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


 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


 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


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]




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)

Michael Vick’s Shiny Green Pants

Michael Vick is no pretender, in the sense that he would love to lead his team this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  He is no pretender because he didn’t turn this situation into a Quarterback controversy, simply because there is no controversy. He has paid his dues, he is still one of the most athletically gifted QBs to ever play the game, and perhaps with a little more patience and hard work his story will be one that rivals the most Rudyesque of football movies.

While some may question the coach’s motives to pursue the harder path of benching MV, especially in light of his last two performances,  the fact is that the Eagles organization have done a wonderful job in providing an environment where this young man can learn, improve his passing game, and be protected from the demons which no doubt assail him. In a society where faster is better , Coach Andy Reid has effectively slowed the circus down, and placed some of the load squarely on his own back.  Coach Reid has shown that there are always options, there are always alternatives, and sometimes if one takes a little time and effort, one may find a win-win scenario.

The American youth has no shortage of heroes and heroines to look toward… many, especially the brave youth who fall on the field of battle are unheralded.  Where we typically fall short, is in our guidance of our youth, and in the effort we should make to disseminate these opportunities, and teach them real world values, norms, and intangible concepts like honor, the value of a promise, and of course commitment. I am often reminded of being taught to cross the road. Instructions (look left, right, and left) would not have been half as productive as having someone hold my hand and walk me through the process.

Like our children, the MV story is a work in progress. There are many parallels we can take and use in our own lives, our careers, and our relationships. Disappointments, and setbacks need not be permanent life fixtures. So what if MV has to ride the bench… keep those leotards bright, and shiny…  I bet deep down he’s just happy for a chance at continued redemption, and an opportunity to play the game he loves.

The Chokwe Tribe of the Congo, stand out as one which maintained their cultural identity by proactively adapting to outside influences, and developing a deeply stylistic approach to their African Tribal art and craft. As in the case of other African peoples, the Chokwe’s success and survival resulted from their cultural flexibility and ability to adapt to impending change.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - "Art of the Senses - African Masterpieces from the Teel Collection"

The Chokwe artwork incorporates many sculptural figures and masks evoking the memories of their founders and cultural heroes. This idealized image of a chief (or mwanangana, “lord of the land”) is among the masterpieces created by Chokwe artists of the Moxico region, which flourished in the nineteenth century.[1] 

For Michael Vick there may be movies, documentaries, articles, and books.  His story is still being written and many hope for a remarkable ending, one in which his work extends off the field, and one where youth of all walks of life can find some inspiration, a humble attitude, and a deep reservoir of courage.


Kibbutz, Mende, and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience,  advocated passive resistance to unjust authority, and strongly influenced the thought and tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.[1] On the question of practical living and idealistic aspirations he was on point when he observed that,

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Applying the idealistic concept of communal living in a practical framework can be fraught with missteps. Many years ago it was enough to start a discussion by either modeling the basic framework on a continuum, or by using a discrete (good/bad) function, but nowadays one can pick a specific point of balance and (very much like enlarging a view on a smartphone by widening one’s fingers) examine the merits or demerits from a sustainable and practical perspective.

The kibbutzim were built on the attempt to create a permanent and institutionalized framework, which would be able to set a pattern of conduct which would successfully handle the implementation of shared values…..The original concept of the kibbutzim was based to a large extent on self-sacrifice of its members for the sake of abstract foundations and not on the cancellation of work, and therefore after the pioneer period the linkage between the kibbutz members decreased, due to the decline in the pioneering spirit and the decline in the importance of the self-sacrifice values.[2]

So one can argue that utopian ideas were incorporated into practical life without going through the period of practical development and flexible adaptation. Ideas which may seem foreign and socialist to a certain degree (equal pay, sharing property, equal standard of living) were attempted, which in the long term did not thrive in the globalization of an individualistic and capitalistic society.

Sowo-wui (Ndoli Jowei) : "The Sande woman is not a child!!"

The Sande (Female society of the Mende , Sierra Leone) used a much more flexible and socially inclusive device to develop their Value – Ritual – Norm (VRN) system.  The most important aspect seemed to be the initial transfer of Values. The head of the Sande lodge is the Sowei, who is in charge of the initiation of young girls and are viewed as the “arbiters and creators of beauty and morality in Mende society.”[3] The Sowei’s mask is referred to as the Sowo-wui or is more commonly known to as the “Mende Mask”. It is through the masked spirit counterpart, Sowo, that the Sowei receives her temporal authority. This is the ritual aspect of this value transference device which then develops into the social norms or rules followed by the community. Again each initiate can aspire to the utopian ideal at their own pace as opposed to hard and fast rules laid down by community leaders.

Sande Society Helmet mask - Brooklyn Museum, 2010

In her book, Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone identifies several Sande (and Mende) social ideals.

Nemahulewe – cleverness, intelligence, use of mind.

Kahu – strength, endurance, stamina

Kpaya – authority, responsiibility

Ndilo – bravery, courage, (the heart can stand the strain).

Malondo – be quiet, be silent, the silence to endure hardship, long suffering

Fulo-Fulo – doing things smartly and quickly

Tonya – Truth

Di – persistence

Pona – to be correct, straight, reliable, doing things properly

Hindawanda – goodness, generosity

But there is more….. the Sande Society has two masks, for while Sowo shows the nobility of human Sowei the counterpart of failure and disgrace belongs to Gonde.

“Mende women have created two masks because it takes both to express fully the realities of the social milieu out of which the Sande mask forms emerge.”[4]



[3] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 34

[4] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 39

Respecting Our Women!

On the question of “Respecting Women”, I came across a figure  (at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit), which “epitomized the sensibility of Luba carvers when rendering the image of a woman”.[1]

Luba Carving - Water pipe

The description of this figure reads as follows:

The female figure holding her breasts is the most common motif in Luba art. The gesture has multiple levels of meaning, symbolizing respect,nurturing, and the role of women as mothers. The representation of a woman is also significant since the Luba trace descent through the female line. The female figure additionally references the belief that women hold secrets, especially the secrets of male kings and chiefs, within their breasts.[2]

The other figure, displayed at the National Museum of African Art in Washington displays similar characteristics.

Gourd - Luba Tribe

In buying or collecting African Tribal art and researching the associated histories one may find differences due to the fact that tribes may be nomadic rather than settled, or follow patrilineal, matrilineal, or cognatic descent principles.

My questions are fairly simple.

How did we move from Tribal societies which lavish respect and adoration on our women, to a modern society which brazenly denigrates our women on a regular basis in the most popular vocal art-forms of Rap and Hip-Hop?

Why do we languish in destructive social patterns without taking responsibility for finding ways to protect and instruct young children in social norms which sustain our family units?

How do we fix this??

[1] The Tribal Arts of Africa, Jean-Baptiste Bacquart – p 158

[2] African Art, A Century at the Brooklyn Museum – p 255

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.






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