A Closer Look: Four African Masterpieces

David Barnett Gallery
Feb 6, 2019 6:43PM

February's David Barnett Gallery blog article features a closer look at a few of the artworks featured in "Dance of Life: Out of Africa and Beyond."

Nkondi Bakongo Fetish, Zaire

Fetish figures, known as nkisi, spirits or spiritually-inhabited objects, were used by the Bakongo people to protect individuals, families, or entire communities against evil spirits. These fetishes were believed to have the power to prevent and heal illness, ward off bad deeds, aid the hunter or warrior, and decide arguments.

This particular Bakongo fetish is a nkondi, believed to be the most powerful and action-driven of the nkisi. This figure housed a spirit, which would be invoked to hunt and harm other people or threaten to do so. They were mostly used to affirm oaths or to protect villages from evildoers—standing as a symbol against wrongdoing rather than of unwarranted aggression.

To utilize the Nkondi and the spirits within, people used invocations and provocations. For example, to create an oath or agreement, verbal invocations encouraged spirits to witness agreements or punish those who broke from them. Then, an explosion of gunpowder or a hammered-in nail would provoke the spirit to action and solidify the oath visually on the fetish. Provocations were completed with symbolic meaning—by driving nails into the figure, users “hammered out arguments” and came to agreements with one another. The nails in the figure and the invocations spoken to the fetish established clear implications as to what would happen to those who broke the agreements. Nails could also be used as part of a plea for assistance or healing.

This fetish can be identified as a nkondi by the blades and nails in the figure, symbolizing an issue or oath to be settled or a call-to-action for the spirit housed within. Perhaps most interesting, though, are the medicine balls made of cloth that encompass the fetish figure. These objects were filled with magical herbs, believed to fight off illness. For this reason, it is likely that this nkondi was used to appeal to the spirit for healing as well as to protect an oath or agreement.

This sculpture was selected for an exhibition entitled "Five Continents of Healing in Art," shown at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Senufo Fire Spitter’s Mask, Ivory Coast

The Senufo people, mainly based in Côte d'Ivoire, have three secret societies that prepares young people for community life. One group, the men-only Poro, carves and wears the type of mask featured here, the “Firespitter” or “funeral head mask,” called Kponungo by those who use them. This mask, worn over the entire head, was worn and used with full-body costumes during funeral ceremonies to honor the deceased as well as ward off evil spirits.

The Fire Spitter’s mask often includes carved depictions of multiple animals. This mask in particular represents a composite of animals to form a carnivorous and magical creature. The two sides of the mask have sharp, crocodile-like teeth and antelope- or bull-like horns. However, their tongues, sticking out of the front, suggest a lizard or snake. The ears, facing one direction, are small and goat-like. Each side has simplified eyes and a nose. Common elements of other funeral head masks include buffalo, warthog, hyena, and more. Each mask has unique qualities that differentiates it from separate Poro societies.

The wearer can see out of the mouth of each of these creatures, and holes in the “neck” allow easier breathing. Both sides can be utilized as the front of the helmet mask, which is common but not universal in Kponungo masks. Double-headed firespitter masks are known as “Wanyugo.” The artist used limited and natural pigments like red and white with the natural brown of the wood.

For more information about the Kponungo masks and the Poro society that utilizes them, visit: https://www.plu.edu/africanartcollection/masks/firespitter/learn-more-firespitter/

Bwa (Bobo) Dance Mask, Burkina Faso and Mali

The Bwa people, sometimes called the Bobo people by European explorers, occupy Burkina Faso and Mali and are well-known for their bold, geometrically-patterned masks. They are most well-known for their tall or wide plank masks, known as nwantantay. The masks often represent spirits and animals like serpents, monkeys, buffalo, and hawks.

These masks are used in performances at funerals, harvest festivals, and renewal ceremonies in order to appeal to nature spirits who guard the village or family. During these ceremonies, the mask transforms the dancer into a spiritual or supernatural being. The mask is worn in front of the face with a rope held in the dancer’s mouth. Great skill was required to control this mask in performances. Oftentimes, the dancer would wear a suit of raffia fibers in addition to the mask.

This particular mask, polychromed with jagged shapes to suggest hawk feathers, is painted with natural pigments. The beak in the center of the mask hint at the bird influence, but dancers that wear this mask often find inspiration for their movements from the flight of butterflies rather than birds.

To see a video of this type of mask in action, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSerSAwVJ4Y

"Coming From Labor," Colleen Madamombe, Zimbabwe (Shona)

Colleen Madamombe was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1964. Though her career was cut short by her death at the young age of 45, Madamombe has for a long time been considered among the finest artists from the region. Her unique and personal style of stone-carving explores often untreated themes of womanhood, girlhood, motherhood, pregnancy, and the authority of the tribal matriarch.

“Coming from Labor” is one quintessential artwork in her oeuvre. In this carved serpentine stone sculpture, Madamombe explored not only the physical appearance and movement particular to this woman, but the emotional and spiritual energy of a brand new mother. Without presenting a romantic and idealized vision of feminine beauty and grace, this figure is spiritually powerful in her new role as mother. She smiles with confidence and swaddles her new child. The figure inspires joy and confidence in the new life journey. In her sculptures, Madamombe chooses poetic moments to reveal complex emotions such as pride, authority, energy, endeavor, sadness, tenderness, and humor.

Though Madamombe was a quiet and private person, she had strong feelings concerning the changing role of women in Zimbabwean society. Depicted in her sculptures are women taking center stage, seizing opportunities. Similarly, opportunities continually develop for women in her home country. However she often felt that women were losing their positions of traditional respect. In her view, it still remains difficult for women to pursue a career in the arts, predominantly because of an inherent lack of self-confidence. However another critical factor is that the idea of following one's own ideas and ambitions or pursuing a profession is foreign to many Zimbabwean women. Madamombe explained, "A lot of women are artists and just don't realize it—making pots and other things for the home, and not for sale."

Madamombe predominantly works in hard black Serpentine and uses the outer blanket of the stone to create several different textures to contrast with the polished surfaces. A single stone is used and manipulated to create the illusion of multiple types of stone. Madamombe has a mastery of her material that allows her to create dynamic and emotional sculptures from such an old and solid material.

The David Barnett Gallery has a large collection of African artifacts and contemporary art, many of which are featured in "Dance of Life: Out of Africa and Beyond." You may view the works in the exhibition by clicking here. Also, browse our extensive collection of artwork by African artists and artisans here. Send us an email to get more information: [email protected].

David Barnett Gallery