Objects Research

Thomas Ona, a short biography of a Yoruba carver (ca. 1900–52)

Thomas Ona (1938). Photo source unknown to me so any additional information is very welcome.
Thomas Ona (1938). Photo source unknown to me so any additional information is very welcome.

As you may have noticed the next Lempertz sale in Brussels (info) features multiple figures carved by Thomas Ona (see below). Unfortunately they forgot to include a biography, so let me do that in their place here. From an article on Kunstpedia, written by David Zemanek, we learn:

When Uli Beier arrived in Nigeria there was more than just a dying of the Nigerian culture. Artists were faced with fewer commissions from the shrines and from private people for religious objects. So, many of them began to produce for the colonial tourism or they worked for the churches. A famous example of a great carver was Thomas Ona Odulate of Ijebu Ode, who worked from the turn of the century into the the late fifties. He first worked at Ijebu Ode, later in Lagos, where he was well known for his gently satirical carvings of colonial administrators, lawyers, missionaries made as souvenirs for the English.

Two years after the publication of this article, William Ayodele Odulate (one of the children of Thomas Ona) made a very interesting comment with some corrections and additions on the Kunstpedia website.

Thomas Onajeje Odulate was my father. I am standing right beside him. Picture taken at Tokunbo Street, Lagos. I am the only surviving child of his five children. He worked in Ikorodu (not Ijebu-Ode) and Lagos. He belonged to the ruling Mosene family of Ikorodu, Lagos State. He died in November 1952 and is buried in front of the Mosene compound, Ikorodu.

We learn more here on the website of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology:

After moving to Lagos, Ona produced great quantities of novel woodcarvings depicting both colonials and Yoruba. Among the former were administrators, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, butchers, missionaries, polo players, married couples, even Queen Victoria. The Yoruba included both traditional roles and new, colonial occupations: mothers and children, masked dancers, kings and messengers, hunters, policemen, and postmen. Almost all were sold to the British; while some were commissioned, most were made in advance and then marketed.

While Ona’s figures are pioneering in subject matter, they are traditional in style. They follow usual Yoruba proportions, with a large head equal in size to the torso and legs. Ona used the traditional Yoruba carving tools of adze and knife. He painted the figures in red and black ink, white shoe polish, leaving the natural tan of the wood. However, unlike traditional Yoruba sculpture, which is usually carved out of single piece of wood, many of Ona’s carvings have separate parts, such as hats, guns, books, mallets, or umbrellas. And like most tourist arts, Ona’s sculpture often exists in multiple, similar versions. While they seem to be satirical or caricatures, and have been so identified, Ona told Bascom that his works simply showed how he viewed the world around him.

I could trace circa hundred works by his hand, making him the most prolific African sculptor of the first half of the twentieth century. For further reading:

– Nigeria: a quarterly magazine of general interest, June 1938, 14, p.138
– William Bascom, Modern African figurines: satirical or just stylistic?, Lore, 1957, 7(4), cover, pp.118-126

Image courtesy of Lempertz.
Image courtesy of Lempertz.
Publications Research

Miniature masks of the Dan (Ivory Coast)

Various miniature masks from Liberia and Ivory Coast. On loan to the Yale University Art Gallery from James J. Ross collection. Image: BC, November 2009.
Various Dan, Mano, Bassa, Toma, Kpelle (and others) miniature masks from Liberia and Ivory Coast. On loan to the Yale University Art Gallery from the James J. Ross collection. Image: BC, November 2009.

Despite the huge amount of literature about the dominant role masks play in the culture of the Dan, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the nature and function of their miniature masks. The short essay below describes the findings of Pieter-Jan Vandenhoute’s fieldwork among the Dan in 1938-39 and was written by me for Refined Eye, Passionate Heart: African Art from the Leslie Sacks Collection (info).

The Dan of the Ivory Coast called these little masks nyonkula or ‘substitute for the ancestors’. Literally this can be translated in ‘ancestral spirit’ or ‘wooden dish’, refering to the possible stuffing of the back with magical ingredients. Because of the small measures, these masks mainly served an individual and private use. Sometimes they were called genone; literaly ‘small mask’ or ‘child of the mask’. This reduced size only had a practical reason and the specific shape of the mask had no influence on its function. These miniature masks were kept hidden from public display. Woman and uninitiated boys were not allowed to see them. Nyonkula replicated the variety of existing Dan face masks, although the feminine mask-type with narrow eyes predominated. Sometimes these small masks replaced a larger one, notwithstanding they certainly were as powerful. Although they always coexisted, the production of small masks probably was facilitated by the colonial authorities imposed ban on the use of larger face-masks. The artistic quality of these small masks widely difered. They were considered easy to carve, so many attempted to it. As the three examples in the Sacks collection show, well-carved and well-treated nyonkula can be miniature works of art, having acquired a fine patina from being ‘fed’, rubbed with oil, and carried around for a long time.

The Dan used these small masks to secure the consent and support of the supernatural world through their ancestors. These ancestors were the direct representatives and mediators of the living in the supernatural world, primarily for their own relatives. With these miniature masks the living strove to please their ancestors to make them positively sympathetic towards their acts. At the core of this cult was the private sacrifice on the mask. The nyonkula were activated by ‘feeding’ them: imposing, rubbing or attaching all sorts of specific offerings, raw or prepared food, beverages, tobacco, palm oil, palm wine and blood of sacrificed animals. Next to the daily spitting or tossing of chewed or split kola nuts, offerings were made for a favourable outcome in all current affairs, such as hunting, trapping, discussions, etc., or to find out whether the ancestors agreed with a certain endeavor. For more important matters, such as illness, death, and voyages, the consulted native priest would determine the nature and measure of the offerings. Disease and infertility of land or women were the most common causes. During these rites the repeatedly reciting of improvised formulas explained and clarified the desired end. The gifts were donated to the mask as an intermediary, but were for the deceased ancestor. Those who possessed a nyonkula always carried it with them in the village or while travelling as a protective charm. In time, nyonkula, just by their presence, also were accredited with a repellent and protective force. After a while, the distinction between the ancestral offerings and the sacrifices for the mask itself completely vanished. Sometimes the offerings were for the intermediating ancestors, sometimes it was the wooden mask itself who was the recipient of the sacrifice. Both aims were equally worthy and it happened all too often that both causes were simultaneously honored during the same offering.


Happy 2014 !

Launched May 2013, 150 posts and 18.000 visits by 4.000 unique visitors later, I would like to grasp this opportunity to thank each and everyone of you and wish you a healthy and passionate 2014 !  All the best, Bruno