Understanding Symbol Meanings

Art is an inseparable part of life in the Cameroon Grasslands. Art does not exist for its own sake, but plays an essential role in the life of the group. Symbols on masks, clothing and other objects are not restricted to artistic expression. Symbols often indicate the purpose of an object, the ceremony it is used for, or the person who is allowed to use it because many objects are personalized.

Unless the viewer understands the symbolism of the culture, one might see these forms as floral-like patterns. But the design may be a depiction of spiders, which symbolically represent wisdom and privilege within this culture. The nocturnal earth spider lives in the ground and emerges after sunset. Since the people of Cameroon believed that the spider inhabited both the world of the dead and the world of the living, the spider became a powerful symbol in Cameroon folklore. The spiders are reduced to the basic elements of circles and lines, in typical grasslands style.

These symbols are the basic alphabet that Fred used to construct his complex artworks. Most of these symbols are included in every piece, usually in different combinations conveying different meanings. The colors are also highly symbolic, and can add many layers of complexity to the work.

Here is an example of how Fred's symbols were used to visually represent the Bemidji School District's mission statement. Read their mission statement below and see if you can see why these symbols were used.

Mission Statement: Our Mission is to empower each learner to succeed in our diverse and changing world.