Abrus precatorius (commonly known as jequirity bean or rosary pea) is a plant best known for its red seeds; these are valued throughout Africa for their bright red coloration and used as a decorative element on masks and statues, in jewellery, and in percussion instruments. While the leaves of the Abrus precatorius are consumed as a vegetable in central and east Africa, its seeds are very poisonous. Ingestion of a single seed, well chewed, can be fatal to both adults and children. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and death, usually after several days. The seeds contain a toxin called abrin which is closely related to ricin (and twice as toxic). However, these seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract because of their hard shell. So, if you were given one during a poison ordeal, the key was not to nervously start chewing!
Such seeds where often attached with resin or wax on the masks of several African cultures, among which the Bobo and Bwa (Burkina Faso), Binji (D.R. Congo), Bozo (Mali) and Wè (Ivory Coast). Especially among Nigerian cultures, the prevalence of the use of these bright red seeds is high: we find them on masks from the Igala, Jukun, Kutep, Angas, Kulere, and Sura; and on Afo, Koro and Hausa headdresses. Several Tiv ritual objects (including skulls) tend to be covered in them as well. It’s less frequent to encounter them on statues, although the famous Senufo deble statues of the Folona Master had large numbers of them attached to the body. Some Koro cups from Nigeria, as well as Chamba statues also feature them, and rare Luluwa, Chokwe and Lega statues exist with few seeds attached to the head.
I have not been able to find much literature on the symbolic meaning of these specific seeds. In his writings about the Leopard society among the Bembe in Eastern Congo, Gossiaux wrote they were called also called ‘eye of the night’, and a pejorative right of Akanga initiates – who were informed about their poisonous properties. Surely, other African cultures must have been well aware of their toxic nature, which must have come with strong symbolic connotations. The color red itself obviously often had a strong ritual meaning. Kuddos to the African artists, as long before Duchamp, they were already working with ‘ready-mades’ to increase the power of their works.
Please do get in touch if you have any more information about the use and symbolism of these seeds in African Art! And, be careful if you have any children running around in your house when you possess objects featuring these seeds, they do look like candy..
Recorded in May 2005 in the Mossi village of Dabo, in northern Burkina Faso, the above video produced by the late Christopher Roy (1947-2019) documents the traditional way of smelting iron. We witness a group of smith elders making charcoal, digging and mining the ore and flux, building the kiln (with clay from a termite mound), firing the kiln, making sacrifices, smelting the iron, and forging the iron into tools. No iron had been smelted in the region for over 50 years, this video being a reenactment of the old ways – as they now buy their iron imported from China. It’s a fascinating documentary that can only enlarge your respect for the makers of the many traditional African iron tools and weapons we encounter in the West. And, you’ll see that ‘pumping iron’ has a meaning outside the gym as well!
The above field-photo presented a nice discovery in the archives of the Cambridge museum (discussed yesterday here). Photographed by G.I. Jones in the 1930s among the Anang (Ibibio) in South Eastern Nigeria’s Ikot Ekpene district, it illustrated the Anang’s shift from skin covered masks and sculpture to a more naturalistic approach resulting in a new style of free-standing, painted figures in a soft wood. In 1984, Jones wrote about this art-historical transition in The Art of Eastern Nigeria (Cambridge, pp. 184-185):
“The Modern Anang (Ibibio) style diffused into a ‘naturalistic style’ in which the hair, eyes and lips were painted in natural colours and in place of the covering of skin the face and neck were painted with clear varnish. The associated masquerade, which received different names in different areas, was spread widely to their Ibibio and Ibo neighbours. During the colonial period there was an increasing demand for Anang sculpture but primarily for masks, heads and figures in this modern naturalistic style. For it was a very successful compromise between the Traditional Anang (Ibibio) and the ‘traditional European’ style, meaning by the latter term Victorian naturalism and the classical Greek sculpture which inspired it. Europeans bought this sculpture because it looked sufficiently African but not too African. Nigerians bought it because it looked sufficiently modern and European. In response to this demand Anang carvers developed a minor local industry in the Ikot Ekpene district mass-producing inferior masks, heads, and dolls. The inferiority was due primarily for the buyers’ reluctance to pay for something better.
It is this kind of stories that are missing in the restitution debate; the agency of local actors is often completely ignored – unrightfully so, as this example shows.
PS you can find the obituary of Gwilym Iwan (known as G.I.) Jones (1904-1995), who had a most interesting life, here.
In these months of armchair-travelling, it is fascinating to see the below documentary of a famous Dutch expedition to the Tellem caves in Bandiagara, Mali. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, yet the views alone are worth a look.
This expedition was led by Herman Haan (1914-1996), an architect and amateur archeologist, together with Rogier Bedaux, Gerard Jansen, and Ton Hosemans. Haan had first visited the famous Dogon cliffs in 1960 and saw the potential for exploration. Through his contacts with Dutch television network NCRV, the expedition got weekly coverage on Dutch national television and millions of people would follow the journey (which would take 4 weeks instead of the ten days originally planned). It’s goal was to examine the links between the Dogon people, living at the feet of the cliffs, and the culture they had encountered when they arrived at the location in the 15th century: the Tellem (Dogon for “we found them”).
To explore the higher located caves, Haan himself had designed a metal cage that could be lowered down the cliffs. The team did numerous archaeological excavations, finding all kinds of grave gifts, like iron bracelets, quarts lip-plugs, and wooden neck-rests. One cave was used as a graveyard and held about 1,000 skeletons from the 11th and 12th century. The results of the Tellem expedition would result in several scientific publications, and the television series would inspire a whole generation of African art amateurs in The Netherlands.
After my previous blog posts about Kiloko of Busangu and Mutisya Munge, a last story I wish to share from Robert Dick-Read’s book Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art concerns his search for Makonde masks in Mozambique in the mid 1950s:
One of the first places I visited was a small village called Mboo, a few miles from Lipelwa. When I came to Mboo I left my car on the road, and walked up the path to the village at the far end. This consisted of two concentric circles of well-built rectangular thatched huts around an open space planted with mango, orange, and lime trees. Like most other Makonde villages it was spotlessly clean and in the centre of the open space was a small grass shelter where the villagers could meet to smoke and chat. Beneath the shelter several men were busily at work, carving. One had an elephant’s tusk on which he was incising miniature scenes from Makonde life in high relief. Another was chipping at a chunk of ebony with an adze, forming a beautiful head with a tall, mitre-like headdress. The babble of excitement caused by my arrival brought people running from their huts, to the shelter, where most of them stood in silence staring at me curiously as though I was some strange wild animal. Their spokesman was one of the carvers, a fearsome-looking man named Gogo whose incisor teeth were filed to a point, and whose face and torso were covered in cicatrised tribal markings. I told him why I had come, and that I wanted above all to buy some masks – “mpiko”, as they are called.
At the mention of mpiko a deathly hush fell over the crowd. Gogo looked around him nervously, then all of a sudden he jumped up and with a frightening yell chased all the women and boys away from the hut. One or two of the men looked at me reproachfully, nodding their heads and clicking their teeth, saying that it is no good to mention mpiko in front of women or small children who may only see or hear about masks when they are being used in a tribal dance. But their anger was short-lived, and after a few minutes they led me away to where the mpiko were kept. The mask-house was a small thatched hut hidden in a dense piece of bush two minutes’ walk from the village. At the entrance to the path leading up to it were two sticks, signifying that only full-grown men were allowed beyond this point. Yet, despite this rule, which no one would dare to break, voices were lowered when we neared the hut, and the mpiko were mentioned in hushed awe-stricken tones. Now that we were going to look at the masks, Gogo, who seemed to be a man of some authority in the village, posted a guard by the path to make doubly sure that no unauthorised person followed us in. Then he led me inside. Though there were no windows, sufficient light filtered through the doorway for me to see that the hut appeared to be quite empty. I had expected to see racks, or pegs, with masks hanging from them; but no – the place was absolutely bare.
For a moment I wondered whether I was being fooled, or thought perhaps that I had misunderstood them. But then Gogo, reaching up under the darkened eaves brought down a bundle wrapped in several layers of bark cloth, and unravelling this with great care, he revealed a mask. It was an extraordinary, helmet-shaped object, rather terrifying, and ugly beyond belief. It represented a man obviously of Gogo’s own tribe, for its yellow-ochre face was overlaid with ribs of black wax depicting the elaborate patterns of the Makonde tribal markings; and its hair was human hair, pressed into the soft white wood from which the mpiko was made.
As their masks appeared so sacred to the Makonde I wondered whether or not they would be willing to sell them. Though most of them were so gruesome that I could not imagine that any European or American would want them to hang up as wall decorations, I wanted to buy quite a large number for All and Nat to distribute to various museums in the United States. But when I suggested buying them to Gogo, he willingly agreed. Furthermore, after consultations with the other men, the price he asked was astonishingly cheap – only five shillings per mask. The reason for this was that, being made of very soft “njala” wood – the wood of the cotton tree – they were easy to make, and their antiquity was of no importance to the Makonde. They were hidden away not for the sake of preservation, but to keep uninitiated people from seeing them. Indeed sometimes they did not hide them in huts at all, but in particularly dense patches of undergrowth. There was an occasion later on when we were looking for a mask hidden in the bush when it took the man who hid it twenty-five minutes to find it. So I bought that mask at Mboo, and several others beside.
In the end Dick-Read would collect almost fifty Makonde masks before returning home. Ironically, the best mpiko he would ever come across, he found in London..
Two or three years later, in London, I was browsing round the shelves of one of the leading primitive art dealers in England when, high up a shelf, almost out of sight, I suddenly noticed a very unusual mask. To me it was unmistakably Makonde, for it had the same facial markings and other characteristics. It was particularly unusual in that it was neither a face mask such as those worn by the northern Makonde, nor a full helmet mask worn by the southern Makonde. It was what is called a “half-helmet mask” which covers the face but has a piece extending backwards over the crown of the head; and it was the only one like it I had ever seen. I asked the dealer if he knew anything about it, but until he had checked his lists he was not even sure it was Makonde. In any event he had no idea it was particularly unusual, and as, like most Makonde masks, it was not particularly beautiful to Western eyes, it had been sitting up there on the shelf for years, unsold. The price head on it was rather high, but after a bit of bargaining I persuaded him to let me have it for rather less than half the list price – just to get it out of his way. He wrapped it; I thanked him and, jumping into a taxi, drove straight round to the British Museum. Within half ann hour I had sold it to them (at a handsome profit) and a few weeks later it was published as the frontispice of the Royal Anthropological Insitute’s magazine Man – of of the finest and most unusual Makonde masks known.
That must have been one of the quickest sales to a museum ever! With a bit of sleuthing I was able to discover which mask Dick-Read is talking about. In volume 57, July 1957, of MAN, we indeed find a Makonde mask published as plate 1. With the listed inventory number, I quickly found it in the online database of the British Museum here. However, Dick-Read is not mentioned in the provenance or article, and it is stated that the mask was donated to the museum by Margaret Plass. A close friend of the curator William Fagg, she in all likelihood bought the mask for the museum.
ps lets see if any of you sleuths can find one of the masks Dick-Read bought from Gogo !
I’m happy to share my first Roman coin. Do not worry, this blog is still about African art and I did have a very good reason to track down an example of this ancient coin. Minted in Rome around AD 130-133, this imperial silver denarius in fact commemorates Roman Emperor Hadrian’s travels to Africa. As a trained historian, seeing the word ‘AFRICA’ on an almost 2,000 year old coin obviously blows my mind. On the backside of this coin, we see an elegant representation of the province Africa, which is personified as a woman reclining seductively. In the details of the composition we find emblems of the region: she wears an elephant headdress and holds a scorpion in her hand. At her feet we find a basket filled with an agricultural produce – the great agricultural estates of Africa did indeed generate enormous profits that sponsored many a senatorial career in imperial Rome.
Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117 to 138, was known as perennial traveler, spending more than half of his reign outside Italy. Perhaps the most well-known series of coins he issued is the so-called ‘Travel series’, various types struck bearing the names and personifications of the provinces visited by the emperor. However, as famous as they became, Hadrians travels are poorly documented, and scholars have had to reconstruct them through many different kinds of evidence. It is clear that his first trip occupied the years 121 to 125, that his second occurred from 128 to 132, and that his third and final voyage was staged from 134 to 136. Hadrian seems to have visited Africa proconsularis in 123 on his first voyage, and again in 128 on his second, so this coin was only minted after his return. Africa proconsularis was the region of North Africa directly below the length of the Italian peninsula. It was bordered in the east by Mauretania/Numidia and on the west by Cyrenaica, and it included the important centers of Leptis Magna and Carthage. Sub-Saharan Africa was yet to be explored.
Besides the mention of the word ‘Africa’, what is even more fascinating is that the province in fact is wearing an elephant headdress. We thus have one of the oldest depictions of the tradition of mask-wearing on the continent. Indeed, elephant headdresses can be found in many different African cultures – see Doran Ross’s book Elephant. The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture” (Los Angeles, 1992) for an in-dept exploration of the subject. Below two examples of elephant headdresses from Cameroon.
PS I recommend checking out Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian, published in 1951, about the life of the emperor written from his own perspective – emulating the lost autobiography he presumably authored.
After the two previous blog posts about African sculptors, I thought it would be interesting to share a rare video of an African woodcarver at work. Two years ago the heirs of Karl-Heinz Krieg made a whole series of digitalised Super 8 films available online (which can be found here), including a incredible video of the Senufo carver Songuifolo Silué (c. 1914-1986) carving a wooden statue in 1978 in the village of Sirasso, Ivory Coast. The website doesn’t let me directly link to the video on Vimeo, but if you click on the link in the below box you’ll be able to view it.
Or you can just click here to view it. The confidence with which Silué handles his adze shows his genius as a wood carver, and it’s just incredible to witness the whole process from raw block of wood to the finished statue. The video of course is only from 1978, but one can assume there wouldn’t have been much difference with the sculpting process 100 years ago, or anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some years ago, I took sculpting classes myself and I can assure you that, although Silué makes it look rather easy, the craftsmanship he displays only comes with years and years of practice. Once the statue is finished, we as well get to witness how it is given a patina: the red wood of the root of a certain tree is used to give the statue a first reddish layer (starting at minute 14), before being covered in a ferrous mud (minute 17) to give the statue its final blackish color. Videos like this only give you more respect for the creative geniuses that sculpted the art we love so much!
ps Karl-Heinz Krieg documented several other Senufo artists; you can learn about them here. Compliments to his heirs for making these valuable archives available online.
Another interesting story I came across while reading Robert Dick-Read’s book “Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art”. When he set up his art gallery in Mombasa in the early 1950s, ninety percent of the works he bought for export came from the Wakamba carvers of the Kenya’s Machakos district. Dick-Read relates:
The history of the Kamba curio carving industry is one of the most phenomenal success stories of modern Africa. Before the first world war, apart from several types of stools, ceremonial staffs, and household utensils, the Wakamba showed no propensity for creative arts and crafts whatsoever. However, in 1958, an economist (Walter Elkan) investigating the then blooming Kamba carving trade estimated that in the peak years of 1954 and 1955, the people of one Kamba village alone (Wamunyu) grossed at least £ 150,000 and possible as much as £ 250,000 from the sale of woodcarvings! The beginning of commercial carving among the Wakamba is attributed to a man named Mutisya Munge who, before the first world war, was known throughout Ukamba for his excellence as a craftsman. Before the war his work was confided to traditional objects such as stools; but whilst serving with the armed forces away from home he began to occupy his idle hours by carving ‘pictures’ from his imagination, for his own amusement. He found that his officers and other Europeans were intrigued by his carvings, and after the war he devoted more and more of his time to producing them for sale. For the first year or two, reluctant to let others in on his idea, he used to hide himself away in the bush and carve in secret. Inevitably, however, his secret was discovered and before long a number of other carvers in his village had copied his patterns and begun to sell their work in Nairobi. The market among white men seemed inexhaustible; and between the wars the number of carvers increased. The trade received its first big fillip during the second world war, when large numbers of British soldiers came to Kenya. Then after 1945, with the rapid increase of tourism to Kenya, it expanded yet again. By now firms abroad were beginning to take an interest, and the export trade began to develop. The number of carvers was continuously increasing, and the street corners of Nairobi and other main towns became crowded with vendors, all of whom did brisk business. There seemed no end to the expansion, and in the fifties the industry continued to grow. By 1954-55 there were up to 3,000 part-time or full-time carvers, almost all of whom came from Wamunyu village and the surrounding area.
Dick-Read goes on to describe his many visits to Wamunyu to buy basket-loads of sculptures (p. 22 and continued) and how Mutisya’s son, Mwambetu Munge would end up in London, carving African curios in English oak. My additional research on Mutisya Munge revealed he did indeed serve with the British Carrier Corps in Tanganyika.While on a visit to a Lutheran mission near Dar-es-Salaam, he encountered the commercial and innovative potential of carving in a Lutheran mission and learned new forms of practice from Zaramo sculptors in the hardwoods of ebony and mahogany. Once back in Wamunyu, Mutisya would start the family business that would mean the start of the Kamba export art market. Below an example of the type of statue he was famous for.
Such small, delicately carved wooden sculptures were known as askari figures, becoming typical of colonial production by Kamba craftsmen between the World Wars, and produced before the influences of nationalism and mass tourism. Askari in fact is a Swahili word with an Arabic root that refers to an armed attendant or guard. The key characteristics of these figures are a frontal pose, schematic representation of features, a relatively large head, often with shining eyes and protuberant ears; fine execution and finish; subtle colouring, and strong attention to detail in clothing and other aspects of adornment. Such details are observed in the depiction of askari uniforms, replete with chord lanyard, shoulder epaulets, leggings and even further definition in the accessories (badge, hat shape, arm stripes) to specify status. The sculpted subjects soon would be expanded dramatically into a thriving industry, producing all kinds of wooden sculptures going from depictions of Masaai warriors to all types of animals.
However, the story is not finished. Later in the book Dick-Read relates his contacts with two Americans, Al Kizner and Nat Karwell, who ran a store in the Bronx named ‘African Modern’. In the mail one morning Dick-Read received a gift from Al – a book on African art with a large number of photographs of magnificent pieces of traditional African sculptures. He writes: “Though unquestionably a generous gift, there was no doubt in my mind that there was a secondary motive in Al’s choice of this present for in an accompanying note he remarked that it would be good to receive a few consignments of the type of work shown in the book. What I believe he had in mind was that I should have the photographs copied by Kenya craftsmen..” – and so, my dear friends, we have a first-hand explanation why so many fakes going around are clearly copies of known masterpieces.
Last month in New York, I came across this amazing tattoo of a Songye kifwebe mask. This famous mask resides in the collection of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. It was sold by Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919 to Marius de Zaya and was one of the stars of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde in 2012 (info).
Hilary Whitham, who has this tattoo on her upper arm, assisted as a graduate curatorial intern at that show. She chose the Philadelphia-based tattoo artist Jennifer Rahman for the project because of her specialization in stippling and shading. The formal qualities of this kifwebe mask had always drawn her attention – the rhythmic disposition of striations over its curvatures making it a truly stunning object. Who knew it would be so suitable as a tattoo. Hilary generously allowed me to post a picture of the tattoo here and wrote:
Learning about the mask’s role within late nineteenth century Songye communities as an agent of social moderation – marking life events and safeguarding secret knowledge – furthered my fascination. Kifwebe epitomize the scholarly challenges associated with African objects arriving in European and American collections during the first decades of the twentieth century. Elucidating the complex epistemologies from which these objects emerged, given the extremely partial and biased historical record resulting from colonialism, drives the field of African art history. The mask’s personal significance contributed to my choice to inscribe it permanently on my person. It was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde on which I assisted as a graduate curatorial intern, and belongs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am completing my PhD. Both of these institutions and the individuals that comprise them have shaped not only my approach to and understanding of art history, but also life more generally, in innumerable positive ways.
Whitham is currently writing a dissertation on the impact of African art on the Dada movement as a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She will especially focus on Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the Romanian avant-garde poet and African art collector who played a pivotal role in the the development of Dada. Her dissertation aims to fill the lacunae in scholarship on Tzara’s role in the development of twentieth century collecting of African art as well as to demonstrate how Tzara’s interest in African art impacted the development of the Dada movement. So please do get in touch if you would happen to own an object once in the possession of Tzara!
ps I’m sure there are more African and Oceanic art inspired tattoos around, so don’t hesitate to send a picture (and its story) if you’re willing to share; thanks.
As everybody seems to be grieving the death of Carrie Fisher, best known for playing Princess Leai in the Star Wars film series, I thought it would be nice to share a detail about the hairstyle of said princess. This complex hairstyle by some is said to be inspired by the coiffure that unmarried Hopi girls would wear. To make this hairdo, a young woman’s mother would wind her hair around a curved piece of wood to give it a round shape, then remove the wood frame. However, George Lucas, asked about his inspiration for what is now one of the most well-known hairstyles in SciFi culture, once stated that Leia’s hair is “a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look” (source). The below image from his costuming archive serves as proof. So consider this BBC story as incorrect.
ps I talked about Star Wars on these pages before, click here to discover the Oceanic influence on one particular weapon, or here to learn if African art influenced the costumes in these films.