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.

sf09w

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.

sf11w

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]

sf12w

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

Advertisements

Five things one should know about the Mangbetu

The statuary of the Mangbetu tribe is outstanding if only from the questions they generate, and their unique looks, incorporating full body scarification, and aspects of head elongation. On a personal note Collecting African Tribal Art goes beyond simply hoarding, and trading, In this case, the piece below led to research which introduced me to the music of Nina Simone, her life story, her contribution to the civil rights movement, and her commitment to developing her musical ability.

Mangbetu Statuary (AplusAfricanArt.com)

Location

The Mangbetu are located in the northeast area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Head Elongation

The Mangbetu had a distinctive look and this was partly due to their elongated heads. At birth the heads of  babies’  were tightly wrapped with cloth in order to give their heads the streamlined look. The practice began dying out in the 1950s with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization. Because of this distinctive look, it is easy to recognize Mangbetu figures in African art. [1] Cranial deformation may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen.

Nina Simone Rocked the Mangbetu Hairstyle [3]

Mangbetu Hairstyle 

”] Language 

The Mangbetu language is phonetically distinct from other languages in that it possesses both a voiced and a voiceless bilabial trill. [4]

Music

The Mangbetu have a good reputation for the quality of their art, and music (see for example the Mangbetu harp).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/Mangbetu_people

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cranial_deformation

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Simone

[E1] http://lamutamu.com/?s=mangbetu

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangbetu_people

Worthless …… as in “that’s worthless”!!

As a minority I’ve had the extreme pleasure of taking umbrage (always liked that phrase) at the following comments :

1)   He/she will never amount to anything,

2)   That car is worthless…. you couldn’t get a dollar for it,

3)   That African Art is worthless junk!!

The question of how much we would pay to save another life is an interesting one. At the low end, of course that would be zero.  If we knew that someone was dying from hunger, lack of water, or medication, in some part of the world we would not necessarily contribute a one-time sum of $5, nor commit to a monthly contribution of the same. An intermediate cost can be figured out using insurance and healthcare realities, and at the high end, one would sacrifice their own life to save another – still this would not address the true worth of the individual to his family, society, and loving friends.

E1 : Soweto Riots - Death of 12 yr old Hector Pieterson, showing his 17yr old sister Antoinette alongside., 1976 (Sam Nzima photo)

We tend to (are conditioned to) frame the concept of worth in terms of what we can get on the open market, or future earnings potential. In economic or financial terms this would be referred to as a “fair market value”.  The fact though is that this differs tremendously from the “replacement value”, which is more subjective and arguably more suited to items or products of a more unique nature, or items filling a pressing need (score one for the 1998 Jetta).

The kicker is that a human being is the single most complex entity on the planet. Nothing we can come up with can compare. Not the ipad, nor a supercomputer, nor the most sophisticated combination of gems and precious metals. This is the curse of supply and demand (S&D). With six (6.9) billion bodies (and counting), our worth is not what it used to be.  With quaint phrases such as “collateral damage”, and “the end justifies the means”, we have rationalized our worth to the point where society has been desensitized to the value and uniqueness of human life, and the gift of thought.

Yoruba Offering Bowl - Nigeria

Likewise African Art  has much the tougher battle. In an age where we celebrate Harry Potter, vampires, ghost whisperers, and the like, Tribal African Art still suffers from historical condemnation (in the mainstream), and religious ostracizing. Here too the issue of worth defined by the S&D basis is paramount, but similarly there are other issues of historical style, and culture that should be taken into account. The long and short is that if one is in the market for a profit, then one may be totally forgiven for referring to African Art as worthless (on some arbitrary personal scale), but if one recognizes that each piece may carry some cultural significance or vestige of tribal African history, then maybe not so much.

 

E1 : http://www.awesomestories.com/assets/soweto-uprising-hector-pieterson

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 African Fetish in a PC World

One of the most intriguing  objects in that magical realm of Collecting Tribal African Art is the fetish. It is not an easily understood concept; nor should it be, and with the blinders of religious trappings and Freudian analysis it is an easy concept to stay away from.

A fetish is an object of magic and power. So there it is as simple as that, without the pc prefix or the stammering euphemisms. That’s the criteria I’m working with, real or imagined. Everyone wants the edge, in luck, or religion, in money matters, or love. The problem in a Western format is one may take the concept to the extreme and use it in a proactive way to wish bad luck, evil even, on some unsuspecting person. That however is an entirely different concept, since for the most part a fetish was used to prevent, or protect against witchcraft, or to bind a promise or an offering.

The happy truth however is that we are born on a level playing field for the most part. Love, family, and happiness, are not reserved for the wealthy, and healthy. A fetish then becomes a “best effort” against forces seen and unseen, known and unknown. It’s a hedge to deal with the fringe and peripheral elements of life which emanate from “left field” every now and again. The fact that people are drawn to the African tribal fetish is easy to understand. If you want a financial wizard you go to Wall St., and if you want a fetish you naturally go to a place where people have more experience with fetishes.

The most popular fetishes are the Kongo made Nikisi Nkondi, and the Songye made Nikishi fetishes, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nkisi-Nkondi, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010

“To make a nkisi nkondi a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with one or more cavities in the abdomen or head; then a ritual expert, a nganga, completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are later driven into the figure either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community.”[1]

Bambara (Bamana) Tribe, Boli Fetish/Votive

The Komo society of the Bambara tribe used the Boli as an altar, “a reservoir of their nyama”[2] or sacred power.  “Great amounts of nyama are wielded by the blacksmiths who direct the social, political, religious, and judicial Komo association.”[3] The boli was made of wood in the shape of an animal and the encrusted patina evolved from the additions of libations and sacrificial matter which was thought to activate or spiritually charge the fetish or votive.

My best fetish is an old “mortar and pestle” combination from Tanzania. I believe luck is the oft said mix of opportunity and hard work. Though I’ve labored over the mortar many a time I totally appreciate the entire process and the bigger picture. The sacrifice involved in preparing a meal, real sweat, the family concept, the providers, leaders, and followers.  This pretty mundane fetish clearly isn’t at the high end of the fetish chain but it keeps me grounded, and the well used parts bring back memories and associations that make sense in my little world.


[1] African Art, A Century at the Brooklyn Museum, p.192

[2] A History of Art in Africa, p.122

[3] A History of Art in Arica, p.121

Hercules, Damascus, St. Paul, and the Baga N’mba

Prehaps the least utilized asset of man is his imagination. The ability to think beyond the box and connect the dots in ways not solely dependent on his own physical means. The myth of Hercules reinforces the concept that even if faced with seemingly impossible odds one may use ingenuity, skill, and luck to fashion a solution.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Hercules, but in acquiring a Baga N’mba  I feel as lucky as Hercules did in collecting the apples of the Hesperides.[1]

 

Baga D'mba (Nimba) Mask - My big baby :0)

The most important of the Baga art forms is the great mask, D’mba  or Nimba.

It represents the mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women, and presides over all agricultural ceremonies. The dancer, wearing a full raffia costume, carries the mask on his shoulders, looking out through holes between the breasts. In use, such masks rise more than eight feet above the ground; they often weigh more than eighty pounds. Most show a standardized pattern of facial scarification.

” Nimba is the joy of living; it is the promise of abundant harvest”

The Baga Nimba, or D’mba, represents the abstraction of an ideal of the female role in society. The Nimba is essentailly viewed as the vision of woman at her zenith of power, beauty, and affective presence; rather than a goddess or spirit. The typical Nimba form illustrates a woman that has been fertile, given birth to several children, and nurtured them to adulthood.[2]

Baga D'mba - The Tribal Arts of Africa, Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, p22

 

But the highlight of the trip to Damascus, (ok Boston) , came when I realized that the starter on the car’s engine had conked out on me. Fortunately I drive a standard shift Jetta (most women prefer automatic) so kick-starting the car is always an option.  As luck would have it a very nice couple id’d my predicament and were quick to render assistance. What was really funny was that the guy’s wife had been involved in a major car wreck that morning…. passenger side totally smashed in… yet they were able to put aside their troubles (and coffee), to help out a total stranger…. all the while listening to me droning that they really needed to be in church thanking God that no one died in the accident.  To say that I was grateful is an understatement, (I actually have Geico roadside assistance – go figure), and this is where I guess I had my St. Paul moment… I didn’t get knocked off a donkey by lightning, or go blind for three days, or fast this weekend…. it was more in the “revelatory nature”[3] of things.  This simple act of kindness totally restored my faith in humanity. Then in pushing the envelope, one can also tie in the redemption aspect of the Hercules myth…. but that would be another story for another day :0)

Picasso, Demoiselles, Lam and “The Jungle”

Picasso’s African period, from 1907 to 1909[1] has been extensively documented. For some reason many authors seek to use the artist’s appreciation of Tribal African Art as justification that the styles, spirituality, and beauty of the art-form should be worthy of similar adulation and fascination by the masses.

Fang Mask - Stylistically similar to African Art said to have inspired Picasso

What may be more interesting however is that forceful thread of artistic scholarship, passed in spirit from an unknown African carver, to Picasso, to renown Afro-Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam.

Lam's "The Jungle" (1943) & Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907)

Although Les Demoiselles is seen as the first Cubist work, Picasso continued to develop a style derived from African art before beginning the Analytic Cubism phase of his painting in 1910. Both artists used African Tribal masks directly in their paintings (shown above) to reflect the multi faceted character of the human spirit.

Wifredo Lam, was a Cuban artist who developed an artistic style steeped in Surrealism and Cubism with which he used to highlight and interpret the beauty of Afro-Cuban form, culture, and it’s symbiotic relationship with nature, and natural forces. In 1938 Lam spent time in Paris where he developed a working friendship with Picasso whose encouragement may have “led Lam to search for his own interpretation of modernism.”[2]

When Lam returned to Cuba he painted his masterpiece (The Jungle), which reflected three main  themes,

1)   He believed that Cuba was in danger of losing its African heritage and therefore sought to display the Afro_Cuban spirit, free from cultural subjugation.

2)   He rejected the exploitation of the Afro-Cuban,

3)   He used his art as a “Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise… to disturb”[3]

Lam’s art is influenced by his background and exposure to African cultures, and African religions adapted to Caribbean life. He was exposed to the rituals of Santeria and Voodoun. His success is an inspiration to the artist working the unheralded theme, exploring new depths to which beauty can be both interpretive and forceful.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picasso’s_African_Period

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam

%d bloggers like this: