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.

Hercules, Damascus, St. Paul, and the Baga N’mba

Prehaps the least utilized asset of man is his imagination. The ability to think beyond the box and connect the dots in ways not solely dependent on his own physical means. The myth of Hercules reinforces the concept that even if faced with seemingly impossible odds one may use ingenuity, skill, and luck to fashion a solution.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Hercules, but in acquiring a Baga N’mba  I feel as lucky as Hercules did in collecting the apples of the Hesperides.[1]


Baga D'mba (Nimba) Mask - My big baby :0)

The most important of the Baga art forms is the great mask, D’mba  or Nimba.

It represents the mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women, and presides over all agricultural ceremonies. The dancer, wearing a full raffia costume, carries the mask on his shoulders, looking out through holes between the breasts. In use, such masks rise more than eight feet above the ground; they often weigh more than eighty pounds. Most show a standardized pattern of facial scarification.

” Nimba is the joy of living; it is the promise of abundant harvest”

The Baga Nimba, or D’mba, represents the abstraction of an ideal of the female role in society. The Nimba is essentailly viewed as the vision of woman at her zenith of power, beauty, and affective presence; rather than a goddess or spirit. The typical Nimba form illustrates a woman that has been fertile, given birth to several children, and nurtured them to adulthood.[2]

Baga D'mba - The Tribal Arts of Africa, Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, p22


But the highlight of the trip to Damascus, (ok Boston) , came when I realized that the starter on the car’s engine had conked out on me. Fortunately I drive a standard shift Jetta (most women prefer automatic) so kick-starting the car is always an option.  As luck would have it a very nice couple id’d my predicament and were quick to render assistance. What was really funny was that the guy’s wife had been involved in a major car wreck that morning…. passenger side totally smashed in… yet they were able to put aside their troubles (and coffee), to help out a total stranger…. all the while listening to me droning that they really needed to be in church thanking God that no one died in the accident.  To say that I was grateful is an understatement, (I actually have Geico roadside assistance – go figure), and this is where I guess I had my St. Paul moment… I didn’t get knocked off a donkey by lightning, or go blind for three days, or fast this weekend…. it was more in the “revelatory nature”[3] of things.  This simple act of kindness totally restored my faith in humanity. Then in pushing the envelope, one can also tie in the redemption aspect of the Hercules myth…. but that would be another story for another day :0)

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