Unlike their European counterparts, many US museums are still actively acquiring new objects to complete their (often relatively young) collections of African art. In many cases such purchases remain unnoticed, although sometimes there’s a press release to inform the public of a new acquisition. Last October, the Cleveland Museum of Art for example purchased an Igbo ikenga figure (info). The museum writes:
The Igbo constitute the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and their arts are among the country’s most varied and complex. The figure is a key example of an Igbo sculptural genre called ikenga. It depicts a man seated on a one-legged stool, holding a cutlass in one hand and a human skull turned upside down in the other. The ikenga would have been part of a shrine, where it would have received prayers and sacrifices in return for the ancestors’ support and guidance.
The figure wears an elaborate headdress comprised of two curving, interconnected horn-like extensions, with three projecting cone shapes on either side of the face. The horns, perhaps those of a ram, underline the male gender of the image. The figure’s forehead and temples are graced with parallel incisions imitating local scarification patterns known as ichi. The ichi scars signal that the sculpture represents a high-ranking member of one of the many Igbo male associations. The white color around the eyes, derived from chalk, signifies purity and protection, and refers to the benevolence of the spirits.
The ikenga figure is an important addition to the museum’s Nigerian holdings. It also adds a sculptural genre with widespread cultural connections, as it was shared by various different peoples across a vast geographic region.
Note that the fact that the figure is holding a decapitated head doesn’t mean the Igbo were headhunters (a story one often hears in the trade), this was more a symbol than an actual representation of a local custom. It is more reasonable to assume that it symbolizes courage, wit, bravery, material success and other achievement qualities, which raises the status of the owner.
The Cleveland Museum of Art bought the statue from a US dealer who had bought it in Paris in 2010 at the sale of the remainders of the Kerchache collection for only €10,000 (Pierre Bergé & Associates, Paris, “Collection Anne et Jacques Kerchache”, 13 June 2010. Lot 322). A bargain if you consider the quality of the statue and the fact that it was published in both Elsy Leuzinger’s Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika (p. 187, #M9) and Jacques Kerchache’s Art of Africa (p. 543, #930). After the sale it also got published in Herbert M. Cole’s Igbo book (Milan, 2013: pl. 9). Igbo art still remains under appreciated, but I’m happy to notice it’s getting the place it deserves in public collections.
UPDATE: Herbert M. Cole was so kind to respond to my statement about the meaning of the severed head; he writes:
The Igbo and several of their SE NIgerian neighbors WERE in fact headhunters, as evidenced in numerous headdresses featuring trophy heads, in ikoro slit gongs, and ikenga. Headhunting may have stopped by virtue of the pax brittanica, but it is well recorded in early accounts of this large area, and while the iconogrphy was sustained for symbolic reasons, it had it origin in warfare (even among Igbo subgroups, which were never unified). I see the upside-down head as an indication of doubled humiliation of enemy peoples whose head brings power to the captor’s community.
One of the sleepers in the Kunin sale was the below Igbo mask which was much better than its estimate suggested. After doing some research on it I found much more information than was available in the sale catalogue and traced down the masks’ possible village of origin. G.I. Jones photographed a very similar mask among the Isuama Igbo in Eziama Orlu in the 1930s. Comparing the mouth, ears, nose, eyes and eyebrows with the mask under discussion here, it’s very probable this mask was made by the same sculptor.
Another mask from this artist is in the collection of Yale University. G.I. Jones wrote that the carver of these masks was a professional canoe maker who spent a large part of his time working with his gang in the forests of the northern Delta. (Jones (G.I.), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge, 1984: p. 123).
Okoroshi was a six week Igbo masking season during which water spirits bless the growing crops during the height of the rainy season. White-faced masks generally embodied benign female characters who dance prettily in open arenas for large crowds. They were conceptually opposed to dark masked male characters, often with ugly faces.
There’s another field-photo of this mask during the same performance.
Eziama Orlu is located at number (28) – in Usuama Igbo territory – on the map below.
The Kunin mask most likely represented the same Okoroshi character – called nwanyure (‘proud woman’) – as featured on the field-photo below. Note the very similar iconography.
The above headdress, lot 57 in the Kunin sale at Sotheby’s New York was listed as Eket in the sale catalogue. Since slightly similar figural crest masks such as this one were illustrated by Francois Neyt in L’art Eket (1979) and other publications, headdresses such as the one under discussion here, have been incorrectly attributed to the this group. The treatment of the face as a curving plane with sharp edges and the disproportionate emphasis on the spherical head indeed are very reminiscent to the well-known Eket stye (compare to the example illustrated at the end of this article).
In reality these headdresses originate from the southern Igbo. G.I. Jones and K.C. Murray visited the Olokoro (an Igbo group) near Umuahia in the late 1930s. Jones photographed a very similar headdress (illustrated below), while Murray collected several examples. Jack S. Harris in 1939 also collected two very similar headdresses near Umuahia (illustrated below); these were said to have been carved by an Ibibio sculptor.
A number of ogbom headresses were thus commissioned by Igbo from Ibibio carvers, and others were locally made. According to Herbert Cole it’s unlikely that all known ogbom headdresses were carved by Ibibio (or Eket), so possibly local artists copied the style. There were old trade routes between the two areas via the Kwa Ibo River. Furthermore, the Umuahia area was a marginal area where Igbo, Ibibio, Cross River and Ijo peoples and cultures intermingled, with the Igbo predominating. From the days of the slave trade onward it was also an important distribution center for trade. The principal market was at Bende, where trade routes from the Niger via the Northern Igbo, and the Benue via the Idoma and North-Eastern Igbo converged, and where the slaves could be routed southwards to the coast. At the same time the imports received from the south were traded northwards along the same routes.
The characteristic feature of this style lay in the treatment of the lower part of the face, we notice an exaggerated subnasal prognathism. The lips and chin project well beyond the nose and the upper part of the face. In support of this distortion the lips are over-large in size and prominence, particularly in relation with the chin, which recedes beneath them; the cheek- bones and the angle of the jaw disappeared, as did the line of the jaw, which was displaced by a line which ran from the corner of the lips to the outer edge of the brows. The eyes are reduced to slits between straight, insignificant narrow lids hidden beneath the overhanging brows. This exaggeration of the forward projection of the lips can also be found in some Ibibio Anang figures, but not to the same extreme. Lastly, most ogbom carry the local ‘tribal’ marks, namely keloids grouped into small rectangules or ovoids, one on each temple and one between the eyes. In some case they were represented vertically, in others horizontally.
These full-figure headdresses are worn in ogbom dances – these were known among the following Igbo groups: Ibeku, Olokoro, Oboro, Ngwa, and Ozu-Item. While Ibibio style features are present, there is no reason to ascribe the origin of the ogbom cult and art to these neighbors.
Versions of this dance employing carved headdresses seem to have been moribund in the early 1940s. In Olokoro, in 1966, Cole was told that ogbom had last been performed as a masquerade in 1952, but that it continued to be celebrated as a dance (without the headdress). Other sources tell that men still wore the headdresses by the 1930s, but their identity was not concealed (thus they were not supernatural beings), and these carvings had not been made since the nineteenth century.
Ogbom displays honored ala (earth) and called attention to her role in human and agricultural fertility and increase. In some areas it was a harvest celebration. During part of the performance women entered the arena to dance and sing around the ogbom carrier. Connections with female productivity and nurture are emphasized in the carvings themselves, which are overwhelming female, nearly always depicted with large full breasts.
Many of the known ogbom carvings are young females seated on stools holding a disc-like plate above their heads with a human head. These heads would seem to be trophies of war. Since this Igbo area was once known for headhunting, this iconography would appear to refer (at least indirectly) to the role of the heads of slain enemies in bringing power and increase to the receiving community.
Murray describes an elaborate, colorful costume for ogbom carriers. Around the cylindrical base basketwork was woven, and this enabled the carving to be lashed to the dancer’s head. ‘Through a hole in the base of the carving a stick is fitted so as to protrude horizontally at front and back. On the front a conical basket about four feet long is fixed, and at the back an arrangement of cane and raffia shaped like a wheel’. All of that was covered with fine cloths and parrot feathers, and there was a tail-like projection at the dancer’s rear. Murray is equivocal about the wearer’s costume and extent of disguise. At one point he says, ‘The face and body of the dancer are completely covered with a special white-colored native-woven cloth with reaches down to his feet’, and later he indicates that the identity of the carrier was not concealed. In any case, ogbom performers danced in an open area before a shed specially erected for musicians, who used to types of membrane drums plus nine small ‘bowl drums’ of graded size. Murray tells us that ‘women moved about joyfully in compact bodies while parties of men moved forwards and backwards in front of the shed. The dancers wearing the costumes entered singly in a scene of great excitement and danced before the shed and, without touching their cloths, twirled their cloth around their tails merely by their dancing’.
George Thomas Basden (1873-1944), who held a Church Missionary Society post in the Igbo town of Onitsha from 1900 until 1935, is especially known for the two large volumes on Igbo culture which he published (Among the Ibos of Nigeria, 1921 – which you can read here, and Niger Ibos, 1938). Less known is that The Bristol Record Office holds 10 reels filmed on 16mm during the 1920s and 30s by Basden among the Igbo. You can watch 17 minutes of one of the reels here. It features very rare footage of dancing competitions, various masks (Umu-Chuku, Mbaku & Amanuke. Grandfather Maw, Enu-Ugwu-Abaw; Spirit maidens (Aghogho Mmonwui); District Officer masks (Onyeocha); Native Police masks. Nibo. Umu-Chuku Maws & Mgbedike masks) and two figures being danced. Unfortunately the films are silent, but it’s quite a spectacle to see nevertheless.
Prof. Christopher D. Roy and Dr. Catherine Hale recently announced the launch of the Art & Life in Africa website. Hosted by the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA), it is a freely accessible educational resource which is the product of the collaborative efforts of more than fifty scholars, technicians, collectors and institutions around the world. You can find it here.
The website converted content from a now-outdated, but once critically acclaimed CD-ROM. Roy created the Art and Life in Africa CD-ROM in 1997 as a tool for educators and scholars. It brought together media and scholarly material including photographs, essays, maps and videos. Roy didn’t want the CD’s content to be lost in the Internet-era and all of the original participants were invited to evaluate their previous contributions and make modifications or submit new content for this online edition. Some additional info:
The conceptual structure of the CD-ROM, which continues to inform its current online presentation, was based on Prof. Roy’s reading of Arnold van Gennep’s publications about passages of life in Africa. This format draws on the Congo Cosmogram of a circle with a cross, with the sun rising in the East and traveling counterclockwise to its apex at noon or adulthood, and declining in the West at sunset or death, and then continuing through the underworld until it is reborn in the East as a new day. Inspired by the Cosmogram, Prof. Roy and his colleagues wrote individual chapters to create an overarching narrative, which included such topics as Key Moments In Life, Education/Initiation, and Sacred Spaces. These chapters are supplemented further by more focused topic essays written by scholars in their fields of expertise.
The CD-ROM, completed in 1997, sold thousands of copies to public school systems, public libraries, and universities in North America and abroad. It received critical praise for contributing substantially to the understanding of Africa by students, scholars, and collectors of African art. Prof. Roy invested the profits from the sale of the CD-ROM into video equipment he used to produce videos about art and life in Africa, which include twenty-six full-length documentary videos filmed in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger, many of which are featured on the new website.
The first phase of developing the Art & Life in Africa website focused on updating the original CD-ROM content so that it is available to as wide an audience as possible. Moving forward, the Art & Life in Africa team plans to invite scholarly contributions that will address underrepresented areas such as modern and contemporary artistic practices and geographic locations like South Africa. These new essays and/or chapters will be added to the site on an ongoing basis.
An accompanying exhibit is on display at the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s Black Box Theatre through June 15. Tablets are available so visitors to the display can scan QR codes on each piece of art’s label. The code takes them to the corresponding page on the website, where they can learn more and find links to further information.
A great resource for anyone interested in Southeastern Nigerian art, is the website featuring the photographic archive of G.I. Jones; you can find it here. It includes object pictures and rare field-photo’s from the different Igbo groups (and to a lesser extent Ibibio & Ogoni) taken in the 1930s. Jones’s book The Art of Southeastern Nigeria from 1984 is also a highly recommended read. Below a group of arusi figures from the Nri-Awka Igbo.
(both pictures courtesy of the G. I. Jones estate)
The most important part of this famed collection was sold by Sotheby’s Paris on 10 September 2007 . In New York, Jacaranda also has been offering objects of daily use with the noted Ginzberg provenance. And now, Bonhams sold another 100 pieces. To my suprise many below the estimate .
For attentive buyers there were some interesting bargains to be made; some examples: