Nsibidi, Igbo, and Ekpe

I recently came across an Igbo helmet mask (Ben Matros collection) which had some brief comments attached.

Igbo, Ekpe, and Idoma…. collected 1966.

Collecting African Tribal Art sometimes requires some level of research since there are many copies and replicas made for sale to collectors.

Some research indicated that Idoma was perhaps not in play since there were not many examples of Janus (or multifaced) masks in use. Alternatively they were more common in Igbo theatre to the point where a popular central character (‘Asufu’) was a four faced helmet mask. Idoma masquerades by contrast use many headcrests, or single faced masks.

A similar mask at the LA County Museum of Art was also listed as Igbo. The two faces showed less wear,

The two masks displayed Nsibidi symbols referencing ‘love’ and ‘meeting’ (see below).

On Nsibidi:

Source:

http://www.taneter.org/writing.html

Nsibidi is an ancient script used to communicate in various languages in West Central Africa. Most notably used by the Uguakima and Ejagham (Ekoi) people of Nigeria and Cameroon, Nsibidi is also used by the nearby Ebe, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo, and Uyanga people.

The script is believed to date back to 5000 BC, but the oldest archaeological evidence ever found dates it to 2000 BC (monoliths in Ikom, Nigeria). Similar to the Kemetic Medu Neter, Nsibidi is a system of standardized pictographs.

Source:

Nsibidi

Nsibidi is not an alphabet but something more compressed, more graphic — more poetic, in a sense. Technically, it is an ideographic writing system, whose more than one thousand symbols (drawn in the air as gestures, drawn on the ground, drawn on skin as tattoos, or drawn on calabashes, swords, masks and textiles) don’t correspond to a single language but refer to concepts, actions or things that can be understood by people speaking a variety of different languages.

Source:

https://allafrica.com/stories/201904140066.html

Strangely, Nsibidi and the Egyptian Hieroglyphics share some characters. Like the Hieroglyphics, Nsibidi was taught to select secret groups that exuded power and authority. They were largely in control of the arms of government, hence its exclusivity. Among them is the Ekpe Leopard Secret Society. The Ekpe, still found in present-day Abia, are often seen wearing a particular clothing during formal events. This cloth is known as the Ukara Ekpe.

Five Guro reasons to visit the Barnes Foundation.

In 2018 I visited the Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia) to check out their Tribal African Art collection. A couple years earlier I had purchased a Guro mask at a NJ auction and in a ‘weird moment’ I remember thinking it was extraordinarily beautiful. The strange thing is that in terms of ‘beautiful’ masks Baule masks usually (deservedly(?)) get most of the hype and the glory while Guro masks sort of loiter at the other end of the spectrum.

Guro – The Bouaflé Master. Face Mask Surmounted by a Bowl (Gu), Late 19th century. 

“This mask is by one of Africa’s greatest named master sculptors and it may be his absolute greatest work.”…. source : African Art in the Barnes Foundation ($30ish).

This is a side view from the reference material.

Unidentified artist, Guro. Mask of a Woman with Leather Hairband (Gu), Early 20th Century.

Unidentified artist, Guro. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Guro, artist related to the Master of Duonu. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Guro, artist related to the Master of Duonu. Face Mask (Gu), Early 20th century.

Admission ($30ish) is a little pricey but the collection covers three small rooms and there are several pretty amazing pieces in there. The reference material (check bookstore) is also extensive and the photos are excellent.

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

 

Iagalagana, Halos, and Price Points

African Tribal art pricing is not intuitive and is very subjective. Premiums can be based on provenance, age, patina, originality, rarity, and any number of other less material factors.

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Mumuye Tribe: Iagalagana (Claiborne Mumuye)

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Mumuye location : Northeast Nigeria, below the Benue river.

The Mumuye have an interesting statuary tradition in the Iagalagana. These were used as abstractions of incarnate tutelary spirits. The recently acquired ‘Claiborne Mumuye’ from the Liz Claiborne and Arthur Ortenberg collection was purchased at auction. It’s one of the ‘providential’ cases where a piece with a Sotheby’s provenance was not advertised as such, however this did not materially detract from the bidding. In the piece shown above some of the interesting factors include the slight tilting of the head, the cubist forms, and the sculptor’s longitudinal development of the chest area.

Mumuye Buddies

Mumuye Buddies – AplusAfricanArt collection.

One of my pet theories in developing relationships with customers is having comfortable price points, not just from the customer’s end but also from the dealer’s end. Invariably this requires acquiring, and keeping a couple Stars, and developing the concept of the Halo effect. This allows customers to understand much of the pricing dynamics inherent in investable African Tribal art. While I am not a huge fan of provenance the fact is that it has become a major pillar in an entire industry,  and once understood enables customers to more comfortably purchase affordable pieces of African Tribal Art.

Currently one of the amazing (read as disappointing) aspects of Collecting African Tribal Art is that the African American community for the most part remains largely uneducated about the beauty of their ancestral art forms, and have pretty much been priced out from serious collecting, (see interesting ends to the collections of Bayard Rustin and Merton Simpson).

 

 

Tapping out…

The first of several Merton Simpson’s African Tribal art estate auctions took place at Quinn’s Auctions in Falls Church Virginnia (10/01/16). With approximately 400 of the high-end pieces of his collection on sale it proved to be an arduous task, but once the audience was walked through the challenges from the Nigerian government, consignment claims, and catalog mishaps it was pretty smooth sailing.

The prices though…. were a true testament to the reputation and cachet of the ‘Merton Simpson’ brand in the African Tribal art world.

My tap out moment came on a three item stretch (#168 to #170). These items were an Oron sculpture, a female Tiv figure, and a Urhobo mask respectively.

ms-tapout

The way it worked was the opening bid (before absentee bids) would be one-half the lower catalog estimate. This worked out to be $150, $400, and $50 … (I know right, too good to be true, and well worth the drive to Virginna from NY). Honestly though, by the time we reached to item #168 I had already drawn a ‘sad’ smiley face next to item #169. The final sale prices came in at $850, $12,500, and $900 respectively. Then you add 20% buyer’s premium, and a 6% sales tax for your effort, and this is without taking the shipping costs into consideration, or the 4% credit card penalty (keep those checkbooks handy) should you choose that option!

So let’s circle back to your basic auction strategy, 1. prior to your must-have items you should always buy a great piece – that way you ALWAYS walk away with something, 2. after your tap out moment don your best kamikaze/guerrilla persona, open up that wallet, and come out focused and swinging!!

 

Photocredit : Screenshot from Liveauctioneers.com

Dan & Me.

I struggle with the Dan mask. It feels like every carver has made one, and every African Tribal art collector has one (at least). It is a common mask type. It is “Ground Zero” of the African masking genre as far as collecting is concerned. It can be argued that it influenced artistic direction from Munch’s “The Scream”, to “Faceless Men” in Game of Thrones. At it’s core it has the simplest lines, and easily recognizable attributes, yet with all this I still find myself slugging it out with avid collectors at obscure African Tribal Art auctions.

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Dan (Zakpai mask)

 

 

The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

This weekend was ultra-solid as empty-nested and broken bracketed Easter weekends go. Sadly though it did begin on a low note since I was throughly priced out of a couple decent African tribal art offerings. Like any good fox however I found myself surprisingly amenable to spurning the ‘grapes’ and moving right along to more affordable fare.

red-dan-03w

Zakpai Mask – Dan Tribe

Zakpai‘ is the fire prevention mask. Its function is to insure
that women have put out their cooking fires every day during
the dry season, before the afternoon winds begin to blow.
Zakpai is aggressive, sometimes throws things, and is
meant to inspire fear. Tall green leaves cover the head. In
addition, the masker wears pants with a ruff of raffia around
the waist and neck. It carries a branch as a weapon (Fischer
1978, 21). [1]

In keeping with the Dan trend my favorite dealer parted ways with this small treasure.

gagon-02w

Dan Tribe – Gagon

Masks with a large beak-like form and beard of monkey fur, often with a moveable lower jaw, are Gagon masks. Originally an educational mask instructing people on the importance of the hornbill bird to their culture, they are now used mostly for entertainment.[2]

These pieces were part of an African Art collection from the estate of Alfred M. Prince, both the scholar, philanthropist, and the avid collector.

The following photographs were recommended for addition (thanks Ed), and are sourced (as indicated) from the topic essay titled “MASQUERADES AMONG THE DAN PEOPLE” and the PinInterest site.

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Zakpai-2w

Africa | People wear a “Dan” mask at the agricultural Festival of Ignames of the Yacouba tribe in Cote d’Ivoire. | Image and caption © Charles & Josette Lenars

 

Zakpai-1w

Two kagle masks and deangle, Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.

 

[1] http://www.randtribal.com/Dan_Zakpai_mask.html

[2] http://www.hamillgallery.com/DAN/DanGagonMasks/DanGagonMasks.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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