The Fox, Grapes, and a Yoruba Horseman

I don’t know if anything hurts as much as having your heart set on grabbing a particular piece at an auction and then losing out. What makes it worse of course is being beaten down by an online entity while your’s truly is in the live audience. It’s the testosterone curse that seems to afflict men and women alike!!

Collecting Tribal African Art has opened up a new world of “tentative obsessions”, where I started with Dan and Fang masks, moved through Yoruba and Kuba, and currently I remain fixated on Igala and Izzi (Igbo) pieces. This is not to say that I’m not moved by the occasional bout of “ikenga” or “firespitter” weakness, but one learns to control (arguably) spend at some point.

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi,  Nigeria

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi, Nigeria

This “Ogbodo Enyi” is the mask I missed out on. From “Igbo Arts : Community and Culture” (1984) comes the following excerpt,

“The role of women in regard to Ogbodo Enyi has changed even more drastically in one area. In 1975 children of the Izzi village group Nkaliki began to die from illnesses attributed to unspecified “evil spirits”. Petitions presented to the community oracle, Uke, succeeded in dispelling these spirits, order between the human and supernatural realms was restored and the deaths stopped. However in return for its intercession and patronage, the oracle, in a dream to its priestess, made an extraordinary and unique request. Uke asked Nkaliki women to organize and dance Ogbodo Enyi in its honor. Now well established throughout Nkaliki, the women’s masquerade represents a complete departure from all known Igbo (and other Nigerian) masking traditions- traditions that dictate all such activities as exclusively male perogatives.”

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

Cue the Yoruba horseman. I absolutely had no intention of bidding on this piece, (especially since it was listed before the Ogbodo Enyi), but it is one of those pieces that show a well proportioned perspective that appealed to me. The problem is that if one does enough research, gets hung up on patinas enough, and clings to the altar of provenance, one is apt to miss out on appreciating certain pieces based on the simple criteria of their beauty or “presence”.

E1,E2 Photo Credits : Willis Henry Auctions, American Indian & Ethnographic Art Auction 052613

Yoruba Scarification

In collecting tribal African art one eventually stumbles across the huge diversity and complexity of the Nigerian genre. The use of Scarification intersects religious, cultural, social, aesthetic, and legal boundaries.

“Originally used medicinally and to distinguish friend from foe in times of war, the custom offers many Nigerians a sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world.” The practice is declining, and is now restricted to rural areas. “The origin of the practice — to identify people in the tribal wars — is no longer relevant, and the people who identify it with cultural beliefs haven’t had so much contact with formal education or urbanization.”[1]

E1 Yoruba Scarification[2]

The charts below show Nigerian scarification patterns and their associated locales.

E2 Scarification Chart

Scarification marks are also commonly used with tribal masks and statues. For example, the cult of Shango started in Oyo-Ile. The marks shown on the Shango dance wand are the marks of “the older line of Bashorun” in Oyo and are called meta aagberi (Abraham 1958:300)[3].

E3 Shango Dance Wand

E4 Nigerian Regions and Cities

E5 Offering Bowl – Olumeye Figure

Olumeye figures typically show Yoruba facial scarification patterns. “They are differentiated by the stylization of the hair, the design of the ear, and the elaborate patterns incised on the back of the arms of the bride, as well as on the bowl she holds.”[4]


[3] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 74.

[4] Yoruba – Sculpture of West Africa. Fagg et al, p 88.

My Tribal African Art Vibe

It’s amazing… I picked up one piece, and now I have to admit the apartment is literally crawling with African Tribal Art . They have settled into their own groups… adhering to the ‘melting pot’ philosophy of American lore yet strangely dominating my small universe in their own unique ways. Collecting Tribal African Art is turning out to be both fun and instructive. There are many important  values and norms one can distill from the tribal cultures.

Bambara Maternity Statues

Bambara - Maternity Statues

Maternity

The Bambara maternity statues offer peaceful, even tranquil backdrops of mothers with children playing on their laps. Their poised beautiful faces, on slender necks, slim figures with slight postnatal curves evoke a sense of definitive idealism.  Who would not want to recreate the peaceful scenes?  In start contrast the Baga Nimba is large and domineering, the first figure facing the door, the large head, almost an arm wide, with heavy breasts and braided plaits signifying a mature fertile woman who has had children. This represents the maternal feature of motherhood, the eagle watching over her brood and promising times of plenty. If hope grows the contrast in size is well reflected in the group of Aku’ba dolls from the Ashante Tribe of Ghana.

Ashanti Akua'ba dolls

The legend of Akua and solving the riddle of her barrenness using her doll is now interwoven with the myth of producing progeny of beauty and grace.

Teaching

The Mumuye tribe of Nigeria produce sculpture called iagalagana which represent tutelary spirits and which offer an aesthetic abstract form that truly fascinates, incorporating a high degree of heterogeneity.

Mumuye Tribe - Iagalagana

‘They seem to be reminders of living together in a multicultural society, one were we are enough alike to be able to speak to one another, yet different enough for everyone to have something to say.’  [1]

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

Not to be outdone , the Sowei mask, from the Mende of Sierra Leone is the maternal disciplinarian – representing the  passage from adolescence to adulthood, and the rebirth in a more developed value system with higher expectations, and greater responsibility.

Luck

Nikisi - Protection against "Bad Luck"

The rabbit feet of Tribal African Art would be the Nikisi from the Kongo Tribe. The startling images of upraised hands and nail impaled bodies were used to keep away sickness, bad luck, misfortune, bind promises, and repel evil spirits. One can never have too many.

Reliquaries

From the Mahongye, to the Kota, to the Fang the reliquaries were used to guard the remains of ancestors. To the nomadic tribes this was important since their link to the past is the thread that held the value systems in the communities on a consistent footing through the years. The abstract nature of their sculpture, developed perhaps by a need to conserve space, resulted both in beautiful works, and a holistic representation of social concepts.

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

I particularly admire the Fang representation of the “Balance of Opposites” – using the proportions of a child whilst representing a strong powerfully built adult; showing power yet at the same time exhibiting calm. Forces we wrestle with on a daily basis, even today.

Scrooge, Michael Vick, and Redemption.

I’m not happy for Michael Vick. Why should I be? He makes his, he got his, and with half a brain and an ounce of luck, his finances will be fine. I wish him well… Bah! Humbug!

That said i do feel a touch of delirium coming on. What i am happy about goes way beyond watching MV rip and shred the Giants to a sputtering mass of bewildered looks, and irrational apoligetics. I finally understand that the melting pot of America does not start in the corridors of power, the halls of hallowed cathedrals, nor the voting booth. There are seminal moments in music, art, and sport that change our conditioned prejudices, our clinging debilitating favoritisms, and allow us to have fun together, unite, and move falteringly toward the promise of this great nation.

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

There are stories of redemption and forgiveness that transcend our narrow-minded views of right and wrong. A goose-bump giving essence that rattles our stereotyped views and renders the limits of our moral and ethical logic to so much mush as we reconsider the impossibility of the Eagles comeback in the last seven minutes on 121910. These are the stories that shrivel moats of genteel etiquette, pedicured mannerisms, and hoarded wealth.

Maybe we wouldn’t last a minute on a football field, but here’s hoping that we can each bring to our daily lives a little of the heart, hunger, and preserverance that MV and his teammates continue to display in their fascinating run to the 2010 Superbowl.

Benin Bronzes, Lost Plots, and Prime Real Estate

It is always interesting to procure pieces from a personal collection of African Art. One can get some insight into the mindset of the owner, his particular attractions, the efforts he expended in collecting tribal art, and the pieces he considers special. These special pieces typically find pride of place in the living room (prime real estate to the collector), or a special room where one can enjoy the pieces in a peaceful setting. One of my favorite pieces of African tribal art is an old Benin bronze – a casting of a Queen’s head.

Benin - Queen's Head Bronze

What I was clueless about was the level of artistry and complexity that the casting process was capable of producing. One particular piece in Howard’s collection soon clarified the shortcomings of my thinking. I suspect the casting represents a young Oba (King) in Benin regalia. Suffice to say it seemed a logical upgrade.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (King)

The Benin people still use the Lost Wax process to produce fine bronze castings.

The process begins with a basic clay form over which beeswax is applied and carved. Once the carving of the wax is completed, layers of clay are added and allowed to dry. The entire mold is buried in a heating pit and fired. The wax subsequently melts, leaving behind an empty container with both an inner and outer shell. The liquid brass, or bronze is poured into the shell and allowed to cool. On breaking open the outer shell the casting is revealed. When this method is used the final product is always unique.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (side)

In 1897 a punitive expedition by a British[1] force of 1,200 looted the city of Benin, and destroyed the West African Kingdom of Benin. Over 2500 (official figures) religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England. 

E1 - Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978)

In one instance Nigeria was forced to purchase 5 stolen bronzes from the British museum[2]for £ 800,000. It is easy to understand how valuable these works are to museums when their prices have reached astronomical levels. What is less clear is why these items have not been returned to Nigeria, and show little signs of being returned in the near future. Clearly the British Museum has truly lost the plot in this little tale.


Five Things one should know about the Kwele

Dominant mask : EKUK

Kwele Tribe, Ekuk mask

  Physical characteristics of the kwele mask:[1]

  1. The horns of the mask ‘usually’ curve downwards; this could be associated with tranquility, or a state of  peace and rest.
  2. The mouth is situated very close to the chin.
  3. Narrow eyes.
  4. Small pointed triangular nose.
  5. Wide arced eyebrows.

Ekuk means both “protective forest spirit” and “children of beete.” This mask, with two large horns, represents the antelope. The faces are usually painted in white kaolin earth, a pigment associated by the Kwele with light and clarity, the two essential factors in the fight against evil. [2]

 Country / Location:

West Africa, Gabon – to the North East near the border of the ‘Republic of the Congo’.

Religion:

The two major religions in the District are Christianity and Muslim. There are still pockets of the original animist beliefs, and ancestors are revered by many people.

 Cultural Difference:

The Kwele people attribute unexplained tragedy of tribal sickness, and uncommon adversity to incidents of witchcraft. To counteract such occurrences the tribe enacts a Beete ritual. This ritual uses masked performances, and what is particularly interesting is that the ritual is used to “heat” the members of the tribe, in a metaphysical sense.  The beete cult uses the ritual to maintain order, control, and pass along tribal values. This is a typical theme of Ritual, Values, and Norms (RVN).

 Tribal Relations:

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

The Kwele are located close to the Fang, Mahongwe, and Kota. Each of these tribes are famous for their reliquaries. 

Susu, Anansi, and Tabanka – the beginning

Five Areas of Common Tribal Heritage we never knew.

Beyond the use of masks in festivals and masquerades there are several areas of  African Tribal Art, and customs that form a common part of the heritage of the Diaspora. It is amazing that after hundreds of years there are commonalities and ties that have stood the test of both advances in technology, and concentrated attempts at indoctrination in different cultures.

Common Volcabulary[1]

“Susu” is a word based on the Yoruba word “esusu” meaning a rotation of funds to persons who have contributed to a central banker; a sharing of capital. This practice is done commonly throughout West Africa. A general misconception is that the word had its origins in the French word for “cent.”

The Caribbean use of “Allyuh” and “you all” also bear traits of West African language. Standard English just has “you,” which acts as the 2nd person singular AND the 2nd person plural. African languages make a distinction between the plural ‘you’ and the singular ‘you’ so therefore the “all” is inserted “allyuh”, “you all” to mean more than one. The Bajan “wunna,” which means “you all” is a version of the Ibo pronoun “unna” which has a similar meaning.

Ibo (Igbo) Tribe, Nigeria - Spirit Maiden Mask

“Moomoo” a word meaning stupid, or dumb, and “booboo” meaning coal in the eyes are also African based words. “Anansi” likewise is a chief character of folk tales in the Gold Coast. “Jumbi” is a word from Angola meaning a ghost, an entity that returns from the dead. “Locho” is a Congo word meaning “cheap; mean; stingy” that has found its way to the Caribbean. “Tabanka” or its variant (without the nasal consonants “n or m”) “Tabaka,” is a Congo word meaning sold out or bought out completely. So from this we have the Caribbean word “tabanka/tabaka” meaning completely lost in love. “Tooloom” comes from the word “toolumuka” which means to drag oneself or to pull out teeth. The Caribbean word “Lahe” which mean “wutless” or “good for nothing” is based in the Congo word “laha” which means the same. “Kongori” can be found in a series of languages in Africa from Gabon to the interior, and the meaning is the same – a millipede. “Kaiso” among the Niger Delta peoples is a term that means “well done!” and so at the end of a “kaiso” or “calypso” it is very suitable to hear such an acclamation. “Dwen/Douen” is also an African word which refers to the soul of a child that has died.

Bwoon Mask, Kuba Tribe - DRC : Famous Royal three way relationship!

 

Bamilike Tribe, Cameroon[2]

To compensate for not preserving the skull of a male ancestor, a family member must undergo a ceremony involving pouring libations into the ground. Dirt gathered from the spot then becomes a proxy representing the skull of the deceased. The tradition of sprinkling drops of liquor when a new bottle is opened may be derived from this.

Gunyege Mask, Dan Tribe - Ivory Coast

 

Dan Tribe, Ivory Coast[3]

The tradition of “tin” is still an essential part of Dan culture. Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth – hence to be described as a “Dan” refers to someone who dresses well, and who shows himself to be ahead of others in the categories of wealth or social prominence.

Ashanti, Ghana[4]

The Anansi tales are believed to have originated  from the Ashanti  tribe in Ghana. The word Anansi is Akan, and means simply spider.  An example of Anansi’s craftiness is given in the excerpt which sees him capturing a nest of hornets.

“To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.”

Religious Beliefs – Yoruba Tribe,Nigeria [5]

With the trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Yoruba religion was transplanted in various parts of the western hemisphere. Today it is practiced in a host of different forms. One of these is Vodoun, a mixture of Yoruba, Catholicism, and Freemasonry, in Haiti. It is known throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Central America as Santeria where it is practiced not only by Africans but also the descendants of indigenous peoples (misnomered Indians or Hispanic) that inhabit the region. Worship in the Yoruba religion is based upon the belief in a Supreme Being (Oldumare), the creator of Heaven (Orun) and Earth (Aye); the belief in a multitude of spiritual deities (Orisha); and the belief in ancestral spirits (Egungun).

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