[he] found in 35 years of collecting” to be a Benin bronze dwarf (Lot 10). With its short forearms, legs, and squat, stocky body, the figure is clearly identifiable as a court dwarf in the Kingdom of Benin, which was located in present-day Nigeria. In the culture of the Edo people of Benin, deformities were associated with particular duties at court, and little people were commonly known as jugglers and acrobats. Some also had roles beyond entertainers, as the caretaker of shrines, or as the gatherer of information for the Oba, the King of Benin. Although not common statues on altars, representations of dwarfs appeared on ancestral shrines along with other attendants. In these statues, male dwarfs are frequently portrayed with the type of beard and necklaces seen on this figure. Likely cast with the lost-wax technique, this piece is part of Nigeria’s long tradition of metal working. The creation of bronze art in Benin dates as early as the thirteenth century, and the guild of skilled artisans who made these pieces on order from the Oba possessed a high level of technical accomplishment.
Another piece of Benin bronze is a plaque (Lot 11), depicting six figures sacrificing a bull, possibly on the occasion of an Oba’s funeral. Plaques such as these were made for the royal palace, and are thought to have been affixed to pillars and walls for decoration. Historically, these plaques illustrate a number of scenes of court life, and may also have been used to instruct on protocol for the many ceremonies held in a yearly cycle. Sacrifices were part of many ceremonies, from those related to planting or harvesting, to empowering the Oba or enforcing order. As the secular, spiritual and ritual head of the kingdom, the Oba headed some ceremonies, but they were also performed by people at all levels of society. The Oba does not appear in the plaque, since none of the figures bear the headpiece or beads signifying the king and all are similarly accoutered. Size tends to suggest importance in these plaques, lending more status to the figure at center right, while the smaller figure at bottom appears to bear a ceremonial sword. It may also be significant that the larger figures are the ones bearing the bull’s head, which was considered a symbol of strength and potency. The small figure in the top right appears to have a goat’s head, which was specifically a symbol of sacrificial power.
The auction also includes many fine masks from various regions of Africa. An exceptional mask portrays an ox with inlaid obsidian eyes, real horns, and black, white and red paint (Lot 5). This helmet mask comes from the Bidjogo people of the Bissagos Archipelago of Guinea-Bissau. Masks of oxen are probably the most famous of those made by the Bidjogo; the animal has been central to the society since the Portuguese introduced cattle to the islands in the 15th century. The masks are used in an age-hierarchy initiation ceremony known as “manratche,” when young men in the mid-level “cabaro” age group celebrate their post-adolescence by donning these masks and imitating the wild, aggressive behavior of an ox. Initiation masks are integral to the life of the Bidjogo people, as uninitiated members of the society cannot create the objects of worship that will permit them into the afterlife. The white triangle on the brow of this mask signifies that it is a “dugn’be,” meaning ‘the ox raised in the village,’ one of four different kinds of carved wooden bull masks found on the islands. Another ox mask, made by the Tabwa people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, features cowrie eyes and brass tack embellishments (Lot 18). Less is known about the Tabwa’s relationship to oxen, but the mask bears wonderful expression, and likely served instructive or educational purposes.
A wooden mask with an articulated jaw is attributed to the Kran (or Krahn) people of Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire (Lot 122). Masks were extremely important to the Kran, who used them in ceremonies, entertainment, sociopolitical activity, and as protection from sorcery. The mask at auction appears to be a kaogle mask, identified by its triangular eyes, jutting cheekbones, faceted nose and savage teeth. The face is that of a mischievous—or even malicious—monkey, and the sharp angles of the mask befit the sharp gestures associated with the kaogle dance. This dance and the ferocious behavior of the dancer and spirit inhabiting the mask most often served judicial functions, or tested loyalty during wartime. Another West African monkey mask (Lot 16), made by the Dogon people of eastern Mali, bears different characteristics but a similar dichotomy of playfulness and menace. The hollow rectangular eyes appear at the center of the tapering face, with sharply pointed ears. As with the Kran, the Dogon viewed the monkey as an emblem of wild, destructive and uncivilized behavior, an opposition to an upstanding member of the community. They created three types of monkey masks, identified by color; this mask, the black monkey, is known as “Dege.” The Dogon people are well-known for their masks and for the dances associated with them, particularly the traditional funeral rituals known as “damas,” which are meant to lead the dead to the ancestral realm.
Other African masks at auction include a Boa mask (Lot 144), featuring the prominent ring-shaped ears characteristic of this ethnic group’s masks. The Boa people, living in the savannahs of the Democratic Republic of Congo, likely used these masks in ceremonies for warriors, to bolster their courage or celebrate victories. They may have been used as war masks or disguises, the large ears suggesting the awareness needed in wartime. The sale also features a gorgeous bronze mask made by the Baule peoples of the Ivory Coast (Lot 284). Baule bronze casting typically uses the lost-wax technique, and this example is particularly intricate, with the nine separate ornaments which hang around the face. This mask was probably not made to be worn, but to serve as a tribute to an ancestor, or to mark membership in a secret society.
Two wooden headdresses made by the Mama peoples of Nigeria depict the bushcow, a short-horned water buffalo of West Africa. These headpieces, or masks, are called “Mangam,” and were used in rituals to heal diseases, mark rites of passage, or ensure good harvests. One of these head crests (Lots 66) represents the bushcow with the characteristic open extended mouth, though interestingly, the horns do not join in the back in a loop, as is most commonly seen. The other headdress shows a variation on the form in which a human face appears at the end of the snout (Lot 67). When worn, these crests sit atop the dancer’s head, while a ruff of grasses attached to the bottom of the mask hides the body of the performer. Another headpiece of note is a Makonde helmet mask (Lot 110), from the ethnic group in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. The mask at auction is an excellent example of these unusually lifelike heads, with their specific, portrait-like attributes, though the amber pigment on the face is less common. The real human hair and incised facial scarification on this piece are characteristic of older Makonde helmets. The masks represented ancestral spirits, and were used by young boys in initiation ceremonies. Placed on the upper half of the head, the wearer would look through the hole in the mouth, just below the teeth.
Garb’s collection also showcases many compelling pieces of figural art from Africa, serving a variety of different functions. The Kota (or Bakota) people from the northeastern region of Gabon are noted for their reliquary guardian figures in brass and copper, and the reliquary at auction is a fascinating example (Lot 15). Predominantly made of copper, this figure has two faces, and is exceptional due to their bone eyes. The two faces of the nearly abstract figure may represent duplicity, or perhaps a greater degree of vigilance. The reliquaries’ purpose was to safeguard the bones of the ancestors against evil, and they were seen as guardians, rather than embodiments, of the ancestors’ spirits. Bones were believed to contain the potency that the deceased had while living, a power that could be called upon by the descendants; consequently, the bones were consulted before all significant events, and in times of trial. Another reliquary comes from Mali’s Dogon people, whose relationship with relics is not as well-known as are their funereal “damas” rituals. The reliquary (Lot 13) features seven figures facing outwards and supporting, at top, a knobbed bowl. Many key elements of their features are elongated, from the slim, flexed legs, to the arrow noses, an echo of the towering Bandiagara cliffs that mark the Dogon landscape. This tendency towards verticality in their art is also seen in a pair of Dogon figures (Lot 74) playing the balafon, a wooden-keyed instrument which shares attributes with a xylophone. Dogon figures presented in pairs, conjoined by a single piece of wood, are most frequently couples with one arm resting around the other’s shoulder. These bearded musicians, linked only by their instrument, may be a playful twist on the form—a different kind of harmonious couple.
Other figural pieces include a memory board made by the Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Lot 157). In Lega culture, some artwork can only be seen or handled by certain members of the society, and the memory board is only accessible to those who have received the extensive training required to interpret it. This appealing piece, with the heart-shaped face distinctive of Lega masks, bears a series of holes on the figure’s trunk that are meant to represent a life’s journey. These holes and their spatial relationships contained information about genealogy, migrations, royal secrets, or heroes and chiefs, and only an elite group with specific knowledge could decipher it. Memory boards were consequently important tools for cultural history, and the glossy patina on this piece suggests use. The rope strung through the figure’s arms for wall hanging is not common in African memory boards, nor is the appearance of limbs at all. The upward stretch of the arms lends the figure a seeming desire to be picked up or a pleasant willingness to participate. The auction also includes many fertility figures from several tribes and people. One such example is the kneeling figure in Lot 12, which exemplifies fertility statues’ delicate balance between strong maternal symbolism and the duty to the tribe for proliferation.
A spectacular Mexican devil mask boasts very fine carving and painting (Lot 27). Snakes, clearly a symbol of the devil, frequently wreathe around the faces of these masks in Mexican culture, but in this engaging example, five serpents sprout from the devil’s forehead, with metal hooks in their mouths. The snakes to the right and left share the same palette as the devil’s tall, arcing horns, but the central serpent shares the same crimson pigment as the face. A small devil figure stands on the devil’s chin, arms akimbo before its toothy mouth, and downturned face tucked just below the nostrils of the bulbous nose. In the mythology of Mexican dance, the devil is more of a prankster or clown than a figure of evil, and though elements of this detailed mask are frightening, something of the buffoon appears in the mask’s crooked eyes and grin. The auction also features a Guatemalan devil mask (Lot 28), painted in red, black and silver, with a sly protruding tongue. One of the eyes is closed—the holes for the actor or dancer to see through sit just below the eyebrows—in a gesture that may be a wink, or may be the product of a narrative mishap. In both Mexico and Guatemala, devil masks were employed in stories or dances about the lives of saints.
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