A nice story about how a popular comic book character, called The Phantom, became a much-used theme on fighting shields from New Guinea – read all about it here.
Christina Hellmich, curator in Charge of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, just informed me that she commissioned a film about Highlands shields. An interview with Kaipel Ka, who made ‘Phantom shields’ was developed into a short film all its own:
I’ve been on Twitter for over a year now (find me here), so I thought it was time for a little evaluation and overview of what it offers concerning African art related news. To be honest, the Twitter community tweeting about African art is still fairly small. Except for Julien Flak from Galerie Flak and Jacaranda Tribal, no galleries are really active on Twitter. It is especially the museum world that is active: the National Museum of African Art post various bits about their activities and collection; Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is very active; as are Musée du quai Branly, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Musée Dapper, and the new Museum of World Cultures in Barcelona. Tweets range from exhibition news, special events and special objects from their holdings. Three accounts of curators are worth to follow: Brooklyn Museum’s associate curator for African and Pacific art, Kevin D. Dumouchelle, and his curatorial assistant Roger D. Arnold, are both frequently tweeting about African Art, and across the East River, Yaëlle Biro tweets about her life as associate curator of African art at the Metropolitan. Two private accounts are worth to follow: Laurent Garnier’s Perles du quai almost daily highlights objects from the quai Branly museum and Meg Lambert, a PhD candidate and blogger on the illicit antiquities trade (with particular focus on West Africa) often posts very interesting stories. Lastly, Imo Dara, like me, mainly posts her recent blog activity. I must admit that the most interesting twitter accounts I have been following the last years were in other fields (like from astronauts in the ISS or cultural heritage law specialists), where this hyper-speed medium works very well. The full potential it has within the world of African art has yet to fully develop; one of its strength is definitely its speed and the ease to get in contact with someone: it’s a very open and friendly community out there.
UPDATE: Tribal Art Magazine now also is on Twitter here!
Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African Art, which holds approximately 12,000 objects, is the largest publicly held collection of African art in the United States. It is one of nineteen museums under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution. All objects in their collection are available online in a user-friendly database here (search bar on the right). Unfortunately the picture resolution often is rather low, but happily the provenance of objects is listed. To browse the museum’s 130 ‘classical treasures’ click here. Tip: a search on Deletaille will show you this Brussels dealer important private collection which he sold to the Smithsonian in 1985. If you want to learn more about the man, in the catalogue of the last Bruneaf (XXIV) Pierre Loos wrote 5 interesting pages about him.
The beautiful female figure shown above was part of the Myron Kunin collection and listed in the catalogue as Dan. A client asked me to do some research on it before considering to bid on it and I hereby gladly share my findings. Although Sotheby’s mentioned none, I was able to discover a handful other figures from this workshop. Distinctive for this style is the treatment of the face and the particular position of the hands: one horizontal, one vertical – unique for this type of sculpture. Only the height of the neck, shape of the breasts and scarifications on the torso differ among the different sculptures from this workshop. Similar details, such as the rendering of the toes, among all figures, could indicate that they in fact were all the work of one single artist, but without handling the statues, it’s of course not possible to come to a definitive conclusion.
My research became interesting when I discovered the above figure in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The museum’s archives hold an old picture of this female figure, taken by Frederick P. Orchard (based in Liberia) and indicating a precise geographic origin for that figure: Towai in the Kwida Section of Liberia, on the border with Ivory Coast. I was able to locate this place on a map in Schwab & Harley’s Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (which I discussed recently here) – Towai is indicated in red on the map below. Comparing it with the map from the same book concerning the different peoples living in the area, it became clear this was not Dan, but Kran territory!
The Peabody figure was also published in Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (1947, fig. 71) with the note: “wooden figure by a Kran man”, so the Kran provenance for the figures of this workshop hereby got confirmed. The Dan (‘Ngere or Gio’ on the above map) do lived close by of course. It’s interesting to know that, among the Mano and Dan, the Kran had the reputation of being the best sculptors – so it’s not unlikely Dan patrons commissioned this talented Kran artist to make figures for them.
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’.
Scantix‘s Marc Ghysels has just made two new CT-scans available to the public: one of Myron Kunin’s Fang head, viewable here and the other from the last lot in the upcoming Sotheby’s sale: the magnificent Fang spoon illustrated above. Thanks to this scan one gets a much better view on how the ‘hidden’ janus (!) figure behind the delicate grating looks like. Quite a tour de force by the artist.
Another important book that is freely available online (here), Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland presents the ethnological results of the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum’s expedition to Liberia which George Schwab (a missionary and amateur anthropologist) undertook, together with his wife, in 1928, partly to make observations about missionary work and its effects, and on the survival of various elements of the indigenous cultures. Much of the material was gathered before by the editor and coauthor, Dr. George W. Harley, medical missionary for over twenty years in Ganta in Northern Liberia (which is Mano territory). The regions surveyed were Northern and Southeast Liberia, especially the Gbunde, Loma or Toma, Mano, Dan and Grebo. The book presents an enormous wealth of data on these peoples. The 526 pages discuss: village and village life; agriculture and time reckoning; domestic animals; fishing, trapping and hunting; food, drinks and narcotics; dress, adornment, and hygiene; handicrafts and utensils; music, dancing and games; social organization and trade; childhood and child training; war and weapons; death and burial customs; religion (cults and metaphysical concepts); divination, oracles, and science; local law; proverbs, riddles, and folk talkes, and character traits. At the end of the book there are 111 figures, including many beautiful field-photo’s and numerous images of objects of daily use (which you rarely see in publications due to their limited commercial value). Written by missionaries, there is of course a strong bias; although regrettable it doesn’t harm this publication immense value if you want to learn something about the people of the Liberian Hinterland.
The above postcard featuring a Vili diviner holding a statue and accompanied by two musicians is well known. It’s photographer, Jean François Audema (1864-1921), who joined the French colonial service in 1894, made numerous photos in Gabon, Congo and Tchad between 1894 and 1912. The National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives has made these precious time-documents available online here (ca. 150 images). If you wish to learn more about Audema and his photographs: Christraud Geary gives a short assessment of his work held by the Smithsonian in In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960 (London, 2002) and David MacDougall dedicates a chapter to the man in The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses (Princeton University Press, 2006).