The Child of Poro

June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

This object is in the African Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York.  It is what is called a rhythm pounder. Created by a craftsmen/artist, of the Senufo people.  The Senufo are from the Ivory Coast primarily.  Such objects are tools for a village closed society called Poro. One important responsibility of the Poro is the initiation of young people into adulthood. Another is the burial of members of the Poro society.  Most Africa wood sculpture is carved from a single piece of wood. In this case the lower part of the object is left close to it’s natural state, which is common for this sort of object.  It adds weight to the objects which is held by the arms and swung, from side to side.  It is also tapped on the ground.  This ground tapping or pounding is thought to get the attention of the ancestors, inviting them to attend important village rituals.  When a Poro member dies the bounders are brought to the grave site. At least one in placed in the grave with the dead for a time. It is then removed. Pounders are used to tap down the earth above the grave.

These objects are also called  “Children of Poro”

I love not only the hand of the artist here, but the hand of time so to speak.  It was a beautiful object from the start. The shape of the head, the cresting headdress, the long face the small mouth the large eyes.  Then there is time and accident that has left parts missing, surfaces smoothed and worn down to soft shapes, exposure of the natural aging wood and it soft brown color. All of this is now part of its aesthetic power and its quiet, and almost sad beauty.


The Earthly Art of an African Woman

June 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Now in addition to figure and decoration on pottery we have the element of form and surface to take into account. One of the most spectacular examples of this is the pottery of the Kenyan/British potter Magdalene Odundo.  I have copied a description of her work from the web site of the Metropolitan Museum New York.  (below)

One of the issues that museums confront when displaying her work is how or more accurately, where to display it. I discussed this with the late William Siegmann, curator of African Art at the Brooklyn Museum. One of her vessels came to the African department as a gift or purchase, I forget which.  Bill felt that it did have it’s links to the African potting traditions (Pottery in traditional Africa is belongs in the realm of women, and is associated with spirit powers), Odundo’s objects would be just as at home in a gallery of contemporary arts and crafts.  I personally feel, having seen her vessels in African collections, that in fact her work does seem more at home among contemporary objects. This is not however to negate their ancient yet  timeless quality.

Metropolitan label:

The sinuous ceramic vessels created by contemporary artist Magdalene Odundo have been praised for their elegant aesthetic appeal. While their beauty can derive from the simple appreciation of their graceful forms, Odundo’s vessels blend multiple associations and meanings in a manner that makes them simultaneously familiar and novel.

This example from the Museum’s collection is comprised of a round-bodied pot and an elongated, wide-mouthed neck. There are four small nodules at the base of the neck, and two more centered on opposite sides of the main body. Odundo creates her works using the coiling method—a practice thousands of years old and found worldwide. She begins by pulling a cone of clay upward as its middle is hollowed out to form the body of the vessel. Many of her pieces feature a round, voluptuous body; variation is expressed in the profile and gesture of the neck. Within this limited vocabulary of shapes, Odundo focuses on small physical additions and modifications to maximize aesthetic impact. It is through firing that Odundo’s vessels are transformed and finished. A piece is fired in one of two ways: in a purely oxidizing atmosphere, which turns the vessel a natural luminous red-orange, or in an oxidizing followed by a reducing atmosphere, which produces a rich charcoal-black. The gray/black tones of this piece are probably the result of partial reduction during the firing process. The exact outcome of firing is uncontrollable, adding a small element of chance to the artistic process. In this case, it may have aided in forming the abstract-expressionist qualities of the color scheme.

Odundo’s work explicitly acknowledges a link to the pottery traditions of Africa—indeed, in much of Africa, ceramic is a medium primarily associated with female creativity, and the anthropomorphic references to the female body in her work literalize that connection. The work, however, reveals a thorough knowledge of non-African traditions, including the complex vessel shapes of ancient Cyprus, the geometry of Cycladic figures, the heavy forms of Japan’s Jomon culture, and the unusual gourd-shaped pots of the Pokot of Kenya, among many others. Although Odundo was born in Kenya and received initial training as a graphic artist there, it was in England that she explored an interest in clay, after which she traveled to Kenya, Nigeria, the southwest United States, and many other locales to study indigenous pottery techniques. She then completed a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London, where she continues to live and work. The blend of influences present in her work prevents Odundo from being pigeonholed as a strictly African artist. Her profound exploration of the technical and expressive possibilities of the ceramic medium has created work unique within the landscape of contemporary art.


Symbols of Kingship

June 7, 2012 § 9 Comments

And again about African Kings. Another object in the African galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Art is a Nok Terra Cotta. The Nok refer to a West African culture now extinct that who once located in northern Nigeria in around 500BCE. It is from this culture that we find the earliest evidence of iron technology in West Africa. What is intriguing about the Minneapolis figure is that we seem to have a figure of a ruler displaying signs of his office. Under an arm is what appears to be a flail ( a tool used by farmers to thrash grain to loosen the kernel from the husk). and tied his arm on to opposite side is a small crook, ( used by shepherds to guide tend sheep) These symbols, like goods symbols are multi layered with meanings. The king is associated with the two important aspects of agriculture ( by the way there is an ancient rivalry between the two, think Cain and Abel) The king is related to the fertility of the land and by extension the welfare of his people. He provides them with food. The king can protect his people as a shepherd his flock. ( the crook symbol would suggest that). The king has a violent aspect as well. He can punish for wrong doing and go to war against a threat. (the flail symbol and it violent threshing is suggested here). The odd thing is that there is only one other kingdom in Africa that I know of that these symbols are associated with kingship, and that is ancient Egypt.

The Kuba King as Artist

June 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

I teach a course in African Art at two colleges in New York City. One group that has always fascinated me is the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There art like that of many people of this region is influenced by textile designs. Another quality of this are is horribilis vacui, or the fear of blank spaces in art and design. Art is completive among the Kuba and is used in the jockeying tools and weapons among the high ranking in the royal court. The king himself must be an artist. He designs mask, dances, textiles, the palace and the list goes on. All the art of the proceeding king is destroyed as a new king he sets the new artistic style in motion. There is a Kuba belt heavy with dense beadwork and shell on display in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It is a wonder of color and craft. The pendent of conch shells adds a crowning touch! The full regalia of a Kuba king can weigh many pounds and take hours to get into. And in the tropical heath of the Congo, no joy to wear on the part of the monarch who sits in state for hours.

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