Mbembe, Bembe, and the Ikoro.

As with most endeavors, Collecting African Tribal Art is fraught with instances of disappointment, and joy. The Metropolitan Museum recently (091615) had an exhibition on Mbembe Art (which I missed), but fortunately the following piece (acquired in 2010) will continue to be on display in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing’s survey of sub-Saharan art. Additionally the article “Silenced Mbembe Muses” provides ample analysis of the Mbembe corpus (an amazing read, and chock-full of pictures).

[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe

[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe

The Mbembe and the Bembe are African tribes located in Nigeria, and the Congo respectively.

[E1] Mbembe location

[E2] Mbembe location

Historically the Mbembe used the Ikoro drum (massive slit drum) which could be heard as far as 10 kilometers away. This Mbembe art form is another example of the prodigious art present in the Three Rivers region (Niger, Benue, and Cross).

“Given the ikoro’s importance and scale, the creative process was especially demanding. An elaborate ritual celebration preceded the selection and cutting of the tree from which the log for the drum was hewn. Hollowing and carving took weeks or months, over the course of which the artist’s tools required daily refortification by the associated deity. Each work was customized to feature a sculptural program of figurative or animal imagery at one or both ends of the slit gong’s cylindrical body. The human subjects were typically a nurturing maternity figure or a fierce male warrior brandishing weaponry and a trophy head.”[1]

[E3] Mbembe Exhibition 1974

[E3] Mbembe Exhibition 1974

“Mbembe chiefs oversaw annual tributes to the founder of their village’s lineage. Such celebrations took place in a large structure where all men who had proven themselves as warriors gathered. A monumental sacred drum, ten to thirteen feet long and adorned with representations of the founding couple, was the principal feature of this setting. The female subject depicted was the spouse who had given birth to the lineage’s first male descendant. Young men demonstrated their worthiness by placing before the drum, which served as a shrine, the severed head of an enemy they had slain. British colonial interdictions of such devotional practices contributed to the decline and gradual abandonment of these village sanctuaries.”[1]

[1] “Silenced Mbembe Muses”: Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 48 (2013)
[E1] Maternity Figure: Seated Mother and Child. Mbembe[/caption] peoples; Ewayon ̆ River region, Cross River Province, Nigeria, 15th–17th century. Wood, pigment, resin, nails, H. 421⁄2 in. (108 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, 2010 and 2008 Benefit Funds, Laura G. and James J. Ross, David and Holly Ross, Noah-Sadie K. Wachtel Foundation Inc. and Mrs. Howard J. Barnet Gifts, 2010 (2010.256). Photograph: The Photograph Studio, MMA
[E2] Map showing the Mbembe region. From Kamer 1974. © Hélène Kamer
[E3] Installation view, “Ancêtres M’Bembé,” Galerie Kamer, Paris, 1974. ©!Hélène Kamer
exhibition link

Karma, Fang, the Dogon couple, and the Fetish

Business is business, and neither businessmen nor baseballers cry. Financial theory abounds with euphemisms… the long vs the short, risk free arbitrage, and the Goldman Sachs “profit from both sides of the trade” perspective. Collecting African Tribal art presents a dilemma of sorts when one is faced with potential Karma-kazi type transactions. No-one really wins (who am i kidding) …. someone always wins. The art world is filled with con-artists so the buyer is always driven to get the best deal while the seller simply opts for the maximum price.

The following three pieces were added this past week (ending 093011).

Ngontang - Fang Tribe

Known as Ngontang (or Ngontanga), this mask was used by the Fang people of southern Cameroon and Gabon. It represents a spirit of the dead as indicated by the use of the Kaolin or white chalk-like substance applied to the four faces . The mask was used to locate or detect witchcraft, or sorcerers (those who abuse spiritual powers)–but also performed at feasts, funerals, celebrations of birth, and on the occasion of an important communal decision. It was worn over the head or if too small on top of the head. Fang interpretation of the four faces on this mask varies from four spirits, to four stages of life to four relatives. (E1)

Dogon Couple - Dogon Tribe

The Dogon couple piece is actually 43″ high (that’s a big boy!). This is a very powerful piece. The mother carries a child on her back, while the father figure carries a quiver of arrows on his. The couple sit on a stool supported by six members of the family, community, or both.  It’s clear that Dad is copping a feel, but it’s presented in a way that does not detract from the intimacy that exudes from the composition.

Bwani/Mishi/Fetish - Bembe Tribe

This piece is from the Bembe Tribe in a Janus form, “signifying beginnings and transitions, past and future”, (E2). The two faces of the Janus signify the dominating nature of the mask’s spirit. It is capable of bringing harmony to nature’s opposing forces such as masculine and feminine, day and night. This piece could have either be worn on the head or used as a shrine object.

The Bembe has three main secret societies, (E3)

  • The Bwani society takes its inspiration from its neighbours, the Lega. Their initiation process is simpler than that of the Lega as the Bwani of the Bembe people only have two levels of initiates. After the circumcision had been carried out, the Bwani were mainly in charge of dances, songs and handling objects. (The eyes of the Bwani are usually depicted by a coffee bean shape, while the Alunga use a prominent circular pupil).
  • The Elenda society has control over the social aspect of the tribe. It is accessible only to men on the condition that the candidates make a donation to the member with the highest grade in the society.
  • The Alunga society is in charge of the rites that precede a hunt, the organization of public dances, and of social control.

E1 http://www.forafricanart.com/Fang-Ngontang-Helmet-Mask-1320_ep_307-1.html

E2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus

E3 http://www.african-art.net/ethnicity/bembe/africa-black-life-rituals

African Tribes, Demographics, & The Slave Trade Map

Information on African Tribes – Demographics, Politics, Religion, History, Economy, Tribal Art, Neighboring Tribes, Culture, Language.

Aka Akan Akuapem Akye Anyi Aowin
Asante Babanki Baga Bali Bamana Bamileke
Bamum Bangubangu Bangwa Baule Beembe Bembe
Benin Kingdom Berber (Amazigh) Bete Bidyogo Biombo Bobo
Bushoong Bwa Cameroon Grasslands Chokwe Dan Dengese
Diomande Djenn� Dogon Ejagham Eket Ekoi
Esie Fang Fante Fon Frafra Fulani
Guro Hausa Hemba Holoholo Ibibio Idoma
Igala Igbira Igbo Igbo Ukwu Ijo Kabre
Karagwe Kassena Katana Kom Kongo Kota
Kuba Kurumba Kusu Kwahu Kwele Kwere
Laka Lega Lobi Luba Luchazi Luluwa
Lunda Luvale Lwalwa Maasai Makonde Mambila
Mangbetu Manja Marka Mbole Mende Mitsogo
Mossi Mumuye Namji (Dowayo) Ngbaka Nkanu Nok
Nuna Nunuma (Gurunsi) Ogoni Oron Owo Pende
Pokot Punu Salampasu San Sapi Senufo
Shambaa Shona Songo Songye Suku Swahili
Tabwa Tuareg Urhobo We Winiama Wodaabe
Wolof Woyo Wum Yaka Yaure Yombe
Yoruba Zaramo Zulu


Destinations of Slaves and their Origins

Senegambia (Senegal-Gambia) * 5.8%
Sierra Leone 3.4%
Windward Coast (Ivory Coast) * 12.1%
Gold Coast (Ghana) * 14.4%
Bight of Benin (Nigeria) * 14.5
Bight of Biafra (Nigeria) * 25.1%
Central and Southeast Africa (Cameroon-N. Angola) * 24.7%
SENEGAMBIA: Wolof, Mandingo, Malinke, Bambara, Papel, Limba, Bola, Balante, Serer, Fula, Tucolor
SIERRA LEONE: Temne, Mende, Kisi, Goree, Kru.
WINDWARD COAST (including Liberia): Baoule, Vai, De, Gola (Gullah), Bassa, Grebo.
GOLD COAST: Ewe, Ga, Fante, Ashante, Twi, Brong
BIGHT OF BENIN & BIGHT OF BIAFRA combined: Yoruba, Nupe, Benin, Dahomean (Fon), Edo-Bini, Allada, Efik, Lbibio, Ljaw, Lbani, Lgbo (Calabar)
CENTRAL & SOUTHEAST AFRICA: BaKongo, MaLimbo, Ndungo, BaMbo, BaLimbe, BaDongo, Luba, Loanga, Ovimbundu, Cabinda, Pembe, Imbangala, Mbundu, BaNdulunda
Other possible groups that maybe should be included as a “Ancestral group” of African Americans:
Fulani, Tuareg, Dialonke, Massina, Dogon, Songhay, Jekri, Jukun, Domaa, Tallensi, Mossi, Nzima, Akwamu, Egba, Fang, and Ge.


[1] http://wysinger.homestead.com/mapofafricadiaspora.html

The corner piece!!!

Yesterday I headed to downtown Manhattan to visit what I thought was a struggling estate liquidator, who promised 50% off African Art pieces.

Although the owner absolutely did right by me it seemed that the starting prices were fairly astronomical.

I finally settled on two pieces – the first piece was a “sweetener”,  a doll from the Namji tribe. Needless to say I had no idea where the doll came from and had never seen one before. My first instinct was that the doll was a fetish, a good luck charm or a protector. It turns out that it is actually used by girls to inculcate parental behavior patterns… ie. the children basically treat the doll as a child and are responsible for it’s care.

The second  piece  seemed to have stylistic characteristics very  similar to masks made by the Bembe Tribe from the Republic of the Congo. It didn’t help that the provenance of the  mask was advertised as Ibibio, which is a tribe in the southeast of Nigeria. The mask on the right is a helmet mask, an Echawokaba ; one can immediately see the similarities of the recessed orbitals, the protruding pupils,  and the use of abstract geometric patterns.

The use of a similar color combination, ie the black, white, and red pigments was also encouraging.  I suspect however that the two masks serve very different functions, but it is hard to come across some of these pieces, so a proxy at times is better than nothing.

Elanda?? The funny thing is that I totally missed the mask. It was collecting copious amounts of dust in the corner behind the entrance, behind a length of  ill placed duct tubing.

This however is where I lose my cool… on spotting the piece I behave like it’s the second coming of the Mona Lisa… yup… I hold it tenderly, sniff the wood like the bouquet of a fine wine, gently and lovingly place it on the counter, and then look the seller in her eye and pretend like i’m going to drive a hard bargain…. thankfully the owner was only too ready to clean house and was dropping the price like… well anyway, everyone knows the prom night joke.

At the end of my excursion I came up with my third or fourth (you never know sometimes), Bembe piece, and put some info for a new tribe in the database. Given that I finally paid off  (after four months), and collected a sweet Fang byeri on Wednesday, I’d say it was a really good week.

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