Five Baga Objects of African Tribal Art

On 10/09/14 a small African Tribal art auction featuring property from the Rona family collection took place in Boonton NJ. The prices of the African Art sold varied from approximately $100 – $7,000 and included pieces “purchased in the 1970’s from respected galleries such as Segy, Klejman, and Tribal Arts; including published pieces from Ladislas Segy’s Masks of Black Africa”, (MilleaBros catalog, 2014). This effectively provided buyers with more than the usual “provenance halo”, typically associated with pieces purchased at major auction houses.

While one may take any number of positives from the event (beauty, breath, quality, depth, provenance) the pieces from the Baga tribes (Bansonyi, Tonkongba, Nimba, A Tshol) brought a much greater appreciation for what I had previously considered as a less attractive, and less abstract masking tradition.


The Baga people, approx. 60,000 in total, occupy the northern coast of Guinea and the southern coast of Guinea-Bissau. Bansonyi is the man’s secret society that unites autonomous villages of the Baga people. Its emblem is a polychrome headpiece, called Bansonyi that is carved in the form of a python standing upright. It embodies the snake-spirit a-Mantsho-na-Tshol (“master of medicine”). Among most Baga subgroups, only adolescent males learn the secrets of the snake-spirit during the initiation, which marks the passage to adult status.


E1 Bansonyi – Rona Collection

Bansonyi lives in the sacred forest and emerges when it is time to begin the boys’ coming-of-age rites. Bansonyi is believed to be the strongest adversary of sorcery and destructive forces that could endanger the well-being of the village. It is especially protective of the boys during their initiation into adult society. Bansonyi also appear at the funeral celebrations of the most important members of the community.

E1 Rona Family Collections Auction, (Price realized $2,250)


The character represented in this mask, Banda (also called Kumbaruba by some Baga groups), is a complex composite of human and animal forms. The long horizontal headdress is composed of the face of a human being and the jaw of a crocodile, whose angular teeth are visible along the side of the mask. The human face is characterized by Baga scarification marks as well as a woman’s elaborately braided coiffure. The top of the headdress features the horns of an antelope, the body of a serpent, and the tail of a chameleon. Banda headdresses are quite large; this example measures just over four feet in length. Yet despite their unwieldy size, the mask is manipulated with astonishing dexterity and dynamism during performances.

E2 Banda Mask

E2 Banda Mask

Today, the Banda headdress is danced only for entertainment, although historical documentation suggests that it originally carried an extremely sacred significance. It seems that Banda represented a high and powerful spiritual being that would appear only to privileged society elders. During that period, Banda was used in rituals designed to protect against dangers such as animal attacks or even human malevolence, especially around the time of important male initiation rites. In contemporary Baga society, the Banda performer, invariably a young man, carries the wooden headdress on top of his head. Attached to the underside of the headdress is a large raffia cape that covers the dancer’s face and extends to his knees. The performance takes place in a circular arena formed by the crowd and is accompanied by drummers playing on giant wooden slit gongs. The choreography of the dance invokes the movements of various animals, including soaring birds, foot-stamping bulls, and undulating serpents. In the greatest spectacle of the performance, the dancer goes into a dizzying spin holding the headdress aloft, then twirling it in a series of figure eights and plunging it to the ground, finally returning the headdress to his head, all without missing a beat.


The most important of the Baga art forms is the great mask, D’mba or Nimba.

E3 Nimba - Baga tribe (Baga Nimba)

E3 Nimba – Baga tribe (Baga Nimba)

It represents the mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women, and presides over all agricultural ceremonies. The dancer, wearing a full raffia costume, carries the mask on his shoulders, looking out through holes between the breasts. In use, such masks rise more than eight feet above the ground; they often weigh more than eighty pounds. Most show a standardized pattern of facial scarification.

E4 Dancing the Nimba

E4 Dancing the Nimba

” Nimba is the joy of living; it is the promise of abundant harvest”
The Baga Nimba, or D’mba, represents the abstraction of an ideal of the female role in society. The Nimba is essentailly viewed as the vision of woman at her zenith of power, beauty, and affective presence; rather than a goddess or spirit. The typical Nimba form illustrates a woman that has been fertile, given birth to several children, and nurtured them to adulthood.

TONKONGBA [4], [5]

The Tonkongba headdress can be seen as a three-part form, including a helmet in the center, a long snout protruding from the front, and, a pair of flat horns usually connected at their tips. It is not known much about the use of these headdresses. Knowledge concerning the Tonkongba’s function is complicated by a number of factors, including the extreme secrecy enveloping the sculpture and the probability that it was used in different ways by different groups. No doubt, it served both as a shrine figure and as a dance headdress. According to some sources, the Tonkongba appeared on any special occasion when a sacrifice was involved, for example, at a funeral. It danced at sunrise. When Tonkongba came out, the people would hang tobacco leaves and fowl on its costume as tribute. [4]

E5 Tonkongba Headdress

E5 Tonkongba Headdress

These masks were formerly attributed to the Landuman, but are now known to come from the northern Baga. This is an important cult mask, representing a stylized Atlantic dolphin. The “melon” and beak can be plainly made out, (some have a definitive dorsal fin), flippers and tail. This marine mammal was regarded as sacred by the Baga. According to Bacquart, “the mask …is usually kept in front of a clan’s shrine. It is sometimes worn by dancers during ceremonies involving sacrifices — for instance, funerals. Tonkongba is alleged to be omniscient, thus has the power to know and promulgate both good and bad news”. [5]




A-Tshol  - Baga Tribe

E6 A-Tshol – Baga Tribe

Oral history suggests that the A-tshol (Elëk, ma-Tshol) shrine figures combining bird and human attributes date back to the ancient origins of the Baga and Nalu peoples. Such figures were the most revered objects on shrines dedicated to the protection of a clan. Their name, translated into the various languages of coastal Guinea where these figures were found, means medicine, and on shrines they stood alongside other protective medicines invested with supernatural power. On important occasions, such figures could also be danced on the head of a male clan member.

E6 Art Institute of Chicago,

The Guyanese buck, Tabwa, and magical Pygmies.

In Collecting African Tribal art shipping becomes part of the process. More often than not the boxes are a little bigger than the usual Amazon book package and for some reason a co-worker will usually ask if there’s a little person in there…. cue the Guyanese buck script.

African Art Shipping

[E1] African Art Shipping

My standard response is that the boxes contain a ‘Guyanese buck’ (or “Bacoo” [1]). Similar in stature to a leprechaun of Irish folklore, but with its own peculiarities. Legends agree that they can provide their owners with any wish, but they must be fed (and kept happy) on a diet of bananas and milk. ‘Baku’ in many West African languages means ‘little brother’ or ‘short man’ and the short races (such as the pygmies) were believed to have magical powers. I warn people that upon hearing any sound from the box it would be imperative to slip a bowl of milk in. It never stops the questions.

Guyanese Buck

[E2] Guyanese Buck

What had actually arrived in this particular box was a Tabwa mask, complete with stand.

Tabwa Mask

[E3] Tabwa Mask

One of my truly illogical idiosyncrasies when bidding at an auction is not walking away empty-handed, AND disappointed. This means if there is a fantastic piece at lot #30, then I will try to get the best piece I can before lot #30 is placed on the block. In this case my perception exceeded my expectation.

Tabwa Masks

[E4] Tabwa Masks

I am actually fond of the Tabwa mask and sculpture traditions. The tribe used “scarification as a means of perfecting the body through motifs alluding to positive social values and cosmological principles”. [2] The symmetrical patterns of extensive raised cicatrices and unique hairstyles separates Tabwa sculpture and art from other tribes.


[2] The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas…Metropolitan Museum of Art, p.106

[E2] Buck picture Credit

Natural Hair, Confidence, & African Tribal Hairstyle

Would you ROCK a Tribal Hairstyle?

[E1] Caribana 2014 - Toronto Carnival

[E1] Caribana 2014 – Toronto Carnival

Not many people can rock a bona fide African Tribal hairstyle. Working women need hairstyles which are easy to manage, maintain, and are not too heavy on the wallet. Lately however I’ve noticed a comeback (resurgence if you will) of natural hairstyles with the afrocentric look, driven in part by the definition of beauty that has become more inclusive and puts a premium on confidence, uniqueness, health, and color. The other driver to this is the willingness of African American women to quietly embrace their afrocentric origins, a non-quiet rebellion against the societal norms of styles based on long, straight hair.

Basic Continuum

Let’s start with the basic minimum/maximum look, with the minimum look gaining ground on the heels of the award winning performance of Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013) [1].

[E2] Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2014

[E2] Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2014

Very few women are daring enough to pull off either extreme.

[E3] Ally - Metropolitan Museum 2013

[E3] Ally – Metropolitan Museum 2013

Igbo Influence

The prize for the most visually stunning goes to versions stemming from the 1800’s to the early 20th century Igbo style.

[E4] Girls passing through Nkpu ceremony

[E4] Girls passing through Nkpu ceremony

In African Tribal art this hairstyle is represented by the Agbogho mmwo [2], or “maiden spirit,” masks worn by men at festivals that honor important deities. They represent the Igbo ideal of female beauty: small, balanced features, elaborate hairstyles, and delicate tattoos.

[E5] Maiden Spirit mask

[E5] Maiden Spirit mask

One of the fascinating aspects of the many variations currently in fashion is the wide options of micro-braid styles available to be used. I think this will grow in popularity in coming years.

[E6] Toronto Caribana 2014

[E6] Toronto Caribana 2014

[E7] TnT Carnival 2014

[E7] TnT Carnival 2014

[E8] Igbo Hairstyle

[E8] Igbo Hairstyle

[E9] Awka maiden circa 1921

[E9] Awka maiden circa 1921

[E10] Afrocentric Variant - TnT Carnival 2014

[E10] Afrocentric Variant – TnT Carnival 2014

Mende Perspective

“The top of every Sowo mask is carved to represent braided hair, and the style of hair braiding is one of the mask’s most individualized features. The hair crest always displays axial symmetry around the facial vertical line… the mask’s hairstyle is always grander and more distinctive”[2]

[E11] Mende carvings - "Sowo wui" helmet masks

[E11] Mende carvings – “Sowo wui” helmet masks


A variation of a Baule style that has a large following is the Bantu knot-out (aka China Bump)

[E12] Baule "blolo bla" (spirit wife carving)

[E12] Baule “blolo bla” (spirit wife carving)

Luba Style

One lesser known style was very popular among the Luba tribe and reflected in many different forms of Luba sculpture.

[E13] Luba Carving

[E13] Luba Carving

[E14] Luba Tribeswomen

[E14] Luba Tribeswomen

There are too many African tribes with identifiable hairstyles to mention (Mangbetu, Kuba). It is a fascinating aspect of Collecting African Tribal Art which can assist in learning one’s history and provide clues to cultural norms and values.

[2] Radiance from the Waters; Sylvia Ardyn Boone, p.184

[E4] Among the Ibos of Nigeria; Basden, G.T. 1921; p288/289

Michael Brown, Crying Walls, and the Inverted Race Card (IRC).

[E1] MBrown HSgrad pic

[E1] MBrown HSgrad pic

Michael Brown deserved better… he deserved the heart rending tears of a united Black community, shocked, and horrified by a callous act of rage and misguided impunity. While his family and friends mourn, shedding tears born from feelings of rage, frustrated exasperation, shame, guilt, and loss the truth is that some are not as lucky. I suspect that many are struggling in a state of desensitized bewilderment as they run headlong into the crying wall. I know I am…… my grieving mechanism has hit DVR mode, and it sucks.

Grief Fatigue
“There were 235 black homicide victims in Missouri in 2011. The homicide rate among black victims in Missouri was 33.38 per 100,000 in 2011. The homicide rate among black victims in the United States was 17.51 per 100,000. For that year, the overall national homicide rate was 4.44 per 100,000. For whites, the national homicide rate was 2.64 per 100,000″. Don’t be shocked, Nebraska had a rate of 34.43 per 100,000.

“Nationally for black homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 82 percent of black victims (4,949 out of 6,022) were shot and killed with guns.”[2]

While the deaths of young Black men due to Black on Black crime undeniably warrants more attention, several police related, and/ or racist driven deaths/murders have garnered public, and worldwide attention.

Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, Andy Cruz, Sean Bell, John Crawford, and Oscar Grant were individuals whose deaths have highlighted epic legacies of legislative inflexibility, or gaping inequalities in the legal system.

[E2] Eric Garner arrest

[E2] Eric Garner arrest

In NY unarmed Ramarley Graham (18)(d.02/02/12) after being chased to his room on suspicion of drug possession was shot dead; Eric Garner (43) (d.07/07/14) succumbed to a choke hold while being arrested for allegedly selling cigarettes.

In the aftermath of one particularly heinous crime, the parents of Darius Simmons (13)(d.05/31/2012) who was fatally shot by an elderly neighbor won a $1.5 million civil judgment against the convicted killer, but this was capped at $500k by Wisconsin law.[3]

The following tables [E3] highlight police related deaths of African Americans in one three month period surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. The sheer numbers induce the unwanted balm of de-sensitivity, and one is almost forced into grudging acceptance of the inevitable collateral damage that goes with being first class citizens on paper, and economy class citizens in life.



Realizing the breath, and banality of “militarized enforcement thinking”

The Michael Brown case has forced several shocking legal, and enforcement perspectives to light.
• The primary duty of policemen has morphed from “protect and serve” to “keep unequals separate”… a profiling technique which keeps poorer folk out of richer, lower crime neighborhoods,
• The existence of the Qualified Immunity doctrine,[4] which “grants immunity to state or federal employees performing discretionary functions where their actions, even if later found to be unlawful, do not violate clearly established law”, and is biased toward erring on the side of the police,
• The “broken windows” strategy,[5] which is employed by police to keep crime down in distressed communities focuses on “small quality of life factors such as petty vandalism and loitering” to forestall more serious crimes. The caveat is that this requires a high police presence which has to be funded. Funding is assisted by the payment of fines.

The problem is that if the simple immensity, and scope of the hopelessness of the “poor African American”, and the vulnerabilities engendered by race was sufficient to evoke tears I would have been cried out by Christmas of my sixth birthday, over the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton (21), (Dec. 4th 1969), maybe I would have read about Emmett Till (14) (d.08/28/1955), or the Birmingham Four (d.09/15/1963). Many in the Black community have succumbed to a combination of a “scorched earth”, and “trodden path” psychosis and have literally been “shocked out” for a long time.

Using the Inverted Race Card.

Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson

The closest I came to crying was really when a black trooper, Captain Ron Johnson was “put in charge of operations (?)” and apologized (08/17/14) for the white policeman’s shooting of Michael Brown . This is the classic case of reacting to the slightest positive sign, when surrounded by a sea of negativity, with feelings of relief, coupled with hope for change.
Johnson shared why resolving the unrest in Ferguson was important to him and other black families. This is the quote that almost did me in,

“When this is over, I’m going to go in my son’s room, my black son, who wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, has tattoos on his arms, but that’s my baby,” he said.

“And we all ought to be thanking the Browns for Michael, because Michael is going to make it better for our sons, so they can be better black men. So they can be better for our daughters, so they can be better black women.”

Unfortunately it does take a second or two to get the waterworks going, and in the interim it seemed certain that the situation was now being orchestrated in a manner designed to identify, and empathize with the pain, and suffering of the Black community…. in stark contrast to a week filled with contempt, confrontation, and tear gas….. so just like that, in a flash… faster than you can say “Hands Up… Don’t Shoot”, under a pall of transparently manipulative intent, my best chance for a basic human reaction to another tragic loss of life, dreams, and potential was gone. Michael Brown (RIP).


[E3]Researched, & written by Kali Akuno and Arlene Eisen for Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Black-Left Unity Network and the US Human Rights Network.

Five Things one should know about the Ijebu (Jebu/Geebu)

1. Prosperous Times
During the 16th century, the Ijebu kingdom (1500-1750) dominated Nigeria’s coastal region. Portuguese copper was traded and the Ijebu cast brass objects that demonstrated an influence derived from the Benin kingdom. However their bracelets, bells, and office staffs were usually decorated with half human/half-animal figures with globular eyes and often curved forehead scarifications.[1]

2. Tragic History
During the nineteenth century the Ijebu controlled the trading lanes between Lagos and Ibadan. They refused to cede control to the British, and in 1892 the British launched attacks, and incursions on Ijebuland, using Maxim guns, and burning villages.
It is telling that solider-adventurer Frederick Lugard, in his defense against charges of excessive death rates in Uganda from his own use of the gun, stated: “On the West Coast, in the ‘Jebu’ war, undertaken by Government, I have been told ‘several thousands’ were mowed down by the Maxim.”[2]

3. Igodo Headdress
Ijebu Yoruba living along the coast celebrate water spirits with an elaborate program of masquerades called Agbo. They adapted Agbo from the Ijo of the Niger Delta, who are famous for their Ekine masquerades in honor of the ‘water people’, (owu), spirits that “own “ portions of creeks, controlling their water level, currents, waves, and the depth of fish shoals. One distinctive headdress is known as the Igodo. The shape of Igodo masks plays on the form of a paddle and on that of a boat’s prow, evoking the closeness between water-oriented people and spirits of the deep. Two creatures used from Ijo mythology are the python, (the mythic progenitor of all water spirits), and the fishing eagle (ogolo), which carries messages from the water spirits to humans.[3]

Igodo Headdress

Igodo Headdress

4. Ijebu (adjective)
The Ijebu people are commonly assumed to be stingy people. Ijebus are very rich and successful, more so than most other Yoruba tribes, but along with this they are also popularily deemed extremely miserly with their wealth. Hence ‘Ijebu’ is a popular slang used to refer to any one miserly with money or other resource.[4]

5. Perils of Ijebu Kingship
Prior to British rule, the Ijebu tribe of the Yoruba race was divided into two branches, known respectively as the Ijebu Ode and the Ijebu Remon. The Ode branch of the tribe is ruled by a chief who bears the title of Awujale and is surrounded by a great deal of mystery. The Remon branch of the Ijebu tribe is governed by a chief, who ranks below the Awujale. This subordinate chief used to be killed with ceremony after a rule of three years,[5] but Ulli Beier (cited by Willett) notes that, according to the existing tradition in Ijebu, the kings were put to death after a reign of only seven years.[6]

[1] The Tribal Arts of Africa; Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste p 100
[3] African Art; Schmalenbach, Werner p 147
[6] Art of Africa; Kerchache, J. et al, p 535

Collecting African Art

[Ben Matros has been collecting African Tribal art from the 1950s and
has given permission to share the following. His website is]

Collecting rare African artifacts can be fulfilling but challenging.
True collecting requires and an eye for quality and scarcity, coupled with an honest dealer or seller. Often mass-produced airport-art is sold as an authentic, collectible-quality piece. Some unscrupulous dealers mix this tourist-art in with their finer pieces. The key is knowing your dealer.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

African masks, statues, and other objects have an inherent meaning for the culture, the work, and the intended individual. Original pieces were related to religious practices and every day life. They were not made for museums or collectors.
Not all pieces were used often, and not all worn pieces are old. The tribes in some African countries, such as the Dogon in Mali, in many cases use pieces once and then they are discarded.

1. Look at the piece. See if it’s well carved, is the patina correct? Worn in the right places? Compare it with similar pieces from Museums.
2. Consider the ethnic provenance or origin. Even if of the same quality, the art of different tribes can have huge price differences. Where did it come from? Who owned it before the dealer?
3. Pedigree: A piece from a collector from the thirties has a higher value than a similar piece recently acquired in the West. Even some very banal pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it is worth more.
4. Conservation: Too much restoration can decrease the value.
5. Rareness: How individual is the piece?
6. Size does not matter. Rarity and quality are the keys.
7. Auction result prices can yield a higher price for a particular piece. It does not mean that the piece is better.
8. The seller. The prestige of the dealer will sometimes boost the price. Large gallery or individual sale, it’s the quality and scarcity of the piece that matters.

Clouds, Silver Linings, and the Kongoli.

One of the benefits of Collecting Tribal African Art is simply gaining exposure to the diversity of cultural knowledge associated with the tribes, and masks.

The day did not begin well. Today (01/12/14) marked the second consecutive auction where I missed placing a bid on a mask that seemed interesting. It was advertised as a Kongoli from the Mende culture in Sierra Leone – I had never come across this type of mask (or so I thought), but accessing the auction mere minutes after the mask was sold seemed unbelievably unlucky. In an auction in December I missed an Igala mask (gutting) because I fell asleep after shoveling snow. So, on the bright side I decided to read up on the Kongoli mask, and I’m sure glad I did. Apart from being a funny mask, from a tribe with a great masking tradition, I realized I actually had one in my collection. It had been mis-categorized as belonging to the Bamum tribe, from the Cameroon.

Kongoli (previously attributed to Bamum)

Kongoli (previously attributed to Bamum)

Cue the silver lining. It absolutely turned my day around, but there’s another side to this that blew me away. Modern society is becoming increasingly paralyzed by political correctness. The Kongoli is in truth and fact “the village clown”, and as the following video demonstrates sometimes entertainment is simply entertaining.

The short video documentary below, by Bill Hart (University of Ulster), examines the role of the Kongoli/Gongoli mask in Sierra Leone culture. The first 22 secs are classic

Gongoli Description (from the Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue)

Kongoli (Gongoli) Mask [E1]

Kongoli (Gongoli) Mask [E1]

“Ugly! This is the reaction that the Mende audience has when seeing this mask in performance. The uglier, the better. The function of the Gongoli performance is to show the worst side of human nature: deformed, disheveled, chaotic, undisciplined, deceptive, and antisocial. The mask is worn with a hideous costume of dead leaves and rags. The movements of the performer are disjointed, erratic, awkward?and amusing. Gongoli masks are usually owned by private individuals and may appear at any celebration.”

[E1] Photo Credit to Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue


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