Djenne POV

At a 2016 auction of the Merton Simpson estate, several persons (including myself) spent hours trying to figure out the merits of the Djenne piece shown below.

Djenne Figure

I’m not kidding, it literally took me six years to come to a place of real appreciation for the piece. The following paragraph went a long way to settle this for me in framing a perspective of famine/drought, emaciation and prayer to serpent totems or shrines,

“A very large number of terracotta sculptures have been found in the Inland Delta of the Niger River area of Mali, which date from the last centuries of the first millennium A.D. through the 15th century.

The style is often referred to as the “Djenné” style, named after a city that rose to prominence in this area in approximately 500 A.D. and experienced great prosperity until the end of the 15th century.


Oral histories have been examined, including the story of Wagadu Bida, the founder of the Wagadu, or Ghana Empire. The myth tells of the birth of a serpent from the first marriage of Dinga, the leader of the Soninké clan. The serpent, named Wagadu Bida, was the source of fertility and well being. Each year a virgin had to be sacrificed to secure the blessings of the serpent.

One year, a young Soninké man, distraught that the girl he loved was to be sacrificed, slaughtered the serpent. The devastating drought that followed resulted in the dispersal of the Soninké and the founding of the Djenné culture. It is possible that the images of figures covered with serpents that were created in great numbers by the artists of ancient Djenné illustrate this myth and a subsequent cult of serpents. The numerous figures that show evidence of disease may represent supplicants who prayed to the spirit embodied in the shrine for healing” (source).

Merton Simpson Djenne

Consider a similar perspective form Bernard de Grunne on Djenne-Jeno,

“As to the meaning of snakes, VanDyke has found at least 200 figurative works with herpetological symbolism (Disease and Serpent Imagery in Figurative Terra Cotta Sculpture from the Inland Niger Delta, of Mali). She suggests that some of these snakes could represent parasitic worms coming out of the mouth, ears, nose and even vagina of some figures. I have also underlined the ancient symbolism attached to snakes starting with the founding myth of Dinga, the first king of the Soninke Wagadu empire circa A.D. 800, who fathered many children and one large snake called Wagadu Bida. Snakes, thus, are connected to ancestor worship but could also relate to the treatment of diseases represented in the seated figure analyzed here. In the ancient oral histories of the Wagadu and Mali empires, illness was framed as a spiritual test and overcoming it, a mark of spiritual power for both the afflicted and their healers. Such beliefs persist into the present.”

The final nail that brought me around was purchasing a couple items that simply could not get the classic “Djenne” head right (see upper side profile). The concavity of the face, jutting chin, square lips, lozenge shaped eyes, and the thick neck are hard enough as it is, but for the Djenne artist it usually comes with a lean or glance to emphasize tolerance and/or perseverance.


Suaga (Mambila) Frustration turns to Joy!!

So the story begins in 2018 at the Allan Stone auction, hosted by Rago Auctions. Looking back now I can still connect to the interest the Suaga mask stoked in me… futile of course since this auction was chock full of Djenne, Ikenga, Ekpo, and Igbo (Mgbedike). There was literally absolutely no way any funds would be diverted unless there was an epic online failure and the auction went 100% live.

Suaga Mask : Morton Lipkin
2018 Rago Auction (Allan Stone)

Fast forward to March of 2022 and I purchase the following…. desperation, frustration – i’llbuyanythingSuagaatthispoint……. we’ve all been there….. right?

Suaga Mask Ripley Auctions 03/22

So in November (11/16/22) Pook & Pook Inc sent out an email notification and lo and behold there’s a Mister Suaga and Mrs. Djenne (more on this beauty later). This Suaga was a piece with a Klejman provenance which had come to auction in 2009 at Rago (coincidence) with a lot sticker from the old auction on the stand. Fortunately the Klejman provenance was not included in the lot details so I made out and made up for all prior Suaga frustration….

Klejman Suaga

Struck by Lega (finally)!!

On November 21st and 22nd 2022 several items from the estate of Sara Roosevelt Wilford came up for auction across Sotheby’s and Doyle New York.

E1 – Sotheby’s : Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
21 November 2022•14:00 EST New York
Lot #59 Yaure Mask, Côte d’Ivoire, possibly by Kuakudili

The Yaure piece sold well, helped by a Mathias Komor provenance and the fact that a snippet of the eye area was used as the lead-in to the auction. This piece should appreciate substantially in coming years.

The pieces (which sold) from the Doyle New York auction were an Edo Bronze Hip mask, a Lega, and an Ibeji.

If one considers the abstraction of the female figure, and further compartmentalizes the process of pregnancy the Lega is pretty thought provoking from several perspectives.

“The objects [Lega] represent moral or social values, and are used during initiation rites. The Bwami works of art are often associated with proverbs, and these proverbs in conjunction with dance, poetry and song give wisdom to members of the society. Beauty, knowledge and power are intertwined.” (see Lega)

Baby Belt Technique:

The carving demonstrates support for pregnancy via the ‘X’ across the belly area, which would have been accomplished using wraps or ties.

“For the ladies whose bellies are protruding outwards a good bit, you might like this technique. You will need two strips of tape [kinesio]. You are going to form an “X” at your belly button, starting at the bottom above your hip bones. While pulling the tape across your belly, you are going to make sure you pull firmly in order for the tape to hold your belly in place securely.

The carver uses the relative size of the small arms and hands supporting disproportionately larger breasts, and the larger size of the stomach area to subtly convey the differences stemming from pregnancy. The clean lines of the hips and legs illustrate reduced mobility and highlights the importance of the pregnancy. The calm stoic facial appearance promotes a peaceful countenance which is important to the fetus.

E2 Lega – Pregnant Woman (side view)

Finally the carver rolls the arms, and breasts straight into the neck in a seamless fashion, thus the strong neck and wide hips offer classic balance to the piece. To be honest I did give the Ibeji a little run but that was primarily to soften up the bidding on the Lega. It was always the Lega for the win!!

E1 Sotheby’s photo credit

E2 Doyle New York photo credit (set of four)

Larence, Oya and Oshun.

Michelle and I made an overnight road trip to Duxbury MA in June 2022 via DC, Baltimore, NY and CT. The event was an estate sale full of musical books, American folk art, portraits and African Tribal Art antiques. The collector was Larence Harley Smith (RIP), who passed the year prior at age 87. Although we thought getting there (even with a tire puncture on the turnpike) at 9am was great stuff, we couldn’t compare to his friend Lan Nelson who made the three day road trip from Kansas and arrived a bit before we did.

Five Pieces – Oloju Foforo mask (far left)

The estate sale staff were pretty great (special shout out to Diane McNamee, Marion Antiques) and kept everything orderly, even though the sale was spread between three buildings. I think our best purchase was a Sokoto terracotta, from Axel (a NJ collector) who also made the trip and who had some recent success selling pieces through Millea Brothers Auctions. We had been going back and forth for a couple years on the price and payment terms for this particular piece. This is the way. Axel had previously shared some advice that occasionally works at a live auction, “Throw in an early bid at a piece with a fairly high estimate range…. you never know”.


Back to Larence’s collection, the main pickup was the Ikenga, but the double tiered Oloju Foforo mask may prove to be the most interesting.

Oshun (?)

Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of the river is associated with the colors white, yellow, gold, and sometimes coral. Oya, is another of Shango’s wives and her colors are brown, dark red, and multicolored. What’s interesting is the first tier showing Shango in disguise, wearing locks of hair cut from either Oshun or Oya in order to avoid detection from unfriendly enemy forces. Based on the extensive use of yellow I think the mask represents team Oshun.

Larence travelled extensively and this was reflected in the diversity of his pieces. It was clear that he had been bitten but not limited by the African Art bug, since most of the proceeds of the estate sale were to be donated to a Native American charity. Lately I find myself leaning to pieces with at least a little provenance but the most important driver in buying pieces for a personal collection should be based on personal impact or attraction to the piece.

Part 2: Anonymity and Authorship

Influence of Master Carvers: Areogun and Olowe

I have a desperate weakness for Yoruba bowls…. which thankfully, is easily satiated by the reality of their price points and my personal budget. Over the years I’ve managed to acquire a variety of bowls over the spectrum ranging from truly poor quality to ‘simple’ and interesting. I’ll mention two of my favorite bowls (both in museums), and a recent acquisition. This last will be indirectly assessed by comparing carving characteristics of three famous Yoruba carvers.

Olumeye Bowl – “One who knows honor”: SMA museum NJ.

My second favorite is housed at the High museum in Atlanta.

Agere Ifa – Divination Bowl

Finally my favorite ‘Presentation’ or ‘Offertory bowl’…. note the use of high relief, extraordinary 3D composition, use of motion and interaction on the bowl figures.

Yoruba Offertory Bowl – Jack Faxon Collection

The first carver’s style on tap is that of Lamidi O. Fakeye, (1928 – December 24, 2009) a fifth generation Nigerian sculptor and academic. My personal description of Fakeye’s style is somewhere between traditional and contemporary. His proportions are neat, clean, and engaging (carved clothing seems to literally drape on his sculpture). An interesting connection is that Fakeye was an apprentice to the famous Nigerian sculptor/carver George Bamidele Areogun (x -1994), whose father was the Yoruba master carver Dada Areogun.

Fakeye’s Bowl Carrier

Areogun of Osi-Ilorin (ca. 1880-1956, Nigeria) is the next carver considered. Areogun was from the town of Osi Ilorin, in the Northern Ekiti region of Nigeria. His teacher was Bamagbose (died 1920), one of the ancient master carvers, who had a strong influence on him. Areogun created a distinctive style and his works are often signed with a triangle on the bottom. As with Olowe of Ise, Areogun began to sign his work relatively late, probably in the early 1920s. 

Areogun Panel – SMA museum NJ

Areogun was a prolific artist and carved many doors, house posts, masks and lidded bowls. The lidded bowl following is typical of Areogun’s best work–including the low-relief figures arranged in an orderly, tight composition. Several of the figures and attributes on the bowl suggest an association with Shango, god of thunder. Other images recall Eshu, the divine messenger and trickster, and Ogun, god of iron. The spherical form and the lid’s arches pierced by an iron spike suggest the Yoruba cosmos–a universe where change and transformation and interdependence and interaction are ever present.1

Olowe of Ise (c. 1875-c. 1938) was born in the town of Efon-Alaiye, a major artistic center in Yorubaland. He spent most of his life in Ise, where he was initially engaged as a messenger at the court of the Arinjale (king) of Ise. Whether he apprenticed with someone to learn his craft or whether he was self-taught–born a master of composition and design (oju-ona)–as his descendants claim, is not known. His career as a sculptor, however, seems to have begun at Ise and his fame spread throughout eastern Yorubaland.”2

“Many of the characteristics of Olowe’s personal style are shown in the panel below: the unusually high relief carving, deep-cut and verging on the three dimensional; figures with limbs modeled and flexed to give an impression of movement, and surfaces inflected with painterly chipping and faceting. All of these features are also found in the extraordinary veranda posts that Olowe produced for his royal patrons. Where other artists working with this form carved their stacked-up figures facefront and locked within the column, Olowe often twists them in different directions, sets their limbs free in space and enlivens them with personable details: EVEN more radical is the way Olowe plays with visual and social conventions. In several sculptures he reverses or blends gender roles, giving male figures women’s hairdos and dressing them in the beaded girdles worn by brides. Why he did so is a mystery, but one can assume that like any inventive artist intent on making a name for himself, he upset expectations both to arrest the eye and to keep his public wondering what on earth he would be up to next.”3

Owole Palace Door – Smithsonian
Owole Bowl – Smithsonian



Part 1: Anonymity and Authorship

Finding value in an Ijo/IJAW/IJEBU headdress

Used primarily by the Southern Yoruba of Ijebu, Ijo styled headdresses are used by the masquerade cult known as AgboMagbo or Ekine (meaning ‘dancing people’ in Ijo), which pay homage to Olokun, goddess of the sea as well as a number of other water spirits. The Yoruba-Ijebu have masquerades to celebrate and acknowledge the roles of water spirits in the wellbeing of their coastal communities. The headdress is worn horizontally on the head.

Map of Yorubaland showing IJEBU and IJO locations

“During celebrations, three main headdresses (igodo – the bird, oni – the crocodile & agira – the antelope) are danced together. A fourth headdress, okooro (human headdress) is believed to act as an intermediary between the living and the water spirits. It heralds in the start of the Ekine festival after which the other masqueraders appear.” 1

Yoruba Ijebu headdress

Far Right: Artkhade database: LOT 9, LOUDMER, POULAIN & CORNETTE DE SAINT-CYR, PARIS – 19 DÉC. 1974. (2,668EUR). Art Primitif : Collection André Schoeller

Inner Right: probably 21th century ( Pinterest).

Left: Jack Faxon estate, lot 11134 (probably 2nd half of 20th century), DuMouchelles 01/29/21.

Inner Left: Artkhade database: LOT 169, BINOCHE RENAUD GIQUELLO, PARIS – 01/03/2013. Art Touareg, Africain, Océanien, Amazonien et Indiens d’Amérique (4,550EUR)

The stylistic similarities for these pieces include the curved front (prow type), the ‘doughnut’ at the other end, animals or birds, and two or more conical features (representing the eyes of the water spirit). This basically is as close to authorship as one could get for most pre mid-20th century African Tribal art in western collections. Value for these masks would be determined by provenance (more a proxy for age), patina (cracked resinous material, dusty, damaged surface being exposed to water), and wear. Ijebu masquerades took place right into the late 20th century (see Yoruba – Nine centuries of African Art and Thought p133) so anything circa 1960s to 1970s really is a great find.

Another value point past the ‘halo’ impact afforded by similarly styled items with reasonable provenance is the story told by the piece. The Igodo headdress shows the story of coexistence between man, animals, and the water spirits. While the Ekine legends, and creation mythologies are consistent from year to year each mask and the story told through design are different. Finally the rule of thumb that value usually increases with rarity, does not always hold for African Tribal Art….. if you are moved by a mask, its beauty, function, and history then by all means go for it!!



Iphri – Male Aggression (personality corrective)


URHOBO : I’ve found it fascinating that the Urhobo identified and addressed aggression as a separate, treatable ailment. The key factor being that it is identified at an early age, and the treatment was accepted within the village. In the Iphri aggression is depicted in placement at the stomach, and by representation as a fierce, vicious, and senseless entity. The following was taken from the Seattle Art Museum website.

“Being worried by hunger brings vexation.
Hunger makes you say what you do not understand”.

(From a praise poem for an “ivri”, 1971)

URHOBO – IPHRI/IVRI (Seattle Art Museum)

A hunger for aggression has overtaken this figure and turned it into a monstrous centaur. Instead of a body, an enormous mouth with crossing incisors opens wide. The Urhobo calls upon ivri to address the personal and collective force that human antagonisms can foster. If a man becomes persistently troublesome or argumentative, unwilling to adjust or share, an ivri could be commissioned for his use. Or he might visit one in a town meeting hall, where the figure served as a personality corrective.

RHOBO – IPHRI/IVRI (Seattle Art Museum)

Regular offerings of food were deposited in the ivri’s cavernous mouth. Offerings of yams, gin, chicken blood, and kola nuts have accumulated on this figure. During visits, people might recite lengthy praise poems, and consult the ivri about community problems. Through this action and recitation, the ivri provided the Urhobo with a metaphorical way of limiting excessive aggression.

Wood, camwood, chalk, nails, encrustation, 36 x 14 3/4 in. (91.5 x 37.5 cm) Diam.: 13 1/4 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.532

Photos: Paul Macapia

Ikenga, Ichi, and ultra-long Horns

Interesting Ikenga at auction in Dec 2020. Ikenga is a ‘ritual object’ (commonly found in Igbo family shrines), which on an individual basis represents ‘masculine strength’ and the ‘ability to achieve one’s goals through one’s efforts’. 

Shaw Ikenga : Merrill’s Auctioneers

Provenance – 19th/early 20th c African Tribal carved wooden figure, descended from Albert Shaw 1857- 1947, Author, Historian, Editor of the Review of Reviews, member of the American Antiquarian Society, eroded, crusty surface, loss to base, ht 20 1/4″

Ikenga Ichi composite

I couldn’t resist developing a composite comparing the treatment of the Ichi detail on the piece versus the actual scarification detail.

The other area that caught my attention was the length (almost half of the carving) and straightness of the horns. These horns are more symbolic and seem to suggest that success is driven more by will than by any physical or material accruement.

Egungun Tableau

Egungun in “the broadest sense is any Yoruba masquerade or masked, costumed figure. More specifically, it is a Yoruba masquerade for ancestor reverence, or the ancestors themselves as a collective force”…. as part of the Yoruba religion Egungun embraces and celebrates blood ancestors, their strengths and teachings. The main character in the masquerade presents a vibrant mixture of rich velvet textures and whirling centrifugal movement.

Typically the main Egungun headdress displays a long eared head carved atop a large circular disc, which serves as the hanger for the folds of material hanging down, to present a cylindrical whole. The head at times may represent a hunter with a long plait resting to the right.

Egungun Tableau : Front view

I came across an Egungun tableau and I’ll share a simple interpretation (my literature teacher Mr. Mercier (RIP) would refer to the ‘explicit’).

Egungun Tableau : Side view

I’m breaking down the Egungun tableau into five groups: 1.Hunter, 2. Turtle, 3. Monkey dragon, 4. Two four legged dragons (one angry to the left), and one docile on the right of the hunter, 5. Caretakers (3 off). I map the tableau components to anger, love, long term strategy, short term happiness/mischief, and restraint/care….. The angry dragon (for example) is restrained by two caretakers, but with care. The docile dragon may represent a loving nature. The happy monkey dragon is cared for in a nurturing (positively spoiled) manner while the turtle sits in the middle (central and representing strategic thinking) facing the angry dragon. The hunter’s plait lays over the docile dragon (showing a normal harmonious state).

Rear View – Monkey Dragon

The tableau represents a simple map showing the complexities of our behaviors, and drivers. It also entreats descendants to pay attention and care to specific aspects of character. It does not say ‘aspire to this ideal’ but rather ‘this is what you need to understand and develop for a holistic and balanced life’.

Yoruba Egungun Headress & Costume : Bonhams,14 Nov 2013 (lot 169)

Katsina, Haniwa and the Japanese connection

Sometime in 2016, at the Yale University Art Gallery I came across two similar figures in adjoining rooms, from remote cultures. In Mexican preColumbian cultures (Nayarit, Jalisco), Nigerian (Dakakari), Ghana (Akan, Koma) there are clay/terracotta funerary forms but mostly the representations are pretty unique.

The Haniwa is a Japanese funerary object from the Kofun period (300-600AD).

Haniwa were created according to the wazumi process in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer (see Modelling of Nok terra-cotta). The name literally translates into ‘the circle of clay’, referring to the arrangement of the Haniwa above the tomb.

Katsina and Haniwa Comparison

Because the haniwa display contemporary clothing, hairstyle, farming tools, and architecture, these sculptures are important as a historical archive of the Kofun Period.

Katsina State was located on the trade routes between the ancient city of Kano and the Sahara. A period of three hundred years (200BC to 100AD) has been suggested. The figures were attached to the top of cylindrical or globular jars and were perhaps funerary markers. Figures are typically seated with caps, and limbs are disproportionally smaller and less thick.

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