African Firespitter: The Sacred and the Profane

African masks may, as a general rule be divided into several categories; playful or frightening, abstract or realistic, they may represent humans or animals, or combinations of the two, they may be for initiations, fertility or for entertainment.  The range of uses, styles, materials and artistry is mind-boggling even within a single tribe let alone all of West Africa or the entire continent.

There is, however, a grand overarching distinction which defines two types of masks:

Those used in public entertainments and ceremonies versus sacred masks.  Public masks are of the village while sacred masks are of the bush.Metropolitan_Museum_of_art_African_collection130_1_-600x450

In the Baule tribe of the Ivory Coast the men’s sacred mask is called Bo nun Amuin (Gods in the bush), it never uses cloth, which is a product of the village, but always raffia, a product of the bush.  The public version is called Mblo.  The Mblo usually has some type of cloth about it.

The sacred masks (nicknamed by westerners as the “firespitters“) are kept in a sanctuary in the forest away from the village, and only enter the village for the actual dance.  The sacred mask at rest may never be seen by women, children or uninitiated men, while public masks, on the other hand,  remain in the village and may be 133771051401219820_JB5sOWiA_bseen by anyone.  Public masks represent real animals and people, that is to say the natural world, while sacred masks represent imaginary animals and people or the supernatural world.  (sacred masks do not represent the spirits of animals in the bush, but the spirit of the bush itself).

The performance of the sacred mask is a wild and frightening affair which tests the village and the courage of the men.  I quote from Susan Vogel’s article, Baule: African Art Western Eyes:

“These strong mask’s dances…test the villagers self-control and their ability to withstand fear.  The audience is continually provoked and threatened and the faint-hearted break down and run away in disgrace…A mask may suddenly strike a young man or adolescent for having talked about the mask with a women.  Being in the mask’s way , or otherwise annoying them will also provoke a blow…In some measure, then, the mask appearance is a contest of wills among men, a challenge.”what-lays-beyond-the-fog_l

The Bo nun Amuin of the Baule highlights the distinction between village and bush, between sacred and profane.  But the Bo nun Amuin1360663704_81b1f0abe9 also demonstrates the intertwined relation between bush and village for it is only in the village that the Bo nun Amuin is performed.  The human and the non-human overlap in that it is ultimately men who portray (become) these spirits.

Recent masks are smaller, fragil, full of fussy details,unrelated to underlying sculptural forms and often have more than one piece of wood.  The Baule find these beautiful.

Older masks are of one piece of wood, simple bold aggressive with organic matter such as sacrificial blood and eggs…these are more feared than admired by the Baule.AA1-2

The gallery possesses a rare piece that has yet to be definitively identified.  The trader who sold it to us called it a Baule Firespitter, but it doesn’t quite fit the genre.  Though the head shows elements of the Bo nun Amuin with stylized crocadile maw and buffalo horns, the AA1-1body is absolutely bizzare.  It is made of wattle reeds, earth, fur perhaps skin and other possible unidentified things. A tiny chip of red coral is situated at the base of one horn, a minute piece of turquoise at the base of the other. Perhaps the African trader who identified it as a Baule Firespitter found the piece frightening enough to lable it as the old feared Bo nun Amuin.  Our piece does indeed seem to be old.  But it does not fit the Firespitter form, and I have never seen a head like this on such a body.

It’s been an adventure trying to identify this artifact.  I appeal to the experts or anyone with real insight…what is it that we have here?  Is it related to the famed Bo nun Amuin, or Firespitter? Or is it simply a one of a kind piece which I suspect more every day in which I find nothing like it anywhere.

I will reveal what we discover about this enigmatic piece in future blogs.

Much of the information in this post came from Susan Mullin Vogel’s wonderful article in African Arts (Vol. 30 Autumn 1997) entitled Baule: African Art Western Eyes.

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Without Leaving My Front Door…

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said that without leaving one’s home, one may see the entire world.  He also said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single5843051826_6d82bb0781_m step.

I prefer the journey of a thousand miles to see the world, but recent events at the Hauser Gallery have caused me to rethink Lao Tzu’s words.

Marisa, our talented young employee went to Peru.  5727327394_43b460f8f7Carol Link, a friend and adviser to the gallery (a cultural anthropologist whose knowledge of the world is invaluable to us) just came back from Indonesia, and I am just back from Spain.

We each had stories to tell and some interesting works of art to show (Carol’s journey was especially fruitful).  But while we were away, Rose, the owner of the gallery, without leaving her front door had acquired things from all over the world.

There were exotic leather bracelets from Latvia, Thai scultpures, an 8th century marble Shiva head and a 12th century Buddha of sandstone from India, vintage silk fabric from Japan and more.untitled

Not everything came by mail.  One of the West African traders had come by with masks and scultures from the Congo and Cameroon.

nagaThe gallery has connections all over the world.  When I go to the post office I am never sure what country’s goods will be in my hands.

Rose has always wanted to travel the world but working from an early age, school, then graduate school, the raising of a beautiful family and an impressive career as a writer have taken up a bit of her time.  Subconsciously or consciously she has compensated for not yet getting to these places by bringing these places to her.

This “compensation” has resulted in an incredible gallery of ethnic art.  My father, a self made business man always said that sales are important, but it is the buyer and their connections which make or break the whole thing.

I have seen the world, while the world has come to see the gallery.3883903001_a4c24bf918

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The Yellow Bamileke Bush Cow

As she walks into the Hauser Gallery she is drawn to the exotic wall of African art.  The array of masks, statues and granary doors create a grand display of varying shapes DSC01112and ornaments.  There are masks large and small, comical, scary, zoomorphic, anthropomorphic and abstract.

In arranging the wall I have been compelled to situate the large yellow Bamileke bush cow in a very central position.  My motive being that most of the artifacts are of a rich dark earth tone while the bright yellow and hints of red on the bush cow simply bring the wall to life.

But it’s not just the color.  Our Bamileke mask is unique in that it is the only mask in our DSC01074collection in which every millimeter of space is decorated.  The Venetian seed beads and cowrie shells leave no spot of this wood mask uncovered.  All the other masks have varying degrees of ornamentation and scarification interspersed with bare surface.  But she is drawn to this mask.

In an article entitled A Robe Fit for a Chief, Dominique Malaquais talks about the art of excess in the Bamileke, and notes that the dominant element in Bamileke art is DSC01076the Horror Vacui (the fear of a vacum or empty space).

Kingship and the hierarchy of chiefs is central to Bamileke society.  Ornamentation is highly codified.  Anyone can own objects adorned with beads, but only the ruling class or a chief can own an object completely covered in beads.  There is a direct connection between the profusion of decorative images to social status.

According to their subjects Bamileke chiefs are life itself.  Life flows from the grace of a DSC01075chief.  All human, animal and plant life; all life within a chief’s domain issues from that chief.  Images alone king7cannot express this absolute connection between the chief and all fecundity.  The only way to express it is in a sheer profusion of images and decorations.

And the colors.  Often in red (ours is a wonderfully rare yellow) the colors are meant to dazzle and enhance the spectacle of excess.   More is more.

Malaquais also makes the argument that there is indeed a balance in Bamileke art.  It is gained by distance.  When seen from a proper distance the dancer’s costumes, masks and royal carvings are part of an ensemble meant to be appreciated as a whole and within this whole there is space and balance (as in the physical space between the dancers, or the space between the columns of a carving).DSC01108

She sees the large yellow Bamileke bush cow mask prominently on the wall at the gallery.  Up close it is a marvel of intricate bead work, a graceful display of excess.  But from just a slight distance it brings the entire wall to life.  It seems an organic whole and yet speaks to the variety and profusion of life itself.

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Tables, tables, tables

I have never been fascinated with tables until I started working at the Hauser Gallery.

Originally the word comes from the Latin tabula meaning a board, plank or slab.  But oh what art a slab may be, and we have a few spectacular “slabs” of which we are especially proud.

One made of stone>>>>>>>>>

An antique cast iron singer sewing stand supports a wood frame inlaid with jasper, petrified wood and various agates.  The table is 70 years old and was made by a man for his quilting wife.  Of course the geometric design is evocative of a quilting design and the stand speaks for itself…

One made of glass>>>>>>….a mermaid

She lays in motionless fluidity beneath the calm glass of the table.

And one of wood>>>>>>>

Not just made of wood, but redwood, and not just redwood, but curly redwood which has a wonderfully wild and curly grain to it.

Table manners and tables matter…the great

art of the slab.

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Ethnic Clothing: Modern Man Traditional Women

In my travels to non-Western societies I have noticed that, generally speaking, all over the world men dress in Western attire while the women refuse to forsake their often spectacular hand made traditional clothing.  The men dress practical and the women beautiful.  Why do women around the world retain their traditional dress while men move so readily to Western attire?

I arrived in Spain tired and jet lagged and found myself in an unexpected situation.  My friend at whose home I was to stay was lending her small apartment to her neighbors for the evening; a Moroccan couple who had just had a baby and according to Moroccan tradition were having a celebration and blessing for the child.  All the men were together and all the women were together and never were the two groups to see each other until the end of the evening.  My friend’s apartment was for the women, so, tired and a bit disoriented, I entered the neighbor’s house and was seated in a room with fifteen arab men having a feast, drinking tea and singing religious songs.

None of the men could speak Spanish or English so they communicated with me in pure, effulgent hospitality.  Tea, then handshakes, then more tea, then smiles, then nuts and dates, then more tea, then chicken, then tea, then lamb couscous and more tea.  All the food was eaten communally with hands so they offered the lone white man a plate and fork, which I politely refused.  My ease and dexterity at food handling seemed to confuse them.  In my halting French  I explained that I had lived in India which seemed to confuse them even more.  (Learn more about Morocco).

Thirteen of the fifteen men were dressed in Western clothing; button down shirts and trousers.  Two men were in traditional garb of  long flowing white robes and hood, which to my eye looked an awful lot like a boxer’s warm up outfit; they were religious men officiating the blessings, leading the singing and pouring the tea.

I began to understand what exists in many traditional societies; that the men have the authority and offer the blessings, look to the sky and communicate with the divinity.  But it is the women who run the show, it is the women who give life, cook the food, make the clothes and take care of the children.  If the men look to the sky and larger world, it is the women who have their feet ever so firmly planted on the ground.

At the end of the night when it seemed that no one could possibly drink any more tea nor eat any more food we began to rise and stretch.  The women’s party was also breaking up, and as I walked outside for some fresh air I saw them, the women.

There were old women, young women and children and they were all dressed in traditional garb.  Colorful robes embroidered with beads, stones, mirrors and elaborate designs.  There were head scarfs decked with coins.  Luxuriant dark eyeshadow outlining almond eyes earth toned lipstick and rosy blushes of powder masterfully applied to the cheeks.  With the mere cast of my eyes upon the women I was thrown into another time.  The zither of belly dance music was thumping from the apartment as the women poured out.  They were scented, painted and dressed so exquisitely that I ended up staring until one of the men patted me on the back and shook my hand to say good by.  (Read more about Moroccan perspectives).

Eating with my hands and listening to Arabic was not enough.  It was when I saw the women that my senses were transported to another place and another time.  The food, the language and the music were powerful, but it was the clothing of the women which did the trick.

Why do the men dress Western and the women traditional?

A clue may lie in the fact that the two religious men were traditionally clad.  The chants and the rituals they performed are at the very core of the Islamic/Moroccan tradition.  They are the keepers of such tradition.  They do not go forth into the world, rather they interpret the world.  The rest of the men are making a living in a world were English is the language of commerce, hand shakes, shirts and trousers are the tropes of the workplace.  Their traditional dress in most contexts would seem retrograde.

If the religious men are the keepers of tradition in the spiritual sense, then the women are the keepers of tradition in the most basic sense.  Cooking the food raising the children, and ruling the household.  They do not go forth into the world, they make their own world in the ever re-establishing of their tradition.  They give a world of identity and meaning from which those Western clad men may journey forth.

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Quilts by the Sea

The Hauser Gallery is excited to be part of the 22nd annual prestigious Quilts by the Sea show in Newport, Oregon on August 3rd and 4th.  The show is renowned for the high quality of its displays, and is considered one of the more important shows on the circuit.  Not only have we been accepted, but we will have two booths to display our:

  • Silk quilt packs
  • Vintage hand dyed silk thread
  • Vintage silk bolts
  • Selection of vintage Kimonos and Kimono jackets
  • Repurposed vintage silk Saris
  • Repurposed Kimonos and Saris into wearable art

Yeah….see you then see you there.

Oh… and don’t forget the MYSTERY QUILT RAFFLE…stay tuned for more info.

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Decorating with an African Baga Headress

Whether decorating a room or just looking for a piece to fill a certain space consider the power and grace of an African mask–a work of art.

Most African masks are created for  specific rituals.  Yet even while hanging on the gallery wall, a good mask maintains its power, exudes a certain energy by virtue of the artist’s skill.

A great example is the Baga headress.  The ultra thin nose, sagging breast and diagonally scored hair is emblematic of Baga art and makes a powerful statement in our gallery.  Though it looks like a statue, this weighty piece was actually worn as a mask.

The Baga live in Guinea far enough from the equator to experience the cycle of seasons and celebrate fertility rites at the end of the harvest.

In the agricultural ritual the headress is complimented by a full body costume comprised of fiber robes.  Surely a strain on the neck, the mask is surprisingly heavy.  Wearing the headress with his eyes peering out from between the sagging breast and covered from head to toe in fiberous robes the dancer would emerge from the fallow of the field and parade the headress through it.

Upon seeing the robed figure topped by the headress rising from the field the farmer and community would beg for protection and continued fertility, even if elsewhere these same people proclaim themselves  muslims.

This authentic and heavy Baga headress which is in good condition is available at the Hauser Gallery for $800.

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