Okenekene Headdress

I came across the Okenekene headdress complex in December of 2016, while doing some research on a purchased piece (note: research post purchase) from the Merton D. Simpson collection. As indicated in a prior blog, I do have a weakness for the water spirit headdress.

The headdress is peculiar to Ijebu-Yorubaland[1] which occupies the costal plain between the interior Yoruba kingdoms of Ife, Ijesha, Egba, Ibadan, and Oyo and the coastal waterways. The Ijebu recognize the presence and power of spirits controlling Delta waters, and acknowledge that they adopted and adapted their Agbo masquerades from Niger Delta peoples (primarily the Ijo).

Here are a few examples,

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Okenekene Headdress : The house and clock reflect the impressive  quarters of the water spirits living below the surface. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The piece typically consists of three sections,

Back:

Typically shows  coiled vines, and a heart shaped paddle, (or woro leaf). This will also have a chameleon, and or a python component.

Middle:

The middle area shows the abstract anthropomorphic representation of the water spirit with long pointed ears. Atop the domed area there may be shown an animal representation, or a more human related reference (e.g. an umbrella or rudder).

Front:

Typically reflects a reference to static/dynamic, natural/spiritual activity in the water.

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Okenekene : Showing chameleon, and python components at the back, the umbrella in the middle, and the fishing eagle within the waves to the front. [E1]

Another similarly styled headdress from the Seattle Art museum, also incorporates the chameleon (from the Yoruba creation myth).

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Okenekene : worn horizontally, they can be described as a juxtaposition of natural, spiritual, and human references. [E2]

A more modern, and less complicated representation of the Okenekene.

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Okenekene imagery in masquerade (1982): Ways of the Rivers, pg. 209.

Ijebu-Yoruba complex Components

Python[2]

Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum’ Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. “It is the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate in the mystic dance and utter oracles.”

When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to five days, during which she may not drink water. The language spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers. In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is worshiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony). Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the Ijaw people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried with the honors of a chief.

Birds[3]

Birds also appear frequently in water spirit headdresses. For the Kalabari Ijo, these are probably references to oru ogolo, the talkative bulbul bird that is said to live in villages and to speak the language of the spirits. It communicates messages from the spirits to the humans.

In Agbo masks, birds ride on the backs of crocodiles and on the snouts of such masks as Igodo and Okenekene. In these latter instances the bird is probably a fishing eagle.

For the Ijebu, the bird is linked with water spirits, as it is in the Delta.

[1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 197

[2] The Serpent in African Belief and Custom, WILFRID D. HAMBLY

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060/asset/aa.1929.31.4.02a00060.pdf;jsessionid=7534E7071431626BC682F7D0CD464BC3.f01t01?v=1&t=iz1r67lt&s=1c30c9afebd796232de7a81c52a43f8e9e7d1fa5

[3] Ways of the Rivers, Martha G. Anderson & Philip M. Peek

[E1] Ways of the Rivers, pg. 203

[E2] Africa – Dictionaries of Civilization, pg.197

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.

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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).

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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.

 

 

Collecting African Art

[Ben Matros has been collecting African Tribal art from the 1950s and
has given permission to share the following. His website is Tribalartafrica.com]

Collecting rare African artifacts can be fulfilling but challenging.
True collecting requires and an eye for quality and scarcity, coupled with an honest dealer or seller. Often mass-produced airport-art is sold as an authentic, collectible-quality piece. Some unscrupulous dealers mix this tourist-art in with their finer pieces. The key is knowing your dealer.



Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

African masks, statues, and other objects have an inherent meaning for the culture, the work, and the intended individual. Original pieces were related to religious practices and every day life. They were not made for museums or collectors.
Not all pieces were used often, and not all worn pieces are old. The tribes in some African countries, such as the Dogon in Mali, in many cases use pieces once and then they are discarded.



AFRICAN ART COLLECTING TIPS
1. Look at the piece. See if it’s well carved, is the patina correct? Worn in the right places? Compare it with similar pieces from Museums.
2. Consider the ethnic provenance or origin. Even if of the same quality, the art of different tribes can have huge price differences. Where did it come from? Who owned it before the dealer?
3. Pedigree: A piece from a collector from the thirties has a higher value than a similar piece recently acquired in the West. Even some very banal pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it is worth more.
4. Conservation: Too much restoration can decrease the value.
5. Rareness: How individual is the piece?
6. Size does not matter. Rarity and quality are the keys.
7. Auction result prices can yield a higher price for a particular piece. It does not mean that the piece is better.
8. The seller. The prestige of the dealer will sometimes boost the price. Large gallery or individual sale, it’s the quality and scarcity of the piece that matters.

Adam, Zeus, and Woot

Christian mythology (gasp!) instructs that Eve was formed fully fifteen verses after Adam.[1] At first blush this clearly is a case of the first man-clone relationship, (at best). Greek mythology has a slightly different twist since Hera was the wife and one of three sisters of Zeus.  This background sets the stage for arguably the most fascinating of the African Tribal creation myths, emanating from the Kuba tribe.

Kuba Tribe - Royal Masqueraders

The main characters are represented in the foreground (from left to right), Ngaady a Mwaash (NaM), Bwoom, and mwaash aMbooy (MsB)[2].  To make a long story short they were all siblings, and Mweel (the NaM mask) was married to Woot (the MsB mask), but pursued by Bwoom. Still, unethical missteps aside, the characters are used to represent the fight between royalty and commoner (that would be Bwoom).

E1. Ngaady a Mwaash Mask : Representing Mweel (wife of Woot).

“Ngaady a Mwaash dances with the two other royal masks during the installation of a new king, the initiation of princes, and at the funerals of dignitaries and elders. Their performance celebrates and commemorates the history of the creation of the Kingdom and the story of the founder and cultural hero, Woot.”[2]

E2. mwaash aMbooy and Pwoom Itok (r) Masks

 

The Pwoom Itok (also found among the Kuba-Bushoong, the Shoowa, and the Ngeende) represents a “wise old man” [3] in initiation ceremonies but some literature indicates it was also used in the apprehension of criminals. It has the peculiar characteristic of holes around a conical pupil, symbolising the eyes of the chameleon (all seeing).

E3. Kuba women finishing woven mats

The Kuba are also world renown for their embroidery which is “of a high quality in both design and technical achievement” [4]. What is interesting is the use of similar motifs and patterns on the masks, particulary the Pwoom Itok and the Ngaady a Mwaash, and subtle parallels in religious, and cultural norms.


[1] The Holy Bible, (King James Version), Genesis 2.v7

[2] http://www.africadirect.com/productsdesc.php?ID=38532

[3]African Art, A century at the Brooklyn museum, p244

[4]African Design, M. Trowell, p30

[E1..3] Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National museum of African Art.

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.

The African Tribal Art of Facial Scarification

Scarification is the practice of permanently marking the skin by cutting it, and is widely practised in Africa. The main purpose of African scarification is to enhance a person’s beauty, but scars can also indicate bravery, show group identity, or mark stages in a person’s life. [1] Collecting African Tribal Art through masks, and headdresses is an easy way to examine the cultural differences, and norms of African Tribes.

Guro Mask : Simple Scarification Pattern

Makonde

 The Makonde used body scarification in an effort to prevent their abduction into slavery. Although not as popular as before, scarification still finds a place in the culture, and craft of the tribe. A typical Lipico mask is worn on the top of the head partially covering the face and slanted up to enable the masquerader to see through the mouth area. These masks are used in initiation and circumcision ceremonies for boys as they move from adolescence to manhood. The masks may exhibit scarification, which is reflected in thick, symmetrical zigzag patterns across the face area.

Makonde Tribe : Lipico Mask

Tabwa

 The distinctive facial scarification consisting of a number of lines along the sides of the face and along the forehead, and abdomen were the means whereby Tabwa identified themselves to localities, and displayed social status. They are also a high form of body art or ornamentation. Elaborate and attractive patterns and designs were worked into the skin according to the Tabwa concept of ‘kulemba’ that reflect aesthetics, social membership, and the abstract idea of order upon the chaos of nature. It demonstrates that a person becomes a complete adult when they are properly inscribed with the appropriate scars. These patterns and designs are collectively known as ‘vindala’ and represent one’s advancement through life and within Tabwa society. Distinctive hairstyles among Tabwa men reflect status or membership in a hunter’s cult known as ‘buyange’, and requires some effort to braid, tie and decorate. [2]

Tabwa Tribe

Baule

Consider the marks on the Baule mask. The Senufo use three scars radiating from the edge of the mouth along the side of the face. The Senufo however are close neighbors of the Baule in the Ivory Coast.

Baule Tribe

At one time most slaves in the Baule territory were Senufo and because Baule people make this association, they use this type of scar to protect young children from harm; when a woman has had several children who have died for example this scar is given to her next child so that Death will not be attracted to it. [3]

[1] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

[2] http://www.africadirect.com/productsdesc.php?ID=53842

[3] http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/pdf/scarification_web.pdf

Scrooge, Michael Vick, and Redemption.

I’m not happy for Michael Vick. Why should I be? He makes his, he got his, and with half a brain and an ounce of luck, his finances will be fine. I wish him well… Bah! Humbug!

That said i do feel a touch of delirium coming on. What i am happy about goes way beyond watching MV rip and shred the Giants to a sputtering mass of bewildered looks, and irrational apoligetics. I finally understand that the melting pot of America does not start in the corridors of power, the halls of hallowed cathedrals, nor the voting booth. There are seminal moments in music, art, and sport that change our conditioned prejudices, our clinging debilitating favoritisms, and allow us to have fun together, unite, and move falteringly toward the promise of this great nation.

Mende, Sowei Mask : "The Renewed Spirit rising from the water"

There are stories of redemption and forgiveness that transcend our narrow-minded views of right and wrong. A goose-bump giving essence that rattles our stereotyped views and renders the limits of our moral and ethical logic to so much mush as we reconsider the impossibility of the Eagles comeback in the last seven minutes on 121910. These are the stories that shrivel moats of genteel etiquette, pedicured mannerisms, and hoarded wealth.

Maybe we wouldn’t last a minute on a football field, but here’s hoping that we can each bring to our daily lives a little of the heart, hunger, and preserverance that MV and his teammates continue to display in their fascinating run to the 2010 Superbowl.

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