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Colon Figures

Europeans have been travelling across the world since the 15th century as colonists, globetrotters, explorers or missionaries. The strange white people who came to Africa left lasting impressions on the local communities. From the 16th century on, figurative representations of Europeans can be found in Benin (West Africa).

These statues, often depicting colonial officers, members of the military forces, medical doctors or technicians but also Europeanised middle-class Africans, are referred to as colon figures (from the French word colon = colonist).

Colon figures are fascinating because they reverse our familiar direction of vision – here Europeans are looked at from the African point of view.

A typical feature of these brightly coloured wooden figures is that Europeans cannot be recognized by their physiognomy or skin colour but by the attributes of European culture as pith helmets, suits or uniforms, walking sticks and tobacco pipes.

The colon figures genre developed in West Africa in the tribal homeland of the Baulé (Ivory Coast). Scientists discuss if colon figures are either to be interpreted as caricatures and satirical retaliation of the suppressed indigenous communities in colonial areas or simply as representations of foreign cultures in local style. Furthermore, there are controversial discussions if these figures were only made for decoration or if they were used in ritual acts.

The producers of colon figures are mostly unknown; one of the few known artists is Nigerian Thomas Ona Odulate (approx. 1900-1950) whose works of art can be found in many US American and European museums. 

For a long time, colon figures received little attention because they were not considered as "traditional African art". Only after World War II and after decolonisation and independence of African states they gained international popularity. Today they are investigated and new figures are produced on a large scale in Central and West Africa as tourist souvenirs.