Okenekene Restoration

Restoring African Tribal Art is always a tricky business. The interesting part is that more is not necessarily better with respect to older pieces but while there are varied perspectives, the final analysis comes down to the deterioration of the ‘authentic’ piece, and the addition of aesthetic features.

The Okenekene headdress lends itself to restoration for the following reasons:

  1. There are several removable component pieces (chameleon, python),
  2. The piece itself portrays an Okenekene narrative,
  3. The headdress showed signs of repeated use.
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Front section of Okenekene showing existing wave abstraction but missing the ‘Fishing Dragon’.

The frontal area of the purchased piece shows the feet of the broken ‘fishing dragon’ and the missing ‘wave’.

I was fortunate to come across this piece at a Merton Simpson estate auction. I suspect the only reason I was able to acquire the piece was as a result of a rare computer glitch which left me as the only bidder on the floor. With some verbal prompting from my Mum the auctioneer acquiesced and closed the deal.

click photo for video link: OKENEKENE RESTORATION

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In another of many related providential occurrences I had been gifted a book titled ‘Ways of the Rivers’ after purchasing pieces from the Alfred Prince collection. This book provided a lot of research on Okenekene headdresses, and my favorite Delta tribes (Urhobo, Ogoni, Ijo).

My luck had not run out since I was also able to have the restoration done (molding, carving, finishing) by the talented family Miller. It was a fantastic learning experience since the existing surface finish showed wonderful signs of ageing (crackling, alligatoring) and changed my perception on analyzing the quality of pieces forever.

Okenekene Headdress

I came across the Okenekene headdress complex in December of 2016, while doing some research on a purchased piece (note: research post purchase) from the Merton D. Simpson collection. As indicated in a prior blog, I do have a weakness for the water spirit headdress.

The headdress is peculiar to Ijebu-Yorubaland[1] which occupies the costal plain between the interior Yoruba kingdoms of Ife, Ijesha, Egba, Ibadan, and Oyo and the coastal waterways. The Ijebu recognize the presence and power of spirits controlling Delta waters, and acknowledge that they adopted and adapted their Agbo masquerades from Niger Delta peoples (primarily the Ijo).

Here are a few examples,

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Okenekene Headdress : The house and clock reflect the impressive  quarters of the water spirits living below the surface. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The piece typically consists of three sections,

Back:

Typically shows  coiled vines, and a heart shaped paddle, (or woro leaf). This will also have a chameleon, and or a python component.

Middle:

The middle area shows the abstract anthropomorphic representation of the water spirit with long pointed ears. Atop the domed area there may be shown an animal representation, or a more human related reference (e.g. an umbrella or rudder).

Front:

Typically reflects a reference to static/dynamic, natural/spiritual activity in the water.

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Okenekene : Showing chameleon, and python components at the back, the umbrella in the middle, and the fishing eagle within the waves to the front. [E1]

Another similarly styled headdress from the Seattle Art museum, also incorporates the chameleon (from the Yoruba creation myth).

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Okenekene : worn horizontally, they can be described as a juxtaposition of natural, spiritual, and human references. [E2]

A more modern, and less complicated representation of the Okenekene.

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Okenekene imagery in masquerade (1982): Ways of the Rivers, pg. 209.

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components

Python[2]

Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum’ Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. “It is the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate in the mystic dance and utter oracles.”

When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to five days, during which she may not drink water. The language spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers. In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is worshiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony). Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the Ijaw people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried with the honors of a chief.

Birds[3]

Birds also appear frequently in water spirit headdresses. For the Kalabari Ijo, these are probably references to oru ogolo, the talkative bulbul bird that is said to live in villages and to speak the language of the spirits. It communicates messages from the spirits to the humans.

In Agbo masks, birds ride on the backs of crocodiles and on the snouts of such masks as Igodo and Okenekene. In these latter instances the bird is probably a fishing eagle.

For the Ijebu, the bird is linked with water spirits, as it is in the Delta.

[1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 197

[2] The Serpent in African Belief and Custom, WILFRID D. HAMBLY

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060/asset/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060.pdf;jsessionid=7534E7071431626BC682F7D0CD464BC3.f01t01?v=1&t=iz1r67lt&s=1c30c9afebd796232de7a81c52a43f8e9e7d1fa5

[3] Ways of the Rivers, Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek

[E1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 203

[E2] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilization, pg.197

Tapping out…

The first of several Merton Simpson’s African Tribal art estate auctions took place at Quinn’s Auctions in Falls Church Virginnia (10/01/16). With approximately 400 of the high-end pieces of his collection on sale it proved to be an arduous task, but once the audience was walked through the challenges from the Nigerian government, consignment claims, and catalog mishaps it was pretty smooth sailing.

The prices though…. were a true testament to the reputation and cachet of the ‘Merton Simpson’ brand in the African Tribal art world.

My tap out moment came on a three item stretch (#168 to #170). These items were an Oron sculpture, a female Tiv figure, and a Urhobo mask respectively.

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The way it worked was the opening bid (before absentee bids) would be one-half the lower catalog estimate. This worked out to be $150, $400, and $50 … (I know right, too good to be true, and well worth the drive to Virginna from NY). Honestly though, by the time we reached to item #168 I had already drawn a ‘sad’ smiley face next to item #169. The final sale prices came in at $850, $12,500, and $900 respectively. Then you add 20% buyer’s premium, and a 6% sales tax for your effort, and this is without taking the shipping costs into consideration, or the 4% credit card penalty (keep those checkbooks handy) should you choose that option!

So let’s circle back to your basic auction strategy, 1. prior to your must-have items you should always buy a great piece – that way you ALWAYS walk away with something, 2. after your tap out moment don your best kamikaze/guerrilla persona, open up that wallet, and come out focused and swinging!!

 

Photocredit : Screenshot from Liveauctioneers.com

Dan & Me.

I struggle with the Dan mask. It feels like every carver has made one, and every African Tribal art collector has one (at least). It is a common mask type. It is “Ground Zero” of the African masking genre as far as collecting is concerned. It can be argued that it influenced artistic direction from Munch’s “The Scream”, to “Faceless Men” in Game of Thrones. At it’s core it has the simplest lines, and easily recognizable attributes, yet with all this I still find myself slugging it out with avid collectors at obscure African Tribal Art auctions.

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Dan (Zakpai mask)

 

 

The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

This weekend was ultra-solid as empty-nested and broken bracketed Easter weekends go. Sadly though it did begin on a low note since I was throughly priced out of a couple decent African tribal art offerings. Like any good fox however I found myself surprisingly amenable to spurning the ‘grapes’ and moving right along to more affordable fare.

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Zakpai Mask – Dan Tribe

Zakpai‘ is the fire prevention mask. Its function is to insure
that women have put out their cooking fires every day during
the dry season, before the afternoon winds begin to blow.
Zakpai is aggressive, sometimes throws things, and is
meant to inspire fear. Tall green leaves cover the head. In
addition, the masker wears pants with a ruff of raffia around
the waist and neck. It carries a branch as a weapon (Fischer
1978, 21). [1]

In keeping with the Dan trend my favorite dealer parted ways with this small treasure.

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Dan Tribe – Gagon

Masks with a large beak-like form and beard of monkey fur, often with a moveable lower jaw, are Gagon masks. Originally an educational mask instructing people on the importance of the hornbill bird to their culture, they are now used mostly for entertainment.[2]

These pieces were part of an African Art collection from the estate of Alfred M. Prince, both the scholar, philanthropist, and the avid collector.

The following photographs were recommended for addition (thanks Ed), and are sourced (as indicated) from the topic essay titled “MASQUERADES AMONG THE DAN PEOPLE” and the PinInterest site.

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Africa | People wear a “Dan” mask at the agricultural Festival of Ignames of the Yacouba tribe in Cote d’Ivoire. | Image and caption © Charles & Josette Lenars

 

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Two kagle masks and deangle, Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

 

[1] http://www.randtribal.com/Dan_Zakpai_mask.html

[2] http://www.hamillgallery.com/DAN/DanGagonMasks/DanGagonMasks.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tortoise and the Snake.

While visiting the Yale University Art gallery (03/20/16) I came across a Yoruba door with four panels. The third panel showed four characters, a tortoise, a man, and a small antelope.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #3).

I disagreed with the following description,

“… a coiled snake seizes an antelope while a small kneeling figure strikes the snake with an axe, thus representing the Yoruba proverb ‘We are all struggling’.”

With no mention of the tortoise (Ijapa – the animal trickster hero or villain who plays the role of Anansi the spider among the Ashanti, and that of the hare (Brer Rabbit in the USA) in other parts of West Africa[1]), I came up with another description,

The combination of ‘small and innocent’ will better survive ‘size and treachery’, through the combination of ‘prowess and cunning’…. or to make a long story short “idealism can only get you so far”. This panel resonates with me from a very real life perspective since while guile can easily morph into treachery there is no mistaking who lies at the bottom of the economic food chain.

This is the door in its entirety followed by the exhibit description. It shows detail, imagination, and simplicity of design combined to produce a really wonderful artistic result.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Yale Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr.)

For Panel #1.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #1).

“The relief on the top panel depicts a woman holding an upside-down child on her back – a reference to the unpredictable earth mother, Iya Ile. The child holds the head and tail of a snake, symbolizing Ogun, the god of Iron, who is worshipped by hunters, warriors, and blacksmiths. The woman faces a drummer, a kneeling man, and a hunting dog”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #2).

“In the second panel a hunter on horseback holds a pistol and a spear”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #4).

“In the bottom panel, two triumphant hunters smoke pipes while being honored by two flute players”.

This piece demonstrates the multifaceted nature of African Tribal Art, which transforms the practical door into a carrier of norms, ritual thought, and value systems.

 

 

[1] Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, 1996 pg 221.

Bayard Rustin, Nok and Sokoto.

Collecting African Tribal Art, through the inherent nature of its complexity was always going to lead me to a rabbit hole or two. On the Richter scale my rabbit holes are ranked from a sojourn through wikipedia to a midnight conference with my pals Malibu and Piney… and this one turned into a real doozy.

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Bayard Rustin – LIFE magazine cover.

Connecting the dots was simple enough,

  • The main character, Bayard Rustin put together what is clearly a special collection of African Terracotta, primarily Nok, and Sokoto. Rustin received a posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for his work in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.[1]
  • The collection ultimately found a home at Yale University  via sale to Joel and SusAnna Grae of New Haven, CT.

Bayard Rustin is buried in the Civil Rights movement lore. The first I heard of him was when I viewed the Yale University video (link above). While he led a very interesting political life his commitment to nonviolence, and the civil rights cause is an amazing testament to the strength of human resilience.

One of my favorite parts of the video showed SusAnna Grae commenting –“the very judgmental Sokoto would look at you and say ‘well, what did you do today’…”.

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Sokoto Bust – (Source: The Birth of Art in Black Africa, pg. 105)

Invariably these collections end up in private hands. The fact that this collection is now available to the public for free viewing, and research is a good thing. My preference would have been to view the collection at a Historically Black College or University (insert Howard University plug here), but most of these institutions have neither the depth of networks nor finances to put this effort together.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20131122/civil-rights-activist-rustins-african-art-collection-makes-its-way-to-yale-gallery

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