You are looking at a rare Chokwe bird trap from Angola, held in the collection of the Horniman Museum in London (info). It is made from a soft wood for the frame, and strips of cane for the bars. Such a trap was composed of two compartments: the upper, with the deadfall lid (weighted with lumps of gum) and seed bait, and the lower, divided from upper by bars and provided with perch (where the live decoy bird would be).
The Chokwe expert Marie-Louise Bastin wrote about these dead-fall traps in 1961:
The Chokwe like to hear birds sing. So they keep the kasakala canary (Serinus mozambicus), a delicious singer, as a cagebird. The little cage, called cisakala (pl. yisakala) is rectangular, of vegetable matter, consisting of a frame and a fine interlocking lattice. They hang the cage with the little Mozambique canary in the shade among the trees, near houses, and feed it with its favourite seeds; on journeys they take it with them as a cheerful companion. All this was related by explorers during the last century, starting with Livingstone in 1873. It is thus that the most widespread Chokwe decorative motif is called maswi a yisakala, “net of cages”: a drawing with symmetrically crossing parallel lines, usually forming a diamond shape or adjacent diamonds. Maswi a yisakala is also the name given to a seed-like keloid tattoo which decorates men’s and women’s skins, in the form of a fine checkered embroidery (Bastin 1961, IV.c.d.7).
Below two examples of this motif. I’m sure you can easily find others yourself and hopefully will never look the same again at such decorations. As always in African art, everything refers to something, and we can only do our best to decipher these visual clues as good as we can.
After a much discussed interview in The New York Times earlier this year (here), Sindika Dokolo has put his money where his mouth is and has acquired three objects, once in the collection of the Dondo Museum, to return them to Angola. The press release:
Fundação Sindika Dokolo has acquired two ancestral female Pwo masks and a rare statue representative of the male figure of the Chokwe people from private European collections. The classical works, which have been identified as looted from Angola during the civil war, will be repatriated to the Dundo Museum in Angola, their original home and where they were last exhibited.
These masterpieces, created around the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, hold historic and cultural significance for the Chokwe people. The Chokwe people inhabit north eastern Angola, the southern part of Congo (Kinshasa) from the Kwango River to the Lualaba and, since 1920, the north western corner of Zambia.
The ‘found’ pieces belonged to the Dundo Museum which held one of the most distinguished collections of ethnographic art from wooden traditional masks and wooden sculptures of the local heterogeneous Chokwe people to recordings of local folk music and a photographic collection dating to the 1880s. Located in a mining town in north-eastern Angola about 15 miles (24 km) south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo border, the museum saw many of its art works ‘disappear’ during the Angolan civil war from 1975–2002 and due to lack of archival documentation, the number of missing works and their whereabouts remain a mystery.
The recovered works have been slightly altered from their original state: on both of the Pwo masks, the cord hair has been removed and the surface of the wood has been retouched and altered to hide original carved motifs visible on the surface of the wood; this is thought to be have been done to render the pieces unrecognisable and untraceable. They were sold on to private dealers and acquired by various collectors in the intervening years.
The return of the Pwo masks and sculpture is the result of diligent research by Brussels-based gallerist Didier Claes and Parisian dealer, Tao Kerefoff, both specialists in classical African art. The works were traced thanks to several publications by noted Belgian art historian Marie-Louise Bastin (1918-2000). Her publications remain a principal and definitive source in identifying the different cultures and styles of Chokwe art and its people.
The provenance of both Pwo masks were established through photographs in her book, Art Décoratif Tshokwe: Museu do Dundo (1961). Both masks are illustrated in the book: a photograph taken of an exhibition of “Sala da Crença Animista” or “Animist Belief Room” at the Dundo Museum at the end of the 1950s depicts one of the looted masks in a line-up of 30 Pwo masks belonging to the museum collection. The Chokwe statue is documented in an essay Les Entités Spirituelles des Chokwe (The Spiritual Existence of the Chokwe) written by Bastin and published in the academic paper Quaderni Poro in 1988.
This pioneering project to recover classical works of African art enables Fundação Sindika Dokolo to advance a local and a global dialogue of the epic story of African civilizations. Inspired by his father Augustin Dokolo Sanu, a great collector of classical African art, Sindika Dokolo created his foundation to document the journey of arts and culture from Africa with the aim of empowering future generations of Africans with the knowledge of their own cultural history.
“We are honoured to be returning these symbolic works,” Mr Sindika Dokolo said. “Locating the works and negotiating their return to their homeland are the result of the strong collaboration between Fundação Sindika Dokolo and dealers Didier Claes and Tao Kerefoff.”
Before their return to the Dundo Museum, these important works will travel to Luanda where they will be exhibited at the new Currency museum as part of La Triennale di Luanda at the end of November. The occasion will also celebrate forty years of Angolan Independence.
I could only find a picture of one of the masks. The statue, illustrated below, was offered for sale at an auction in Brussels in January 2015 (info).
I think the smart thing to do now is to set up a website featuring an inventory of all objects that went missing from the Dundo Museum, so that each new Chokwe object that appears on the market can be checked.
I received some very interesting feedback of a reader concerning the previously discussed Lwena staff from the last Native auction.
While proofreading the manuscript of Africa at the Tropenmuseum (2011), Gerard van den Heuvel discovered a staff from Angola in the museum’s collection (Tropenmuseum inventory number 5144-10) attributed to the Lovale – illustrated below.
(images courtesy of the Tropenmuseum) (unfortunately only available in a low resolution)
The attribution was corrected to Lwena, but since the upper figure was clearly carved in a Chokwe style (with the typical headdress), a second opinion was asked. The Chowke expert Manuel Jordan was consulted and this was what he had to say:
The staff is 100% Chokwe as the top figure represents the Chihongo mask character and one that is exclusive to Chokwe. Luvale/Lwena do not have the character. Chihongo masks are normally associated with the courts of chiefs and the maternities generally refer to the chief’s lineage or bloodline, therefore inheritance of the tile. The female figures are “mother and child” or maternity figures (not pregnant at this point but mothers with babies).
More specifically, I can identify this staff as either made by the hand of a Chokwe carver named Itangui Itangui or by somebody working with him/or his workshop. I have been researching Chokwe carvers (some randomly documented) and I can readily associate this one with Itangui. There are few references about him on Portuguese books in relation to specific type works. In short he is a carver that Portuguese ethnographer, Jose Redinha, met in the 1930s (my calculations) and one he considered a “master carver”, particularly known for maternity figures. This is tricky as not everything he made is a masterpiece but in my opinion your staff is made for local consumption and used in ceremonial contexts and not a piece made for export or Europeans.
A number of pieces from Itangui Itangui have come up at auction in the past several years, almost always erroneously identified as Lwena because people assume the hairstyle or coiffure departs from Chokwe.
Previously identified as “The Lwena master of the center parting coiffure”, I am extremely pleased we now know the name of this talented artist. Many thanks to Gerard van den Heuvel for the much appreciated feedback. Below a maternity figure by Itangui Itangui from the Dondo Museum.