Wednesday, July 22, 2009

About the New Masks

The masks we bought last week are initiation masks from the Warega people of the Congo. They are made from baya wood, and are 40 to 80 years old, according to Ibrahim, the seller. One would be used by a young man, the other by a young woman, he said. The Warega are part of the Lega people.

Looking for more information, I found some historical, artistic, and other information about the Warega. This website presented a mask from "Lega (Balega, Rega, Walega, Warega), Democratic Republic of the Congo" with the following explanation --
The 100,000 Lega inhabit the forest region in eastern DRC. They do not possess a centralized political organization, and both men and women aspire to moral authority by gaining high rank in the bwami initiation association. The highest ranking members of the bwami association own, use and interpret all Lega sculpture. Many categories of objects, including masks are used in connection with the association’s activities. Wooden masks with heart-shaped, concave faces painted with white pigment are owned, in some areas, by every male member of the most advanced level of the second highest grade of the bwami association. These masks are not worn over the face. Participants in most rites display their masks as a group in conjunction with particular dance movements and aphorisms, which vary depending on the context in which they are used. In some rites they may be held in the hand, in others they may be fixed to hats or arranged on a miniature palisade.

I have seen some of this information in other sources also -- particularly about the way the masks are carried or displayed, not worn. Also, the masks are associated with protection from sorcery.

The history of the Lega as well as many more photos of masks is given here:
In the 16th century the Lega began their long migration from modern day Uganda into their present location. They were a warlike people whose fierceness inspired those, with whom they came into contact, to adopt many Lega customs. In the 17th century they attacked the Rwandan outpost of Rutshurer on their way to Maniema, just west of Lake Tanganyika, dividing and conquering the people who lived in the region. Many cultural traits have been assimilated into the surrounding cultures, and the Lega still dominate the region today.
My earlier posts about our African masks are: Our African Masks, Why do I like African masks?, Masks, African Masks, and One more Art Fair trip. The most comprehensive website that I have found for studying African tribes and their art is: African Art Museum.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Our African Masks

Ibrahim, the seller of African masks at the art fair, gave us some information about our masks, which I have tried to supplement with research in books, looking at the museum, and on the web. We bought the mask on the left from him last year. The two masks to the right came from an African art store in Washington, D.C. some years ago, and we received no information at the time we obtained them. He was able to identify them.

The leftmost mask is from the Kwele tribe of northern Gabon. The rightmost mask is from the Fang tribe, also in Gabon. The mask on the left, Ibrahim explained when we bought it last year, is called a Justice Mask. A person wears it when being sworn in at court, the way a westerner swears on a Bible. The spirit of the mask enforces the oath. I have not found any information about Justice Masks. However, the Kwele tribe and especially the nearby Fang tribe (their enemy) produced many of the popular masks that have appeared in shops and art museums.

I learned that the Kwele people occupy a huge area of forested land in Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo, though their numbers are small: around 15,000 people. The masks represent forest spirits, and frequently have the horned motif, as ours does, representing an antelope. The white paint on the masks represents the peacefulness of a spirit world. I found a very long article on the Kwele by Louis Perrois, which describes their villages and their various types of masks. Our mask is not a perfect match, but it has a similar spirit to the ones described and to various ones depicted for sale on eBay and other sales websites.

Our third mask, in the middle, is from the Baule people of the Ivory Coast. A Baule mask appeared in an exhibition at Galerie Levesque, in Paris in 1913 (image to the right, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art p. 152). Many masks from the Dan people of the Ivory Coast share the characteristics that make the Baule masks so appealing to me. They also have a smooth, black surface and simplified features. I believe these were influential on early modern artists.

The Baule, I learned, belong to the Akan peoples who inhabit Ghana and the eastern region of the Ivory Coast. Their carvings are influenced by their neighbors, the Senufo and Guro people. "Three hundred years ago the Baule people migrated westward from Ghana when the Asante rose to power. The tale of how they broke away from the Asante has been preserved in their oral traditions. During the Asante rise to power the Baule queen, Aura Poku, was in direct competition with the current Asante king. When the Asante prevailed, the queen led her people away to the land they now occupy. The male descendant of Aura Poku still lives in the palace she established and is honored by the Baule as their nominal king."

Why do I like African masks?

A Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia and Picasso's painting "Girl before a Mirror"
A Tusyan mask from Upper Volta and Max Ernst's sculpture "Bird Head"

Now that we have five African masks, I set out to try to learn what they are and why I find them so appealing. I began by browsing the images in this 2-volume catalog of a 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art edited by William Rubin. The juxtaposed images on the covers point to the authors' and curators' approach: learning how Picasso and many subsequent artists assimilated (or appropriated) primitive images into their creative vision. Understanding the appeal of tribal art for the artists whose work I admire is a beginning of my fascination with these masks, and with many museum exhibits of similar works.

First, the author uses primitivisim to denote the art that's influenced by primitives, not to describe the primitive objects or artists themselves. The term tribal, he finds, is more appropriate for the non-western artists than the term primitive. I think this is a useful distinction.

In his long introduction Rubin points out is that tribal art works have normally been studied by ethnologists. The art historians who write about the 20th century modern movement often misunderstood the tribal material their subjects used. Rubin writes:
"The ethnologists' primary concern -- the specific function and significance of each of these objects -- is irrelevant to my topic, except insofar as these facts might have been known to the modern artists in question. Prior to the 1920s ... artists did not generally know -- nor evidently much care -- about such matters." (p. 1)
Rubin, who also wrote the chapter on Picasso, is quite concerned with determining which objects influenced specific artists -- in Paris 100 years ago the museums, flea markets, and shops offered a limited selection of items, and it's possible to know just which ones Picasso and his contemporaries were looking at. I find this historical reconstruction very interesting, as well as the basic point that these artists found the primitive works compatible, but that they were already well on the way -- in case after case -- to a vision that was influenced, not created, by their encounter with them.

Here is Picasso's very famous work from 1907, the first to be influenced by African masks: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Rubin describes exactly which types of African masks Picasso was looking at, stressing that Picasso was already forming a vision in the simplified, cubist-style, and that the masks to him were an "elective affinity" -- an interesting term that attempts to capture the somewhat coincidental nature of Picasso's encounter with tribal, or primitive, art.

I also would like to know the anthropological side: what is the meaning and function of these objects for the African people (and in many cases the American native people, the Polynesian people, or others) who created the objects. Rubin provides several photos of African masks that resemble les demoiselles.

For example, I especially liked the mask with the twisted face, which is a Mbuya, or sickness mask from the Pende people of Zaire. This is illustrated in juxtaposition with the demoiselle at the lower right in the painting.

I am quite interested in the aesthetic of this mask, as well as its meaning for the tribe that made it and for Picasso. Like the masks we bought it is characterized by a geometric simplification of the planes and curves of a face. I find this very beautiful, and I think my taste has been formed, among other things, by looking at the works of Picasso, Matisse, and other twentieth century artists. Perhaps my masks, like those that Picasso bought at flea markets 100 years ago, are not the most perfectly authentic examples of the work of the African tribe -- perhaps they were made for the tourist trade, rather than for internal use in tribal ceremonies. I find Rubin's point comforting -- that Picasso did not feel this was important.

Yesterday after reading for a while, we went to the University Art Museum to see their small but interesting collection of African tribal art. I took a picture (last photo) of a similar mask, labeled "mbangu" from the Congo (presumably also Pende -- the people live in both countries, I believe).

I also found a website that describes the type of Pende sickness masks:
The mask is recognized by an opposition of black and white that bisects the face and a general distortion of facial features specifically the twisted nose and mouth. The color white, symbolic of the spirits of the dead, in this case represents the hope of being cured of illness. The black pigment stands for the sickness and illness that ravages one throughout life. The combination of black against white symbolizes this struggle. It is very rare in Africa to find any work of art that depicts an individual strickened by sickness,infirmity or any type of disease.

It is believed that disease can be brought about by an act offending spirits of ancestors and is often viewed as a punishment. Thus, many objects showing disease are used to instruct the community and to caution against destructive behavior. This is especially true of masks, which are danced to teach or remind members of the community about rules and responsibilities. A selection of Nigerian Ibibio and Congolese Pende masks underline the connection between disease and moral values.

Disease is also attributed to sorcery. Sorcerers are believed to be capable of activating malevolent forces against individuals, families or the community, often in the form of physical or mental illness.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Here are the two masks that we purchased at the art fair this year.

African Masks

Last year during the art fairs, we bought a mask from this African art specialist. He's not part of the official fair, since he collects the masks as he travels around Africa, while the official artists must make their wares. However, we consider him to be a great presence at the event.

This year, we bought two masks! His booth is full of fascinating things, which he knows about quite thoroughly. The masks we bought are from the Warega people of the Congo, made from baya wood, and are 40 to 80 years old. I'll post photos when we bring them home after the fair allows us to drive up and get them from Len's office.

Ann Arbor Art Fair

I walked toward my favorite of the several Ann Arbor Art Fairs just as the booths were opening this morning.
I started at Adam Spector -- work shown above. Spector makes arabesque-covered pottery, which we quite like. I bought two mugs like the one in the lower right corner. Then I stopped by the booth of Marvin Blackmore -- below. I wasn't planning to buy any more of his work but I did anyway. See What we bought at the Art Fair for pictures of the things we have bought from these two artists in the past.

After buying these things, I walked around and took photos of whatever I thought was neat. I really liked the booth belonging to the art fair itself, where they brought out old posters, t-shirts, and bags from the past 25 years or so.

Friday, July 10, 2009

For all you frequent United Flyers

Update: This is everywhere! My friend Sheila sent me a link to this video which showed more than a million hits on Youtube. Subsequently I read this in the L.A.Times: "United makes nice, but guitarist's YouTube songs will go on."


The film "Lion of the Desert" with Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar, a rebel against the Italian Fascists in Libya, was made in 1981. John Gielgud and Irene Papas played supporting roles and Rod Steiger made a cameo appearance as dictator Benito Mussolini. Obviously it was a high budget film, shot in beautiful locations in the Libyan desert and mountains, and in Rome.

The director/producer Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian, obviously had a lesson he wanted to teach his viewers about the tenacity of Arabs against intruders in "their" lands. Historically, the central character and his guerrillas fought bravely, but were thoroughly defeated in 1931. Post-World War II, the Italians no longer ruled but their colonists remained until Gadaffi expelled them in 1969. Mukhtar is obviously presented as a warning to a variety of enemies of the Arabs. The Italians, of course, were portrayed as beasts, with occasional lapses of humanity. It's kind of heavy-handed, though the beautiful settings make it quite watchable.

Oddly, according to IMDB, almost all Moustapha Akkad's other productions were variations on "Halloween."