Design Geek: Exploring The History And Style Of Cameroonian Juju Hats

  • 01 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    What's it called? Juju (pronounced Joo-Joo) or Tyn (pronounced tin)

    Where's it from? The Bamileke people of Cameroon

    Who's got it? L’Aviva Home ,Kronbali

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  • 02 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    If there's one piece of home decor that's name in recent years has become synonymous with global style, it's the Cameroonian Juju hat. Though its explosive plumage and bright festive colors were originally meant to decorate people, rather than rooms, lately it seems that no room is complete without at least one of these beautiful feathered pieces on the wall. Yet, while Juju hats are a common sight on the walls of many modern interiors, for the Bamileke people of Western Cameroon they were once a rare item reserved only for a select few.

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  • 03 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    Any study of African cultures is bound to run into a problem of names. Often the names used to refer to African polities originate outside of the group being referred to, and have been used to identify, as one mass, several groups of people who think of themselves as being distinct (see previous Design Geek articles on Berber and Kuba cultural artifacts). As a result, names that are considered standard can have little to no meaning for the people they are intended to describe, and are not the names that the people use to refer to  themselves. Such is the case with the name “Bamileke”. The term is meant to include anywhere from ninety to one-hundred separate groups which are considered jointly, largely on the basis of their languages which are closely related but not identical(1). The Bamileke language group is made up eleven distinct languages, each of which breaks down into separate regional dialects (2). The Bamileke languages, which consist of Ghomala', Fe'fe', Kwa', Medumba, Mengaka, Nda'nda', Ngiemboon, Ngomba, Ngombale, Ngwe, Yemba and their associated dialects (3) are spread over a population of 2.1 million (4) to 3 million (5) to as many as 8 million (6) people, depending on your source

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  • 04 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    The issue of naming does not end with people however. Even the pieces of a culture that travel the world may find themselves doing so under an assumed name. It should come as no surprise then that “Juju” is not the word originally used to describe the popular Cameroonian hat, nor does it originate as a term in any Bamileke language. The two prevailing theories about the etymology of the word “Juju” hold that it is either a derivation of the word “djudju”, used by the Hausa of northern Nigeria to denote an evil spirit (7) or from the French “joujou”, meaning a trifle or toy (8). Over the years the word has become both popular and well-travelled, being used to describe everything from marijuana cigarettes (ibid.) to a popular form of Nigerian music (9). From the time of its first recorded use in the late 17th century, Juju became a popular term among Europeans for referring to West African religions and their healers who were called Juju men. It may be that an observer mistook the wearers of these hats for such healers and applied the name by which we now know the feathered hats that the Bamileke call “Tyn”(10).

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  • 05 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    Despite the variety of languages and the number of distinct communities there are many strong similarities among Bamileke groups. One of these is political organization. Every Bamileke polity is headed by a chief or king called a "Fon" (11). The king is attended by a committee of eight men known as the Mkem or "the assembly of holders of hereditary rights" (12). Each man of this council is known to have brought wealth and distinction to his state and each acts as the head of a particular society tasked with certain duties within the kingdom. Such responsibilities may be military, economic, legal or otherwise. Every two years the Mkem hold special meetings at which the wealth of the king is displayed. At these ceremonies the members of the Mkem and their followers don masks appropriate to their societies. The most venerated of these, the elephant and leopard masks, are reserved only for the king and for the members of the Kuosi and the Kemdje, both warrior societies. It is with these masks that Tyn or “Juju hats” are most commonly seen, though occasionally they are also worn alone (13).

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  • 06 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    Like most Bamileke art, Tyn hats are created specifically for use at royal festivals or ceremonies(14) . In addition to the bi-annual gatherings of the Mkem, such occasions may take place on the death of a king or a wealthy member of one of the eight societies (of whom all are wealthy). The hat itself is constructed from raffia which is woven to create the support structure. Afterward, feathers taken from a chicken, guinea bird or other wild avian are dyed and attached to the base. A leather strap attached to the back is used to pull the hat open to its full breadth. The size of the hats varies, particularly among those made for export and use in home decor. However the diameter of a traditional Tyn hat may be around 31.5 inches or 80 cm (15). When not in use, the hat folds up into a highly manageable bundle which not only helps with storage but also acts to protect the feathers within the shell of the much tougher raffia structure (ibid.).

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  • 07 of 07

    Design Geek: Juju Hats

    The Bamileke of Cameroon are a people both unified and divided, similar and yet distinct. Like so many African cultures they survived the annexation of their land by Germany in the late 19th century only to see that occupation end violently at the hands of the French and British in the early 20th(16). Though long years of struggle for independence from French and British rule has left its mark on the people and their culture, many Bamileke traditions remain in tact, passed from generation to generation as a source of cultural identity and historical pride. The combination of strength, beauty, wealth and pageantry that define the royal ceremonies of the Bamileke are embodied in the elaborate feathered crowns which today decorate rooms around the world - offering everyone a bit of the prestige that was once the sole province of warriors and kings.