Saturday, November 10, 2012

African Puppets - Bamana Marionette Figures

Masks and Puppets of the Village Association

Bamana Puppet Farmer
Bamana Puppet Farmer 
The village association (ton) comprises of female and male divisions and is organized according to age groups (flan-bolow).

One enters the ton after circumcision and leaves it at the age of about thirty-five. Every year the ton organizes a festival of theatrical performances in the village square. These include koteba and the puppets known as sogo bo in a succession of light-hearted sketches that satirize aspects of Bamana social and religious life. 

Prior to the public performances, ton members parade through the village streets accompanying masks (sogow) such as Ngon and Ntomo. Sogobaw (big beasts) resemble small mobile theaters with a head and a wood-frame body. Small puppets, expertly manipulated, emerge from the back of this "beast".

Traditions of the Bozo, Somono, Marka and Bambara

Twice a year, the Bozo, Somono, Marka and Bambara populations of Central West Mali perpetuate a long tradition of sogo (animal) mask dances, sometimes accompanied by jiri maanin (little wooden people). The purpose of these festivals, called Sogo bo (animal outings) or Tyeko (the thing of men) or Do bo (the manifestation of the mystery), is to enact original myths, legends, the cosmos and ancestors, as well as all the new things in the world. 

They also depict the psychology of the human character. The youth in the villages are responsible for performing the masquerades based on the information they learn from the elders.

Bamana Farmer and Goat Marionette
Bamana Farmer and Goat Marionette
The oldest Sogo bo characters are bush animals and they still enjoy a special place in the theater. During any performance it is not uncommon to see masquerades representing lions, bush buffalos, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, wild cats, antelopes, and powerful bush spirits. In these communities the bush is defined as the domain of men and it is the locus of power. 

The interpretation of the theater's bush animal characters are informed by beliefs and values associated with hunting and with hunters as men of action and society's heroes. It is the world of the hunter and the association of hunting with heroic behavior that young men in the youth association, the owners of the masquerades, choose to identify with, and to celebrate through the performance of these bush animal masquerades.

The repertoire that a troupe plays in any year underscores a fundamental principle of youth theater which gives a positive value to innovation and change. The dramatic content of the youth theater is concerned with exploring the interplay between unity and rivalry, between the elders and youth, between the collective and the individual, and between tradition and change. 

Each season a troupe will choose to play many of the same characters popularized by their fathers and grandfathers before them. But each new generation of young men is also charged to create new characters to rival those of their elders. While the community invests a high value in unity through the maintenance of tradition, it also recognizes that creative rivalry energizes these performances, in the same way that people understand the necessity for innovation and change in order to move the society forward.

Bamana Puppet Mother and Child
When you pull the strings,
the child raises up and down
 in the mother's arms.
Troupes creatively exploit the full spectrum of arts—puppet masquerades, dances, drumming, and songs—to construct the dramatic characters in the fictional world of Sogo bo. These performances are important sites for the exploration of the moral universe. Like folktales and other theatrical forms, these masquerade performances throw cultural values and social relationships into high relief and open them up for public scrutiny. Even though they are defined as entertainment, young men and women proceed with a seriousness of purpose, often mediated by wit and humor, to examine the nature of their world and their lived experiences. 

For generations, this theater has constituted one important public avenue through which young men and women have gained access to knowledge, instruction, and experience by commenting upon the critical beliefs and values within their communities.

References: The Sogow by Mary Jo Arnoldi in Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum of African Art - Mary Jo Arnoldi - Playing With Time - Art and Performance in Central Mali and Rand African Art

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Headrests (barkin) from the Boni or Somali people of Somalia


Boni or Somali headrest (barkin)
Boni or Somali headrest (barkin)
Men in East Africa use headrests both as pillows and as indicators of status. This type of man's headrest is used by the Boni of northeastern Kenya and southern Somalia and by Somali nomads. Men's headrests generally feature a smaller base that makes them somewhat unstable to sleep on, while the rectangular bases of women's headrests are usually more stable. 

The small, easily unbalanced base has made the headrest an emblem of alertness and the ability to wake to action. Made of sturdy but relatively light wood, the headrests are used on beds and are carried by herdsmen, who also use them to rest while keeping an eye on their herds. Boni shepherds rest while standing on a single leg, with their head lying on the neckrest set on their shoulder. These neckrests symbolize vigilance because since their base is so small, the resting person could not fall asleep without falling over.

The patterns on Somali and Boni headrests probably reflect the Islamic influence in the region. Some scholars interpret the patterns and iconography as a "form of shorthand for a prayer," to ensure God's protection of the sleeper. Headrests also play an important role in the nuptial ceremonies of Somali nomads. On his wedding night, the groom places the tubash (a sum of money) under the bride's headrest. The morning after the marriage is consummated, the bride will use this money to purchase an amber necklace, the symbol of her new status.

Headrest  (barkin)
Headrest  (barkin)
The headrests are carved from a single piece of fine-grained wood known as hagar in Somali, or also yucub wood. The wood is usually left its natural color, but is sometimes painted red or black by its owner. They may be carved by the owner or commissioned from an artist.

Somali and Boni nomads make use of two types of headrests; one with a single cylindrical supporting column and one with a double column. It appears that the different styles are for men of different status, with the single-columned variety for young men and the double-columned variety reserved for elders. The more elaborate the headrest is, the higher the status is of its owner.

Subtle, curvilinear forms are combined with intricate, incised patterns in this exquisite headrest from eastern Africa. With a crescent-shaped upper platform, small circular or oval base, and two flattened supporting columns, is this style of headrest is found among the nomadic Somali of both southern Somalia and eastern Kenya.

Headrests are used by both Somali men and women while resting or sleeping. It is popularly believed that the headrest serves a protective function by elevating the head off the ground during sleep, thereby preventing any possible attack by snakes or scorpions. Men's headrests, such as this one, generally feature a smaller base that makes them somewhat unstable to sleep on, while the rectangular bases of women's headrests are usually more stable. 

Scholars suggest that this instability is purposeful as it prevents the 
user from falling into a deep sleep while guarding the herds at night. It is in this sense that the headrest itself has become a symbol of vigilance among Somali nomads. In this example, the surface decorations of both supports are identical and feature interlaced rope motifs on the top and bottom interrupted by a honeycomb-like relief in the middle. The patterns on this and many other Somali headrests probably reflect the Islamic influence in the region. Some scholars interpret the patterns and iconography as a "form of shorthand for a prayer," to ensure God's protection of the sleeper. 

Headrests also play an important role in the nuptial ceremonies of Somali nomads. On his wedding night, the groom places the tubash (a sum of money) under the bride's headrest. The morning after the marriage is consummated, the bride will use this money to purchase an amber necklace, the symbol of her new status.

The headrests are carved from a single piece of fine-grained wood known as hagar in Somali, or also yucub wood. The wood is usually left its natural color, but is sometimes painted red or black by its owner. Somali nomads also make use of another type of headrest with a single cylindrical supporting column. It appears that the different styles are for men of different status, with the single-columned variety for young men and the double-columned variety, as seen here, reserved for elders.

Boni headrest from Somalia
References- National Museum of African Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Asante Akua'ba Doll


The Asante Akua'ba Doll
Asante akua’ba
The legend of the origination of the Akua'ba doll comes from the story of a woman named "Akua" (many variations of the name are found as there are many variations of the spelling of "akua'ba") who could not get pregnant and went to a local diviner or priest and commissioned the carving of a small wooden doll. She carried and cared for the doll as if it were her own child, feeding it, bathing it and so on. Soon the people in the village started calling it "Akua" "ba" - 
meaning "Akua's child", since "ba" meant child. She soon became pregnant and her daughter grew up with the doll.

The legend and tradition still live on today...

If an Akan/Asante woman had difficulty conceiving she would be encouraged to visit a local shrine accompanied by a senior woman in her family. There she might purchase a figure such as this, which would be placed for a period on the altar, later to be reclaimed by the woman along with certain medicines. The sculpture was then carried, fed, bathed, and otherwise cared for by the woman as if it was a living baby. It was thought that in doing this the woman would have a better chance to have a healthy and beautiful baby. Once the woman conceived and had a successful delivery, she would return the figure to the shrine as a form of offering. If the child died, the akua’ba might be kept by the woman as a memorial.

The symbolism of these dolls is specific: “The flat, disk like head is a strongly exaggerated conception of the Akan ideal of beauty:

The Asante Akua'ba Doll
Asante akua’ba doll (Ghana)
Round or oval shaped heads are considered ideal and this is accomplished in actual practice by the gently modeling of an infant’s soft cranial bones. The flat profile of these figures is also more practical when they are carried against the back wrapped in the woman’s skirt. Also standard is the ringed neck, a convention for rolls of fat and hence 
beauty and prosperity…the small scars seen on the faces of many akua’ba are those made for medicinal purposes as protection against convulsions. Most Asante akua’ba have abstracted, horizontal arms and a cylindrical torso with breasts and a navel, but ending in a base rather than human legs.

Sources: Sotheby's, AFRICA - The Art of A Continent, The Royal Art of Africa, and 

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Baga Nimba at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY

Headdress, 19th–20th century
Baga peoples; Guinea
Wood; H. 46 1/2 in. (118.1 cm)

The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.17)

This colossal wooden headdress, measuring nearly four feet in height, is known as D'mba among the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast. D'mba's flat, pendant breasts are a symbol of motherhood and reveal the selfless dedication with which she has nursed numerous children to adulthood. Her coiffure consists of intricately braided rows of hair and a high crest down the center. 

This hairstyle is not a characteristic of the Baga, but rather one of the Fulbe people, who inhabit the Futa Jallon mountains, where the Baga ancestors once lived. 

The coiffure serves as a reminder to the Baga of their origins in the Futa Jallon. The face, neck, and breasts of the bust are decorated with linear patterns: a horizontal line from the cheek to the ear, a curved line from the ear along the jawline, a line connecting these two lines, all ending at a circular line that surrounds the entire face. Often on each cheek, just below the eyes, there are two short carved lines—the mark of Baga ethnicity. Embellishments are sometimes added as well, including painted wooden ornaments attached to the ear or pendants attached to the nasal septum.

Shoulder Mask (Nimba) Guinea
Late 19th -early 20th century
Wood 45 in. (114.3 cm)
Unlike masked representations from other African cultures, which may represent ethereal spirits or ancestors, D'mba is not a "spirit," but instead is loosely described by the Baga themselves as simply an "idea." D'mba is an abstraction of the ideal of the female role in Baga society. She is honored as the universal mother and is the vision of woman at the zenith of her power, beauty, and affective presence. Although D'mba is not a spiritual being in the Baga sense of the term, nor a deity, she is a being of undeniable spiritual power. The Baga conceive of D'mba as a servant of sorts—inspiring young women with the strength to bear children and raise them to adulthood, inspiring young men to cooperative excellence in agriculture, and inspiring the ancestors to contribute toward the continuance of community well-being.

During performances, the massive headdress is worn with a costume of raffia and cloth. In the past, the D'mba masquerade was performed at least twice a year before the rainy seasons. D'mba would also appear to dance at festive occasions such as marriages and funerals, and in honor of special guests. In contemporary Baga culture, D'mba performances have not been as widely embraced as in the past, so they are rarely witnessed today.

The origins of the D'mba headdress, like many other aspects of Baga material culture, remain the subject of conjecture. Most Baga elders suggest that D'mba was not brought by their nomadic ancestors, but rather created after their arrival to their current home in Guinea's coastal region. Interestingly enough, the cloth shawl worn by D'mba during performances, usually dark indigo or black, has always been cotton cloth imported from Europe, never of African manufacture. In fact, it seems that many Baga masquerades developed in the twentieth century use European factory printed cloth for the costume.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, September 08, 2012

African Maternity Figures

Akan brass maternity figure on stool
Akan brass maternity figure on stool
In almost all African societies, the most important role of women is to bear children. Whatever else – farming, cooking, or their role in women’s associations – their primary responsibility is to produce and nurture children. 

It is, as Cole puts it, a “biological imperative” or, as Dennis Warren states, “cultural duty" (1974, 2.37). Indeed, certain groups, such as the !Kung, "do not consider a marriage consummated until the birth of a child" (Fried and Fried 1980, 29).

"A person who has no descendants in effect quenches the fire of life, and becomes forever dead since his line of physical continuation is blocked if he does not get married and bear children" (Mbiti 1969, 133).

Unhappy is the woman who fails to get children for, whatever other qualities she might possess, her failure to bear children is worse than community genocide: she has become the dead end of human life, not only for the genealogical line but also for herself. . . . the childless wife bears a scar which nothing can erase. She will suffer for this, her own relatives will suffer for this: and it will be an irreparable humiliation for which there is no source of comfort in traditional life.

In such a setting, it is not surprising to find great numbers of images of women with children in Africa. The earliest known are several terracottas from Nok in northern Nigeria possibly dating as early as the sixth century B.C. Bernard Fagg writes, "There are two or three pieces, and the frieze of figures . . . which may possibly be representing the concept of motherhood" (1977, 38). The frieze has "repetitive modelling of what is probably a 'mother and child' 

Images of women holding children may reflect a number of ideas, for example, they may represent ancestors and serve as "symbols of lineage or clan forbears, the generalized and incarnate dead" (Cole 1985, 8). It can only be conjectured that the Djenne example with its "mother" and adult "children" may be an instance of such a meaning.
Afo Maternity Figure (Nigeria 19th Century) wood
Afo Maternity Figure
(Nigeria 19th Century) wood

In most cases, the child or children are not identifiable; indeed, they are often amorphous or even caricatural in form. William Fagg refers to the "unwritten law on the portrayal of mothers and children in sculpture, a law so general that it must surely have a philosophical basis. This is the rule that children are not given a personality or character of their own, but are treated as extensions of their mother's personality" (in Vogel 1981, 1x4).

Others, such as Vogel, note: Because children are not fully "civilized" (or socialized), productive members of society, their depiction in art makes little sense. Infants, in contrast, often appear in a secondary role, representing the productivity of the mother. To cite a parallel from life, one often sees a woman dressed up and carrying a child (not necessarily her own) as a sort of costume accessory. A woman looks better with a baby. (1980, 13)

Thus we come at once to a major contrast between African maternity images and Christian images of Mary and the Christ child. In the latter, the primary focus is on the infant, and the mother is definitely a secondary figure. This is clearly the reverse of the roles of child and mother in African examples. The child, as a symbol of maternity, supports and reinforces the role of the mother as genetrix for the family and the group.

Examples are known where the mother is standing , kneeling, or sitting; the child may be suckling or may be held on the lap or carried on the back, and there may be more than one child. In contrast, scenes of birth are rare, and the rituals surrounding birth rarely make use of sculpture.

Akan Maternity Figure - Ghana -Mid-late 20th century
Akan Maternity Figure - Ghana
Mid-late 20th century
Henry Drewal (1978, 564) has pointed out that among the arts of the Yoruba, "Mothers shown nursing or carrying children represent the long weaning period (approximately two years), a time of sexual abstinence and suppressed menstruation . . . which is seen as a state of purity or ritual cleanliness." 

Elsewhere he states, "Pregnant and nursing women achieve a state related to that of elder women," who are past menopause and therefore free of the pollution of menses. Thus mother and child images denote a state of natural purity; for during the long nursing period . . . when the child is carried on the back, a woman's menstruation is suppressed and she practices sexual abstinence. . . . Thus images of women in ritual contexts and mother and child figures represent much more than symbols of fertility. They communicate sexual abstinence, inner cleanliness, ritual purity, female forces and spirituality.

Some Yoruba figures are shown kneeling, "a position of respect, devotion, and even submission to the gods. This posture is appropriate [because] most women in Yoruba sculptures represent royal wives or worshipers, not gods themselves" (Cole 1985, 19).

It is evident that although the specific meaning of images of maternity may vary from group to group and be associated with nature deities, ancestors, the group genetrix, or divination, they all ultimately and surely refer to human fertility and the future of the group that is grounded in that fertility.

There are images that are specifically approached when a woman wants to conceive. Such images are found on Yoruba doors or as shrine images in Ghana in the town of Anyinabrem where the sculpture of a mother suckling a baby was visible and, "when barren patients come to the shrine and see this statue they know the god can help them to get a child" (Warren 1974, 386).

Much more common in southern Ghana among several groups are akua'ba images, which are believed to relate directly to human fertility. These may be used by a priestess, as Warren reports (ibid., 388), to help barren women have children, or they may be carried by a woman after she conceives to ensure that she will have a healthy and handsome child. Others, quite similar in form, may help a woman "keep" a child that has been born several times but has not lived. It is believed that the intervention of the fertility deity will ensure a successful birth.

Roy Seiber
From: African Art in the Cycle of Life
Article from the Rand African Art website - Denver, Colorado

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Awèlé Board Game (with rules)

Awale (known as: oware, awèlé or wari) is a very ancient board game that comes from Africa. 

An Awèlé Board Game
An Awèlé Board Game
It belongs to the big group of mancala games. In all these games the player must transfer pieces from one bin to another of the board during each turn. It is a fast and a dynamic game. The luck is not there implied. Only the practice allows to arrive at a domain high level. The rules of Oware game are simple and the game is really easy-to-learn. The origin of the game gets lost in the night of the times.

Oware or awalé with many names as for example: ayo, awale, awalete, awele, oware, wari, woli,... is played in western african countries as Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. Also in the West Indies and in the Americas as for example: Surinam, Guyana, Grenada, Barbados, Sta. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Antigua and St Kitts, Dominican Rep., Brazil, etc. as a result of the slave trade that came from this part of Africa. 

An Awèlé Board Game

The Rules

The aim of the game:
To capture more seeds than your opponent. At the end of the game, the player who has captured the most seeds wins.

Rules of the game:
The board is divided into two areas, hollowed with 6 holes each. At the beginning, 48 seeds are distributed among the twelve holes (4 seeds in each hole). Therefore, the players need for play a 2x6 or 2x6+2 board.

The top row belong to opponent player. You own the bottom row.

The game turn:
Every player plays alternately. The first one to play is chosen at random.
The player takes all the seeds in a hole of his/her area and distributes them counter-clockwise, one in each hole.

If the last seed to be distributed falls into one of the opponent's holes, containing already 1 or 2 seeds, the player captures the 2 or 3 seeds.
The hole is left empty. The captured seeds are taken off the board or collected into the player's loft (if the players play with a 2x6+2 board).
Therefore, the hole can be captured only if, after distributing the seeds, it contains two or three seeds.

Multiple capture:
If a player captures 2 or 3 seeds, and the preceding hole also contains two or three seeds, they are captured too, and so on.
Capturing is only allowed in the opponent's area.

If the number of seeds taken in the starting hole is greater than 11, it constitutes a loop: the starting hole is left out every time in the distribution loop, and therefore, always left empty.

Feed the opponent:
A player is not allowed to "starve" his/her opponent: a player can't play a hole that leads to capturing all the seeds in his opponent's area. A player can be left with no seeds at all only if is impossible to feed him/her.

End of the game:
The game ends if a player has n seeds anymore in his/her area, and therefore can't play.
In this case, the other player captures all the remaining seeds.
Or the game ends if the game is "looping" (after some turns, the same board configuration is obtained again).

More information on the game is given by

Contributions with thanks from:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Benin Oba Commemorative Heads

Head of an Oba
16th century (ca. 1550)
Brass; H. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm)
The leaders of the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the fourteenth century. 

The title of "oba," or king, is passed on to the firstborn son of each successive king of Benin at the time of his death. The first obligation of each new king during this transition of rule is to commemorate his father with a portrait cast in bronze and placed on an altar at the palace. 

The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendants.

Though associated with individuals, this highly stylized genre of commemorative portraiture emphasized the trappings and regalia of kingship rather than specific facial features. In the Edo world view, the head is considered the locus of a man's knowledge, authority, success, and family leadership. 

The burden of providing for his family and seeing them through times of trouble is often described as being "on his head." The oba is often called by his praise name "Great Head," accentuating the head of the living leader as the locus of responsibility over and for the Benin kingdom.

The idealized naturalism of this work reflects conventions of depicting the king at the prime of his life. The straightforward gazing eyes, which would have included iron inlays, possess the ability to see into the other world, communicating the divine power of the oba to survey his kingdom. 

The beaded headdress and collar are depictions of the king's coral regalia. Coral is of particular importance to the Edo because of its associations with the ancestral realms of the sea and to the immense wealth of the oba gained through ocean-going trade with Europe.

The relatively minimal amount of brass used to make this light cast and the proportionately small amount of regalia depicted indicate that the head was created during the earlier half of the sixteenth century. 

Art historians have suggested that over the centuries, as greater quantities of brass became available, casters had less incentive to be economical with the material, and the trappings of office worn by the kings of Benin became more ostentatious.

Document borrowed from the Rand African website

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Dogon Tribe of West Africa and the alien connection

The Dogon tribe can be found in a region in Mali south of the Sahara Desert. French anthropologists Drs Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen studied the tribe from 1931 to 1956. Dogon mythology is only known by a hand full of their priests. This is a very hard to understand system, not easily given to even the friendliest of strangers. 
The culture of the Dogon tribe in West Africa centers around a star in our gallery. Sirius A is a big, bright star, has two and a half times the mass of our sun. Sirius, or actually its companion star, Sirius B. Sirius B has ninety-five per cent of the mass of our sun The Sirius Star is in the Canis Major Constellation. Sirius is visible with the naked eye, its companion is not. Now what is really fascinating about this is how these people knew about this, after all they have no telescopes. Sirius B wasn’t even visible with telescopes until 1862, or photographed until 1970. Dogon astronomical lore is dated back to 3200 B.C.
According to the Dogon legend the tribe was visited by a race of people called the Nommos, which come from the Sirius system. The Nommos resembled ugly amphibious beings. It is believed that the Nommos gave the Dogon tribe knowledge about their solar system. For instance: Jupiter has four major moons, Saturn has rings, and the plants revolve around the sun, and not vice versa. These facts weren’t known until Galileo invented the telescope. 
After they landed, the Nommos released a body of water which they later inhabited. They could live on land, but preferred the sea. Oral stories, drawing and tablets, depict the Nommo with large fish skin running down their bodies. The Nommos were regarded as saviors and spiritual guardians.
Carl Sagan believes that our modern knowledge of the Dogon tribe came from westerners or Europeans, who discussed astronomy with the tribes’ priests. Sagan believes that if Europeans came to the Dogon tribe, they most likely would have discussed “astronomical matters”, and talked about the brightest star in the sky. This however doesn’t explain a 400 year old artifact that shows the Sirius configuration. It also doesn’t explain how the Dogon tribe knows how dense Sirius B is.
They also tell us that Sirius B has a 50-year elliptical orbit around Sirius.
The Dogons refer to Sirius B as Po Tolo. “Tolo”, means small, and po means star. The tribe claims that Po is composed of a material known as sagala, a mineral heavier then all of Earth’s iron.
While many parts of the legend are considered true ,there are some parts in question. For example, the Dogons’ believe that Sirius B once occupied the spot where our sun is now. Physics disprove this. Also, if the Dogon believe that Sirius A orbits Sirius B every 50 years, then why do they have their celebrations every 60 year? The Dogons believe there is a third star called "Emme Ya" . So far this is yet to be discovered. According to legend, the Nommo breath through holes in their collarbone.
The Dogon are not the only people that have a strong connection with Sirius, Sumer, Babylonia's Oannes, Acadia's Ea, Sumer's Enki, and Egypt's goddess Isis. The Egyptian goddess Isis which is said to be mermaid –like. The ancient Egyptians also believed Sirius was significant . Their calendar was based on the rising of Sirius. Even thou there is no solid evidence of a third star, in 1995 French researchers, Daniel Benest and J.L. Duvent, published an article which states that it is possible that Sirius is a triple star.