Yoruba Offertory Bowl

One of my favorite pieces is a Yoruba offertory bowl. The offertory bowl is predominantly supported on the head of an ‘allegorical’ leader. He holds a staff in his right hand and the horse’s reins in his left.

The main figure represents the ‘alase’ (knowledgeable ones) class, which includes kings, queens, priests, diviner’s, and elders. This term is associated with their ability to utilize ‘ase’ (life force) and channel it for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. This imagery reflects the link between positions of authority in Yoruba society and great knowledge and enlightenment, (Art & Oracle, p40).
The carving style and equestrian subject is popular in the Ekiti region in northeast Yorubaland where the equestrian motif is used in architectural sculpture, masquerades, offertory bowls, and Ifa divination cups (‘agere’). The items commemorate the hunter-warriors credited with establishing sixteen kingdoms there in the eighteenth century (Yoruba Art & Asthetics, p69). These images reinforce the implicit potential of prosperity, and success when faced with personal challenges.

To the right of the horseman the photo above shows a miniature figure playing a ‘dundun’ drum, strapped over his left shoulder, while the photo below shows a miniature of a kneeling female figure carrying a bowl. This figure shows a traditional bridal head-dress: a raised single -crested coiffure. This coiffure is called ‘orin agogo’ and is commonly related to marriage.

The piece reflects a joyous time and to the rear one sees a man on the lower level playing a flute.

Falling for Luba

I seriously like New Orleans and it didn’t hurt that I was first introduced to the art of Woodrow Nash while on a NO trip or that I recently found my first Luba caryatid stool down there.

Luba art is the sort of art that kind of sits at the periphery of the collector’s acquisition locus and becomes even more attractive with time and knowledge.


Sotheby’s catalog notes.


According to Roberts and Roberts (2007) the Luba were a cluster of “overlapping clan and lineage groupings that were consolidated as kingdoms and important chiefdoms from around the seventeenth century” by the mythical hero, king Kalala Ilunga. “Luba political strength lay in an aura of prestige derived from spiritual power and reflected in material and performance arts. Indeed, the arts played a crucial role in Luba political expansion, as kings conferred objects and the ritual practices associated with them to extend their influence into outlying areas.”

Female caryatid stools were part of each Luba king’s treasury and the most important emblem of his kingship.  Stools figured prominently in royal investiture rites where “the new ruler swore his oath of office and addressed his people for the first time as king” (Roberts and Roberts 1996). The purpose of caryatid stools was, however, not as much functional as it was symbolic.  The female figure made reference to the matrilineal dynastic succession.  When a Luba king died his residence was preserved as lieu de mémoire where his spirit was alive and incarnated by a human medium, called mwadi.  Objects from the deceased king’s royal treasury became objects of devotion and were ritually venerated.

Here are two examples from the Barnes foundation.

African Art in the Barnes Foundation : p.273

It is worth noting that the posture of the female figures is not a ‘subservient’ one, and the hairstyles and scarification patterns were part of a beautification process related to the customs of the region and the period.

Nsibidi, Igbo, and Ekpe

I recently came across an Igbo helmet mask (Ben Matros collection) which had some brief comments attached.

Igbo, Ekpe, and Idoma…. collected 1966.

Collecting African Tribal Art sometimes requires some level of research since there are many copies and replicas made for sale to collectors.

Some research indicated that Idoma was perhaps not in play since there were not many examples of Janus (or multifaced) masks in use. Alternatively they were more common in Igbo theatre to the point where a popular central character (‘Asufu’) was a four faced helmet mask. Idoma masquerades by contrast use many headcrests, or single faced masks.

A similar mask at the LA County Museum of Art was also listed as Igbo. The two faces showed less wear,

The two masks displayed Nsibidi symbols referencing ‘love’ and ‘meeting’ (see below).

On Nsibidi:



Nsibidi is an ancient script used to communicate in various languages in West Central Africa. Most notably used by the Uguakima and Ejagham (Ekoi) people of Nigeria and Cameroon, Nsibidi is also used by the nearby Ebe, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo, and Uyanga people.

The script is believed to date back to 5000 BC, but the oldest archaeological evidence ever found dates it to 2000 BC (monoliths in Ikom, Nigeria). Similar to the Kemetic Medu Neter, Nsibidi is a system of standardized pictographs.



Nsibidi is not an alphabet but something more compressed, more graphic — more poetic, in a sense. Technically, it is an ideographic writing system, whose more than one thousand symbols (drawn in the air as gestures, drawn on the ground, drawn on skin as tattoos, or drawn on calabashes, swords, masks and textiles) don’t correspond to a single language but refer to concepts, actions or things that can be understood by people speaking a variety of different languages.



Strangely, Nsibidi and the Egyptian Hieroglyphics share some characters. Like the Hieroglyphics, Nsibidi was taught to select secret groups that exuded power and authority. They were largely in control of the arms of government, hence its exclusivity. Among them is the Ekpe Leopard Secret Society. The Ekpe, still found in present-day Abia, are often seen wearing a particular clothing during formal events. This cloth is known as the Ukara Ekpe.

Five Guro reasons to visit the Barnes Foundation.

In 2018 I visited the Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia) to check out their Tribal African Art collection. A couple years earlier I had purchased a Guro mask at a NJ auction and in a ‘weird moment’ I remember thinking it was extraordinarily beautiful. The strange thing is that in terms of ‘beautiful’ masks Baule masks usually (deservedly(?)) get most of the hype and the glory while Guro masks sort of loiter at the other end of the spectrum.

Guro – The Bouaflé Master. Face Mask Surmounted by a Bowl (Gu), Late 19th century. 

“This mask is by one of Africa’s greatest named master sculptors and it may be his absolute greatest work.”…. source : African Art in the Barnes Foundation ($30ish).

This is a side view from the reference material.

Unidentified artist, Guro. Mask of a Woman with Leather Hairband (Gu), Early 20th Century.

Unidentified artist, Guro. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Guro, artist related to the Master of Duonu. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Guro, artist related to the Master of Duonu. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Admission ($30ish) is a little pricey but the collection covers three small rooms and there are several pretty amazing pieces in there. The reference material (check bookstore) is also extensive and the photos are excellent.

My Kakishi moment

Source: Art and Oracle

In December of 2016 I tapped out in the auction of a very reasonably priced ‘kakishi’ divination piece (Merton Simpson estate). It’s been three years and it may be time to let this one go. The piece is shown below.

I found a more recent picture (and more expensive listing) of another similar item.

The kakishi is used in a form of Luba divination called kashekesheke. It is about six inches high, with an open body for the insertion of the fingers of client and diviner.

“Kashekesheke is performed by both diviner and client. The kakishi is placed on a woven mat. The suppliant addresses the question to the kakishi and the diviner and client insert their forefingers into the body space of the prepared kakishi. The kakishi moves in various patterns, which signify ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘no answer’.

This form of Luba divination is relatively simple and used for personal crisis or when facing uncertainty regarding a future course of action. The divination process provided the ritual context for the creation of small and often exquisitely carved friction devices.”

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