My Tribal African Art Vibe

It’s amazing… I picked up one piece, and now I have to admit the apartment is literally crawling with African Tribal Art . They have settled into their own groups… adhering to the ‘melting pot’ philosophy of American lore yet strangely dominating my small universe in their own unique ways. Collecting Tribal African Art is turning out to be both fun and instructive. There are many important  values and norms one can distill from the tribal cultures.

Bambara Maternity Statues

Bambara - Maternity Statues

Maternity

The Bambara maternity statues offer peaceful, even tranquil backdrops of mothers with children playing on their laps. Their poised beautiful faces, on slender necks, slim figures with slight postnatal curves evoke a sense of definitive idealism.  Who would not want to recreate the peaceful scenes?  In start contrast the Baga Nimba is large and domineering, the first figure facing the door, the large head, almost an arm wide, with heavy breasts and braided plaits signifying a mature fertile woman who has had children. This represents the maternal feature of motherhood, the eagle watching over her brood and promising times of plenty. If hope grows the contrast in size is well reflected in the group of Aku’ba dolls from the Ashante Tribe of Ghana.

Ashanti Akua'ba dolls

The legend of Akua and solving the riddle of her barrenness using her doll is now interwoven with the myth of producing progeny of beauty and grace.

Teaching

The Mumuye tribe of Nigeria produce sculpture called iagalagana which represent tutelary spirits and which offer an aesthetic abstract form that truly fascinates, incorporating a high degree of heterogeneity.

Mumuye Tribe - Iagalagana

‘They seem to be reminders of living together in a multicultural society, one were we are enough alike to be able to speak to one another, yet different enough for everyone to have something to say.’  [1]

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

Not to be outdone , the Sowei mask, from the Mende of Sierra Leone is the maternal disciplinarian – representing the  passage from adolescence to adulthood, and the rebirth in a more developed value system with higher expectations, and greater responsibility.

Luck

Nikisi - Protection against "Bad Luck"

The rabbit feet of Tribal African Art would be the Nikisi from the Kongo Tribe. The startling images of upraised hands and nail impaled bodies were used to keep away sickness, bad luck, misfortune, bind promises, and repel evil spirits. One can never have too many.

Reliquaries

From the Mahongye, to the Kota, to the Fang the reliquaries were used to guard the remains of ancestors. To the nomadic tribes this was important since their link to the past is the thread that held the value systems in the communities on a consistent footing through the years. The abstract nature of their sculpture, developed perhaps by a need to conserve space, resulted both in beautiful works, and a holistic representation of social concepts.

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

I particularly admire the Fang representation of the “Balance of Opposites” – using the proportions of a child whilst representing a strong powerfully built adult; showing power yet at the same time exhibiting calm. Forces we wrestle with on a daily basis, even today.

My African Fetish in a PC World

One of the most intriguing  objects in that magical realm of Collecting Tribal African Art is the fetish. It is not an easily understood concept; nor should it be, and with the blinders of religious trappings and Freudian analysis it is an easy concept to stay away from.

A fetish is an object of magic and power. So there it is as simple as that, without the pc prefix or the stammering euphemisms. That’s the criteria I’m working with, real or imagined. Everyone wants the edge, in luck, or religion, in money matters, or love. The problem in a Western format is one may take the concept to the extreme and use it in a proactive way to wish bad luck, evil even, on some unsuspecting person. That however is an entirely different concept, since for the most part a fetish was used to prevent, or protect against witchcraft, or to bind a promise or an offering.

The happy truth however is that we are born on a level playing field for the most part. Love, family, and happiness, are not reserved for the wealthy, and healthy. A fetish then becomes a “best effort” against forces seen and unseen, known and unknown. It’s a hedge to deal with the fringe and peripheral elements of life which emanate from “left field” every now and again. The fact that people are drawn to the African tribal fetish is easy to understand. If you want a financial wizard you go to Wall St., and if you want a fetish you naturally go to a place where people have more experience with fetishes.

The most popular fetishes are the Kongo made Nikisi Nkondi, and the Songye made Nikishi fetishes, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nkisi-Nkondi, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010

“To make a nkisi nkondi a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with one or more cavities in the abdomen or head; then a ritual expert, a nganga, completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are later driven into the figure either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community.”[1]

Bambara (Bamana) Tribe, Boli Fetish/Votive

The Komo society of the Bambara tribe used the Boli as an altar, “a reservoir of their nyama”[2] or sacred power.  “Great amounts of nyama are wielded by the blacksmiths who direct the social, political, religious, and judicial Komo association.”[3] The boli was made of wood in the shape of an animal and the encrusted patina evolved from the additions of libations and sacrificial matter which was thought to activate or spiritually charge the fetish or votive.

My best fetish is an old “mortar and pestle” combination from Tanzania. I believe luck is the oft said mix of opportunity and hard work. Though I’ve labored over the mortar many a time I totally appreciate the entire process and the bigger picture. The sacrifice involved in preparing a meal, real sweat, the family concept, the providers, leaders, and followers.  This pretty mundane fetish clearly isn’t at the high end of the fetish chain but it keeps me grounded, and the well used parts bring back memories and associations that make sense in my little world.


[1] African Art, A Century at the Brooklyn Museum, p.192

[2] A History of Art in Africa, p.122

[3] A History of Art in Arica, p.121

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