Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Kalimba, or the "Thumb Piano"

Nyonganyonga. Zambezi province,
Mozambique, ca. 1900.
Wood, shell, metal, beads.
In conjunction with the exhibition Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin, on view through December 7, the Department of Musical Instruments is presenting a series of monthly concerts on Friday evenings in the Museum's Charles Engelhard Court. The next concert in this series will be held on May 16, featuring the guitarist, composer, and instrument designer Trevor Gordon Hall.

Hall plays a rather unusual combination of two instruments, one that he calls the "kalimbatar." This hybrid instrument merges an acoustic guitar with a specially designed version of the West African kalimba.

Kalimba is one name for a type of instrument known as a lamellophone, consisting of thin metal or split cane tongues mounted on a resonating board or box. Depressing the free ends of the tongues with the thumb produces a gentle ringing sound, which is sometimes augmented by jingling objects. An example of a similar instrument, possibly by the Barwe people—members of the Shona community in the Zambezi province of Mozambique—can be found in the Museum's collection.

This example has thirty-one metal keys and disks made of snail shells that are pinned to the body and rattle when played. Tuning is accomplished by sliding the tongues in or out to alter their vibrating length and pitch.

Seated Chief Playing Thumb Piano
(Mwanangana). Angola, before 1869
Lamellophones are found across sub-Saharan Africa and were brought to Latin America by enslaved Africans. They are known by many names that may be shared with xylophones, but, overlooking differences in construction, are generally identified by two regional terms: mbira or sanza. Depending upon the context and regional tradition, lamellaphones may be used to accompany narratives and children's songs, or to summon spirits and induce trance and spirit possession, thus bridging this world with that of watchful ancestors.

The use of thumbs to play the instrument is the reason why the lamellophone is often known to Westerners as the "thumb piano."

- Article courtesy of The METMETmuseum.org
- Nyonganyonga. Zambesi province, Mozambique, ca. 1900. Wood, shell, metal, beads. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (09.163.6)
- Seated Chief Playing Thumb Piano (Mwanangana). Angola, before 1869. Wood (Uapaca), cloth, fiber, beads. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1988 (1988.157)

Lamellophones, or "Thumb Pianos", are regularly sold for $200 to $300 on eBay... What's In Your Attic?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Dogon of Mali Way Of Life

A Dogon Mask
Courtesy of: http://www.hamillgallery.com
Dogon statues are conserved in the semi darkness of sanctuaries or of family homes. These objects are made to be touched rather than seen. Occasionally offerings and sacrifices are made to them. The statues are made by a blacksmith, who, if he has talent can create true works of art. The masks are sculpted by non specialists during the course of a ritual that takes place outside of the village.

Dogon style has evolved towards a type of cubism with ovoid heads, square shoulders, slender limbs, pointed breasts, forearm and thighs in the same parallel plane, and a coiffure stylized by two or three incisions. Dogon statues express in particular religious values and feelings. They act as a support to initiation rituals and in explaining the world.

The Dogon live in the south of Mali, a region which is made up of plains, a plateau and above all an escarpment. The Bandiagara escarpment is 260 km long and overhangs the plains. The Dogon cultivate millet, sorgho, fonio, rice and durum wheat at the edge of the cliffs and near the rare water points. They are not the first inhabitants of this region. The Dogon say that they came from Mande, or the Ancient Mali Empire to escape from Islamization. They probably started their migration between the 10th and 13th centuries and chased the Tellum from the cliffs. The memory of the Tellum is conserved in grain stores at the foot of the cliffs and rocky cavities where their dead were buried along with the statues.

Dogon Religion

Before the world was created, there was a God called Amma who had the appearance of an egg. Amma created four male and four female creatures. The males are: Nommo Die, Nommo Titiyayne, O Nommo and Ogo and were created in the form of fish. But Ogo rebelled before he was fully finished, as he wanted to make the creation his own. O Nommo was sacrificed to pay back the error of his twin Ogo and came down to earth in the ark that carried men’s ancestors and all living beings. Ogo, rebelling against Amma, detached himself from Amma’s placenta, ripping part of it away, and came down to earth with the ark.

In leaving Amma’s womb prematurely, he did not wait for the full gestation of his twin. He found himself weak and alone because Amma had transformed the piece of placenta torn out by Ogo, into our earth and the moon. Ogo, displeased with the earth, unfit for cultivation, went back up to the sky to interrupt Amma’s work and to retrieve the remains of his placenta. But Amma, wanting to put this piece of placenta out of Ogo’s reach, transformed it into our sun. Next, Amma transformed Ogo into a four legged creature, a pale fox that from that moment on would be the instrument of chaos in the universe. In accepting the opposition of the fox, and the chaos that he brought to the universe, Amma allowed psychological dualism and individualization to be created. In order to reorganize the universe that had been disturbed by the fox, Amma decided to sacrifice her twin brother O Nommo. His blood served to purify the earth and his body, cut into pieces, allowed the stars, the animals and the plants to appear. After this purification of the universe, O Nommo was brought back to life and sent back to earth by Amma, to give birth to humans and to reorganize life on earth. Amma had made men immortal, but following the chaos brought by the fox to the earth, death appeared. The ark in which Ogo had come down to earth became uncultivated land, and that of O Nommo the symbol for cultivated land. After all the beings had descended from the ark, O Nommo (or Nommo) returned to  his fish like form and went to live in the great expanse of water (the oceans) that had been born of the first rainfall. It is in the water that Nommo reveals to man the words woven through his teeth.

The Dogon religion is made up of the belief in Amma, distant and immaterial God, but which is realized through institutions and ongoing actions towards the ancestors:

1° The cult of the immortal totemic ancestors.

2° The Lebe cult, a great ancestor who died and was brought back to life in the form of a snake. Lebe is the great ancestor whose sons gave birth to the four tribes: Dyon, Dommo, Ono and Arou.

3° The mask cult, mortal ancestors.

The Dogon Economy

The Dogon are farming people, with a system of patrilineal descent and patrilocal residency. There is a division of labour. The men cultivate the fields and hunt albeit for a meager result (because of the lack of game) weave and make basket work. The women take care of the home, make pottery, spin cotton and dye fabric. The blacksmith doesn’t only work metal he also makes objects out of wood. He is an important person and belongs to a caste.

Social Organisation among the Dogon and Initiation rites

Comprising several totemic clans, the Dogon village comes under the authority of the council of elders. The clans are subdivided into lineages, led by the patriarch, the guardian of the ancestral altar and responsible for the cult.

There are other broader communities than the clan, these are the four initial tribes (Dyon, Arou, Ono, Dommo) each the respective descendant of the four mythical ancestors (Amma Serou, Libe Serou, Binou Serou, Dyongou Serou). In the beginning, they should have shared the Dogon country between them, but they were finally integrated into the same territory. It is at the heart of these tribal proceedings that the ‘Hogons’, or highest religious dignitaries and heads of a region, are named. They are in charge of the cult of the mythical snake Lebe and the cult of the ancestor Lebe Serou. Aided by the blacksmith, they preside over agrarian ceremonies. Masters of exchange and commerce they do not work the land and cannot leave their house, considered as a sanctuary. The supreme Hogon is the one that resides at Arou.

In correlation to this hierarchical relationship there is also a system of grouping by age, whereby the members mutually owe each other lifelong help and assistance.

Circumcision and excision open the door to adulthood and allows young people to marry and participate in social and ritualistic life.

Masculine and feminine associations are responsible for the initiation which is carried out by age group. Members of each age group owe mutual and lifelong help to the other members of the group. A boy’s initiation begins after his circumcision. This begins with teachings of traditional myths, taught through the medium of drawings and paintings. The boys learn man’s place in nature, society and the universe. Dogon mythology is so complicated that a griot would need a week to tell it in its entirety.

Blacksmiths and wood carvers form a separate caste. Their trade is mainly passed down from generation to generation. They are feared and respected by the community who attribute particular powers to them. They can only marry inside their own caste. The women take care of the pottery.

Great Dogon Ceremonies

The masculine association or ‘Awa’ is responsible for initiation and equally organizes the great ceremonies that take place at the end of the mourning period. This period can last for several days and recalls the memories of people that have died within the last two or three years. Two main types of mask are made for these occasions:

The ‘Sirige,’ or house with several storeys, is worn by a dancer who mimics the myth of creation and the descent from the ark. The Kanaga mask is crowned by a cross indicating the skies and the earth. They are accompanied by other types of zoomorphic masks: antelope, hyena, lion, hare, monkey, buffalo, bird, as well as other helm masks embellished with horns and a muzzle. These masks might be decorated in red, black or white.

The grand Sigui ceremony takes place every 60 years. It is symbolized by a snake mask, and everyone in the community takes part in the event.

Dogon Sculpture

Dogon sculpture is conserved in the semi darkness of sanctuaries or of family homes. These objects are
made to be touched rather than seen. Occasionally, offerings and sacrifices are made to them.

The masks are sculpted by non specialists during the course of a ritual that takes place outside of the village. The statues are made by a blacksmith who, if he has talent, can create true works of art in his house situated in a quarter reserved especially for professionals who work under the watchful eye of the population. The quality of the work also depends on the wealth of the person who commissions it.

In this region of Mali, it is important to recognize the works of art that were made by the Tellum, the predecessors of the Dogon, who occupied the area in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The main theme of the statues is the sacrifice of Nommo. The statues are created from a wood that is thought to be hard and powerful.  They follow the relationship of Nommo and Amma at various periods of their lives.

The signification of the different representations is mainly as follows:

If the statue has one arm raised up it symbolizes the relationship between O Nommo and Amma before his sacrifice, but also of his role as the organizer of the world. Sometimes, he is hermaphrodite because Nommo is bisexual. When both arms are raised but separated, Nommo is praying to Amma to allow him to stay with her after his resurrection. If both arms are raised and joined together, Nommo is praying for Amma to come to him and protect him. When both arms are raised with the hands together and the palms facing up to the sky, Nommo is imploring the rain to fall. When both arms are down by the sides this position symbolizes Nommo’s descent to earth. With both arms spread out away from the body and with the palms facing forward, Nommo reveals his role of guardian of space. If Nommo has both hands placed on his thighs this means that he is relying on Amma.

Throughout these different representations, the face is often very smooth signifying that the world must remain clean and organized like a smoothly shaved face.
A couple of primordial ancestors.
Courtesy of http://www.hamillgallery.com

The figure of a man’s statue incorporates traits that are the essence of Dogon sculpture. They translate the monumentality that is obtained through a strict use of volume, reducing the physiognomy down to the essential (without superfluous detail), disturbing the serious face of the character with its long and extremely triangular nose.

A couple of primordial ancestors, sitting side by side share the same characteristics. The faces are harsh and the rigidity of the pair is only broken by the gesture of tenderness of the man putting his arm around his companion’s shoulder.

Again, the same characteristics apply for a statue of a woman sitting on a stool decorated with sculptures of the ancestors. The coiffure of the seated woman is more heavily refined, but the principal traits of the face are schematic: diamond shaped eyes, rectilinear nose in the form of an arrow, slit mouth. Sculptures of women with children are treated in the same austere and monumental manner. A woman crushing seeds is sculpted in the same synthetic manner, without any anecdotal features.

Xylophone or balafon players are treated in the same hieratic way, full of nobility and severity.

A great number of figures recall that Nommo pulled the ark towards a hollow filled with water by changing himself into a horse.

  • The Dogon create hermaphrodite, ‘Tellum type’ statues where the arms are raised and which are covered with a thick patina of blood and millet beer.
  • The four Nommo couples, mythical ancestors born of the God Amma, decorate stools, the columns of the men’s meeting houses, as well as locks and barn doors.
  • The primordial couple is represented sitting on a stool, of which the base represents the earth and the top tray the sky. Between the base and the tray Nommo is figured, the ancestor of all humans.
  • The feminine seated figures, with their hands on their stomachs, are linked to the fecundity cult and are the incarnation of the first dead ancestor that died in childbirth. They are the object of offerings and sacrifices made by pregnant women.
  • The kneeling statues of the protecting ancestors are placed next to the deceased’s head in order to absorb his spiritual force. They play an intermediary role with the afterlife by accompanying the deceased. They are then returned to the ancestral altars.

Dogon style has evolved towards a type of cubism with ovoid heads, square shoulders, slender limbs, pointed breasts, forearm and thighs in the same parallel plane, a coiffure stylized by two or three incisions. Dogon statues express in particular religious values and feelings. They act as a support to initiation and as an explanation of the world itself. Hidden in sanctuaries or in the Hogan’s dwelling, they act as vectors of knowledge for the initiate who will learn how to interpret the signs of the statue depending on his level of knowledge.

Dogon art also manifests itself in architecture, and both cult and domestic objects.

Dogon blacksmiths also make ritual irons showing Nommo in various stances and situations as for the statues, but along with some fish like elements.

Article courtesy of African-Art.net
Images courtesy of HamillGallery.com  

Monday, January 23, 2017

History of the Marka Masks of Mali, West Africa

Courtesy of Fondazione Passaré
Marks Masks of Mali
The masks of the Marka (a Mande subgroup) originated in the landlocked country of Mali, West Africa. Long ago masks such as the Marka were thought to be extremely powerful and had the ability to frighten away evil spirits, convey messages from the spirit world and cure illnesses. The Marka would perform ceremonies devoted to fishing and farming, and their stylized masks would be danced to invoke the spirits to grant the community with abundant agricultural yields and a successful fishing season.

The masks of the Marka are narrow and austere, with a sharp chin. They are brightly painted or coated with metal along with raised ornamentation, achieving a fine decorative effect that is very distinctive and different from most other African mask styles. The men of the Marka, clad in costumes of colorful cloth, always appear in pairs to represent man's wooing of woman. The most characteristic deviation from the Bambara style is the cover of metal sheeting worked in conjunction with three metal bars attached to the forehead and red cotton at the end of each. The Marka society used this mask in two rituals, at the circumcision ceremony of adolescents, and when circumcised men advance from one grade to another. Along the Niger River the Marka used the masks in ceremonies related to fishing and farming.

This ethnic group is independent from the Bambara tribe but their styles show a strong Bambara influence. They live in the region that extends from the north of the Bambara to the Senegalese border. They live principally from agriculture with some subsidiary cattle rearing in the northern part of their territory. The dry savanna permits no more than a subsistence economy, and the soil produces, with some difficulty, millet, rice, and beans.

Courtesy of Fondazione Passaré
Marks Masks of Mali
Fertility played an important role in African Agricultural ceremonies. They were based on the idea that through the correct rituals, man could raise up the vital forces dwelling in a mask by gaining the blessing of his ancestor in order to help fertility and therefore achieve protection and primary security. The Agricultural Festivities the Africans celebrated were performed at different stages of the crop cycle. This crop cycle started with clearing of the land, then the planting, the reaping of the fruits, the harvest and finally the filling of the food stores. The concept of these festivals was the sacredness of the soil, which belonged to the ancestors, or the "masters of the soil". A successful harvest therefore depended on the thanksgiving of the ancestors or sometimes upon the good will of the goddess of the earth. African Masks

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Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/expert/Mike_Griffis/268004

A Senufo sculpture was recently sold for $4,100 on eBay... 
What's In Your Attic?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The African Passport Masks

This beautiful passport mask certainly contains Kaba Ko - an African term referring to marvellous things that can be looked upon without limit.

Bassa Miniature Mask
African Masks are sacred objects. These passport masks functioned as a medium of communication between a person and their favoured ancestor. In their original context, miniature masks were integrated into a system of belief in which they functioned as spiritual guides and personal protectors.

The Dan believe that their world is split into two domains: the human domain which is represented by the village and its people, and the spiritual domain which is represented by the forest and its spirits.

These miniature masks were often carried for personal protection when living away from home, and in later years they were commonly understood to also function as a means of tribal identification. Asan Diop, of Abidjan, describes the role of passport masks:

Before Whiteman brought paper and pen to Africa, these small masks were the only form of identification that we Africans could carry with us. Each person owned a carving of himself and each tribe had its own kind of masks. This is the only way people could cross the frontier between tribal groups.

In a culture where hierarchy was based upon skill, carvers were highly respected. The masks were generally
Dan Miniature Mask
Liberia/Ivory Coast 
carved from a local rubber tree and always dyed either black or brown. This was done according to a long and delicate process to which the Bassa artist remained faithful, using colour obtained by the decoction of forest leaves.

Respected carvers would not sand the surface, but instead use their blades obliquely over and over again, generally lifting off shavings invisible to the layman's eye. The masks often acquire celebrated 'natural patina', from their exposure to the elements or frequent handling.

The beautiful depth of patina and the marvellous ability for such a small figure to attract one's attention further emphasises the mystery and power of this ''passport''.

Article courtesy of FHE Galleries: http://www.fhegalleries.com/ethnological/showArticle.php?file=04_23_africandanpassportmask.xml&year=2013
Images courtesy of the hamillgallery.com

Used Old Jar Sold For $51,000 On eBay... What´s In Your Attic?

Friday, January 06, 2017

African Batik Art

The art of batik or wax painting is an ancient craft and technique used in Africa and many East Asian countries for decorating fabrics. The batik images or effects are achieved through the principle of wax and water repelling each other, called resist dyeing.

The artistic expression of working with melted wax on dyes is similar to that of painting with watercolor, oils or acrylics and the designs can be as complicated or simple as the artist's desire.

Since batik is a method of painting "negative space", the artist has to envision the complete design in-between shapes and figures when deciding where to apply the next color and the next application of wax.

Wax is painted on to the fabric and the color is filled into the fabric between the wax. The most popular ways of applying wax are either by painting it on with a brush or by pouring the liquid wax on the cloth. With a series of dyeing, drying and waxing steps the individual colors of the batik are applied.

After the last dyeing, the fabric is hung up to dry. Then it is ironed between paper towels or newspaper to absorb the wax and reveal the vibrant colors and fine crinkle lines that give the batik its character.

African batiks are unique pieces of art handcrafted by talented artisans. If you like to decorate with textiles or showing off your love for unique fabrics, then African batiks are definitely for you.

From home decor to quilting and other crafts, batiks will enhance any project with true African flair. Frame a batik, transform a batik into a wall hanging by simply stretching it with bamboo poles, make a pillow case out of batiks, decorate a handbag, make a lamp shade or incorporate a batik into your quilting project.

Let the batik speak for itself and let the beauty be in the eye of the beholder.

Article and image courtesy of World Travel Art - Great selection of African batiks from Mozambique and Tanzania.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

African Rock Art

Image courtesy of
Dr. Katherine Bolman
Ahaafoundation, Honolulu, Hi 96822
Rock paintings and engravings are Africa’s oldest continuously practiced art form.

Depictions of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and figures combining human and animal features—called therianthropes and associated with shamanism—continue to inspire admiration for their sophistication, energy, and direct, powerful forms. 

The apparent universality of these images is deceptive; content and style range widely over the African continent. Nevertheless, African rock art can be divided into three broad geographical zones—southern, central, and northern. 

The art of each of these zones is distinctive and easily recognizable, even to an untrained eye.

Not all rock art in these three zones is prehistoric; in some areas these arts flourished into the late nineteenth century, while in other areas rock art continues to be made today.

In the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, a number of rock paintings depict clashes between San (Bushmen) people and European colonists mounted on horses and armed with rifles. Many of the Drakensberg works use subtle polychrome shading that gives their subjects a hint of three-dimensional presence.

pstrongThe Linton Panelstrongbr Image courtesy of the South African Museum Cape Townp
The Linton Panel
Image courtesy of the South African Museum, Cape Town

The product of many authors, time periods, and cultures, the flowing naturalism and lively sense of movement of the best rock art attests to the conviction of masterful hands and trained eyes.

Article courtesy of: Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “African Rock Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rock/hd_rock.htm (October 2000)