Bayard Rustin, Nok and Sokoto.

Collecting African Tribal Art, through the inherent nature of its complexity was always going to lead me to a rabbit hole or two. On the Richter scale my rabbit holes are ranked from a sojourn through wikipedia to a midnight conference with my pals Malibu and Piney… and this one turned into a real doozy.

Rustin-Life-01w

Bayard Rustin – LIFE magazine cover.

Connecting the dots was simple enough,

  • The main character, Bayard Rustin put together what is clearly a special collection of African Terracotta, primarily Nok, and Sokoto. Rustin received a posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for his work in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.[1]
  • The collection ultimately found a home at Yale University  via sale to Joel and SusAnna Grae of New Haven, CT.

Bayard Rustin is buried in the Civil Rights movement lore. The first I heard of him was when I viewed the Yale University video (link above). While he led a very interesting political life his commitment to nonviolence, and the civil rights cause is an amazing testament to the strength of human resilience.

One of my favorite parts of the video showed SusAnna Grae commenting –“the very judgmental Sokoto would look at you and say ‘well, what did you do today’…”.

Sokoto-01w

Sokoto Bust – (Source: The Birth of Art in Black Africa, pg. 105)

Invariably these collections end up in private hands. The fact that this collection is now available to the public for free viewing, and research is a good thing. My preference would have been to view the collection at a Historically Black College or University (insert Howard University plug here), but most of these institutions have neither the depth of networks nor finances to put this effort together.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20131122/civil-rights-activist-rustins-african-art-collection-makes-its-way-to-yale-gallery

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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.

BB2

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-01w

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 Good, the Great and by default, the Ugly.

Good African tribal art should provoke wonder, both with regard to a level of expertise and with respect to an associated secondary role or function. The bar for the ‘great’ handle should further meet a standard of transcendental inspiration, forcing introspection of elemental themes of life, death, friendship, and love. It stands to reason therefore that collecting African tribal art would realistically result in a nightmarish quantity of inferior pieces as one better develops an appreciation of quality.

Consider the following shrine figure from the Yombe tribal tradition, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2015 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty.

sf09w

E1. Ancestral Shrine figure, seated female. Kongo peoples; Yombe group.

The pose is clearly deeply reflective. The carver has also cleverly and purposely excluded all signs our modern Kardashian drunk society would typically relate to physical sexual suggestion. What is left is an image of a person engaged in deep contemplation…. even acquiescence. The carver then uses the trails of black streaks to evoke the path of tears, and large focused downcast eyes are further in keeping with the conveyance of grief… but this is not a tale of unfathomable despair for the large rounded cheeks reflect youth (resilience), and the curls of the large beautifully formed lips are used to project maturity and the subtle power of femininity. The balance of opposites motif, combining youth, power, and restrained reflection is also a typical funerary motif used in Fang reliquaries, but with a masculine bias.

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E2. Yombe shrine figure.

This figure was once included in the central assemblage of an ancestral shrine (Nzo a Bakulu) used to mark the death of a Yombe chief. The shrine was constructed at the consecrated burial site. “These commemorative displays were maintained as acts of filial piety to strengthen ties to an influential ancestor and secure his protection”.[1]

sf12w

E3. Ancestral shrine (Nzo a Bakulu) for a Yombe Chief at Burial site, Lubuzi River region.

“These figures were sheltered in open-sided roofed structures that served to preserve their white pigment and protect the wood. White is the color of the other world, the spirit world, and kaolin, or white clay, is a common ingredient in ritual medicines. In simplified terms, white clay in this context is the opposite of life, which is present in the skin of a person and the soil of fertile land”.[2]

A figure representing the deceased would typically be flanked by one or more female figures in postures designed to invoke quiet reflection, while at the same time promoting core cultural norms, rituals, and tribal values.

[1] Lagamma, Alisa. Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168-170

[2] https://africa.si.edu/collections/view/objects/asitem/seealso@823/0t:state:flow=ead531c2-034f-4257-b75c-d9d1f8a66dca

E1.Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com; Ancestral shrine figure, NY exhib. (loan from Museum Rietberg, Zurich).

E2. Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com

E3. Photograph by Hector Deleval (Belgian, 1873-1953). Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168

Wilson, Brady, Omission and Lying.

There is very little if anything wrong in not giving a superstar his just due. Any arguments that Russell Wilson deserves any kudos for getting the starting nod in his rookie year (against all odds), winning his first Super Bowl in his sophomore year, and making the Super Bowl in his third NFL year is simply an expectation afforded the stereotypical quarterback. Fortunately the consistent drone by the media outlining why the opposition lost versus why the Seahawks win provides great motivation fodder as well as a great segue into the whole perspective of omission and commission.

Cue Brady and the Patriots, deflate-gate, and the demise of a legacy. This is not rocket science. Let’s give my boy Brady the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say there was absolutely no link between Brady and the directive given to equipment personnel to deflate said balls outside of league rules. Now my personal history is that I could tell if a table tennis ball had a hole in it, if the basketball at the YMCA was too soft, and if the soccer ball in the garage needed a little air in it. Not being a ball expert I’ve had co-workers berate me for walking around with worn tennis balls, (clearly I have limits). What I have no doubt about however, is that on taking the field my boy Brady knew he was playing outside the rules, with balls perfectly suited to his personal preference, and did nothing to rectify the situation. Forget about everything else. This is how it works for me. At best, Brady went for the victory using an advantage handed to him on a platter. Lacking the intestinal fortitude to address the situation, my boy Brady went with the flow. At best my boy Brady is guilty only of a sin of omission. The question of course is whether or not this can take down a legacy. I say it can, and has. The sin of omission is a high standard, and a personal one, but it is the line of demarcation between a public, and the private cheat. It’s what separates the golfer who is expected to call the penalty on himself, it is what raises the game of lawn tennis a notch when the opponent overturns a call made for him, and in soccer the opposing team will kick the ball out of bounds if an opposing player is injured.

The only thing my boy Brady has done is to pull the NFL’s tights down and expose the old, worn, pink jockstraps. The fact that he will be allowed to play in the Superbowl is understandable (at +$4mio for a 30 sec commercial spot this is eminently understandable). Let’s not kid ourselves though, just as a robbery can elevate itself due to circumstance, rest assured a sin of omission walks hand in hand with lying. (Disclaimer – I rooted for Patriots to win against the Colts – only because I believe the Seahawks handle pocket passers better than mobile quarterbacks).

Five Things one should know about Ikenga

What is Ikenga?

Ikenga is a ‘ritual object’ (commonly found in Igbo family shrines), which on an individual basis represents ‘masculine strength’ and the ‘ability to achieve one’s goals through one’s efforts’. [1]

Kunin Ikenga

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

Types of Ikenga

The Ikenga is in the image of a horned male figure made out of wood.

Ikenga - simple, abstract

[E2] Simple Ikenga form

• In its simplest form, it consists of only a cylindrical block and projecting “horns”. The horn symbolizes the aggressive, assertive, and powerful nature of the male animal.

Traditional Ikenga - AplusAfricanArt

[E3] Traditional Ikenga form

• The more elaborate type of Ikenga is a standing or seated male figure with a fully realized head and limbs which usually holds a machete in the right hand (hence “the cult of the right hand” – typically the hand of strength), and a severed head in the other.

Abstract Ikenga

[E4] Ikenga – Abstract

• The very abstract ikenga represents “characteristic ikenga features, such as a stool for the seat of authority and horns for vitality”. [2]

Understanding Ikenga.

To understand and “map” the eastern Ikenga concept to western thinking I use the following :
• Igbo religion incorporates the concept of an all-powerful creator God, Chikwu. (also called Chineke). [3],[4]
• Chi has been described as a sub-deity functioning as a personal, spiritual guide, (which sounds like a Christian adaptation to the “guardian angel” (mmuo) hypothesis). [3],[4]
• Each person has a chi that represents the personality essence that controls one’s destiny. [5]
• “Ikenga sculpture reflects the traits defined by the ikenga (the spirit element) that is an aspect of a constituent part of the chi”. [5]
• “The ikenga is the force that facilitates personal achievement and propels individuals to success”. [5]

What is the Origin of Ikenga?

Scholars are divided into two groups. The first relate Ikenga to the Egyptian “ram headed” influence as part of Igbo history, while the second and more plausible line believes that “that the Ikenga cult did not diffuse from anywhere into Igboland; at best, it is that part of the Igbo religious culture, epitomized in the spirit force and the powers of the guardian angels exemplified in Chi, and expressed in varied forms, which controlled the individual’s destiny and day-to-day affairs”. [1]

Where is Ikenga Used?

Ikenga is primarily used by the Igbo, however it is also used by the Igala to the north (called Okega), and by the “Benin and Delta groups, bordering western Niger Igbo groups, who call theirs Ikengobo, Ivri etc. The Oji, Orji, Ogilisi, and Okwe trees are special types of trees, believed to have spiritual potency, and appear to be the trees used in carving the Ikenga. However, the Akanta tree, which is a very hard wood and highly revered by carvers and medicine men across Igboland, was also used”. [1]

[1] The Ikenga, as Emblem of Greatness in the Cosmology of the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee
[2]http://www.digitalgallery.emory.edu/luna/servlet/view/all/what/Ikenga+are+shrines+to+the+right+hand
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chukwu
[4] http://nigeriaworld.com/articles/2009/may/242.html
[5] A Companion to African Philosophy, (edited by Kwasi Wiredu), p421

[E1] In Pursuit of Beauty, Sotheby’s (NY), 11/11/14
[E2]-[E4] Private Collection (AplusAfricanArt)

Collections, Addictions, History Past, and Present

Collecting African Tribal art is as interesting as it is addictive. Every piece can provide the start of another collection based on multiple factors, such as Tribe, society, function, symbol, location, material, and/or type. Every piece truly represents a lonely ‘soul’ crying out for company, but this argument holds little water with my inner financial advisor.

On NY marathon Sunday I happened to be in Harlem (by chance) near one of my favorite African stores, African Paradise. The store has many items, carvings, and african knick-knacks so there was a lot to look through. Reme, the owner is a wonderful fountain of knowledge who never fails to surprise, and I was also lucky to find the company of an old ‘dealer’ who shared his knowledge when we had different opinions. The reality is that you can only learn so much from books, and suffice to say I can now identify palm nuts (used in Ifa divination practice), and won’t easily confuse them with kola nuts (which can produce a euphoric, stimulating feeling).

There were many decent buys but I settled on a swarthy Yoruba rider to contrast the lone Yoruba (warrior) rider in my collection. At several recent auctions the Dogon, and Senufo riders grabbed most of the attention (and higher prices) due to their level of stylistic, and abstract distinction. The two carvings are shown below.

Yoruba horseman

[E1] Yoruba Horseman – Headdress

The carving styles are as different as Yin and Yang but they were both Yoruba, old, and ‘command their space’. In particular the new addition had a long curved extension of the hair which may be reminiscent of Eshu (the trickster of Yoruba theology).

Yoruba horseman

[E2] Yoruba Rider – probably Eshu related

What was amazing (and embarrassing) however was the response to my questions regarding the praise songs being played in the background. I was informed that the singer was none other than Ella Andall (of ‘Bring back the Power’ fame), a Trinidadian singer who was very popular for her renditions of Yoruba music. The CD in question was “Osun Bamise”, which I couldn’t find on Itunes, (but I later settled for downloading her Sango related praise songs).
The video attached shows a view of Yoruba (Oshun) related celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago.

To add insult to injury Reme recommended an old study – “Guinea’s Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture”, by Maureen Warner-Lewis. I had no idea this text existed, and although pleasantly surprised I was again embarrassed to be twice schooled on aspects of my own heritage.
From a book review done by Monica Schuler, Social and Economic Studies, June 1992,

Guinea’s Other Suns is an engaging interdisciplinary work, important both as a reference tool for scholars and as a textbook for Caribbean and African diaspora studies.
Maureen Warner-Lewis, a Trinidadian sociolinguist at UWI, Mona, Jamaica, wrote these collected essays over a period of fifteen years. Their strength derives from her extensive field work among descendants of liberated Africans in Trinidad, first-hand knowledge of Yoruba language and society, and perceptive sociolinguistic analysis.

Needless to say my copy is now en route, but I fear the deficit of understanding my history, both past and present would have been better covered in my youth.

[E1],[E2] AplusAfricanArt Collection

Threads of Association, Symbols, and Miniatures in African Art

I admit it took me several years of collecting African Tribal art to even begin to see the beauty in miniatures, but I’m well on the way to being hooked. What I appreciate now beyond the aesthetics of the art itself is the ability of miniatures to convey aspects of culture and tradition both through association with people/events, and also through the symbols represented.

The two examples shown below are an Ogoni mask, (it’s hard enough to get a large mask), and an Edan brass couple.

Ogoni mask

[E1] Ogoni Mask

While the mask is fascinating, with its patina, hinged jaw, and scarification, my association-link is firmly rooted in the fight of the Ogonis both against exploitation of natural resources, and environmental damage, and the inspirational life of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

On October 31, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis were sentenced to death by a Special Tribunal. In blatant defiance of numerous appeals by the international community, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow Ogoni were brutally executed on Friday, November 10, 1995. Ken Saro-Wiwa is remembered as an author, poet, and activist who stood up against the exploitation of his people. [1]

In the Edan sculpture shown note several items of iconography,
– The hand gestures of both figures are very important, in that they duplicate the greeting gesture of one Ogboni member to another.[2]
– The bulging eyes, typical of Yoruba art, allude to the devotee’s state of divine possession. [3]
– The chain joining the figures marks the symbolic unity underlying the man-woman opposition and the Ogboni intervention that makes this unity possible. [3]

Edan

[E2] Edan – Ogboni emblems, Yoruba

Edan are among the most fascinating sculptured objects in Yoruba culture. They are presented to an initiate into the higher ranks of a secret society, Ogboni or Oshugbo. Ogboni is one of the most prominent Yoruba religious cult societies, which worships the owner of the earth, Onile.

Its prime function is to harmonise all spirits and forces of nature. It is led by the eldest and wisest man and woman from the community. The edan were worn around initiates’ necks, as symbols of rank, at society meetings and ceremonies. The casting over an iron rod signifies the union of the magical forces associated with brass and iron.

The non-rusting character of brass symbolises immortality – the desire for longevity and well-being. The union of the male and female figures by a chain represents the duality of Onile. Ogboni venerates Onile to ensure human survival, peace, happiness, and social stability in the community.

The edan are used in five main functions: judicial, oracular, healing, protective, and communication/surveillance (Roache, 1971).
• For the judicial role, it is believed that an edan placed upright by its spike on the ground will fall should a man not confess his guilt.
• For its oracular role, it is required to be present with its owner in ifa divination for predicting the owner’s future. The Ogboni society has its own odu, a set of sacred verses of the spiritual and ethical tradition of ifa, predictions; that relate to both mundane and spiritual prescriptions.
• For the healing role, the edan are sometimes shaped like a spoon for medicine preparation.
• For the protective role, the edan are worn or carried to keep the bearer from harm and witchcraft.
• For the communication and surveillance role, the edan are believed to have the power to travel in the form of a bird to disseminate messages as well as to watch over people. [4]

[1] Refugee Review Tribunal, Response # NGA32636
[2] https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15413/lot/2540/
[3] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilisation, p.244
[4] http://www.michaelbackmanltd.com/1399.html

[E1], [E2] Private collection, AplusAfricanArt

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