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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Bonsai, Feng Shui, and African Tribal Art

As far as interior decorating goes I’ve taken a couple ideas from Feng Shui. The first is avoiding clutter, and the second is the higher concept of facilitating a “flow” of some sort, much as there are different ways of telling a story to one’s own liking. These ideas have come out on the losing end with my love for bright Caribbean colors and my thinking that “Collecting too much African Tribal Art is not enough African Tribal Art”.

Bonsai with Congo Fetish, and Fang Byeri

I put together a quick Bonsai (I know right, Bonsai masters somewhere are cringing) layout that actually took several years of planning, A few years ago I came across a sturdy little azalea that wouldn’t die, despite the occasional nip with the bushwhacker. On replanting I trimmed the roots, restricted their downward growth (using a layer of gravel), then hoped for the best. The following is a brief “step by step” walkthrough of the bonsai potting exercise.

Bonsai pot with guaze and anchor wires

The bonsai pot is fitted with gauze and wire anchors. There is very little science to this.

Bonsai pot with wire anchors – Bottom view

Add some gravel to facilitate drainage.

Bonsai drainage layer

Keep bonsai specimen safe (somewhere)!

Bonsai (Azalea) – note shallow root ball.

Anchor root ball and/or trunk as necessary, add filler dirt as required, water, and position between African Art.

Bonsai with African Tribal Art – Fang, Bwa, Bambara, Kota, Kongo, Kurumba, Igbo, Songye, and Yombe.

Kick back, pop a can, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!!

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

Marriage, Family, and Community.

Marriage, Family, and Community

We take many aspects of marriage for granted.. very much like the Federal backing of a Ginnie Mae mortgage backed security, or the FDIC guarantee for bank deposits not exceeding $100k…. we assume that God has an implicit spiritual guarantee in place for people who faithfully adhere to the tenets of marriage and monogamous living. Ironically this represents an enormous leap of faith and diabolical logic.

Baule : Spirit Partner

One of the most interesting quotes I came across was that marriage may have began as an institution to adequately access nubile women… this made sense,  since who would want warriors killing each other in their quest for companionship! [1] Another interesting point was that around 600 years ago no priest was required for a European styled marriage, which was basically sealed by a promise. The modern marriage came into effect around 1556, after the 1553 Council of Trent.[2]

It may come as a shock that marriage in and of itself does not bring God’s blessing and it is by itself a spiritual nostrum. Almost any crook, murderer, or thief, can get married in the finest church and walk out as husband and/or  wife.

This is not to say that the social construct that is marriage is useless… far from it. Nor would I rank the payment of taxes (another construct) on the same spiritual level that some marriages clearly attain, but I refrain from linking deep personal intimacy with spirituality.

Bambara Maternity Statues

Bambara - Maternity Statues

Within the context of a community, and raising a family, different types of marriages clearly work better than others.

If any one wedding tradition might be said to be indicative of the African continent it would be the importance of family. An African wedding is, more than anything, the bringing together of two people as a single family, or the combining of two families or even the mixture of two tribes into one family unit. The concept of family is one of the unifying ideas of the African continent.

There are more than 1,000 cultural units in Africa and each culture, each tribe has its own wedding and marriage traditions, many of which can trace their origins back hundreds or even thousands of years.

Divorce is rare in African marriages. Problems in a marriage are often discussed with both families and solutions found. Often entire villages join in to help a couple find solutions to their problems and keep a marriage from failing. [3]

A good marriage can provide a “win win” situation where both sides find love, and companionship, as well as raise a family. It remains hard work and it would seem that some Western societies do not provide adequate training for the task, yet the freedoms afforded the Western females are such that they are not disadvantaged to  as great an extent as in Eastern and African societies.

It is clear that the most important part of the marriage is the love and commitment of the couple to each other.  A marriage represents the legal, spiritual, union of two people but can easily devolve into a basic contract on paper, and an amazingly complex hell on earth.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage

 

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent

[3] http://www.worldweddingtraditions.com/locations/african_traditions.html

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.


[1] http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20100831/sc_livescience/beliefinwitchcraftwidespreadinafrica

[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_div_rat-people-divorce-rate

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_fertility_rate#The_UN_TFR_Ranking

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-Saharan_Africa#Demographics

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism

Trust, Tiger, Dogon Lion, & Chiwara

On 8/23/2010 Tiger Woods got his first divorce. While his mental fortitude is amazing his lack of a working moral compass resulted in a much publicized series of extra marital affairs and a dramatic failure in his ability to contend at PGA tourneys. This is admittedly a stretch of a segway into this blog (which deals mainly with African Tribal Art), but I believe that initiation periods for both young men and young women are an important option in developing the moral fabric of communities.

Bambara : Chiwara - Male and Female

Coincidentally  I finally paid off on the Bambara pieces shown. They represent a half man, half antelope being (shape shifter for TrueBlood fans), who first showed man how to farm and till the soil. What was most interesting was the payment plan. I paid over several months (lost the bill actually) , but I was taken at my word for the remaining price. It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to walk into a store in Manhattan and not only  to NOT be viewed with suspicion, but to be viewed as a trusted client. I had to admit that even intangible collateral benefits are appreciated. The Bambara culture uses age and caste cofraternities and the chi wara ton society passes on necessary farming skills.

Dogon : Lion Mask

The other piece I picked up was the Dogon Lion mask shown.  (See “The Five Things One Should know about the Dogon” blog). It had been advertised as a “Monkey mask”, which was actually quite a close guess. The patina was severely encrusted, which seems to be a characteristic of the wood used. The age cracks spread in a radial pattern from the top of the head as well, forming a very pleasing pattern. The seller was very interesting, a musician/historian type and I consider myself very lucky to come across this particular piece. The mask itself is used in a masquerade to lead the spirits of the dead away from the  village. This is “the closing of the mourning period”  and is handled by the “Awa” men’s association.

The Dogon also use societies to assist adolescents in bridging the gap to adulthood.

Male and female associations are entrusted with the initiations that take place by age group, tonno, corresponding to groups of newly circumcised or excised boys or girls. The members of an age group owe one another assistance until the day they die. Initiation of boys begins after their circumcision, with the teaching of the myths annotated by drawings and paintings. The young boy will learn the place of humans in nature, society, and the universe. Dogon mythology is so complex that a griot needs a week to recite it in its entirety.”[1]

In the absence of special Associations however the responsibility and onus lies with parents to fill the role or find the best proxy of a moral guide for their children. It is clear from this episode in TW’s life that the repercussions can be very detrimental … as my grandmother used to say, “Bend the tree, whilst it’s young”.


[1] http://www.jembetat.com/info.cfm?tribe=Dogon

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