The sun--its commanding presence in the sky, its brightness too strong to look at, its light and warmth essential for life--is a powerful symbol for the divine. Depictions of the sun are rare in Africa's traditional arts, but ideas about the sun underscore its ever-present influence. In some traditions on the continent and in the African diaspora, the rising and setting of the sun and its path across the sky each day suggest the cycle of life, from birth to adulthood to death and rebirth.

A priest of Vodun draws a cross within a circle to create a sacred space where spirits are welcomed. This sign depicting the four moments of the sun connects to the cycle of life and to the spiritual crossroads where human beings and the spirit world meet and communicate.
Carrefour, Haiti, 1968
Photograph by Graham Stuart McGee

Crest mask (chi wara kun)
Bamana peoples, Mali
Early to mid-20th century
Wood, metal, plant fiber, hide, cowrie shells
National Museum of African Art, bequest of Eliot Elisofon, 73-7-56

He carries the sun on his back. The elaborate openwork mane of male antelope crests recalls the daily path of the sun as it moves across the sky. The design, from a particular Bamana stylistic region, also suggests the antelope's zigzag escape when pursued. Crests honor Chi wara (also spelled Ci-wara or Tyi wara), the mythic being who taught the Bamana how to farm. In addition to the anteater and pangolin, represented animals are primarily the roan antelope (Hippotragus equines) for the male as an emblem of the sun, and the oryx antelope for the female, a symbol of the earth.

Since farming remains a predominant occupation throughout Africa, the importance of the sun to life and to a successful harvest is recognized in many creative ways.

Bamana masqueraders with chi wara (antelope) headdresses
Bamako, Mali
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1971
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, EEPA EECL 3366
National Museum of African Art

Although their use is waning among the Bamana, chi wara masquerades are still performed by initiation societies for agricultural competitions, entertainment, and an annual two-day celebration.

Pectoral (akrafokonmu)
Akan peoples, Ghana
c. 190050
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., 97.1326.1

Radiant emblems. A tenuous connection could be made between the sun and the golden disk-shaped ornaments called akrafokonmu worn by members of Akan royal courts. The design of the pendant suggests the rays of the sun, but it has been identified in Ghana as a star or crocodile.

Often called soul disks or soul washers' badges, these ornaments signify those court officials who maintain the spiritual well-being of the king and by extension the nation. Pendants bear designs that refer to the royal context in which they are worn.

Garth Erasmus
b. 1956, South Africa
Acrylic and crayon on paper
National Museum of African Art, gift of Lee Lorenz in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, 97-23-2

Awesome!The artist conveys the primal yet timeless human response to the awe-inspiring power of the sun, upon which all life depends, and ponders the meaning of human life within the vastness of space.