Tag Archives: African Art

Analyzing the Presidential Dan: A Female Figure from the Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan

— Neil Carey

On 21 September 2016, Christie’s in New York offered a female Dan figure from the Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Although it was the only African lot in the sale, it is a very important piece and deserves some analysis.

A DAN FEMALE FIGURE ATTRIBUTED TO THE WORKSHOP OF THE ARTIST ZLAN, LIBERIA. 20 in. (51 cm). (Photo courtesy of Christie’s)

A DAN FEMALE FIGURE ATTRIBUTED TO THE WORKSHOP OF THE ARTIST ZLAN, LIBERIA. 20 in. (51 cm).                                                            (Photo: Christie’s)

The provenance of the figure is unfortunately unknown, but it is said to have sat in the Presidential quarters in the White House. The figure was carved in the style of Zlan; it cannot be said that it was done by his hand. Old Man Slana, also called Zlan, was but one of several fine carvers working in the hinterland of northeastern Liberia in the early 1900s. His carvings characteristically have square shoulders that are more in Mano style even though he was a Dan carver. He had many apprentices throughout the years who adopted his particular style. Figures from Zlan’s workshop can usually be recognized by this stylistic deviation in the squared-off treatment of the shoulders, as opposed to the rounded shoulders of traditional Dan figural sculpture. As a comparison, below is a figure from the same period but in the traditional style.

The Reagan figure is quite interesting. At 20 inches (51 cm) tall, it is on the larger side for Dan figures. At first glance, it possesses characteristic Dan female figural attributes, including a coronet along the hairline, the Dan vertical midline forehead scarification, arms hanging passively at the sides, and elaborate scarification patterns on the chest, breasts, and abdomen (and probably on the back), a feature found on high ranking initiates in the Sande women’s society.

The Sande scarifications by themselves do not necessarily signify that this object was used in sacred Sande or Poro rituals. It may simply have been a lü mä, a secular,  vanity or commemorative piece for a woman of importance, or commissioned by an important man in the image of a favored wife. However, closer inspection reveals an important and little known aspect of Poro symbolism – bilateral asymmetry.

In Poro thought, the left-side signifies the Poro, the sacred, the supernatural, chaos, and the unknown of the bush, whereas the right-side signifies the secular side of the duality of village life, the Chief, the civil, orderly aspect of society (Carey, 2013: 29, figures 34, 63, 96, 142). The Poro, as the de facto government in Liberia, has power even over the Paramount Chief, and this is sometimes denoted in sacred sculpture by the elevation of left-sided features. I first noted this on a Loma Bakorogui mask in 2007. This is often very subtle and easily overlooked; since then I’ve observed a small corpus of Poro bush spirit masks displaying such asymmetry among the Mande-speaking Dan, Loma (Toma), and Kpelle (Guerzé), and the symbolism of left-handedness is also reported among the Kruan-speaking Sapo, Grebo, and others to the south. In this particular carving, the left ear is higher than the right ear, as is the left eye, left nostril, left side of the mouth, left hand. The horizontal chest scarification tends toward the left, and even the leg adornments are higher on the left side. This asymmetry would indicate that this was indeed an important Poro ritualistic object, probably of a Sande mother figure.

The Reagan Dan compares favorably with the Dan female figure in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania:

DAN FEMALE FIGURE LIBERIA 16½ in. (42 cm) (Photo: Penn Museum)

DAN FEMALE FIGURE, LIBERIA
Height: 16½ in. (42 cm)                                                                (Photo: Penn Museum)

The Penn figure shares the squared treatment of the shoulders characteristic of the workshop of Zlan. The coif likewise is of two parallel lobes, but each is covered with a strip of braided vegetable fiber, and held by nails. Like the Reagan figure, it also has four inset white metal teeth, probably aluminum. The scarification patterns on the abdomen and back are much simpler than those on the Reagan figure, and are more typical of the style seen on other Dan female figures. The treatment of the face, however, is extremely atypical for the Dan canon of style. With its heart-shaped form and square chin, it is also atypical for neighboring groups, such as the Mano, Kono, Bassa, and Kran. It also lacks a vertical forehead ridge. This suggests that it may be the style of a particular carver, or that the figure is a lü mä, the face representing a particular woman.

FEMALE FIGURE, GEH (DAN), TOWEH TOWN, LIBERIA Wood Coll. 1932 Height 17¼ inches (44 cm) Private American collection

FEMALE FIGURE, GEH (DAN), TOWEH TOWN, LIBERIA
Wood
Coll. 1932
Height 17¼ inches (44 cm)
Private American collection

Here is another example of a Dan female figure, carved during the same period that Zlan was active, with a softer, more rounded and relaxed treatment of the shoulders and arms, comparing favorably with the figure in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco dating from the 19th-20th century (Johnson, 1986, Figure 17). It comes from Toweh Town in Geh Territory, Liberia. The Geh are a subgroup of the Liberian Dan ethnic group, surrounded by the Mano, Bassa, and Wè. It dates from before 1932.

This figure was presented to the famed American muralist Alfred E. Tulk by a local Paramount Chief, Chief Toweh, in 1932 while Tulk visited with his old college roommate and friend Dr. George Way Harley. Harley worked as a medical missionary at his clinic in Ganta, Liberia for thirty-five years. Living among the Mano near the Guinea border and traveling extensively among the groups in the various neighboring territories, it is due to Harley’s seminal works that we have much of our accurate information about the Poro. Chief Toweh was the Paramount of the Boe-Quella Chiefdom, one of the four Dan chiefdoms.

Tulk recorded the events of the presentation in Toweh Town by Chief Toweh in his travel journal, in which this figure is illustrated. There is a handwritten label under the wooden base that states,”Collected in the Geh Country, Liberia, 1932, by Alfred Tulk. Property of Mr. and Mrs. F. Johnson. (Base added for stability).” Dr. Frederick Johnson was an anthropologist and Curator of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology in Andover, MA. From there it was sold at at F.B. Hubley’s’ Auction Galleries in 1995, thence to a private American collection in 2001.

Exhibiting the vertical forehead scarification ridge so common in the sculpture of the Dan peoples, the face of this figure is not very detailed because it is not a portrait of a specific woman, but rather of a Poro Mother Spirit used during initiation rituals. The elaborate scarification on the chest, abdomen, and back is that of a high-ranking Sande member.

Tulk collected other female figures while in Liberia, several of which are in private collections. Two of these, as well as a figurative ceremonial spoon, were carved by Zlan, and are pictured in the book that brought him fame (Johnson, 1986: figures 12,13,15,17). These two figures exhibit the peculiar style of Zlan, with horizontal, flat, squared shoulders, similar to the Reagan Dan figure. The example shown here was not carved by Zlan, and is of the more traditional style,

 

Carey, Neil. 2013. Making the Grade: Symbolism and the Meaning of Metals in Poro Art of West Africa. Amherst: Ethnos.

Harley, George W. 1941. Notes on the Poro of Liberia. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, Harvard.

Harley, George W. 1950. Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia.   Cambridge: Peabody Museum, Harvard.

Johnson, Barbara C. 1986. Four Dan Sculptors: Continuity and Change. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: San Francisco.

Penn Museum Collections. from University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology HTTPS://www.penn.museum/collections/object/81047

Renovated Musée Picasso (Paris) Opens 25 October

Musée Picasso Reopens 25 October in Paris

Grebo Face Mask.

Grebo Face Mask.

The Picasso Museum in Paris reopens this Saturday, on 25 October (Picasso’s birthday), having been closed since 2009. Expanded to over five floors, the museum boasts more than 5,000 pieces of paintings, sculptures and prints, as well as Picasso’s personal archives.

Thanks to Bruno Claessens for the heads-up on this.

New Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève Opens — 31 October

Musée-dEthnographie-de-Genève-MEG-Wastiau

 

New Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève Opens — 31 October

The new Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) in Switzerland is opening at the end of this month. The old cramped museum closed its doors in September 2010. The new building (shown above), will be inaugurated on October 31, 2014. 1.000 objects from the MEG’s permanent collection are on display.

Its first exhibitions, free to the public, begin 1 November 2014, and include not only the above-noted display entitled “The Archives of Human Diversity” but also “The Mochica Kings: Divinity and Power in Ancient Peru” running from 1 November 2014 – 15 May 2015.

The MEG has one of Switzerland’s two biggest ethnographic collections: some 80,000 objects and 300,000 books and documents including images, photographs, audiovisual and sound recordings. Collected over several centuries, these holdings are divided into five departments according to the objects’ geographical provenance (Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania). The museum’s ethnomusicology department is of worldwide scope and boasts a specialized library.

The displays have seven main sections: a historical introduction, a separate section for each continent, and one devoted to ethnomusicology.

The Autumn edition of Tribal Art Magazine features an interesting overview of the museum’s holdings by Boris Wastiau, the museum’s director (73: 76-85). You can read about all planned festivities here.

Ebola Update: All Poro Groups Now Involved in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea

Ebola virus (shown spewing from an infected cell) does not recognize ethnic or political borders.

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October 11, 2014

Ebola Update

Neil Carey

All Poro ethnic groups in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea have now had cases of Ebola.

• In Liberia, the rural district of Gbarpolu, has reported its first two confirmed cases. This is home to some Gola, Kpelle, Belle, Gbandi and Mende people (Map 3).

• As of 7 October, all ethnic groups in Liberia have become involved, although SE Grand Bassa County (Bassa) and Maryland County (Grebo) have not had any active cases reported in the 3 weeks prior (according to WHO). The case in Grand Gedeh (Kran) that was reported on 19 September was not included on the map below.

• NE Sierra Leone and much of northern Guinea have also not reported any new cases during the 3-week incubation period prior to 19 September.

 There is still no significant headway being made in the fight against Ebola. A total of 8399 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease have been reported in seven affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, and the United States of America) up to the end of 8 October. There have been 4033 deaths (WHO UPDATE).

• Medical infrastructure strain and social unrest continues, particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone. These factors inhibit containment efforts.

• When American healthcare workers (HCW) Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol became ill, there were difficulties in securing medivac from Liberia. This highlighted the dual problems of inadequate training of HCW and inadequate infrastructure to support aid workers. These problems continue, and have many negative side-effects on recruitment capacity, medical infrastructure resilience, and translocation risk. Local containment efforts will continue to be inhibited until these problems are addressed.

 For some unknown reason, Côte d”Ivoire has yet to report a case. Many people wonder if this is not due to a failure to report. Although there have been no new cases of Ebola reported in Grand Gedeh County (Kran territory) since an infected man from Ganta (Mano land) became ill in Zwedru, active and new cases have occurred along the Ivorian border with N’Zerekoré, Guinea, and Nimba, River Gee and Grand Kru Counties, Liberia.The risk of movement of infected individuals to Cote d’Ivoire is increasing.

• These problems contribute to the growing global scale of the problem. It is almost certain that there will be new global infections involving HCW treating aid workers (such as those reported in Spain) and in the United States, for as long as foreign HCW working in West Africa are unable to obtain local treatment, and West African borders remain porous (which they will).

• The potential remains for re-emergence in countries making progress towards containment. This ‘twin peaks’ nature of distribution has historically been observed around Ebola outbreaks, and has already occurred in Guinea and as we’ve noted in Foya, Liberia.

• There seems to be a general mistrust of the data, and there remains concerns about information suppression and incomplete public health data.

Figure 1 shows the location of cases throughout the countries with widespread and intense transmission. In Liberia, the rural district of Gbarpolu, has reported its first two confirmed cases (WHO).

Advice for African Art Dealers, Collectors, Travelers:

Although we’ve briefly discussed the issue of decontamination of objects and the wisdom of avoiding possible exposure to newly arrived travelers from West Africa, the following advice meant for physicians is useful:

• When asking a travel history, TRUST BUT VERIFY and err on the side of caution.

• Significant lack of data and active information suppression in West Africa is inhibiting accurate assessments.  This is a poor indicator.  Epidemic curves now falsely show a “peaking out” of cases.  This is not the reality.  Things remain very much completely out of control.

• Several African nations have resumed flights to Liberia.  This is an exceedingly poor decision according to infectious disease experts.

• As noted above, there are new cases popping up along the NW border of Côte d’Ivoire.  We are waiting for a declaration of Ebola involvement in this country, coming by water from across the Cavally River or from newly re-established flight connections.

• There are reports of West Africans who have successfully fled by airplane to Colombia, and reported intercepts at the southern border of the US.  Some of this information requires verification, but if true, it is obviously a point of concern for the involved states, and this is no longer just an East Coast problem.