Location: Coast of Guinea-Bissau, Africa.
Neighbouring Peoples: Baga.
Types of Art: Several types of statues are carved to house the spirits of ancestors. Seated figures are usually used for divination and magic. Two main types of masks are used in initiation. Bull masks and shark or swordfish masks are very naturalistic.
History: Very little is about the origins of the Bidyogo tribe, their language definitely connects them with the current occupants of the coastal mainland. It is known that at one time mainland peoples related to the Bidyogo extended far north along the coast into present day Mauritania and were gradually forced south as a result of southward Berber movement.
The earliest written references to the Bissagos Islands and the people who live on them dates to 1456, when a Portuguese explorer described them in his travels. Throughout the 17th century the islands were used as a port for ships intent on exporting slaves. In the late 19th century the archipelago was colonized as part part of Portuguese Guinea.
Economy: The lowland swampy ecology of the islands is particularly good for growing rice, making it the most important staple crop of the Bidyogo. Fishing in the surrounding Atlantic is nearly as important as farming. The Bidyogo are quite adept at handling long canoes that on occasion have also been used to war against people living on the coast.
Pigs are the primary animal raised on the island. Although this practice may have been introduced by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century, it is also likely that pigs, which were once a very important part of North African economies, were brought to the islands by Bidyogo ancestors before the influence of Islam.
Political Systems: Political power is invested in leaders who derive their power through their relationship to the ancestors, which is traced through the matrilineal line. Having a direct connection to the ancestors buried in the land entitles the leader to control the distribution of that land. The leader of each community is attended to by a council of elders. Bidyogo homes are structured with connecting compounds, creating a strong sense of community, both physically and socially. Women are particularly important in Bidyogo political systems, for they may achieve the rank of chief.
Religion: It is believed that Nindo, the supreme god, created Obide, a man, and Okanto, the woman, who gave birth to two boys, who are remembered as the original four ancestors. Bidyogo oral history recounts a tale in which the people were told to carve a statue to honour the god that was to be present at religious ceremonies. They also believe that after dying, the soul (Orobo) can only find peace if a statue is carved in which it can rest. Although there have been some Islamic influences on the Bissagos Islands, most of these have been cultural and not specifically religious.
Credits: Prof. Christopher D. Roy also see credit page. Professor of the History of Art. The University of Iowa.