Art and healing rituals meant to restore harmony and balance in African communities.
Seated Figure, Baule, Wood
Baule figures as seen here embody symbols or representations of spirit beings. They are honored in ceremony with offerings and performances which aid in restoring balance and harmony. In contrast to their healing abilities, they can also cause misfortune as a means of alerting humans to their existence and demanding ritual attentions thus affecting the path of life. To maintain balance and harmony, healing events interacting with this guardian figure are necessary to maintain balance in the earthly and heavenly worlds. Source: Thompson, Barbara. Arts of Healing. Art and Life in Africa. University of Iowa website.
Figure with lidded bowl, Yoruba, Nigeria, wood.
This intricately carved lidded bowl embodies the complex symbolism and design of Yoruba sculpture. The owner would place the sculpure in a shrine and visitors would place Kola nuts in the bowl as a sign of hospitality and friendship. The kneeling position of many of the figures is a sign of respect, devotion. The sculpture is topped with a seated mother with two children in her arms. Remnants of blue paint, characteristic of Yoruba art, cover their elaborate hairstyles and scarification, a signs of status.
Eshu Figure, Yoruba, Nigeria, wood
Eshu is the Yoruba trickster Orisha (god). He spontaneously appears and can cause chaos, but with offerings and through ritual, Eshu can restore balance. In this sculpture, male and female attendants surround Eshu. The iconography incorporated into the sculpture speaks to Eshu's power - the long phallic hairstyle, beard, and gourds of powerful medicine (oogune). An Opan Ifa (divination board) rests on his lap supported by a female attendant. He holds his iconic bell and chicken in his hands, an appropriate offering to Eshu. A Babalawo (diviner) will use the opan ifa to communicate with Eshu to restore balance and harmony.
Ikenga Figure, Igbo, Nigeria, wood.
“These figures, ikenga (meaning 'place of strength'), are found across Igboland and are associated with the worship of one’s right hand, aka ikenga (the Igbo believe that the right hand represents a male's source of power, economic success and physical prowess as it is in the right that that he holds his hoe, sword and tools of workmanship). Ikenga figures are also used to store the owner’s chi (personal god), his ndichie (ancestors) and his ike (power). Placed in personal shrines, ikenga figures are worshiped and honored with offerings and sacrifices before any Igbo male completes a goal. Through these sacrifices, it is hoped that the spirit of the owner’s right hand will enable him be successful in his endeavors. Ikenga figures are found in a variety of styles, the size and form usually being an indication of owner status. There are three main types of ikenga; 1) ikenga madu (fully developed human figure with horns, seated on a stool. These include the sub-types of ‘warrior’, ‘titleholder' and 'community' ikengas), 2) ikenga alusi (cylinder with horns), 3) ntu aga (small and simple found in different shapes).” Source: Web site: https://www.imodara.com/, Imo Dara, “Ikenga Right Hand Altar Figure."
Reliquary Figure, Fang, wood, 19th century.
The Fang people reside in the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and southern Cameroon, and hold a widespread belief in the spiritual power. The Fang peoples maintain a continuity with their past through an ancestral cult known as Bieri. The group is one of many groups that manage the ritual practices of the Fang. The Bieri protect the community by ensuring ongoing communication with the ancestors. The full-figure piece displayed here would have been placed on top of a container containing the remains of an important ancestor and used in various ceremonies which includes the initiation of young boys. Due to the power of the sculpture and the relics contained inside the container, women, girls and uninitiated boys are forbidden from gazing upon the Bieri. The Nlo Bieri is noted for its bulbous forms, exaggerated facial features with a wide domed forehead and extended mouth. His hands are placed across the abdomen and typically in a squat position. The Bieri reliquary are noted for their power but also their ability to ensure tranquility, vitality, and balance in the Fang community. Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/312334
Fertility/Power Doll, Ambo/Ovambo, Namibia, 20th century
The Ambo/Ovambo people reside in the country of Namibia on the southwest coast of Africa. Ambo/Ovambo are a patriarchal society who place a lot of family and community power upon the men. In pre-colonial times, their communities were run through a royal lineage where the king was the supreme leader and headmen leading each of the sub-tribes. Chieftaincy was, however, assumed through a matrilineal kinship system. Mothers play a key role in maintaining the family lineage through the fertility doll. Women pass dolls down from mother to daughter for generations. When a girl marries and her mother gives her the family doll, her new husband renames it; later the first child will be given the same name. To hasten the conception and birth of this child, the wife wears the smaller doll pressed against her stomach. This linear connection amongst family maintains balance and harmony within the community. Source: Cameron, Elisabeth. Isn't S/He A Doll, Play And Ritual In African Sculpture. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum, 1996.
Spirit Spouse, Baule, Ivory Coast, wood.
The Baule of the Ivory coast believe that every husband and wife have a Spirit Spouse or Blobo Bla (female) and Blobo bian (male). A spirit spouse comes to an individual in their dreams to guide and protect them as they face daily problems. When an individual faces an obstacle or enters into a new phase of their life and are looking for guidance, they may visit a diviner and request that their spirit spouse materialize as a “person of wood”. Once the sculpture is carved in an ideal form, the figure will be kept in a shrine in the family home and periodically cared for by being fed and anointed with oil to open a channel of communication for the individual in need of guidance. The spirit spouse takes human form. They typically range from 8-10” in height, are carved from wood, contain remnants of white chalk and have a glossy surface as a result of numerous libations with oil. The figures are carved to adhere to a Baule aesthetic, which is determined by the spirit, owner and diviner. The figure featured here has an elongated tubular shape with raised scarification, with tapered arms that frame the abdomen. The face features almond shaped eyes, additional scarification with pouting lips. The cylindrical emphasis on the body continues in the legs to create a strong stable base to the sculpture. The coiffure is swept back in a series of striations mimicking a plaiting of the hair. The scarification continues along the back of the neck and body of the figure. The intricate geometric scarifications patterns suggests the spirit and owner believed that scarification enhanced the beauty of the spirit, perhaps to ensure protection and guidance for the owner. Source: Vogel, Susan. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997.
Gbreke (Baboon), Baule, Ivory Coast, Wood
The gbekre or baboon figures serve as guardians among the Baule people. They represent ancestors of the Baule and are typically placed at the entrance of villages. The gbekre also receives the offerings to ensure the protection and fertility of the farmers’ crops. The Baule use of the baboon figure can be attributed to the apes’ closeness to humankind, alluding to a higher, spiritual being. The sculpture is not typically designed as seen in other Baule sculpture. The wood is left unstained with few details with the exception of the protruding jaw. Their encrusted surfaces are a result of sacrifices poured over the sculpture and they hold cups for sacrificial offerings. Source: Vogel, Susan. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997.
Bocio, Fon, Republic of Benin
The Fon call an empowered object bocio, and many believe that it is capable of interacting with invisible forces. A larger bocio post can be erected in response to a perceived threat to an entire family or community, and empowered figures are also used to protect individuals. Bocios are deliberately rough and unattractive. Their ugliness and strangeness add to the perception that they are activated by numerous energies. The secret materials that are believed to animate these figures are attached outside, rather than hidden inside of the sculpture. These include metal, beads, bones, fur, feathers, and various other organic and inorganic objects and substances, selected for their symbolic potency. Additional spiritual strength is given to the figure through the techniques used in knotting, binding, and attaching these materials. The figures are periodically “fed” with chicken blood, gruel, gin, and other offerings. They are surrogates for their owners and most are created primarily as a proactive means of defense; when activated through ritual sacrificial offering which is rubbed on as a patina, they act as a decoy to deflect harm from the owner. As with these figures, the patina may become so think that it becomes difficult to determine the carved wooden features.
Okwa Oji, Kola Nut Serving Tray, Igbo people, Nigeria
Serving trays are used throughout Africa for everyday use as well as special ceremonies. The Okwa Oji is used to offer visitors kola nuts during ceremonies. As a stimulant, kola nuts are widely traded throughout West Africa, and people share and consume them during ritual and ceremonial occasions. The Okwa Oji is used for this purpose. The tray is carved in hard, blackened wood with a circular incised pattern around its rim and a central container with male heads for sauces and spices. Kola nuts are believed to have magical properties and are also found on communal and private shrines. During ceremonies, the breaking of the kola nut is most significant. The more parts the kola breaks into, the more prosperity it gives to its presenter and visitors. Though there is one exception, if the nut yields only two parts, it signifies no good as it signals that the presenter has a sinister motive behind the kola. Because of that, Kola nuts with only two parts are avoided for this ceremony. Four parts coincide with the four market days of the Igbo week. Five or more broken parts mean prosperity for the family. In some parts of Igboland, when the kola breaks into six, a separate celebration is required and sometimes even including the slaughter of a goat. Source: Cole, Herbert. Igbo (Visions of Africa). Milan, Italy, 2014.
Edan Ogboni, Yoruba, Nigeria, bronze
Staffs of this type are presented to elder initiates into the Ogboni society, which was intended to transcend kinship ties in traditional communities and held the "power of reconciling and adjudicating differences among persons and atoning for the violation of the earth." The two figures, linked by a chain, refer to the Ogboni concept "Two Ogboni, it becomes three... The union of male and female in the edan image symbolizes this putting two together to make a third" (Morton-Williams in Fagg and Pemberton 1982:186). The female holds a pair of edan Ogboni, while the male makes the Ogboni salute—left hand above right, thumbs hidden, the sign of greeting to Onile, "owner of the earth" (Fagg and Pemberton 1982:186). This edan pair is notable for the brilliance of the bronze caster's technique, producing a smooth, flawless surface of great detail. The three dimensional quality, with arms free of the torso and bent knees projecting outward, is unusual. The protuberant, "keeled" eyes are a style characteristic of objects made for Ogboni. Professor Christopher D. Roy, 1991