Suruku Epiphany

Bambara/Bamana Tribe (Mali) : 'Claiborne Suruku' (Hyena Mask)

Bambara/Bamana Tribe (Mali) : ‘Claiborne Suruku’ (Hyena Mask)

One of the tenets of animism would seem to be the availability of an infinite source of moral guidance from the natural order of nature in the world surrounding us. Many tribes were able to combine the best and worst characteristics of animal behavior as parody or as visual instruction.

The Suruku (Hyena) mask is performed during the Kore society initiation, the last of six male initiation societies of the Bamana/Bambara tribe (Mali, Africa)

What everyone knows is that the hyena is perceived as a lazy, strong, scavenger, “readily providing apt metaphors for all that is immoral, rapacious, and senseless. These are human shortcomings left behind as Bamana men achieve the ranks of Kore”. [4]

These are the lessons that are shared,

  • The hyena presents an excellent example of transformative choice within the animal kingdom.
    • It is a hunter as well as a scavenger, (one can be a king or a plebe)
    • It can work alone or in groups, (no man is an island)
    • It is hard to distinguish between male, and female, (everyone has a soft side)
  • The hyena when hunting will carefully go through a herd and select the weak prey, which they can then pursue for miles. To paraphrase Stienitz’s third rule of chess, The attack is to be directed against the weakest spot in the opposing position”.
  • Survival requires different natural skillsets, but also requires the ability and mindset to hunt alone, or work with a pack, (teamwork is always important).


Bamana Notes


The religion of the Bamana is directly related to the jow (initiation societies). As an initiate moves through the six societies, he or she is taught vital issues concerning societal concepts of the moral conduct of life, which contribute to the overall well-being of the individual and the community. Through the six levels of education the initiate learns the importance of knowledge and secrecy, is taught to challenge sorcery, and learns about the dual nature of mankind, the necessity for hard labor in the production of crops, and the realities of surviving from day to day. The final jow, Kore, is devised to allow a man to regain that portion of his spirit that has been lost to the god through the process of reincarnation. If a man is unable to regain his spirit for several lifetimes, he will be entirely absorbed by the god and will cease to exist on Earth. The goal of the initiate then is to usurp the power of the god and remain on Earth, undergoing endless reincarnation.

Use of Suruku mask[2]

All Bamana males advance through various levels of initiation and secret knowledge and the Kore mask appears for only the most senior of men representing their personal struggle to achieve knowledge and wisdom. The symbolism of this mask identifies it as a Kore society-mask combining human and hyena features. According to researchers hyenas are thought by the Bamana to represent foolish behavior reflecting an uninformed view of the world, very much like the young male initiates. Carved in secret by the blacksmith the mask is made from a single piece of wood.


The social, economic and spiritual lives of Bamana men, in Southwestern Mali, are governed by six initiation societies collectively known as Dyow (also called Jow, sing. Dyo or Jo). The six societies are N’tomo (also called N’domo), Komo, Nama, Kono, Chi Wara and Kore. A Bamana man must pass through all six initiation societies respectively to be considered a rounded man with full insight into ancestral teachings and traditions.

Adult Initiation[4]

Kore is the last and most significant of Bamana men’s associations (Colleyn 2008). Hyena masks are performed early in Kore to urge initiands to control their passions, unlike the “insatiably greedy” hyena. This mask’s sleek lines may reflect a Bamana aesthetic of “formal clarity which emphasizes rapid viewer accessibility” (McNaughton 1988: 109), yet Bamana “tend to be very situational in their… interpretation of images and symbols, preferring… to use specific events… as frames for their views on the meaning and quality of particular pieces” (McNaughton 1994: 33-4). The “formal clarity” of this mask must then provoke different interpretations because of its very openness of abstraction. The nature of the animal lends itself to such latitude of reference, for spotted hyenas are distinctly odd animals (Roberts 1995: 15-6) and readily provide apt metaphors for all that is immoral, rapacious, and senseless. These are human shortcomings left behind as Bamana men achieve the ranks of Kore.

A Brief review of Hyenas in African Myth and Ritual (Bamana)[5]

The hyena is depicted in African folklore as an abnormal and ambivalent animal: considered to be sly, brutish, necrophagous, dangerous, and the vilest of beasts, it further embodies physical power, excessivity, ugliness, stupidity, as well as sacredness.

In the transformative rituals of secret societies, such as the Kore cult of the Bamana (Mali), people “become hyenas by using zoomorphic helmet masks and playing dramatic roles, both of which refer to the dirty habits, trickiness, and nastiness of the animal mentioned above; they may also be used to invoke fear among the participants (STRAUBE 1955,2; ROBERTS 1995, 75—76). The initiates in these societies are thereby urged to avoid such habits and character traits in their own life.

The female of the spotted hyena has an elongated clitoris that in relaxed as well as erect condition is similar in shape to the male penis. In addition, it has a pseudo-scrotum that looks similar to the male scrotum. As a result, it is difficult (even for a zoologist) to differentiate between the sexes. As a result of this apparent lack of sexual dimorphism, people think that one and the same spotted hyena can alternately father as a male and give birth as a female (Grzimek 1970,192)/ The alternating androgyne consequently appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. During initiation the role of the (spotted) hyena mask is often to transform the neophyte into a complete moral being, integrating his male principles with femaleness, as among the Kore cult of the Bamana in Mali (ROBERTS 1995,75—76).








My African Terracotta Workout Buddies.

I prefer my office cubicle to be clean, bare, and sterile. No family pictures, no degrees or certificates dressed to the nines in fancy molding or mummified laminations. The Madeba inspired reference to quotes from Invictus, and the Henry Thoreau quotes from ‘Walden’ will never again grace my workplace abode (long story, different blog).

At the mancave it’s just a little different. Here I need the complexity of tribal figures, and a cacophony of cultural rhythm and rhymes to pare the pace of my racing mind, and take the edge off the solitude that Netflix can’t totally eviscerate.

There are three components that help me stick to my daily ‘core’ workout routine.

The Oba corner bronze – this is my wake up latte – ‘no pain no gain’ inspiration mixed with delusional aspiration. There is something about Old Benin that seemed unfulfilled, yet had so much potential.


Benin – Bust of Young Oba

The living room Igbo Ikenga (aka the Kunin Ikenga) –  provides the stubborn motif, mixed with a slight taste of a ‘take no prisoners’ visual.

Kunin Ikenga

[E1] The Kunin Ikenga – from the collection of Myron Kunin

The African Terracotta are the most interesting – now the odd couple, but hopefully the audience will be expanded to three in the near future (don’t judge me).


Workout Buddies – African Terracota (Djenne)

The visage presented by my African Terracotta workout buddies is totally non-judgemental, and allows me to fall from lofty goals on occasion (like the ‘hot cross bun six pack’ vs the six pack abs I strive for). They’re like the quiet cheerleader squad sans short skirts, and frills. They recognize the grind of old age and just encourage me to keep it moving on a day to day basis.



The African Spirit in the context of Religion.

Driving through Philly today I saw several people both middle-aged, and young folk, from all walks of life, seeking alms or money at traffic stops. Faced with the “realization” of limited resources (since one can’t help everyone) I mollified my conscience through the application of moral logic. The thinking followed the path that while it is “good (?)” to wish love, peace, and happiness to others, the “actualization” of tangible lifestyle changes is usually a personal one.  The problem with logic of course is that it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem or alleviate the plight of others. While I have not embraced any particular African religion per se I have developed an appreciation of aspects of the “African Spirit” through (what I can only describe as fascinating research on) African Tribal Art which has yielded the occasional eureka moment and helped me question and put into perspective my own religious belief system.


E1 Ogbodo Enyi (“Elephant Spirit”) mask 

I’m not seeking the “home run” on this issue, just looking for a quiet place (or vantage) where I can compare, contrast and move on with a better understanding. Consider the example of the “Elephant Spirit” mask. The Ogbodo Enyi[1] masquerade was used in the process of male socialization in the Igbo tribe. Ogbodo Enyi (“spirit elephant”) is not specifically an elephant spirit but the elephant is a “fitting model” because it’s “singular power and endurance also characterize the volatile spirit” of the adult male. It is this level of “abstraction”, modeling, and “transposition of spiritual characteristics” that I find particularly creative throughout the ethos of African Tribal Art.

If a person considers his belief in the existence of a higher being or not, this can be mapped on a one- dimensional continuum of “atheist to believer”. We can also up the level of complexity by several orders of magnitude and model the mapping as a “realization-actualization-need-choice” transitive point bound by let’s say four dimensions.

At this point it would be clear that the mechanism behind the choice of a religion is neither “right nor wrong” (as opposed to the flawed logic of an analysis which is correct/incorrect). The dichotomies of “right/wrong”, “sin/sinless”, “good/bad” are based on a collective framework of rules used to determine conformance levels, much in keeping with the needs of a society to promote rules related to standards of behavior.

In both society and religion there is also a high propensity for the common existence of a “profit motive” which is tied to sustainability and longevity. As a result one may find the need to ostracize differences in opinions and suppress or ratify changes in thinking by using processes designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. In a nutshell, it is far easier to apply punitive measures than to change rules or even make slight adjustments in keeping with different scenarios. From an external perspective it may also be necessary to protect one’s way of life by taking a combination of tactical, strategic, and prophylactic measures.

The choice of the higher power or the religion we ascribe to denigrates simply to a personal preference.  The reasoning behind the preference or “the why” is related to “personal drivers” that can be diverse, and vary in complexity from combinations of timing, exposure, environment, value and reward, need, and experience.  The irony is that our closeness to God may be more linked to our ability or lack thereof to accept religious differences in others rather than to belong to a specific religion, or to follow a certain code.

[1] Cole, H. M. & Aiakor, C. C. (1984), Igbo Arts, Community and Cosmos. p155

[E1] Photo Credit to Material Culture (Max Garb Ethnographic Arts Auction) 2013

Five Things One Should Know about the Ijele Headdress


In his analysis of the Igbo concept of their cosmos, M. A. Onwuejeogwu (1972) observes that their universe is divided into four major departments ‘uwa’ refers to the world of man; ‘mmo’ refers to the ancestors; ‘alusi’ includes forces such as the river force ‘Idemile’; and ‘Okike’ is God. These four divisions are conceptually united on the Ijele headdress.

Igbo Ijele mask

Igbo Ijele mask

The size ranges from over four to as much as six meters in height, with a diameter of about three meters. Ijele is by far the most monumental of all Igbo masks, and makes an appearance once every 25 years. The structure is an open cone framework at the top supporting attached figures, and a cylindrical base. There may be some connection to the architectural forms used by the Northern Igbo, and hence by extension the community relation between all facets of family and society.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

The symbols at the top of the mask represent important aspects of community life, and fall into three categories ;

  • man and his activities,
  • the Spirit world,
  • the animals and the forest.
Ijele "uli" symbols

Ijele “uli” symbols

Panels of patterned velvet hang from the bottom of the frame. In body painting, these designs are called ‘uli’ patterns, named after the juice or indigo used as the painting medium.

Ijele is also a leading spirit (mmuo). As a rule, Igbo masks do not represent specific spirits but rather dramatize particular attributes of humans, animals, spirits and ancestors. However, since some Igbo masks dramatize the close parallels between the living and the dead, as does the maiden-spirit mask ensemble, which Ijele resembles in terms of style and artistic tradition, one may infer that the leading mask Ijele incarnates those venerated ancestors to whom a supra-sensible power had revealed the land and how to prosper on it (Davidson 1969).

“The Ijele mask broadens our understanding of the mask in African societies. The cone-cylinder form and the headdress construction relate to the Igbo environment in their architectural referents, and its tableau provides a social narrative of Igbo life. Its vivid colors and elaborate ornamentation reflect the resources of Igbo wall painting and door carving. Ijele as a mask is ultimately an artistic projection of the Igbo ideal of achievement, authority, and status associated with the founding fathers/ancestors, the channel through which flows the ideological strength of the Igbo universe.”[1]

[1] The Igbo Ijele Mask Author(s): Chike C. Aniakor

Reviewed work(s): Source: African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Jul., 1978), pp. 42-47+95 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: .

Karma, Fang, the Dogon couple, and the Fetish

Business is business, and neither businessmen nor baseballers cry. Financial theory abounds with euphemisms… the long vs the short, risk free arbitrage, and the Goldman Sachs “profit from both sides of the trade” perspective. Collecting African Tribal art presents a dilemma of sorts when one is faced with potential Karma-kazi type transactions. No-one really wins (who am i kidding) …. someone always wins. The art world is filled with con-artists so the buyer is always driven to get the best deal while the seller simply opts for the maximum price.

The following three pieces were added this past week (ending 093011).

Ngontang - Fang Tribe

Known as Ngontang (or Ngontanga), this mask was used by the Fang people of southern Cameroon and Gabon. It represents a spirit of the dead as indicated by the use of the Kaolin or white chalk-like substance applied to the four faces . The mask was used to locate or detect witchcraft, or sorcerers (those who abuse spiritual powers)–but also performed at feasts, funerals, celebrations of birth, and on the occasion of an important communal decision. It was worn over the head or if too small on top of the head. Fang interpretation of the four faces on this mask varies from four spirits, to four stages of life to four relatives. (E1)

Dogon Couple - Dogon Tribe

The Dogon couple piece is actually 43″ high (that’s a big boy!). This is a very powerful piece. The mother carries a child on her back, while the father figure carries a quiver of arrows on his. The couple sit on a stool supported by six members of the family, community, or both.  It’s clear that Dad is copping a feel, but it’s presented in a way that does not detract from the intimacy that exudes from the composition.

Bwani/Mishi/Fetish - Bembe Tribe

This piece is from the Bembe Tribe in a Janus form, “signifying beginnings and transitions, past and future”, (E2). The two faces of the Janus signify the dominating nature of the mask’s spirit. It is capable of bringing harmony to nature’s opposing forces such as masculine and feminine, day and night. This piece could have either be worn on the head or used as a shrine object.

The Bembe has three main secret societies, (E3)

  • The Bwani society takes its inspiration from its neighbours, the Lega. Their initiation process is simpler than that of the Lega as the Bwani of the Bembe people only have two levels of initiates. After the circumcision had been carried out, the Bwani were mainly in charge of dances, songs and handling objects. (The eyes of the Bwani are usually depicted by a coffee bean shape, while the Alunga use a prominent circular pupil).
  • The Elenda society has control over the social aspect of the tribe. It is accessible only to men on the condition that the candidates make a donation to the member with the highest grade in the society.
  • The Alunga society is in charge of the rites that precede a hunt, the organization of public dances, and of social control.




So’o , Hemba, Gerome, and Misdirection.

Over the years the art of misdirection has lost its sting. The bogeyman isn’t what he used to be. The deaths of young men at parties, or ceremonies, seems particularly tragic when one considers that the initial intent is usually to have fun.

  • Isayah Muller, 19, a gifted running back was stabbed and killed, just hours after his graduation in June 2011, in NY.[1]
  • Jasper Howard, 20, a UConn CB died after being stabbed at an on-campus party in October 2009.[2]
  • The son of Maurice Bishop, Vladimir Lenin Creft was born December 1978 and died July/August 1994. He was stabbed in a nightclub in Toronto at age 16.[3]

The Duel After the Masquerade - Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)

Gerome’s “Duel after the Masquerade” has a simple message – “when young men get into a fight after a dance someone is likely to get hurt”.[4]

Hemba Mask - So'o

The Hemba use the So’o (known as a monkey mask) in a process of reinforcement through skits to encourage quick action when confronted by danger or the unknown. This is a classic example of African Tribal Art being put to use within the community in a non-religous context. The important point however is the conveyance of the lesson rather than the medium, (when collecting tribal african art it is usually a good idea to source the use of the mask).

“Women and the young, especially girls, are admonished not to travel through dense forest without males, and preferably adult male relatives, as support.”

“Psychological misdirection, is standard in Hemba child training and people management. The real reason for avoidance is not explained, and instead attention is directed to a more frightening and obeyable substitute. Otherwise, those being instructed might not have the experience and practical knowledge to follow the rule as scrupulously as required. This technique works both for truly life-threatening situations and for more mundane everyday interaction. “[5]

If a picture says a thousand words, the masterpiece by Gerome is the one every mother should share with their son. There are points for also knowing the difference between a “Mona Lisa” and “The Starry Night”, but only one of these paintings may actually give one pause, and save a life.

[4] Seminars in Art, Portfolio 2, J. Canaday

[5] So’o Masks and Hemba Funerary Festival

Thomas D. Blakely and Pamela A. R. Blakely

African Arts

Vol. 21, No. 1 (Nov., 1987), pp. 30-37+84-86

Ekine, the Dancing People, and Water Spirits

There are times when Collecting African Tribal Art is full of mystical, and historical/cultural perspectives. Finding an Ijo “water spirit” mask, is always one of those times.


E1 Ijo - Water Spirit mask

On the west coast of Africa, to the south of Nigeria, in the delta region, there is a tribe known as the Ijo. The Ijo style of carving has not succumbed to the Yoruba style primarily because of the proximity of the rivers, swamp, and ocean that frame the life and culture of the Ijo. The powerful Ekine (also known as Sekiapu, meaning “dancing people” in Ijo)[1] society of the Ijo maintains its style alongside alongside Yoruba traditions of the Oshugbo, or Ogboni society.  The main dance group of Ekine is the Agbo, or Magbo, society. The mask shown below belongs to this group, and is one of three used with antelope and bush-cow representations.


E2 Mask (igodo) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The Kalabari (an Ijoid ethnic group)[2] legend tells of the abduction of Ekineba,

“a beautiful young woman of a delta town, by the dancing water spirits. Ekineba was taken to their home beneath the creeks. The mother of the water spirits was angry at what they had done, and commanded her children to take Ekineba back to the land of men. Before returning her however each spirit showed her its special play; and when she returned home, she taught the people all the plays she had seen. The plays became very popular and were constantly performed. But the young men found it difficult to obey a certain rule which the water spirits had imposed on her – namely that whenever her people put on one of her plays, she must always be the first to beat the drum. After they had disobeyed this rule three times, the water spirits lost patience and took Ekineba away for good. Since then, men have taken her as the patron goddess of the masquerade; and the Ekine Society which organizes its performance is named after her.”[3]

Water Spirit Mask

This Ekine myth has parallels with other divination myths where teachings are rendered by a local hero who lives with men, but who disappears leaving no descendants when men disobey the rules laid down. [4]

[1] Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa. William Fagg, et al. , pg.39

E1 AplusAfricanArt Gallery

E2 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa. William Fagg, et al. , pg.39

[3] The Kalabari Ekine Society, Robin Horton, 1963

[4] The Kalabari Ekine Society, Robin Horton, 1963

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