Poro Art at Auction: Analysis of Selected Objects at Christie’s and Sotheby’s

Poro Art at Auction: Analysis of Selected Objects

CHRISTIE’S (Paris):  ARTS D’AFRIQUE, D’OCÉANIE ET D’AMÉRIQUE DU NORD, THURSDAY, 11 DECEMBER 2014

Several Harley masks are being offered, as well as miscellaneous items such as a Dan ceremonial spoon, Senufo figure and Dan/Kran mask.

Lot 120 p. 27 is an Ivorian mask, probably Yacouba Dan or even Dan-style Wobé in origin. It is a quite atypical piece. It was collected by Dr. George Harley towards the end of his three decades in Ganta, Liberia (Mano territory) working as a medical missionary (except for his brief return to the US to study anthropology at Harvard).

Harley collected and catalogued hundreds of pieces of varying quality and sometimes erroneous attribution, although for the most part he was spot on. Many pieces were given to the Peabody Museum to satisfy contractual obligations, some went to Duke University, but many others were sold privately. Many were catalogued (Lou Wells is the expert and keeper of these notes), but many were not. This particular mask is numbered 119, and was catalogued by Wells in “1952 Series A, Number 1-128).

It is not a typical deformity mask. The right eye is slit, signifying its female gender, but the left eye is tubular, typical of some Dan and many Kran/Guéré masks.

Despite surface irregularities suggestive of wear, the overall patina is evenly coated with black pigment. It must be remembered that Harley had a tendency to “restore” masks prior to sale, using his own recipe for a native black pigment. The resulting overall coating of black obscured much of the important sacrificial materials and accumulated additions that, as we have seen, are so very important in defining and communicating some masks’ identities and status.

A good example of this are the brass eyes on a Poro mask in the Wells collection that had been painted over in black, and would never have been discovered without a high degree of curiosity, close examination, and elemental composition analysis utilizing pXRF (Carey 2013:111, fig.89).

It would be important to know, e.g., if the tubular left eye on this mask had a coating of kaolin, which would hint at a witch-detecting ability.

The mouth is also atypical, without lips, possibly suggesting the toothlessness of old age. Also there is no midline forehead scar, typical of the Dan and Mano, but rather a wide oval area on the mid-forehead defined by doubly-incised lines.

The still-retained red-fabric headband (now a faded orange) indicates Poro ownership.

Lot 121 p. 28 is another Harley mask. Having the almond-shaped form of Dan and Mano masks, it displays a somewhat archaic form, with slit eyes (female) surrounded with a now tan-appearing mask, and a simple nose without nostrils. It could be Dan or Mano. The toothed mouth is oval, and suggests Bassa influence. This style of Geh mask is seen in the area where the Mano, Dan (Gio), and Bassa approximate each other in lower Nimba County. Although the mask could have been used for detecting the supernatural, it is more likely that, at least publicly, it was a happy mask, communicating only good news from the Poro Bush to the villagers. Because of the black stain, the tooth material cannot be determined from the photo.

Lot 134 p. 42 is an eroded Ivorian mask, with a large, wide nose and low-cut wide mouth suggestive of Kran influence. It would be instructive to know what the two discs are that are nailed onto the forehead, as this might symbolize Poro grade level or status.

Lot 147 p. 56 is an Ivorian mask from the Yacouba Dan or Wobé, unremarkable except for an unusual treatment of the upper eyelids, with horizontal grooves filled with kaolin.

Lot 148 p. 57 is a well-used ceremonial spoon with a woman’s face on the handle. It appears that there is some asymmetry, the left eye being higher than the right eye. This might be because it is a portrait of a particular woman, but might be deliberate left-sided dominance alluding to Poro/Sande power (Carey 2013:29-2).

SOTHEBY’S (New York): IN PURSUIT OF BEAUTY: THE MYRON KUNIN COLLECTION OF AFRICAN ART, 11 NOVEMBER 2014

Lot 14 is a bird face mask, of unknown origin, possibly Ivorian Dan (Toura or Yacouba) or Dan/Kono based on the three perifacial lines. The short beak is slightly open, but the jaw is not articulated. It has unusual pentagonal tubular eyes. It is devoid of attachments and costume, with only residual traces of applied materials.

Lot 15 is a Bassa mask from the Kokoya area of Liberia. These face masks are larger than the more familiar Kokri (aka gela) forehead masks that are worn on wickerwork.

Lot 16 is a generic female Dan mask with a retained fiber coif, but no attachments or colors to identify it as a secret society mask vs. a secular village festival mask.

Lot 17 is a Kran or Dan/Kran Gah Greh mask. Scattered nails show where it once had varyous attachments, mustache, and beard. The brow has a horizontal row of coiled material of unknown composition. If this is metal, it would help identify the mask’s grade and status.

Lot 18 is a fine standing female figure. The abdominal scarification is that of a Sande society initiate. It fortunately retains its finely-braided coif, which interestingly overlays an incised coif. The left hand is held open as if begging. The elevated left eye may be a deliberate symbol of handedness. Its aluminum teeth are consistent with the Dan ideal. The face is generic, and doesn’t seem like that of a particular woman, suggesting that this may not be a simple souvenir for an important initiate, but the lack of more elaborate scarification, particularly on the breasts, suggests it may have Sande functions, but is not an important Sande Elder “Bush Mother.”

Lot 19 is a very well-rendered Ivorian Dan or Wobé mask, possibly with Kran influence, devoid of all attachments and highly polished.

Lot 20 , identified as Guéré, is a Bété Elder’s mask that still retains its brass-colored tacks, but is missing other attachments and has been polished. It is a much simpler version of the Bété Kuru mask, with the same overall form but fewer tiers.

Lot  24 is a very well carved Kissi Pomdo figure with a great patina showing age and use. Although bells are always attached to the nape of the neck, making the voice of the spirit during divination practices, these are usually iron, brass or copper trade bells or locally-forged crotal bells, but this example has unusual elongated iron-appearing bells in addition to its brass trade bell. No mention is made if the wrapped figure still contains its small empowering medicine, usually a steatite “kissi stone”. These can usually be felt under the cloth wrappings or heard upon shaking, and can be characterized by x-rays.

Lot 26 is a rare and masterfully-carved Mende Sande society Ndoli Jowei mask.

Lot 27 is a well-carved standing female figure from the Mende. The owner would have been a Sande initiate of high status, possibly a chief’s daughter or wife, based upon the scarifications on the abdomen and the size and quality of the carving. It may have been used as a therapeutic or divinatory figure, in similar fashion to the Minsereh figure of the Sherbro as described by Alldridge.

Lot 30 is a very rare four-faced Gola helmet mask. Mention is made that these belonged to the “small medicine societies”, but these were actually different healing cults within the Sande. Yes, four faces would allow the spirit mask to see in all directions at once, thereby allowing it to detect evil and other supernatural phenomena, but this function has been well taken care of by the more usual Janus-faced figures and masks. More likely, there is a relationship between these masks and the very rare “grandmother of the village”  or “Mother of the Tribe” figures with four faces, as seen, e.g., among the Mende and Loma. The Loma figure has a normal face, but the two sides and the rear are actually Macenta-style Angbai masks, representing the three levels of Poro.

Lot 38 is a copper-alloy casting of a tortoise, described as bronze. It needs to be assayed to determine whether it is really bronze (copper + tin) or brass (copper + zinc). Unfortunately, no collection site is given. This is important because some Northern Baule have Poro, with a hierarchical masking system, probably assimilated from their Senufo neighbors, and the tortoise has great Poro symbolism.

Lot 48 is the famous well-exhibited Senufo Deble (rhythm pounder) by the Master of Sikasso. It is exquisite, and deserves all the praise given to it. Deble were heavily-used Poro objects, and if well-used show signs of lightening and wear around their upper arms where the users held them and beat the earth during funerals for Poro Elders. Interestingly, the arms on this example do not show such wear. The damage to the rear of the base is to be expected from repetitive trauma.

Lot 50 is an anthropozoomorphic helmet mask from the Senufo Poro, well-carved with a crocodile snout, but seemingly scraped and polished of its accumulated sacrificial materials.

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