruding mouth is framed by a beard, indicated by blue and red glass beads. Colorful beadwork attached to a fabric base covers most of the carved wooden figure, which is elongated and slightly angular. Artists also applied a thin overlay of brass to the face, the back of the head, and the hands and feet. Glass beads and brass were rare and came from Europe in exchange for ivory and other African goods. In the 19th century, only the king could possess and distribute these precious materials. A wooden polelike extension at the base may indicate that the figure was, at one time, planted in the ground.
The figure wears a loincloth, a trapezoidal headdress, bracelets, anklets and a collarlike neck ornament. The beaded cover not only articulates these elements of dress and adornment, it also envelops the entire figure in a splendid array of two-dimensional motifs, all meaningful within the Bamum system of thought. A frog or toad design appears on the back of the headdress, and there is a more schematic rendering of the same motif on the legs. For the Bamum, both creatures allude to fertility and propagation. Bracelets, armlets and anklets display the zigzag configuration of a spear, a motif referring to prowess in war, for the Bamum relied on warfare to secure their political and economic might within the region. The checkerboard motif of the neck ornament is a rendering of the spots of the leopard, the powerful and elegant beast seen as the king's equivalent. Bold blue and white geometric designs on the torso represent the spider, wisdom incarnate and an important player in divination. Only royalty or noblemen were permitted, with the king's consent, to wear jewelry adorned with these motifs.
The left hand of the figure touches the bearded chin and the right hand the loincloth, a conventional pose common to 19th-century Bamum sculpture. It may allude to a gesture assumed by high-ranking courtiers when talking to the king. Important men would respectfully bow their heads and speak through their raised hand because no one was permitted to look the king in the face or address him directly. The king was sacred and commanded the highest respect and reverence from his subjects. Placing the right hand on the loincloth also alludes to proper behavior, for one is composed and restrained in the presence of the king.
The gesture, dress, adornment and multitude of motifs reserved for royalty and men of high rank found on this sculpture clearly indicate that it is either a commemorative portrait of a Bamum nobleman or even a king. The precise meaning and function of this impressive figure, however, remains unknown.