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

Religion[1]

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.

Description[3]

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).

[1] https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/peoples/show/bamana

[2] http://www.africadirect.com/masks/bamana/bamana-kore-animal-mask-suruku-mali-african-art-106217.html

[3] https://www.imodara.com/discover/mali-bamana-nyeleni-pretty-little-one-figure/

[4] https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/chapters/education-initiation/adult-initiation/?start=4

[5] https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/364

 

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Iagalagana, Halos, and Price Points

African Tribal art pricing is not intuitive and is very subjective. Premiums can be based on provenance, age, patina, originality, rarity, and any number of other less material factors.

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Mumuye Tribe: Iagalagana (Claiborne Mumuye)

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Mumuye location : Northeast Nigeria, below the Benue river.

The Mumuye have an interesting statuary tradition in the Iagalagana. These were used as abstractions of incarnate tutelary spirits. The recently acquired ‘Claiborne Mumuye’ from the Liz Claiborne and Arthur Ortenberg collection was purchased at auction. It’s one of the ‘providential’ cases where a piece with a Sotheby’s provenance was not advertised as such, however this did not materially detract from the bidding. In the piece shown above some of the interesting factors include the slight tilting of the head, the cubist forms, and the sculptor’s longitudinal development of the chest area.

Mumuye Buddies

Mumuye Buddies – AplusAfricanArt collection.

One of my pet theories in developing relationships with customers is having comfortable price points, not just from the customer’s end but also from the dealer’s end. Invariably this requires acquiring, and keeping a couple Stars, and developing the concept of the Halo effect. This allows customers to understand much of the pricing dynamics inherent in investable African Tribal art. While I am not a huge fan of provenance the fact is that it has become a major pillar in an entire industry,  and once understood enables customers to more comfortably purchase affordable pieces of African Tribal Art.

Currently one of the amazing (read as disappointing) aspects of Collecting African Tribal Art is that the African American community for the most part remains largely uneducated about the beauty of their ancestral art forms, and have pretty much been priced out from serious collecting, (see interesting ends to the collections of Bayard Rustin and Merton Simpson).

 

 

Okenekene Restoration

Restoring African Tribal Art is always a tricky business. The interesting part is that more is not necessarily better with respect to older pieces but while there are varied perspectives, the final analysis comes down to the deterioration of the ‘authentic’ piece, and the addition of aesthetic features.

The Okenekene headdress lends itself to restoration for the following reasons:

  1. There are several removable component pieces (chameleon, python),
  2. The piece itself portrays an Okenekene narrative,
  3. The headdress showed signs of repeated use.
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Front section of Okenekene showing existing wave abstraction but missing the ‘Fishing Dragon’.

The frontal area of the purchased piece shows the feet of the broken ‘fishing dragon’ and the missing ‘wave’.

I was fortunate to come across this piece at a Merton Simpson estate auction. I suspect the only reason I was able to acquire the piece was as a result of a rare computer glitch which left me as the only bidder on the floor. With some verbal prompting from my Mum the auctioneer acquiesced and closed the deal.

click photo for video link: OKENEKENE RESTORATION

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In another of many related providential occurrences I had been gifted a book titled ‘Ways of the Rivers’ after purchasing pieces from the Alfred Prince collection. This book provided a lot of research on Okenekene headdresses, and my favorite Delta tribes (Urhobo, Ogoni, Ijo).

My luck had not run out since I was also able to have the restoration done (molding, carving, finishing) by the talented family Miller. It was a fantastic learning experience since the existing surface finish showed wonderful signs of ageing (crackling, alligatoring) and changed my perception on analyzing the quality of pieces forever.

Okenekene Headdress

I came across the Okenekene headdress complex in December of 2016, while doing some research on a purchased piece (note: research post purchase) from the Merton D. Simpson collection. As indicated in a prior blog, I do have a weakness for the water spirit headdress.

The headdress is peculiar to Ijebu-Yorubaland[1] which occupies the costal plain between the interior Yoruba kingdoms of Ife, Ijesha, Egba, Ibadan, and Oyo and the coastal waterways. The Ijebu recognize the presence and power of spirits controlling Delta waters, and acknowledge that they adopted and adapted their Agbo masquerades from Niger Delta peoples (primarily the Ijo).

Here are a few examples,

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Okenekene Headdress : The house and clock reflect the impressive  quarters of the water spirits living below the surface. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The piece typically consists of three sections,

Back:

Typically shows  coiled vines, and a heart shaped paddle, (or woro leaf). This will also have a chameleon, and or a python component.

Middle:

The middle area shows the abstract anthropomorphic representation of the water spirit with long pointed ears. Atop the domed area there may be shown an animal representation, or a more human related reference (e.g. an umbrella or rudder).

Front:

Typically reflects a reference to static/dynamic, natural/spiritual activity in the water.

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Okenekene : Showing chameleon, and python components at the back, the umbrella in the middle, and the fishing eagle within the waves to the front. [E1]

Another similarly styled headdress from the Seattle Art museum, also incorporates the chameleon (from the Yoruba creation myth).

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Okenekene : worn horizontally, they can be described as a juxtaposition of natural, spiritual, and human references. [E2]

A more modern, and less complicated representation of the Okenekene.

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Okenekene imagery in masquerade (1982): Ways of the Rivers, pg. 209.

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components

Python[2]

Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum’ Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. “It is the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate in the mystic dance and utter oracles.”

When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to five days, during which she may not drink water. The language spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers. In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is worshiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony). Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the Ijaw people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried with the honors of a chief.

Birds[3]

Birds also appear frequently in water spirit headdresses. For the Kalabari Ijo, these are probably references to oru ogolo, the talkative bulbul bird that is said to live in villages and to speak the language of the spirits. It communicates messages from the spirits to the humans.

In Agbo masks, birds ride on the backs of crocodiles and on the snouts of such masks as Igodo and Okenekene. In these latter instances the bird is probably a fishing eagle.

For the Ijebu, the bird is linked with water spirits, as it is in the Delta.

[1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 197

[2] The Serpent in African Belief and Custom, WILFRID D. HAMBLY

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060/asset/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060.pdf;jsessionid=7534E7071431626BC682F7D0CD464BC3.f01t01?v=1&t=iz1r67lt&s=1c30c9afebd796232de7a81c52a43f8e9e7d1fa5

[3] Ways of the Rivers, Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek

[E1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 203

[E2] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilization, pg.197

Tapping out…

The first of several Merton Simpson’s African Tribal art estate auctions took place at Quinn’s Auctions in Falls Church Virginnia (10/01/16). With approximately 400 of the high-end pieces of his collection on sale it proved to be an arduous task, but once the audience was walked through the challenges from the Nigerian government, consignment claims, and catalog mishaps it was pretty smooth sailing.

The prices though…. were a true testament to the reputation and cachet of the ‘Merton Simpson’ brand in the African Tribal art world.

My tap out moment came on a three item stretch (#168 to #170). These items were an Oron sculpture, a female Tiv figure, and a Urhobo mask respectively.

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The way it worked was the opening bid (before absentee bids) would be one-half the lower catalog estimate. This worked out to be $150, $400, and $50 … (I know right, too good to be true, and well worth the drive to Virginna from NY). Honestly though, by the time we reached to item #168 I had already drawn a ‘sad’ smiley face next to item #169. The final sale prices came in at $850, $12,500, and $900 respectively. Then you add 20% buyer’s premium, and a 6% sales tax for your effort, and this is without taking the shipping costs into consideration, or the 4% credit card penalty (keep those checkbooks handy) should you choose that option!

So let’s circle back to your basic auction strategy, 1. prior to your must-have items you should always buy a great piece – that way you ALWAYS walk away with something, 2. after your tap out moment don your best kamikaze/guerrilla persona, open up that wallet, and come out focused and swinging!!

 

Photocredit : Screenshot from Liveauctioneers.com

The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

This weekend was ultra-solid as empty-nested and broken bracketed Easter weekends go. Sadly though it did begin on a low note since I was throughly priced out of a couple decent African tribal art offerings. Like any good fox however I found myself surprisingly amenable to spurning the ‘grapes’ and moving right along to more affordable fare.

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Zakpai Mask – Dan Tribe

Zakpai‘ is the fire prevention mask. Its function is to insure
that women have put out their cooking fires every day during
the dry season, before the afternoon winds begin to blow.
Zakpai is aggressive, sometimes throws things, and is
meant to inspire fear. Tall green leaves cover the head. In
addition, the masker wears pants with a ruff of raffia around
the waist and neck. It carries a branch as a weapon (Fischer
1978, 21). [1]

In keeping with the Dan trend my favorite dealer parted ways with this small treasure.

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Dan Tribe – Gagon

Masks with a large beak-like form and beard of monkey fur, often with a moveable lower jaw, are Gagon masks. Originally an educational mask instructing people on the importance of the hornbill bird to their culture, they are now used mostly for entertainment.[2]

These pieces were part of an African Art collection from the estate of Alfred M. Prince, both the scholar, philanthropist, and the avid collector.

The following photographs were recommended for addition (thanks Ed), and are sourced (as indicated) from the topic essay titled “MASQUERADES AMONG THE DAN PEOPLE” and the PinInterest site.

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Africa | People wear a “Dan” mask at the agricultural Festival of Ignames of the Yacouba tribe in Cote d’Ivoire. | Image and caption © Charles & Josette Lenars

 

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Two kagle masks and deangle, Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

 

[1] http://www.randtribal.com/Dan_Zakpai_mask.html

[2] http://www.hamillgallery.com/DAN/DanGagonMasks/DanGagonMasks.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tortoise and the Snake.

While visiting the Yale University Art gallery (03/20/16) I came across a Yoruba door with four panels. The third panel showed four characters, a tortoise, a man, and a small antelope.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #3).

I disagreed with the following description,

“… a coiled snake seizes an antelope while a small kneeling figure strikes the snake with an axe, thus representing the Yoruba proverb ‘We are all struggling’.”

With no mention of the tortoise (Ijapa – the animal trickster hero or villain who plays the role of Anansi the spider among the Ashanti, and that of the hare (Brer Rabbit in the USA) in other parts of West Africa[1]), I came up with another description,

The combination of ‘small and innocent’ will better survive ‘size and treachery’, through the combination of ‘prowess and cunning’…. or to make a long story short “idealism can only get you so far”. This panel resonates with me from a very real life perspective since while guile can easily morph into treachery there is no mistaking who lies at the bottom of the economic food chain.

This is the door in its entirety followed by the exhibit description. It shows detail, imagination, and simplicity of design combined to produce a really wonderful artistic result.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Yale Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr.)

For Panel #1.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #1).

“The relief on the top panel depicts a woman holding an upside-down child on her back – a reference to the unpredictable earth mother, Iya Ile. The child holds the head and tail of a snake, symbolizing Ogun, the god of Iron, who is worshipped by hunters, warriors, and blacksmiths. The woman faces a drummer, a kneeling man, and a hunting dog”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #2).

“In the second panel a hunter on horseback holds a pistol and a spear”.

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Yoruba Door – Nigeria, Ekiti, Osi Ilorin, late 19th – early 20th century (Panel #4).

“In the bottom panel, two triumphant hunters smoke pipes while being honored by two flute players”.

This piece demonstrates the multifaceted nature of African Tribal Art, which transforms the practical door into a carrier of norms, ritual thought, and value systems.

 

 

[1] Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, 1996 pg 221.

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