Size can make a Difference!!

In Swahili Kubwa Mvulana (KM) means “Big Boy”, the name I gave to my favorite Fang Bieri (Byeri) figure. In keeping with the Fang principle of “Balance of Opposites” KM seemed pretty content with his lot, but I sensed as a sculpture he had a lot more potential.


KM (middle) hanging out with pals

I found KM in November of 2012, sans belly-button and genitalia – the belly button was a due to a recent break, while there was a 2 inch drilled cavity where his manhood should have been. There was actually some deterioration within the cavity (which required filling) and ultimately led to the following pictoral “famine to feast” or “rags to riches” story.

KM - Before & After!!

KM – Before & After!!

It’s not surprising to find the genitalia removed from Bieri or Dengese sculpture. The problem with restoring pieces is that one tries to develop a consistency of form, age, and cutting style. This is an expensive and risky process, but when it works it is well worth the effort.

Shaping the Belly-Button

Shaping the Belly-Button

Hexagonal Approach

Hexagonal Approach

Operating Table

Operating Table

Belly-Button insertion!

Belly-Button insertion!

Belly-Button Inserted, "Aged", & Stained!

Belly-Button Inserted, “Aged”, & Stained!

Plugging cavity to stop rot and to keep insects out.

Plugging cavity to stop rot and to keep insects out.

Glued & Attached with pins!!

Glued & Attached with pins!!

KM smiling on the inside!!

KM smiling on the inside!!

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.

Five Things one should know about the Kwele

Dominant mask : EKUK

Kwele Tribe, Ekuk mask

  Physical characteristics of the kwele mask:[1]

  1. The horns of the mask ‘usually’ curve downwards; this could be associated with tranquility, or a state of  peace and rest.
  2. The mouth is situated very close to the chin.
  3. Narrow eyes.
  4. Small pointed triangular nose.
  5. Wide arced eyebrows.

Ekuk means both “protective forest spirit” and “children of beete.” This mask, with two large horns, represents the antelope. The faces are usually painted in white kaolin earth, a pigment associated by the Kwele with light and clarity, the two essential factors in the fight against evil. [2]

 Country / Location:

West Africa, Gabon – to the North East near the border of the ‘Republic of the Congo’.


The two major religions in the District are Christianity and Muslim. There are still pockets of the original animist beliefs, and ancestors are revered by many people.

 Cultural Difference:

The Kwele people attribute unexplained tragedy of tribal sickness, and uncommon adversity to incidents of witchcraft. To counteract such occurrences the tribe enacts a Beete ritual. This ritual uses masked performances, and what is particularly interesting is that the ritual is used to “heat” the members of the tribe, in a metaphysical sense.  The beete cult uses the ritual to maintain order, control, and pass along tribal values. This is a typical theme of Ritual, Values, and Norms (RVN).

 Tribal Relations:

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

The Kwele are located close to the Fang, Mahongwe, and Kota. Each of these tribes are famous for their reliquaries. 

Book Burnings, Power, Threats.

I  heard from an acquaintance, of a friend, of a cousin, who has been rumored to be familiar with the 9/11/10 book burning controversy, that an abhorrent and conniving plan was afoot.  It seems that in a closed session, with his most trusted advisors, the Rev. Terry Jones and followers, will abort all future attempts at book burning and instead …… delete, and expunge multiple copies of downloaded apps of the Koran from their smartphones… while delivering sermons filled with fiery rhetoric. This workaround although effective, should mightily reduce the chances of a Rushdie like “fatwa” and materially extend the life of the said Rev. I however, along with the rest of the Free World remain outraged and fully expect the Office of the Pope, the President, Angelina, General Patreus, Mickey Mouse, and the few non-rioting Afgans, Pakistanis, and Iranians to renew their efforts to stamp out this obscene case of religious bigotry.

In all seriousness however, by virtue of the First Amendment, the Rev. is within his right to burn the Koran provided there is no threat of violence associated with the act. The anniversary of a very sad day in American history thus far has run as a footnote to this sideshow.

It seems odd that followers of the Bible and the Koran have so much in common, (arguably worship the same God), and yet continually find ways to create hatred, and distrust.

But History repeats itself for there have been many instances of book burnings, and the destruction of religious artefacts.

In 1242, The French crown burned all Talmud copies in Paris, about 12,000, after the book was “charged” and “found guilty” in the Paris trial sometimes called “the Paris debate”. This burnings of Hebrew books were initiated by Pope Gregory IX, who persuaded French King Louis IX to undertake it. Since the Church and Christian states viewed the Talmud as a book hateful and insulting toward Christ and gentiles, subsequent popes were also known to organize public burnings of Jewish books. The most well known of them were Innocent IV (1243–1254), Clement IV (1256–1268), John XXII (1316–1334), Paul IV (1555–1559), Pius V (1566–1572) and Clement VIII (1592–1605).[1]

In the English Reformation, circa 1526, Cardinal Wolsey presided at a massive burning of Lutheran books.[2]

Fang - Bieri ; Balance of Opposites

In the 1930s in West Africa, “the project to discourage the use of bieri led to a period of iconoclasm, when vast numbers of sculptures were ritually confiscated and destroyed. In an article sponsored by the Gabonese government, Joachim Minsta explains how, in the Estuary region, French Catholic missionaries from the order of Spiritans, also known as Holy Ghost Fathers, would ceremonially set the sculptures out to sea (Mints 1960). Oral histories and fictionalized accounts tell of widespread raids on homes when missionaries searched for bieri that they would then stockpile and burn.”[3]

The works of some Jewish authors and other so-called “degenerate” books were burnt by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Richard Euringer, director of the libraries in Essen, identified 18,000 works deemed not to correspond with Nazi ideology, which were publicly burned.[4]

On the 23rd March 1984 hundreds of copies of the New Testament were ceremonially burnt by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Professor Israel Shahak of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in his 1994 book Jewish History, Jewish Religion “Or one can quote the precept according to which Jews are instructed (from the Talmud) to burn, publicly if possible, any copy of the New Testament that comes into their hands. (This is not only still in force but actually practiced today;)5

The 1988 publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, provoked angry demonstrations and riots around the world by followers of political Islam, some of whom considered it blasphemous. In the United Kingdom, book burnings were staged in the cities of Bolton and Bradford.

It would seem that power corrupts and future censorship is a given in some form or fashion – the attempt by Rev. Jones has shown that acts of outrageous mischief can be manipulated for self-promotion, and unbelievable exposure, but at least the solidarity against his cause was an encouraging step in the right direction.




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.







   My dialogue with African art derives from the conviction that artistic creation arises from a common fund of humanity and that in the discovery of aesthetic solutions the making of masterpieces supersedes regions, cultures, and becomes part of the treasures from all places and all times of human creation.
Armand Arman, African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection

       The Fang of Gabon, are world renown for their Ngil masks, and their reliquaries; Byeri, (Bieri). While the masks were used in policing activities for the So and Ngil judiciary societies, the Byeri served a deeper more religious function.

 Aplus African Art

       The Bwitist cult of the Fang practice ancestor worship. Being a nomadic tribe, the members carried specific bones of ancestors in cylindrical bark boxes, atop which the byeri figures were placed to act as guardians. In the early 1900s, between 1910 and 1930, traditional Fang religion and art were subject to religious persecution by the Church, with the “approval of the French colonial government”  but “despite the burning of the temples, persecution and killings of religious leaders the movement continued to grow.”  (

       This I think is the deep and endearing difference between traditional Western and African Tribal art. The functionality of the pieces and their social/religious significance simply add to their esthetics and abstract form, at a level that is patently holistic and entirely appealing.

        When one considers the Byeri for example – while the objects were being destroyed, the essence of what the Fang admire most in people “tranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance”  are intangibles that could not be extinguished from their culture.  (Heilbrunn timeline of art history, The Met.). Although beaten to death by anthropologists, the concept of holding opposites in balance can be intuitively gleaned from the Byeri –

1)       The use of childlike proportions (head), versus the mature development associated with the adult body.

2)       The peaceful, abstract restraint of the facial expression versus the power exhibited through defined, flexed, “Popeye” like muscles.

 These concepts are universal, and we have learnt and seen them in different forms. Everyone has “an inner child”, and even the strongest leader among us will be well served at times, by a serene and calm disposition.

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