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.

 

 

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The Good, the Great and by default, the Ugly.

Good African tribal art should provoke wonder, both with regard to a level of expertise and with respect to an associated secondary role or function. The bar for the ‘great’ handle should further meet a standard of transcendental inspiration, forcing introspection of elemental themes of life, death, friendship, and love. It stands to reason therefore that collecting African tribal art would realistically result in a nightmarish quantity of inferior pieces as one better develops an appreciation of quality.

Consider the following shrine figure from the Yombe tribal tradition, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2015 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty.

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E1. Ancestral Shrine figure, seated female. Kongo peoples; Yombe group.

The pose is clearly deeply reflective. The carver has also cleverly and purposely excluded all signs our modern Kardashian drunk society would typically relate to physical sexual suggestion. What is left is an image of a person engaged in deep contemplation…. even acquiescence. The carver then uses the trails of black streaks to evoke the path of tears, and large focused downcast eyes are further in keeping with the conveyance of grief… but this is not a tale of unfathomable despair for the large rounded cheeks reflect youth (resilience), and the curls of the large beautifully formed lips are used to project maturity and the subtle power of femininity. The balance of opposites motif, combining youth, power, and restrained reflection is also a typical funerary motif used in Fang reliquaries, but with a masculine bias.

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E2. Yombe shrine figure.

This figure was once included in the central assemblage of an ancestral shrine (Nzo a Bakulu) used to mark the death of a Yombe chief. The shrine was constructed at the consecrated burial site. “These commemorative displays were maintained as acts of filial piety to strengthen ties to an influential ancestor and secure his protection”.[1]

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E3. Ancestral shrine (Nzo a Bakulu) for a Yombe Chief at Burial site, Lubuzi River region.

“These figures were sheltered in open-sided roofed structures that served to preserve their white pigment and protect the wood. White is the color of the other world, the spirit world, and kaolin, or white clay, is a common ingredient in ritual medicines. In simplified terms, white clay in this context is the opposite of life, which is present in the skin of a person and the soil of fertile land”.[2]

A figure representing the deceased would typically be flanked by one or more female figures in postures designed to invoke quiet reflection, while at the same time promoting core cultural norms, rituals, and tribal values.

[1] Lagamma, Alisa. Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168-170

[2] https://africa.si.edu/collections/view/objects/asitem/seealso@823/0t:state:flow=ead531c2-034f-4257-b75c-d9d1f8a66dca

E1.Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com; Ancestral shrine figure, NY exhib. (loan from Museum Rietberg, Zurich).

E2. Photograph – copyright aplusafricanart.com

E3. Photograph by Hector Deleval (Belgian, 1873-1953). Kongo – Power and Majesty. 2015 pp.168

Hating on Yombe

I  have a disturbing love/hate thing going on with Yombe maternity figures, and to a lesser extent Songye fetish figures.  This probably started in 2010 when I photographed a “phemba” at the Brooklyn Museum, and in a flash I was hooked.

Yombe Maternity Figure : Brooklyn Museum, NY

Tribal African Art doesn’t get more beautiful than these pieces, and collecting really has it’s own rewards. I guess at first glance it might be hard to relate to the filed teeth and all, but there is a deep spirituality associated with the concepts of birth and death that is uniquely handled by the Yombe!

Yombe maternity groups, called phemba, were used in association with women’s cults. While little is known about the meaning of different phemba iconographies, two main variants can be identified: a cross-legged woman with a “lifeless” infant on her lap and a cross-legged, kneeling or crouching woman with a living infant.[1]

Yombe Maternity Figure: Sotheby's 05/11

The phemba shown above was in the collection of Robert Rubin (acquired in 1984), and sold at a Sotheby’s auction (05/11), in NY for $US1.87 mil.

The frustration of trying to find one (read as cheap), pretty much covers the “hate” side of the equation. Maybe it was the Red Bull, followed by a cappuccino mix, but at auction time week ending 11/11/11, I was pretty much as primed to shed some cheese as Imelda Marcos in a Louboutin sale. The phemba which I could not afford, but which I purchased anyway is shown below.

Yombe Maternity Figure

One of the fascinating aspects of the sculpture is the facial expression, and the impression of restraint, and strength, shown alongside the gentle cradling of the infant’s head. These figures possibly are connected with mpemba, a women’s cult said to have been founded by a famous midwife (circa 1770), and concerned with fertility and the treatment of infertility. They are popular among the Kongo peoples of western DRC (formerly  Zaire), especially among the Yombe.

The figure shown, illustrates a person of high rank in society, as testified by her cross-legged pose on a pedestal and her many body adornments. The chiseled teeth, the corded-firm breasts, the close fitting “mpu” hat, and especially the raised scarification marks indicate ideals of beauty and perfection. The double bracelets around her upper arms imitate protective charms called “nsunga”; made of plaited or braided raffia fibers, they are worn by religious experts and by ill people as a cure.[2]

Yombe Scarification/Cicatrisation

Meant to stimulate sexual pleasure, the scars were considered both beautiful and erotic, but they show the strength, nature, and character of the women as well.

During their ritual use, the surfaces of the figures were rubbed with a reddish mixture of oil and camwood powder, both a cosmetic and a sign of mediation. In Yombe thought the color red indicates transitional conditions such as death and birth. The fact that some mother-and-child figures hold or carry what appears to be a dead baby alludes to the close interrelationship in Kongo beliefs between the spirit world and the world of the living.[3]

Another perspective is as follows,

Mother and child figure represents the female ancestor taking care of her descendants.This commemorative figure would have been used to honor the maternal spirit who brings prosperity and fertility. Among the Kongo people, the woman is considered as the chief of the family. Thus, the female ancestor is the guarantor of the fecundity and continuity of the clan or family. Such sculptures would be kept on a family or local shrine where she would be receive sacrifices and offerings.[4]

The Mumuye , Thomas, and “Iagalagana”

 Many people (regardless of race), have inculcated a fear of  the Mask Tradition of Tribal Africa. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most simplistic, and sinister is the mistaken belief that all Tribal African masks and statuary are possessed by spirits. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and should not be a detraction to Collecting African Tribal Art.

Mumuye Statues : AplusAfricanArt.com

The Mumuye carve very stylistic statues called “iagalagana”. These statues portray a figure within an imaginary cylinder, hence the shape of the arms in wrapped fashion encircling the body. What is particularly fascinating is the use of space, and the representation of the surfaces in the elbow region. The historical western spiel is that the statues themselves represent “tutelary” spirits. Yet the argument can be made that this may be the “western” perspective of a very innocent, cultural, and complex relation.

A tutelary spirit need not be a separate entity, a demon, or a ghoul from hell. This is not part of Tribal Africa, nor is it common among peoples who practice animism. A spirit may simply reflect what is in the observer, and also what one perceives by the actions, shape, or form of the observed. With such a view one can see a tree being described as having an aged spirit, or a gentle, peaceful spirit, or life force. The “iagalagana” seem to have been carved to represent the “spirit” of the trees. They are therefore abstractions of an esoteric dimension captured in shapes that are themselves abstractions of the human form. This thinking presents a certain harmonic composition which makes a fair cultural fit. It would seem a stretch that a carver could himself carve a spirit or develop a home for a spirit without some intermediary religious activity.

Fine Mumuye : Dafco Gallery - White Plains, NY

The characteristic markings on the “Iagalagana” are simply representative of the Mumuye tradition and culture.

The Mumuye have a unique appearance. Their distinct style of dress clearly sets them apart from their neighbors. Men wear one or more leather girdles, the ends of which are decorated with beads and cowries (bright shells). Goat skins are also worn with the girdles. Both men and women wear beads, brass and iron bracelets and anklets, and pieces of wood in their ears. Women also tattoo their stomachs and wear straw and wood in their pierced nostrils. Men file their four upper front teeth to points. Rows of small cuts are made above the eyes, at the temples, and on the cheeks of most Mumuye. [1]

Finally one may look to the Gospel According to Thomas – an early Christian document, found in Egypt, in December 1945.[2]

77  Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”[3]

 

Ancestor Veneration, Worship, Reincarnation, and Idolatry

In the event of death or “passing on” (knock on wood (or paper proxy)), it seems reasonable that “spirits” would make every effort possible to help, and assist their loved ones left behind. Unfortunately experience has shown that this is less of an investment providing tangible economic results and more an exercise in developing individual spirituality. In collecting tribal african art one is sure to find the crossroads of ancestor based historical, and colonial religious values.  The main issues surrounding ancestor veneration stem from the fact that there are overlapping elements included in the concepts of “worship” and “idolatry”, and continued fallout based on historical characterizations, fueled by the unadulterated demonization (necromancy, zombies) of “other religions” by proponents of major religions.

Mahongwe Reliquary

Understanding Veneration

“I do not ask for their intervention … I ask and challenge myself that I can meet the standard or benchmark of their love and sacrifice, revealed to me in my own life.

I do not ask that they go before me in my journeys, yet I continue to learn from the lessons they taught me. Teachings I may never totally grasp, yet with different circumstances I continue to find similarities in strengths, and weaknesses. As time passes, we mature, and face similar challenges. I have the benefit of witnessing the fights and struggles of my ancestors, and believe I benefit from lessons they took to heart from earlier ancestors, who learned and shared from their elders. I believe in the knowledge that is unique to those raised in my family.

I may or may not build shrines to my ancestors, for I represent them physically, and to my loved ones I represent a portion of their spiritual essence as well.”

“African ancestral veneration is a religious piety that centres in honouring, loving and remembering the dead, while at the same time asking for their mediatory help. It is still widely and popularly practiced in modern African ethnic groups. In early Christianity, the same practice of religious piety was slowly developed and transformed into a new form that is called devotions to the angels and saints. In addition, African ancestral veneration is never a religion in itself but an aspect of a complex religious systems.”[1]

 

Ancestor veneration remains among many Africans, sometimes practiced alongside the later adopted religions of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igala) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent.[2]

Kota Reliquary

Idolatry

 

This seems like the easiest concept to refute since an idolater is defined as a “worshiper of idols”. The “burden of proof” in refuting the issue of worship however lies not in the base definition of worship, but rather in the typical understanding of what constitutes a reasonable act of worship. Worship by definition is “an expression of reverence”, or “extravagant respect or devotion”. Using this low standard would pretty much cover any acknowledgement of an intermediary figure to a supreme being. The representation of this intermediary would itself constitute an act of idolatry and by extension members of every “other religion” would be categorized as idolaters. It would seem therefore that the act of idolatry can be more clearly, simply reduced to the worship of a manmade image, carving, or representative structure, which is thought to possess Godlike attributes, and powers. In the Catholic church for example, statues representing saints serve many functional purposes, but the substance and roles of intermediaries are arguably similar to the roles of Orisha used in the Yoruba spiritual system. Few if any African Tribal religions therefore can be seriously considered based, or rooted in idolatry.

E1: Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

African ancestral veneration is not idolatrous because of the following three major reasons.

 

1) African ancestral veneration does not consist of the worshiping of lifeless images or eidōlon or idols of emptiness. Instead, it primarily consists of venerating, honouring and loving human life – the spirits of the dead – that still survive after its corporal death and continue to live and engage an enduring communion with their living relatives. This belief is also very fundamental in the Christian faith (cf. the dogma of communion of Saints).

2) African ancestral veneration is not of worshipping demons hiding in images – statues, paintings or sculptures – as often claimed by the early fathers of the Church when talking about the danger of idolatry.  Instead, it is of veneration of the living spirits of the dead. They are not demons or evil spirits and are distinctly different from demons and evil spirits.  The carved images of ancestors – found in some traditional societies of Africa are not intended to be representational or abstract but conceptual and evocative. By means of stylized form and symbolic details, the ancestral carved image conveys the characteristics of the ancestors and  helps to make the spiritual reality of the ancestors present among the living. Thus, the carved ancestral icon enables the world of the living community and the world of the ancestors to come together for the benefit of human life.

3) African ancestral veneration is not of the worshipping of creatures in place of God, since the living souls of the dead are never viewed, approached or treated as God.[3]

 

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

Aspects of Reincarnation

“it is in India and Greece that the doctrine of rebirth has been most elaborately developed. This belief is shared by all the other major religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gains, Sikhs and Sufis. [In ancient Greece, belief in rebirth formed part of the philosophical teachings of Pythagorean, Empodocles, Plato, and Plotinus. In modern times, religious teachers like Ramakrishna, Aurobindo or schools of thought, like Theosophy or various new “esoteric” “occultist” religious movements, like New Age or humanistic psychology: thinkers like C. G. Jung and Fritz Perls, hold onto belief in reincarnation.]”[4]

While several tribes believe in certain aspects of reincarnation there are various “flavors” and distinctions :

“According to the Chewa people in Kenya, for instance, ancestors after death reincarnate into their descendants’ offspring. It is generally believed that the Chewa ancestors come back to the living community on earth through the infant naming ceremony. Thus naming a child after a particular ancestor symbolizes the mystical union between the ancestor and the living community. According to the BaManianga people in Kongo, a living person consists of three elements: nitu – the physical, visible, mortal body;   kini – the invisible body,   a shade or reflection of nitu; and mwela – soul which has no form. A Manianga scholar, named Fukiau-kia-Bunseki, states that mwela separates itself from nitu and kini at death and looks for a chance to reincarnate into an about-to-born-baby. The BaManianga people (plural of Manianga), indeed, believe in reincarnation of mwela, yet some of them say that this reincarnation is true to the extent of physical resemblance.  Thus a son may look, smile, talk or walk like his father or grandfather without having his father’s mwela.  Since this kind of reincarnation has to do only with physical resemblance, it is traditionally believed that the spirit of a dead person may continue to reincarnate in several generations to come. Thus, the reincarnation of a mwela is not seen as an event that occurs just one time but is a continuing trend. In other words, it can be understood as the process of ceaseless duplication of the soul – mwela. The Akan people in Ghana also widely believe in the possibility of the reincarnation of the human soul. According to their traditional belief, all people, especially ancestors reincarnate themselves into the world – mostly into their own clan or descendants – in order to complete their purpose of being, called nkrabeaNkrabea, they say, is a reason and a purpose for every person to be born.  It is a duty and mission given by Nana Nyame – God – that must be accomplished in the mundane life of every person. Two of these missions are to live an ethical life and to produce offspring.  If the person fails to fulfil this mission, he/she must be reincarnated as many times as necessary in order to achieve what was mandated by Nana Nyame in the beginning.”[5]

The Science, Reality, and Panacea of Orisha

 The Yoruba African Spiritual system has gone viral. It presents a broad framework with fascinating social and inclusive indigenous appeal, embracing a holistic and intuitive approach which incorporates history, flexibility, science, portability, and functionality, simultaneously making allowance for individuality and originality. This system was one of the driving forces behind the development of African Tribal art in Nigeria. The framework is similar to the methodology used in Object Oriented Programming (OOP) which utilizes objects, classes, and procedures.

Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

A simple example should illustrate.

Note the Specific individuality.

If Jesus Christ were to be incorporated as an Orisha (spiritual being or divinity), the narrative would probably read as follows; His primary paths would be those of peace, sacrifice, and love. The offerings given to a shrine dedicated to him would consist of bread, fish, and wine. His colors would be “white” say, and his emblems would be the cross, the palm/olive branch, or thorns.

Note the General Characteristics

He would lie in the second of five levels of the Yoruba pantheon, below the level of Oldumare, Creator and Supreme Being. The third level would be the “Egungun” which are the ancestral spirits of the people. The next two levels consist of humans, grouped by kings, queens, chiefs, priests and priestesses ,while devotees complete the bottom level.

“The Orisha are seen as emissaries of Oldumare from whom they emanated. These Orisha are ancestors whose great deeds earned them divinity. The Orisha are said to recognize each other and are themselves identified or associated with different numbers and colors. “These polarities which each Orisha exhibits are expressed as personalities called Roads or Paths of the Orisha.” This is done through offerings to Orisha of their particular favorite foods and other gifts. One can learn much about these different Orishas by watching the forces of nature at work about you. “

“For instance, you can learn much about Oshún and her children by watching the rivers and streams she rules over and observing that though she always heads toward her sister Yemayá (the Sea) she does so on her own circuitous route. Also observe how the babbling brook and the flash flood reflect her changeable moods.” [1]

These Orishas can be contacted during a “bembe” where one or more of their priests will be mounted in a form of highly spiritualized trance possession. This possession by an Orisha is an integral part of Yoruba religious ritual as it serves as a means of communicating with the forces of Oldumare (God).

Shango Dancing Staff

Portability

This is demonstrated as follows – “Yoruba spiritual beliefs were retained in several systems including Batuque, Candomble, Tambor De Mina and Umbanda in Brazil, Lucumi and Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Jamaica, Venezuela, Palo, Vodou or Voodoo in Haiti. Consequently, slaves did not completely disconnect with their culture, nor blindly convert as the Christian Churches describe as “good sheep.” “Autonomous organizational structures, the framework of forced and eventual free migration, mutual contact and exchange stimulated the development of Orisha religions in the New World.” [2]

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka (the first African awarded the Nobel Prize (’86) for Literature) , explained the Yoruba worldview as centered in compromise and stated that the greatest Yoruba virtue is tolerance. He claims that the survival of Yoruba religion in Cuba and Brazil is because of the powerful sense of tolerance and compromise.

“The deities have compromised with present times and modern technologies,” he said, citing, “the practice of placing god representations and saints on the single same altar in Brazil.”

” The gods are exemplars of human striving,” said Soyinka, “paradigms of existence and phenomenon… Yoruba gods are not perfect or infallible, “infallibility is seen as mystification.” [3]

[1] http://www.orishanet.org/ocha.html

[2] http://www.rootsandrooted.org/?p=1123

[3] http://www.loyno.edu/newsandcalendars/loyolatoday/2003/12/soyinka.html

E1 : http://ocw.nd.edu/anthropology

E2 : www.ohio.edu/africanart/gallerypageq.html

E3 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

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.

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