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


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.


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.


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.


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.

Picasso, Demoiselles, Lam and “The Jungle”

Picasso’s African period, from 1907 to 1909[1] has been extensively documented. For some reason many authors seek to use the artist’s appreciation of Tribal African Art as justification that the styles, spirituality, and beauty of the art-form should be worthy of similar adulation and fascination by the masses.

Fang Mask - Stylistically similar to African Art said to have inspired Picasso

What may be more interesting however is that forceful thread of artistic scholarship, passed in spirit from an unknown African carver, to Picasso, to renown Afro-Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam.

Lam's "The Jungle" (1943) & Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907)

Although Les Demoiselles is seen as the first Cubist work, Picasso continued to develop a style derived from African art before beginning the Analytic Cubism phase of his painting in 1910. Both artists used African Tribal masks directly in their paintings (shown above) to reflect the multi faceted character of the human spirit.

Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who developed an artistic style steeped in Surrealism and Cubism with which he used to highlight and interpret the beauty of Afro-Cuban form, culture, and it’s symbiotic relationship with nature, and natural forces. In 1938 Lam spent time in Paris where he developed a working friendship with Picasso whose encouragement may have “led Lam to search for his own interpretation of modernism.”[2]

When Lam returned to Cuba he painted his masterpiece (The Jungle), which reflected three main  themes,

1)   He believed that Cuba was in danger of losing its African heritage and therefore sought to display the Afro_Cuban spirit, free from cultural subjugation.

2)   He rejected the exploitation of the Afro-Cuban,

3)   He used his art as a “Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise… to disturb”[3]

Lam’s art is influenced by his background and exposure to African cultures, and African religions adapted to Caribbean life. He was exposed to the rituals of Santeria and Voodoun. His success is an inspiration to the artist working the unheralded theme, exploring new depths to which beauty can be both interpretive and forceful.




Marriage – the Competitive Advantage

U.S. Captain for the victorious 2008 Ryder Cup team, Paul Azinger in an interview on the make-up of his team indicated that he used Mayer Briggs personality tests in assessing the fit for the members on the paired section.  Marriages need different strategies in that they require a serious commitment over a long period of time. People change, their income generating status may change, and concessions must be made on both sides. Marriage is not always a “we like each other”, and “we can always get a divorce” option. The fact is that it is one of the most sensible and rewarding avenues to engage in companionship, develop oneself, raise a family, invest and increase assets, and pay off debt.

When things are good, with few commitments, even two fools in love can have a great time. The rewards of a sustainable marriage however come with a lot of work, and the sacrifice of personal freedom and time. The mindset of a married couple differs from the mindset of someone engaged in the singles scene.  The concept of “being together” requires a much less complicated framework than the concept of “staying together”.

It would seem however that there are certain criteria that should be inculcated early in the value system of the young adult. These include,

a)    Avoid teenage pregnancy,[1]

Teenage Pregnancy Trends and Totals

b)    Get a good education,[2]

Increase of Salary with Education Level

c)    Stay out of Jail[3]

Incarcerated Persons by Race

This simple list is neither extensive nor exclusive, but sometimes children need to hear and see the benefits of following these simple “rules” as they develop their own value system. Ignoring any of the above simply makes for a harder road in life.

In collecting African Tribal Art, and researching the culture of African Tribes (nomadic or otherwise) the singular most common factor is the importance of the institution of marriage. Whether tribes follow matrilineal or patrimonial systems, marriage is extremely important to the sustainable development of the family and the community.

From a resource perspective marriages bring people together, but they also bring families together. It doesn’t always happen like that, but one can’t blame the system because people fail to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the system. The Tax code, insurance rules, and even religious organizations offer married couples advantages over single and other civil designations. There are tangible carrots out there, but there are also intangible benefits as well.




Chicago, Picasso, Pyramids, and Van Gogh

Et tu  Chicago … The concept of the African  and Latino pyramids aren’t only found in the Sahara, or in Mayan Teotihuacan, Mexico. They thrive in the Chicago landscape. These are organizational pyramids where you find the majority of janitors, and assistants at the lower levels of the organization. As you move progressively through the upper ranks the numbers thin out drastically. If in really abrupt cases you don’t even see minorities handling money, rest assured you pretty much have a flat-line pyramid, and maybe a future human resource problem.

Picasso - Lady beneath Pine Tree

I have to admit that I had a great time visiting the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), this weekend. The museum has a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings; Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Degas (the guy really liked to paint young ballerinas),  and Seurat were well represented.

Van Gogh, 1889 - "The Bedroom", AIC

There were also a couple Picassos and several paintings by Salvador Dali. With the addition of a new “Modern” wing the museum has over 300,000 pieces of art and is the second largest museum in the US.[1] Within this cornucopia of  smorgasbordic delight I happened to come across a mere handful of pieces “of color”- (ambiguous statement since the Indian and Mexican exhibitions were  better than ok) … being true to my stereotyped roots however I managed to parlay this deficit into a free ($18) extra ticket.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, France - Bronze of African Man, 1848

The “windy city” has a 2008 estimated population of close to 3 mil, approximately 38% being  African American. One would think with President Obama in the big house, and Oprah still pulling in the ratings, that the African Tribal Art, or even the African American exhibitions would be something to see.  Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the museum has plans to open a new African themed installation in the Spring of 2011.[2] Funnily enough the opening of the exhibition is not being given center stage billing in the AIC “Future events” catalogue (actually it’s not even mentioned).[3]

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, France - Bronze of African Woman, 1851

The AIC has one of the most extensive collections of African ceramics in the US.[4] Honestly this seems pretty weak on paper.  The investment in this cultural outlet for the growth and future development of African American society is comparatively abysmal by any standard…. but don’t get me wrong the Impressionist collection is still on point.

John Philip Simpson, 1827 - The Captive Slave, AIC

To view a comparison of the items from a recent trip to the Brooklyn Museum:





Kibbutz, Mende, and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience,  advocated passive resistance to unjust authority, and strongly influenced the thought and tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.[1] On the question of practical living and idealistic aspirations he was on point when he observed that,

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Applying the idealistic concept of communal living in a practical framework can be fraught with missteps. Many years ago it was enough to start a discussion by either modeling the basic framework on a continuum, or by using a discrete (good/bad) function, but nowadays one can pick a specific point of balance and (very much like enlarging a view on a smartphone by widening one’s fingers) examine the merits or demerits from a sustainable and practical perspective.

The kibbutzim were built on the attempt to create a permanent and institutionalized framework, which would be able to set a pattern of conduct which would successfully handle the implementation of shared values…..The original concept of the kibbutzim was based to a large extent on self-sacrifice of its members for the sake of abstract foundations and not on the cancellation of work, and therefore after the pioneer period the linkage between the kibbutz members decreased, due to the decline in the pioneering spirit and the decline in the importance of the self-sacrifice values.[2]

So one can argue that utopian ideas were incorporated into practical life without going through the period of practical development and flexible adaptation. Ideas which may seem foreign and socialist to a certain degree (equal pay, sharing property, equal standard of living) were attempted, which in the long term did not thrive in the globalization of an individualistic and capitalistic society.

Sowo-wui (Ndoli Jowei) : "The Sande woman is not a child!!"

The Sande (Female society of the Mende , Sierra Leone) used a much more flexible and socially inclusive device to develop their Value – Ritual – Norm (VRN) system.  The most important aspect seemed to be the initial transfer of Values. The head of the Sande lodge is the Sowei, who is in charge of the initiation of young girls and are viewed as the “arbiters and creators of beauty and morality in Mende society.”[3] The Sowei’s mask is referred to as the Sowo-wui or is more commonly known to as the “Mende Mask”. It is through the masked spirit counterpart, Sowo, that the Sowei receives her temporal authority. This is the ritual aspect of this value transference device which then develops into the social norms or rules followed by the community. Again each initiate can aspire to the utopian ideal at their own pace as opposed to hard and fast rules laid down by community leaders.

Sande Society Helmet mask - Brooklyn Museum, 2010

In her book, Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone identifies several Sande (and Mende) social ideals.

Nemahulewe – cleverness, intelligence, use of mind.

Kahu – strength, endurance, stamina

Kpaya – authority, responsiibility

Ndilo – bravery, courage, (the heart can stand the strain).

Malondo – be quiet, be silent, the silence to endure hardship, long suffering

Fulo-Fulo – doing things smartly and quickly

Tonya – Truth

Di – persistence

Pona – to be correct, straight, reliable, doing things properly

Hindawanda – goodness, generosity

But there is more….. the Sande Society has two masks, for while Sowo shows the nobility of human Sowei the counterpart of failure and disgrace belongs to Gonde.

“Mende women have created two masks because it takes both to express fully the realities of the social milieu out of which the Sande mask forms emerge.”[4]



[3] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 34

[4] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 39

Witchcraft, Happiness and Coincidence

Malleability is an inherent characteristic of all men… very necessary so that when we get all “bent out of shape” it’s easier for God to straighten us out.

Bambara, Chiwara - Shapeshifter Legend

The opening diatribe is an essential preamble to a blog on race and religion -which covers two of the three PC untouchables. 

 So at the heart of the matter – I happened to come across an interesting article yesterday and the following quotes piqued my interest –   “A new Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft… Interestingly such belief was inversely linked to happiness.” [1]

One may view such articles as embarrassingly irresponsible , and funny, but at the same time I recognize that they represent a truth to certain people  and others may find them insensitive, demeaning, and misleading.

To begin with let’s start with the low hanging fruit. If one were to heavily weight the divorce rate as an inverse metric of happiness then the people in the US would far and away rank as the unhappiest in the world, (4.95 per 1000).[2] Conversely the Total Fertility Rates (TFR), in SS Africa are among the highest in the world[3], (go figure)!  Another point to consider is that maybe the causative factors of the alleged unhappiness in SS Africa have more to do with the poverty, infant mortality, and endemic malaria in the region[4], and less to do with their belief  in astrology and astronomy.

Kota Tribe - Abstract Ancestor Reliquary

On the issue of witchcraft – it has been a long recurring motif used to marginalize and degrade people based on differences in their religions. As part of the justification for the legalization of slavery, peoples of SS Africa were branded as pagan, cannibal, and inhuman.  History has shown the inverse to be closer to the truth. Many Tribal African religions involve ancestor worship (read as “Honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors”) and have a central Animist[5]  (a favorite of Aristotle) theme. The consistent irony is that the demonization of non-Christian religions is in itself contrary to the tenets of Christianity. Think about it. If people put on their “selective incident caps” and called a religion whose leaders engaged and enabled horrific acts against indigenous peoples (Fang, Mayan, Arawaks), and

Fang, Bieri

systematically seduced young males in their congregations, would one be straying far from the mark if they then linked that religion to devil–worship?

One can’t define people by their religion…. people take what they want from religion…. some take love, some hate, some indifference… if categorizing people is a high priority, one might as well define people by the reservoirs that supply their potable water needs.






Breakfast with MLK, Freud, and Simon

While having breakfast yesterday I was simmering more than my tepid caramel latte. The peripheral irony of Little Syria in relation to the controversy surrounding the WTC mosque had percolated into the propinquity of the indignity that lower Manhattan was developed on the fill of an African slave burial ground. [1][2] This coupled with the ambush tactics employed by  Glen Beck whilst “reclaiming” the civil rights movement, on the anniversary of the “I have a Dream” speech, and the delinquency of African American leadership in allowing tradition to supercede professionalism, meant  that indigestion was already a given.

DRC, Nkisi - Protection against "Bad Luck"

But in the middle of the BEC on the Pannini thingy a funny thing happened. My wife, Michelle encouraged me to try a little grape jelly with my concoction. In my simple way I tried to explain that I was not going to risk what was actually a decent sandwich, and that I was quite prepared to sacrifice theoretical perfection for guaranteed adequacy. This essentially is the guts of the decision-making strategy defined by Herbert Simon’s Satisficing (1956[3]) – meeting criteria for adequacy, rather than identifying an optimal solution.

As if it wasn’t crowded enough, Freud joined the sit-in, postulating that his theories of hysteria, and repressed emotions were a good fit for an African American community subjected to years of images of inferiority and practical experiences of inequality.

Fang - Bieri ; Balance of Opposites

Between Simon, Freud, Michelle, Beck, Sharpton, and Palin  I was only too happy to retreat to my Fortress of Solitude. In my mind I have arrived at a plausible explanation for the BURGEONING APATHY of large sections of the African American community, but the irony is that even the bland acceptance of such would itself be another example of satisficing.





Five Things one should know about the Dogon

  • Dominant Mask

The Dogon (popln. 400-800k) have many masks, but the most popular may be the Kanaga mask . This is one mask used in the traditional Dama ceremony, where the spirit of the dead is lead away from the village of the living through rituals and dances. The Dogon festivals are a popular Mali tourist destination, (see ‘Making a Kanaga mask’, by clicking the following link),

  • Country/Location

Central plateau region of Mali, south of theNiger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region. (Wikipedia). The Bandiagara cliffs are a geographical marvel.

Old Tellem dwellings in background and new Dogon dwelling in foreground

  • Something Religous/Socially interesting

In the 1930s it was reported that the Dogon had advanced knowledge of the Sirius star system. The only problem was that ‘Sirius B’ is an invisible star and was only photographed in 1970. Dogon legend tells of a visit by an extraterrestrial race (the Nommos)

Dogon : Granary door lock.

  • Something Historical

Archaeological evidence suggests men have lived on the cliffs for over 2,000 years. Cultures whose relics have been dated are the pygmy Toloy people in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC, and later, between the 11th and 15th centuries, the Tellem who lived in caves cut into the cliffs where they left many artifacts still unearthed by local people. They were pushed out around 1490 by the Dogons from the south-west (or south-east) perhaps fleeing slave raids by Songhai, Fulani and Mossi tribesmen. They came in four clans, the Dyon, Ono, Arou and Domno and spread over the plateau, the escarpment and the plains of the Séno-Gondo, living on top of or at the foot of the cliffs. They divided into small village communities, each member having a village surname shared by every inhabitant. Dogon buildings are a unique architecture of sculptural mud-built huts, altars, distinctive tapering granaries for each sex, each with a pointed cap of thatch, and meeting houses (Diakite, 1988; Hollyman & van Beek, 2001).

  • Something Culturally different

Although polygamy is practiced most men have one wife. Formally, wives only join their husband’s household after the birth of their first child. Women may leave their husbands early in their marriage, before the birth of their first child. After having children, divorce is a rare and serious matter, and it requires the participation of the whole village. (Wikipedia)

African Art Investments – Premium components.

Understanding the African Mask Premium

Let’s be clear from the get-go… the last thing anyone wants to do is spend their money and have it quietly depreciate in the living room corner.  In a recessionary period this is the best time to actually purchase tribal masks, statues, et al. Buy low, sell at your convenience is an investing adage that applies well to the art world.

It is clear that there are opportunities in the world of African art, where buying the right piece will be the equivalent of a minor investment which may reward you with an appreciable return if done correctly. There are many ways to look at the premiums which add to the price of African art, African masks, and tribal art …. (for the less blasé among us that last sentence was the equivalent of an internet commercial, and I had to get my keywords in).

The following charts give a visual aid pertaining to the field of African masks, and demonstrate the difficulty in pricing great pieces.

Mask Investment Chart

These charts are not exhaustive — simply meaning that there are many ways to price a piece;  sometimes you fall in love with a piece (or several for that matter), so the premiums become moot and one is willing to take a future loss whether the piece possesses investment potential or not.

The last chart shows a graphic of the relative pricing involved with different types of African masks. Again some authors use different terminology and may use “tourist art” instead of  “airport art” for example.  What is interesting in this chart is that the best long term investment potential lies in the movement of Contemporary to Authentic, or simply holding Authentic pieces. It is always worth remembering however that the greater reward potential comes with greater risk.

Art Investment Graphic

Quality Rating Scale[1]

The quality rating scale presented by Dr. Seiber is as follows:

1. Authentic tribal pieces usually used in tribal ceremonies. The highest rating for authenticity and quality – usually with some age but even newer pieces if authentic and embodying a spiritual dimension.

2. “B Grade Authentic” – Same as 1 except diminished some by condition, newness, or style and quality of the artist’s effort.

3. Decorative newer pieces – still good quality, but sometimes copies. Most often a continuum of an established and traditional tribal piece but with an incorrect patina. Decorative value.

4. African arts made to be sold to foreigners – Europeans, Americans, and others. Not necessarily tribal, could be folk or contemporary.

5. “Airport” or tourist art (souvenirs). Lowest grade and made in great quantities.

In the final analysis, take your time… and purchase a tribal mask you feel comfortable with as an investment, but above all things, purchase African art you thoroughly enjoy.


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