Friday, September 25, 2015

Art and the Fulani/Fulbe People

Bowl, Geometric Pattern,
19th–20th century; Fulani

Fulani people; Mali, western Sudan
Above all, Fulani people are known for their mastery of verbal art expressed in song and poetry.

Fulani nomads do not change their fashion as frequently as other sedentary groups, thus traces of past aesthetic traditions tend to be perceptible in contemporary times. Fulani often entrust members of specialized castes or foreigners with the fabrication of their objects. Thus, the label "Fulani art" reflects ownership and not manufacture. Leather amulets, knife handles, sheaths, and sandals are decorated with geometric designs that reflect Fulani symbolism and bear the influence of Tuareg and Berber aesthetics. Objects are tinted in bright colors of red, yellow, or white and green, and often feature long fringes. Some of the designs are cross ethnic: the zigzag bordered by parallel lines, for instance, is shared by Fulani and Dogon alike.

Fulani aesthetic expression is, with exceptions, inscribed on objects or sites of an ephemeral nature. Above
Textile Blanket (Khasa), 20th century; 
Fulani people; Mali, western Sudan
all, Fulani people are known for their mastery of verbal art expressed in song and poetry. They are also renowned for their elaborate art of body adornment. Men and women alike are fond of tattooing. They wear amulets (lohol) as both protective and decorative elements. Women wear heavy twisted gold earrings (dibi), gold necklaces (caaka), and copper or white metal bracelets, round or open with bulging extremities, and delicately engraved with dotted lines. Blacksmiths used to make heavy and thick anklets that gave young Wodaabe women a "cowlike" step, much appreciated in this herders' culture. Women from other Fulani groups wore copper or brass leg ornaments or anklets made by the lost-wax casting process. These rings might once have served as currency.

Men's clothing includes a conical herdsman hat—in red, black, and natural color—made of woven raffia and leather, with geometric design in the form of a cross, complete with a prominent button, the "Mount of the world." Men also wear leather or baggy fabric pants, and use woven blankets with geometric patterns. Wodaabe people are famous for organizing male beauty contests, know as yaake or gerewol.

Fulani women, who are in charge of building the family tents or temporary shelters, weave wall and floor mats. Besides nomadic architecture, they specialize in the decoration of calabashes and wooden bowls (la'al kosam). Calabashes are pyro-engraved with a combination of abstract and figural motifs and colored with pigments. In the cow-centered Fulani culture, milk bowls are also important objects for the household. They are used as storage containers for fresh, curdled milk and grains. An artifact, symbol of the pastoral life and of the cooperation between men who keep the herd and women who milk the cows, the la'al kosam encapsulates Fulani identity. Because of their delicate chiseling, smoke-derived patina, and exquisite decorative treatment, bowls and calabashes could be considered as the true focus of aesthetic efforts of the Fulani people.

Citation. Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "Art and the Fulani/Fulbe People". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Mende Helmet Mask "Bundu" or "Sowei" Mask of the Sande Society

In sub-Saharan Africa only men are normally permitted on ritual occasions to wear wooden masks. This black helmet mask is worn exclusively by women. The practice of women wearing masks seems to have been brought to several populations of  Sierra Leone and Liberia, such as the Temne, Gola and Vai, by the Mende and Mande-speaking people from the northern savanna. Because of the similarity of mask styles and the itinerant pathways of noted carvers, it is difficult to assign some masks to a particular ethnic group.

In the 19th century the Mende were organized into independent chiefdoms; families and individuals were ranked according to their land-use rights. Industrious rice farmers, the Mende number approximately two million people. The rituals of their women's society, called Sande, require the appearance of masked figures. Within such a large population there are many variations in local practices and carving styles, but there is broad agreement on the nature of the mask itself.

The mask presents an ideal of feminine beauty admired by the Mende: elaborate hairstyle, full forehead and small facial features.The gleaming surface signifies healthy, glowing skin. The swelling fleshy rolls alternating with deep incised lines at the neck or back of the head are considered marks of beauty and a promise of fecundity. The neck is broad to fit over the head of the woman who will wear it. Sande officials commission male carvers to produce the mask in secret. The surface is smoothed with the rough leaves of the ficus tree, then dyed black with a concoction made of leaves. Before use, it is anointed with palm oil to make it shine. (Modern carvers use black shoe polish.)

With this confining mask, the wearer (who has to be a good dancer and an official of the Sande) puts on a
thick cotton costume covered with heavy fibre strands dyed black. Her dances may last for over two hours. The sacredness of the mask lies in its deeper meaning as a representation of the long deceased founder of Sande society. In pre-colonial times women could hold the position of chief of a village cluster; until the 1970s women politicians continued to use the Sande society to support and further their careers in modern government. With increasingly rigorous Islamisation, however, the Sande society is being seriously modified or even disbanded.

"The costume worn with the black mask is made of layers of raffia fibers that have also been dyed black. These are attached to the lower portion of the neck as well as to a black cloth shirt or gown worn over the body. The sleeves are sewn shut, and long stockings or men's shoes are worn. No part of the body is left exposed, for revealing the body would expose the human agency behind the mask to the eyes of nonmembers, and would also allow the spirit to enter the human dancer rather than the mask.

Masked dancing provides a festive mood appropriate to the completion of the several stages of initiation. Masks are seen in public at several key moments during the process. Their appearances serve to announce to families of initiates that certain stages have been successfully accomplished and that preparation of foods and gifts of money must be completed. A mask may collect food from the community to take back to where initiation is taking place. She comes into the community to announce the imminent coming out of the girls, and she leads them into town on their first visit after the process has started. Finally, she leads the richly dressed girls into town when they have completed their training and are released. This is the high point of the entire process, for the girls are now recognized as marriageable, adult women.

The mask may appear at other times to bring justice to offenders of Sande law, to perform in respect at the funeral of an important leader of the society, and to participate in ceremonies in which a new mask is initiated into the work of Sande. Nowö is accepted as a living presence. The spirit speaks not through words but through the language of dance, referring to moral and social doctrines of beauty, serenity, dignity, control, order, and balance. Dance movements exaggerate the powers of ordinary women and dramatize the ideals of feminine beauty."

Excerpt above from: Poynor, Robin. 1995. African Art at the Harn Museum: Spirit Eyes, Human Hands. pp. 185-191. Article from the Rand African Art website - Denver, Colorado