What Next?

Ibou just received a large chunk of ebony wood from a friend in Cameroon. Ibou, tell me about your wood.

“Its ebony.” How tall is it?  “It’s a foot and half.”  What shape is it? “I think is a little bit square-rectangle.”

“I really don’t know what to make with that wood. Should I make a nommo, or a kind of thinker, or a masked dancer? Yea, why not? Why can’t I make it a masked dancer… a goofy masked dancer like a hyena? I used to wear a hyena mask. Hooo. Yea, I can make it goofy, because that mask has a big forehead, a bump forehead, and the face is like that…” (mimics chin jutting out.)

800px-Traditional_dogon_masque“Should I make it a hyena mask? I am still not convinced. When you start chopping that wood, you just have to keep going. I need to get some vague idea. You know, sometimes, when the wood is just all square like this, I think you have to get an idea of what you want to make. When you get a branch or piece of wood with its own shape, it gives you ideas. That is different for me.”

How do you usually get your ideas? “I don’t know.”  How many sculptures have you made? “One, two, three, four, five, six,… hahhaahhaha”  Alot, you have made alot… ” Yeah, a lot.” How did you get the ideas to make those?  “Hmmm, haahhahahha.   All of my sculptures are just like daily life, that’s all. You know what? If I think of something, it is what I didn’t make. I saw some of my sculptures here and I remember, I made something like that. Or some people say…you should make something like that, and I remember yeah, I made something like that. I was just making something out of nothing, out of something, that is how all of my ideas go.”

Do you ever start a sculpture with an idea and find out you don’t like it? “Yeah, it happens. But, still, some other people may like it.. .hahahha.” So you just keep going with it? “I know that I have left a couple of unfinished sculptures that I have known. I don’t like the shape of the wood going there, it will take too much work to fix it so I leave it and start on another wood. Just two that I have known. The one is still home in Bandiagara by the door. It is a Fulani holding his stick like that. The other one, Bah took it and finished it and sold it the next day with some tourists who really liked it. But now I am going to eat my well deserved tiga-diga rice and drink my premier tea, and look at my wood and think… are you going to be a hyena mask or something else?”


Tell me more about the “Griot.”

Griots, also known as “djelli” in Bambara and “bambadjo” or “gnegno” in FufuldGriot-africae are the keepers of history and tradition. “Djeli” in Bambara means “blood” because they are the blood of the people. In the past they accompanied kings and nobles as part of their entourage or court, and announced visitors. They provided a summary of their lineage and feats. They also told the stories of the king, nobles and their families. They are very important in a culture where knowledge and history are conveyed orally.  Now they are famous top singers and musicians, such as Babani Kone, Kasedi Diabate, Bazoumana Sissoko, Bara Sambarou, Bella Oumar Bella, and Toumani Diabate.
IMG_20150924_123657Ibou’s sculpture “Griot” shows a griot holding an n’goni, which is a  3- to 8-stringed lute. The N’goni is a very popular instrument among griots Mali.  They are also known for playing the 21-string harp called a kora. In this video, Modibo Kouyate  demonstrates how an acoustic guitar can simulate the sounds of both instruments. Keep watching the video to hear a lovely song performed by his wife, Tata Bambo.   This video of a performance in Mali by Babani Kone and the guitarist Modibo Gauche shows how these performers are adored by the Malian people.  Toumani Diabate is perhaps one of the best known Malian artists, specializing in the kora.  In this video, he performs with the legendary Ali Farka Toure. Enjoy watching this performance, because it captures the depth and beauty of Malian music. You can clearly hear (and feel) the roots of American Blues, which have been traced back to Mali by musicologists. Read more about the connection in this blog by Kevin Eze. Vieux Farka Toure carries on the griot tradition of his father, and performs around the world. He has a new album titled “Mon Pays.” listen to some of the tracks on Vieux’s website. 

The unique importance and power of the griot tradition in Mali was recently demonstrated in response to the invasion of Mali’s north by Islamic extremists.  They tortured people, destroyed historic treasures and attempted to burn down the famous Islamic library of Timbuktu. In imposing sharia law, they attempted to rob Malians of their music and art.  In response, Fatoumata Diawara called on artists from across Mali to create a recording of “Mali-Ko”  Mali peace.  Watch this video of the performance and you will see the greatest artists from Mali today, all joining their voices to remind Malians of who they are and calling on them to unite and bring peace back to their country.

Mali’s griots counsel listeners to be proud of who they are, remember their history, and strive to honor their parents and ancestors.  Griots seek to know and share the history of the people they are honoring, particularly at weddings, funerals, festivals and gatherings of all kinds.  Ibou’s sculpture of the griot embodies the pride, leadership and strength griots bring to the Malian people.

A door to another place

Have you ever seen a Dogon door?  They are at the top of the list of artifacts tourists and collectors look for when visiting Dogon country. There are two types- granary doors, which is shown at left; and house doors, which are larger.  Don’t be misled however, if you come across a granary door and wonder how people used such small entries. Granary doors are placed on the square shaped towers Dogons use to store grains. The doors are small to reduce the risk of predators and other invaders from getting in, or easily removing the grain. the largest granaries are for millet, and it is stored with the grain on the seed head. So the door just has to be big enough to reach in and pull out a handful of millet stalks.  House doors are larger- usually 70 x 50 cm, but still small by western standards.  This is probably due to the scarcity of wood available.  Another interesting aspect of these doors are the locks. They come with a wooden key which looks like a stick with some nails sticking through it.  They actually work really well. You can see an example of the lock on the door shown above.  

If you are interested in getting a Dogon door, they are widely produced by artisans in Mali for the tourist market.  They will even treat it with ash, carbon from cooking fires, shea butter, and animal urine so that you too can have an artifact that looks like a real antique. I hear that there is a warehouse in Bamako where they keep a trove of them. This might be it (or it might be a scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

Doors are significant, as they represent the threshold to another space another place.  It seems that there are many doors to Dogon Country, which are not physical, but metaphorical. Standing on the edge of the Bandiagara cliffs, looking down into the expanse of the Dogon Plains, you do feel like you are passing from one distinct place to another world.  There are many places, due to the need to descend the cliff and having the vista suddenly appear, where it feels like you have just gone through a door.  My favorite is just below Dourou on the way to Guimini where you descend a series of carved logs that pass for ladders to carry you down the cliff, but first you have to twist your way through a short rock tunnel to get to the cliff edge. When you emerge from the tunnel, you see the top of the ladder and look down at the base of the cliff a hundred feet below. Beyond you see the terraced levels of the cliff base going down to the sandy plains.

Ibou’s most ambitious projects have also been doors, but on a completely different scale. He has produced two sets of compound doors. These are the doors that fit into the wall surrounding a compound and they are enormous. In Bandiagara, one set is the entry way to the Hotel Falaise . These doors have been designed to roll out on metal rollers, otherwise they would be too heavy to move.  The center of each door features a Dogon dancer, surrounded by rows of ancestor figures. The arch above is a frieze of a Dogon village. Comparing these doors with the traditional doors at the link above, Ibou’s realistic portrayal of the dancers in full motion and the Dogon village above is a complete departure from traditional iconography.  His introduction of these contemporary elements and the adaptation of the form to a grander scale sets this work apart from that of the village carver.

Ibou completed a second set of doors while living in Ghana, from wooden panels shipped from Mali. When they arrived, it took six men to carry each panel from the truck to the workshop. when Ibou finished carving, two men were able to load them again. I will add pictures of these extraordinary doors when they are available.

Contemporary African Art is Avant Garde

For many years, contemporary African artists struggled for recognition as fine artists in their own right.  Most people were familiar with African “tribal art”  or the cultural artifacts from nameless artists collected by exporters.  The demand for these “antiques” reduced many talented African artists to producing fakes or replicas of the outsiders’ perceptions of what African art should be, and what tourists looked for in the market. This led to a stagnation of innovation and creativity, as artists produced work for sale to, and for the satisfaction of a narrowly focused type of collector.  There have always been the renegades, however, who produced art at the beckoning of their creativity and personal vision.

These renegades are now starting to gain the recognition they deserve in the formal art world. The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. is a powerful advocate for the voice and talent of contemporary African artists. They deserve appreciation for bringing the fine artists of Africa to light and providing space and opportunities for museum visitors to expand their knowledge and experience this unique perspective.  Other galleries and auction houses are now starting to tune into the growing value of this artwork.

Chibundu Onuzo asserted that “Contemporary African art exists. Not only does it exist, it thrives. Not only does it thrive, it does pretty well at auctions, as the annual Bonham’s ‘Africa Now’ auction attests to.”  July 16, 2014.¹  This article mentions multiple galleries owned by African women in London. In the U.S. there are a few notable galleries, such as the Contemporary African Art Gallery in New York.  There is room for many more galleries specializing in African Contemporary Art in America.  The economic potential is certainly growing, as described in a CNN video featuring Giles Peppiatt, the Director of Contemporary African Art at Bonhams. He explains how the African market stacks up against the rest of the world.²

For fine artists from Africa, this should be an exciting time. Gaining recognition for the creativity and ingenuity of their work, and allowing them to inspire their more conservative peers to be willing to take a chance and move out of the ghetto of tourist art to regain their suppressed artistic spirits.  Art in Africa should not be relegated to pandering to tourists. Artists should be valued, once again, for the intrinsic value of their work and what they uniquely contribute to society.

¹Why you should buy African contemporary art now

²Why more and more people invest in African art