Ethnographic Art for the Discerning Collector!

Background

Mangbetu are a tribal group of people living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Orientale Province.  They speak a language called kingbetu, part of the regional Lingala language (a member of the Central Sudanic linguistic family).  The Mangbetu call their language Nemangbetu. (1)

The Mangbetu are well known for their highly developed music and art.  The most famous being the Mangbetu harp or guitar.  Exemplary versions have sold for well over $100,000!  They are often adorned with carved figures of wood or ivory with exceptionally detailed carving.  Their music has been widely studied by musicologists as well. (2)

The uniqueness of the Mangbetu has always fascinated European explorers.  By tradition, the Mangbetu have wrapped the heads of infants in tightly wrapped cloth to give them a distinctive elongated shape to the skull.  Although the practice began to die out around 1950, it is still traditionally practiced as it is considered a sign of great beauty today to the Mangbetu and it does make the Mangbetu figures easy to identify in art and sculpture. (3)

Tribal Facts

The Mangbetu had consisted of a number of small clans who, from southward migrations in the early 1700’s, had come in contact with a number of northward-migrating Bantu-speaking tribes among whom they lived. In the late 18th century a group of Mangbetu-speaking elites, mainly from the Mabiti clan, assumed control over other Mangbetu clans and many neighboring Bantu-speaking tribes. It is likely that their knowledge of iron and copper forgery, by which they made weapons and fine ornaments, gave them a military and economic advantage over their neighbors. (4)

Notoriety?

The mystique of the ancient Mangbetu revolves around the fact that the Mangbetu are considered to be a historically cannibalistic people.  This fact was emphasized in a documentary called Spirits of Defiance: The Mangbetu People of Zaire.  “David Lewis asserts that a “wave of flesh-eating that spread from inveterate cannibals like Bakusa to Batetela, the Mangbetu, and much of the Zande” resulted from ongoing political disorder caused by Swahili raids in the .  However, Keim contends that many of the accounts of cannibalism are not based on “careful fieldwork in Africa but on nineteenth-century European accounts that were deeply prejudiced by Dark Continent myths.” ” (5)

The Pottery

Pottery produced by the Mangbetu was classified as three types: the large pot (also known as nembwo), the small pot, and sculpted and decorated pots. The nembwo served general purposes, such as getting water from the lake and carrying vegetables. The smaller pots were used for more specific tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and pouring, and some were even used as toilets. The decorative pots were made more as a hobby, and nowadays are collector’s items and can fetch a high price in art auctions. (6)

The nembwo and small pot have a rather round conventional pot shape that is more spherical than most due to how it is constructed, and most are thin and smooth with a thicker opening. The decorated and sculpted pots of the Mangbetu tribe have human or animal figures (generally just heads) at the opening of the jar. Occasionally this sculpted figure is a Mangbetu woman with the traditional elongated head and decorative head dressing. The handles of these pots are sometimes molded into animal or human parts. The bottom of the pot is round, and occasionally patterns will be carved onto the surface. The pots are monochromatic and are made of coarse textured clay which is either hand built or made using variations of the “hammer-and-anvil” technique.  They are usually a natural russet color or dark gray (the decorative pots).  The latter often have incised patterns on the surface in addition to the human or animal figures. The surfaces are textured using shell scrapers and wooden pattern-making tools and then the pots are fired in open bonfires. (7)


IMG_0017 IMG_0018FullSizeRender4 

Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #1

IMG_0005 MangbetuMangbetu Terracotta #2   Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #2

FullSizeRender12  Terracotta Mangbetu #3  Terracotta Mangbetu Pot #3

FullSizeRender9     Wooden Mangbetu Sculpture– Man and WomanWood Mangbetu Sculpture Couple

All items from the collection at http://www.spectrumartsinc.com

SOURCES

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangbetu_people sourced from:

  • Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800(University of Virginia Press, 2002), 436–438.
  • Curtis A. Keim, Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind(Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 42–43, 92–93.
  • David Levering Lewis, The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa(New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987).

(6) (7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangbetu_Pottery sourced from:

  1. “Pottery”edu. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
  2. “Mangbetu Terracotta Statue Pair Antique African Tribal Art – eBay”.com. Retrieved 2015-03-  05.
  3. “Mangbetu Clay Pot – Congo”. Ezakwantu.com. Retrieved 2015-03-05.
  4. “The Congo Expedition: Art of Daily Life”org. Retrieved 2015-03-05.

Phillips, Ruth B., and Christopher Burghard Steiner. Unpacking culture art and commodity in colonial and postcolonial worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

Introduction

One of the most amazing, varied and beautiful aspects of folk art and craft that I have found is in the textiles and jewelry of the minority peoples of China.  The embroidery is so varied and so amazingly precise that one could study the techniques for nearly a lifetime.  Books such as Writing with Thread, by the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, showcase the incredible work by the Minority women, yet seeing the pieces in person is truly awe-inspiring.

The Collection

I was lucky enough to have come across a collection of pieces from the estate of a well-known expert and collector who amassed an incredible collection of pre 1970 pieces that I have put into my shop.  The pieces include jackets, skirts, aprons, baby carriers, belts, purses, collars, wallets, baby hats, and even shoe insoles!  The colors reflect the rainbow and the skills of the women doing the stitchery are almost impossible to believe!  And the variety of designs and techniques can fill volumes.

Background

China is officially composed of 56 ethnic groups (55 minorities plus the dominant Han).  Yet many of those groups are subdivided by regions, traditions, and languages.  Various groups of the Miao minority, for example, speak different dialects of the Hmong–Mien languagesTai–Kadai languages, and Chinese languages.  There is a myriad of cultural customs as well.  Smaller groups are sometimes classified together by religion or customs.  Inconsistencies are common when trying to find commonalities between groups with some sharing totally unique characteristics from the Han majority, and yet others share Han characteristics.   For example, most Hui Chinese are indistinguishable from Han Chinese except for the fact that they practice Islam, and most Manchu are considered to be largely assimilated into dominant Han society.  China’s official 55 minorities are located primarily in the south, west, and north of China. Tibet and Xinjiang have a majority population of “official” minorities, while all other regions of China have a Han majority.

Acceptance

Acceptance of ethnic minorities with the mainstream community varies widely from group to group. Attitudes towards minorities by the Han are known as Han chauvinism, and are resented by minority groups. Migration also caused friction in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

It is said that in China minorities are considered more primitive than the Han majority. Minority groups are often portrayed as pastoral and outdated. Since the government is said to depict itself as a patron, those not willing to adapt to the majority “(despite the offers of assistance) are portrayed as “masculine, violent, and unreasonable”. Groups that have been represented this way this way include the TibetansUyghurs and the Mongols. Groups that have been more willing to embrace the majority (and accept the help of the government) are often portrayed as “feminine and sexual, including the MiaoTujia and the Dai.”

The “Undistinguished”

The “undistinguished” ethnic groups have not been officially recognized or classified by the central government. They number more than 730,000 people, and would comprise the twentieth most populous ethnic group in China as a group. Most of these people are found in Guizhou Province.

These “undistinguished ethnic groups” do not include groups that have been controversially classified into existing groups. For example, the Mosuo are considered as Naxi, and the Chuanqing are considered Han Chinese, but they reject these classifications and see themselves as separate ethnic groups.

The Stitchery

Generally, the textiles represent the identity and history of the minority group, each having a particular style and meaning both for the cultural identity of the wearer and for the particular event the item is chosen for.  Stitchery styles and weaving techniques historically were developed to portray the uniqueness of the group as well as the ties between groups.  Some experts believe that the history and identity of the groups are actually “written” into the textile design.

The Techniques

The types of textile adornment includes applique, tie dye, specially processed indigo dye finished with pig’s blood, egg white, or boiled cowhide (for a glossy finish), cross stitch, satin stitch, metal adorned silk stitches using hand cut 0.7 mm strips of tin foil, pleating and variations of pleating, running stitches, patchwork, piling folded cloth, counted thread flat picking known as long and short stitch, and more.  The finished cloth is then often adorned by feathers, Job’s tears and a myriad of silver adornments, buttons, ribbons, and jewelry. Many pieces are totally covered with hand stitchery and literally dozens of silver pieces. This is a fascinating area to explore and research in books such as Writing with Thread, by the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery.

All pieces shown (and more) are available at www.SpectrumArtsInc.com

Sources

Writing with Thread, by the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery

Wikipedia   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_minorities_in_China#Ethnic_groups          

Gladney, Dru C. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities”. The Journal of Asian Studies53 (1): 92–123.

Hasmath, Reza. (2011) “From Job Search to Hiring to Promotion: The Labour Market Experiences of Ethnic Minorities in Beijing”, International Labour Review 150(1/2): 189-201.

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail pleating

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail pleating

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail skirt

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile- detail jacket back

vintage Chinese Minority textile- detail jacket back

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority coat- detail with feathers

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket reverse

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket reverse

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail baby carrier

vintage Chinese Minority textile- detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile- detail

vintage Chinese Minority bib - detail

vintage Chinese Minority bib – detail

vintage Chinese Minority tunic - detail

vintage Chinese Minority tunic – detail

vintage Chinese Minority tunic - detail

vintage Chinese Minority tunic – detail

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vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile – jacket

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail tie dye

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail embroidery and pleating

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail embroidery and pleating

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority jacket- detail

vintage Chinese Minority jacket- detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - full dress with jewelry

vintage Chinese Minority textile – full dress with jewelry

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile - detail

vintage Chinese Minority textile – detail

Vintage Chinese Minority Indigo Jacket

Vintage Chinese Minority Indigo Jacket

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Jacket

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Jacket

Chinese Vintage Minority Jacket with Embroidered Panel

Chinese Vintage Minority Jacket with Embroidered Panel

Silk Chinese Embroidered Vintage Minority Jacket and Apron

Silk Chinese Embroidered Vintage Minority Jacket and Apron

Chinese Vintage Minority Jacket with Embroidered Borders

Chinese Vintage Minority Jacket with Embroidered Borders

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Hat

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Hat

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Tunic

Chinese Vintage Minority Embroidered Tunic

Vintage Minority Padded Baby Carrier Panel ex PN Coll

Vintage Minority Padded Baby Carrier Panel ex PN Coll

Vintage Minority Padded Baby Carrier Panel ex PN Coll

Vintage Minority Padded Baby Carrier Panel ex PN Coll

 Vintage Minority Baby Hat, ex. Peter Nelson Collection, field collected in 1970's

Vintage Minority Baby Hat, ex. Peter Nelson Collection, field collected in 1970’s

Turkmen Jewelry

Introduction

In my shop I have a large selection of Turkmen jewelry, so I thought it might be interesting to learn a bit about the Turkmen, comprised of over two dozen tribal groups with a common pastoral nomadic history.
Meet the People

The people lived in encampments, raised horses and livestock, and were known to be occasional plunderers of slaves and ill-gotten gains in between the two or three times migrations to find new pastures to food their animals. The first mention of the term Turkmen was in the 9th century in written sources and by the 11th century, they had migrated as far West as Anatolia, Syria, and Iran as well as Turkmenistan. They resisted any attempts by neighboring countries to be subjugated, and acted as security and transport for long distance caravans.
The Belief System

Most were basically Sunni Muslims, though they retained many of their pre Muslim beliefs and customs which were symbolized in their jewelry. The pieces had deep symbolic meaning and most often marked rites of passage from one stage of life to the next, especially in women as they passed into the child bearing stage of life. From early on, the jewelry’s materials and symbolic shapes and embellishments increased as the girl reached marriageable age, all purporting to guarantee a healthy child. After the first healthy child and proof of fertility, the quantity of jewelry received and worn decreased. In general silver was worn by men, women, and especially children to ward off evil and illness. As such an important part of their lives, the jewelry comprised the wealth of the group, and in times of greatest need, the women sacrificed their jewelry to insure survival of the group.
The Jewelry and Its Symbolism

As the jewelry was made of silver and adorned with touches of gilding and semiprecious stones, carnelian and turquoise, as well as glass imitations, the pieces were often of significant size and weight. The most common symbols found were mountains reflecting the creation story, horns reflecting the sacred mountain ram, plants like the double leaf and two leafed flower, both related to beliefs in the growth of human existence, and animals (especially the mountain ram), which like the mountains are held sacred.
Within the jewelry, the gems hold special meaning. The carnelian is believed to protect the wearer from illness and death, and turquoise symbolizes purity and chastity.
Each piece is not just adornment, but is a monument to the past and to the religion and beliefs of a proud and resilient tribal nation.

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Special thanks to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History for the above resourced materials. All jewelry shown is available at spectrumartsinc.com

Divination Device

Divination Device

This article is about African divination. Divination is used to help interpret situations that need to be dealt with and choices that need to be made. Its purpose is to define the meaning from the invisible from harmonious and conflicting relationships with the deities, spirits, and ancestors.
The most common divination techniques include throwing objects such as nuts, pebbles, and bones, and having someone read where and how they fall. The Yoruba of Nigeria and the Fon of Benin use divination by throwing kola nuts and depending on the results, lines are traced on a plate and creating 256 possible combinations that correspond to all of a man’s destinies. Animals are also used as part of the divination practices. The Dogon of Mali use a jackal as the animal of choice, since it was born from the union of the sky god and the earth and is the repository of God’s first word. The soothsayer attracts the animal with a left on the divination tablet on which Sam has been scattered and where the jackal will leave traces of his passage. And, on the other hand, the Bamileke of Cameroon use a spider as their animal of choice. Lines are drawn at the entrance of the spiders then representing both maternal and paternal ancestors, and objects such as flowers leaves pieces of: that’s twigs and small pebbles are placed in the den. When the spider comes out at night it will push some of the objects along that trace lines giving an answer to the soothsayer.
The Kuba use wood objects in the shape of animals for their divination process. Some are in the shape of crocodiles, lizards, warthogs or dogs. The animals back is moistened and robbed with a small wooden cylinder; but the cylinder remains attached to the surface, it means the question is the right one. According to my source, oracles are used to identify which is thieves and unfaithful wives. Animals used in the ceremonies are chosen on account of their nose or sight, or their ability to track and catch prey. Another animal used as a mouse. The diviner looks for signs regarding the client’s problems by looking at the arrangement of small sticks moved by a mouse inside a container. Diviners carry containers with a sculpture attached which depicts their client. Divination with a mouse yields less specific answers than those that would be obtained in a trance. In the case of a trance, it is induced by the sound of the small hammer struck rhythmically on a gong. It is said that the diviner is seized by a bush spirit or by divinities related to a specific family from generation to generation. The state of possession can be very violent, endangering the life of the possessed person.
The information in this article was taken from the book Africa, one of the Dictionaries of Civilization series by Ivan Bargna, pages 183-188.

In today’s Nigeria, there are approximately 250 distinct ethnic groups, yet 80% are comprised of the Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba.  The Yoruba were never united politically but were the descendants of a grouping of kingdoms and cities fighting with each other dating back to the 5th century A.D. to the city of Ife-Ife.

Prior to the 5th century, the Nok culture flourished, dating back to the 6th century B.C., on the southern Nigerian savannah.  They are named after the village where the first artifacts were discovered in 1928.  The people knew how to cast iron, having discovered the process independent of others.

Sculptures excavated range in size from a few inches to nearly life size.  The statues have recognizable heads of a spherical or conical or cylindrical shape, with eyes that are the focus of the piece, with their pierced pupils and widely arched eyebrows and lower eyelids.  The navel, mouth, ears, nostrils were also pierced.  Features are highly detailed and headdresses are often quite elaborate.  Intense attention to detail in headdress, ornamentation, and jewelry, suggest a highly cultivated devotion to body ornamentation, yet many of the pieces ironically appear to depict ravages of the body:  ailments like elephantiasis, and facial paralysis Heads are often heavily emphasized suggesting a highly developed respect for intelligence.   The Nok sculptures are generally hollow and coil-built.  Over the centuries, the slip they were created with has eroded, leaving a granular texture, quite unlike the original smooth surface they were created with.  The Nok sculptures were formed in a unique manner, created by carving rather than additively, by building up the surface details.  Some suggest that, therefore, sculptors were heavily influenced by wood carvers.

Today’s scholars link the Nok people to the Yoruba culture stylistically and through their iconography.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Distinctive features of Nok art include naturalism; stylized treatment of the mouth and eyes; relative proportions of the human head, body, and feet; distortions of the human facial features; and the treatment of animal forms.”

Nok is an iron age culture that has been dated between 900 B.C. and 200 A.D. Archaeological artifacts have been found in Nigeria, primarily to the north of the Niger-Benue River confluence and below the Jos escarpment.

Reliable sources suggest that later developments of Nigerian art produced in such places as Benin City, Esie, Igbo Ukwu and Ile Ife even suggest certain features of Nok art.

Sources for this blog entry include:  Africa by Ivan Bargna, pp.36-37, from the Dictionaries of Civilization series, Encyclopaedia Britannica, NOKCULTURE.COM, and the Met Museum site:   http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nok/hd_nok.htm.   Also, You Tube has an interesting video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVT–v-fAKw&xfeature=related

Nok2Nok1Nok3

The Mystery of Masks

Goli kpelie Korobla

My apologies for not posting sooner, however, both of the laptops to which I have access had terminal issues—one had the feared black screen of death, and needed a hard drive replacement, and the other (only 2 weeks old!) had OS problems and needed to be returned to factory settings after having the OS replaced.  Reloading everything has been technical torture!!!

A good friend, knowing of my interest in African art, gave me a book on the Ivory Coast recently, Reflets de la Cote d’Ivoire, a collection of articles on all aspects of life in the Ivory Coast by Editor, Philippe Oberle.  The only challenge to me was that the book is in French, and I have not used the language since high school…many centuries ago😉, but I took up the challenge and decided to translate a selection (page 88) on masks for the blog.  So here goes!

The word “masks” recalls all the richness, complexity and mystery of the African soul.  The functions of African masks have no comparison to the masks of Europe, which are theatrical accessories or solely for amusement.  H.B.Tobias, an Ivorian intellectual, states that it is not proper to confuse the term “masks” with “masked man”.

The African mask is properly both ancestral and divine.  The man who wears one is only an instrument, for at his death, another will carry the mask.  The mask holds the power, and is the intermediary between gods, ancestors, and man.  It assumes a fundamental role in the structure and cohesion of the village institution.  In central and western Ivory Coast, some masks function for public amusement.

Among the Senufo, from northern Ivory Coast, are masks which function in ceremonies for the Poro Society initiations, and which are made from sacred funerary wood; the Gpelihe mask, with its stylized human face; the frightening funeral mask, Korobla, with its impressive jaw, ornamented with mirrors and bristling with feathers.  Certain figural masks are surmounted by a mammals head, a hornbill and a chameleon, symbolizing the hornbill bird found on the forehead of an ancestor, in order to introduce the chameleon’s intelligence to it.

Senufo ceremonies are generally forbidden to outsiders, though people can assist in the evening funerals at Korhogo with a selection of masks, but photos are prohibited.

Amongst the Baule, the zoomorphic Goli mask, is surrounded by fear and respect.  One can question it when a suspicious death occurs in the village, offer it libations to coax it, or to thank it for a blessing.

The Zaouli is a dance mask of the Guro tribe.  It represents the face of a young girl and is danced with grace and delicacy.  It calls for volunteers from the public and it participates in receiving VIPs.

The western forest represents the area with the most excellent masks.  Amongst the Guere and the Dan (Yacouba), each village possesses their unique masks.  They function with diverse powers.  They nearly all represent human faces but with various styles.  The mask of wisdom (sagesse) is the depository of power and knowledge.  It gives protection and blessings to the village.  It forestalls calamities, rules over disputes, and renders justice.  The Griot masks surround them and praise their greatness.  The warrior mask assures defense of the village.  Its expression is frightening.  The gendarme (constable) mask assures order and discipline.  Dance masks and singers animate the festivals.  They carry cow bells and grelots (wading birds) on their feet.  The Dan wading masks are of a type of black hood, and they move on stilts many meters tall.

The masks of the west are used in public for certain festivals, notably in April at Beoua (25 km from Guiglo), and Easter weekend at Deoule (14 km from Man).    Beoua has accommodations for visitors who can partake fully in village life. A grand festival of masks takes place on occasion in Man.

Many thanks to the author for his diligent work preparing the information for the book.  It is quite comprehensive.

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Here at Spectrum Arts, we carry extraordinary works of native and folk art from around the world. To learn more about some of the native groups that have produced these wonderful artworks, we present the “Peoples Spotlight” blog series. Each “Peoples Spotlight” blog will take an in-depth look at one of the tribes whose art […]

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