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 Lou 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.

Rituals of Burial

Joy Mahabir (reposted with permission)

Like a spreading cane fire, news of the embalmed, dressed corpse of Che Lewis being transported in the open air blazed through social media.

At the funeral, Lewis’s body was seated in a chair at the entrance of the church while his father’s body was in a casket. Both father and son were slain by unknown gunmen on November 14.

Images of the hearse and seated corpse were recently featured in the UK’s Daily Mail, the New York Post, as well as other metropolitan media. Sensationalised accounts of this event miss the fact that this treatment of the body resonates with burial practices seen across the Caribbean.

In the current moment, as death circles the Caribbean through natural disasters, a zoonotic epidemic, homicides and other forms of violence, the aesthetic practices that negotiate life and death have several cultural references at once.

The Lewis men were buried in Evangelical Christian rites. Yet, to anyone familiar with Haitian visual culture, Che Lewis’s corpse sitting outside the church can be associated with the work of avant-garde Port-au-Prince artists who, after the 2010 earthquake, took skeletal remains and combined these with the colours of vodou drapeau, symbolically resurrecting the figures of those crushed in the rubble.

Dennie’s Funeral Home did an excellent job of embalming and dressing. The colours chosen for Che Lewis evoke the pink of the loa Erzulie Freda Dahomey, whose love and abundance are needed during times of grief, while the white references the garb of Hindu funerals.

In Trinidad, the dressed corpse, seated or standing, has appeared in rural areas. Conversing about Trinidadian culture, writer and scholar Ramabai Espinet has said that in the past it was sometimes the practice to stand the deceased person in a coffin in a corner of the room while the wake proceeded. A common wake song was, “It was the night Mozambo dead/ the dead man get up and start to walk about/ Santimanitay.”

Three actions are ascribed to the dressed corpse: witnessing, speaking and returning. Witnessing implies that the actions of the living must follow moral and ethical expectations, since the dead have powers of silent observation, as seen in West African belief systems.

In West African tradition, it takes nine nights for the spirit to travel from this world to the next. Burial rites are necessary and, if not performed, the spirit wanders. Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo references this idea in her short story, “In the Cutting of a Drink”. Here the narrator goes to Accra to find his sister after 12 years. He says if she is dead, she will be wandering until she witnesses that her family has searched for her to bring her home.

Giving the dead a space to speak is extremely important for people whose truths have been silenced. Discussing the Haitian ceremony of souls, George Lamming states that in this ritual, the dead return to give a full and honest report of their relations with the living. This was important during the colonial period when so much culture and history was suppressed.

Today, it seems even more necessary for the dead to speak, given the fact that Trinidad has close to 400 murders to date. What do those murdered need to say to the living? What do they need to say to the community?

The dressed, seated corpse carries a message, an invitation to listen to what must be said from beyond the grave. Whether this message is personal, political or prophetic, it is up to those living to interpret and respect it.

Finally, the mystical journey back to the ancestral land signifies deep peace and reunion with those gone before, the gifts of death. So deeply is this return desired that in some mystical narratives, as in the story of “Gang Gang Sarah of Tobago’’, the nganga (healer) attempts a return while she is alive, but is unable to fly because she has eaten salt—an ancient symbol of empire. It is death that makes return possible, as these poetic lines from Haitian writer Jacques Roumain suggest: “It’s the long road to Guinea/ death takes you down… There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village/ and the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone/ where your head will rest at last.”

—Joy Mahabir is professor of English at Suffolk County Community College of the State University of New York and writes on Caribbean literature and culture


Black is King (Spot the Woodrow)

Before I stumbled on Fakeye, I collided with Woodrow (Woodrow Nash pieces that is)!! On an easygoing day in New Orleans a gallery showed a taste of what he had done, and more importantly where his work was headed. Juxtaposition of tribal markings, psychedelic swagger, and evolving styles of the Diaspora are the hallmark of his most exciting phase to date.

Too Real!!!

In ‘Black is King’, a Beyoncé infused Disney product with modern parallels to The Lion King, African Tribal influence is everywhere both in terms of masks and sculpture, but even more importantly in the animist concepts like ‘The Circle of Life’ and ‘The Tree of Life’.

For a five minute period the movie was literally the Woodrow Nash show.

And it just kept getting better, and better.

The truth is that this is good for African Tribal Art, since it covers the contemporary and the ancient, showing the power of the art form is not driven by religious influences, as much as it is a recognition of primal forces which have historically surrounded us.

Mbra Conundrum

Humans are fascinating decision-makers, and when it comes to purchasing African Tribal Art anything will pretty much carry the day. Typically we think of discrete yes/no functions, or likes/dislikes based on two dimensional love hate continua. We rarely parse a decision in terms of multi pole, multi dimensional, random, rule based frameworks and yet this is exactly where most of our urges, and must-have bacon weaknesses emanate. This is the genesis of our ability to engage in concepts of love, hate, and the proxy of irreality that allows us to indulge in the pretense of free will (the caveat here requiring that ‘free will’ can only exist in an environment of de minimis constraint).

It should be clear that trying to analyze Christian ethos simply by looking at a crucified representation of a ‘white male’ is for all intents and purposes pretty stupid, yet people try to do it with Tribal African cultural objects all the time.

Baule Tribe : Mbra figure

The reason I liked this dual simian anthropomorphic Mbra figure was simply because the ‘head’ seemed mean, wild, and vicious enough to convey sufficient visual and psychological contrast to a mature (humble) human body awaiting the offering of an egg. Smiley Mbra doesn’t quite do the trick. The visual takeaway for me is threefold….

1. Mean and humble are not mutually exclusive and can come nicely wrapped in the same package.

2. Helping someone doesn’t make them any less mean or angry, and doesn’t change their intent….

3. Mbra reflects the duality within all people, myself as well, so simply from an esthetic perspective I think there’s a lot going on.

Culturally however, ethnographical research will assert that the figure would be used as an aid in trance divination practices by the Baule. The figure would be a receptacle for a ‘bush spirit’ which would better interpret and provide guidance and direction for certain aspects of village life. The process would be carried out by an experienced practitioner of the divining art.

If you’re still reading hold on….

Within African and Diasporic philosophy spirits may be treated in a multitude of ways and flavors. Commonly they are a simple proxy for feelings, or personal drivers which are abstracted, projected and ultimately modeled into useful societal aides. This framework may be extremely useful and broad-based enough to explain away temporary/recurring lapses in judgement and when adopted by a village or society, and further nurtured into a cohesive belief system may provide a nurturing environment for inclusive acceptance of people with extraordinary abilities as well as psychological and mental issues.

For the Baule Mbra spirits were used as a projection of a spiritual intermediary better suited to navigate the spirit world and provide guidance via the diviner (African Art Western Eyes p.41, p.193, p.224).

For the Urhobo “the Iphri alludes to two distinct aspects of aggression: it inspires a warrior to defend his homeland, but it also controls an aggressive individual” (Where Gods and Mortals meet, p.59).

For the IgboIkenga is treated as a being, a spirit, mmuo, which will remain with it’s owner/guardian until his death. If devout, he will ‘feed’ it daily with kola and wine…. to induce the spirit to help him succeed and again later to thank it for achieved success” (Igbo Arts, Community & Cosmos p.26).

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