Art: The Lost Totem

The Afo-A-Kom is far from the world's greatest piece of art—or even Africa's. A 5-ft. 2½in. image of a king, it is rather crudely carved in iroko wood, the torso covered with sackcloth stitched with reddish-brown beads, the face masked in copper. But the Afo-A-Kom (literally, the Kom thing) is sacred to the approximately 30,000 people who constitute the Kom kingdom, a tribal enclave in the northwestern part of the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Last week this rather ungainly sculpture caused a flurry of diplomatic exchanges and created an uproar that stretched from the...

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