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Si l’un des buts de l’histoire de l’art est de mieux comprendre le sens originel des oeuvres étudiées, la méthodologie historique est alors une absolue nécessité pour identifier et interpréter les objets produits avant la colonisation. Cet essai s’intéresse aux sculptures en ivoire des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, identifiées comme « luso-africaines ». Aussi bien la provenance géographique que l’origine culturelle ou « ethnique » des artistes présumés ont été identifiées de façon erronée. Les mentions géographiques associées à la côte de Haute-Guinée au XVIe siècle ne correspondent pas aux régions actuelles. De même, le terme employé pour identifier la culture des artistes, « Sapes », ne renvoie à aucun groupe social contemporain employant cette appellation. Les objets sont toutefois très bien documentés dans les sources portugaises de la fin du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle. Ces sources ne prétendent pas que seuls les « Sapes » du Sud ont sculpté des ivoires. Par conséquent, si l’on admet que certaines oeuvres ont été produites dans les parties septentrionales de l’occupation « Sape », l’actuelle Guinée-Bissau, alors l’historien de l’art serait avisé de comparer ces ivoires au riche corpus des sculptures en bois réalisées par ces groupes dont les ancêtres appartenaient ou vivaient à proximité des « Sapes » du Nord. Parmi eux, les Bijogos constituaient l’un des groupes les plus importants. La sculpture bijogo est documentée pour le XVIIe siècle. De telles comparaisons peuvent aider à mieux comprendre le symbolisme des salières en ivoire.

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1Academic categories exist to structure our research. While necessarily arbitrary, they serve to lend order to the results. Labels are only words, but the words we choose bring implicit meaning and may incorporate unconscious biases. It is, therefore, always healthy to question models and critically to analyse categories. In the field of precolonial African art, several factors have combined to establish a dominant methodological paradigm. The favored approach brings together, on the one hand, aesthetic and stylistic analysis and, on the other, anthropological interpretation. The aesthetic/stylistic focus derives from the fact that African objects entered Western consciousness at the turn of the 19th/20th century, via ethnographic museum collections and the work of “avant-garde” artists. However, early writing about African art predates the establishment of African historical scholarship.

  • 1 See, inter alia, J. Vansina, 1961; D. Henige, 1982; Y. Person, 1968, 1970.
  • 2 See L. Szecsi, 1934, p. 679–681. Also, interview by the author with Ladislas Segy, New York, Septem (...)
  • 3 See inter alia P. Mark, 2015, 2016, p. 95–100.

2The historical study of Africa, including the development of a critical method for incorporating oral sources as historical documents, is recent. It dates to the 1960s and early 1970s.1 The stylistic approach to African material culture was established long before a critical historiography could be created. Furthermore, the early texts about “traditional” African art were written by dealers and collectors (like Ladislas Segy)2 who had little or no experience in Africa and often no historical training. All they had to go by in their efforts to categorize objects was the (often inaccurate) information that came from the colonial administrators and military who had collected the works in Africa, along with stylistic comparison of objects. Attribution to “ethnic groups,” ascribed largely on the basis of style, was appropriated from Western art history. But the method generated a further problem. Where ethnographic data is of limited reliability, and where neither geographical provenance nor accurate dating is available, identification by stylistic comparison alone is of limited reliability. The results, if disconnected from historical documentation, can be misleading,3 if not downright erroneous.

  • 4 C. Fromont, 2014.
  • 5 “Marfims Luso-Africanos no Mundo Atlantico/ Luso-African Ivories in the Atlantic World;” Universida (...)

3The critical interpretation of historical documentation, whether in the form of written or oral sources, was rarely part of this approach. Recent decades have witnessed increased emphasis on contemporary artistic developments (admittedly a rich field from Senegal to South Africa), but this focus has come at the expense of historical studies of precolonial art. For West and West Central Africa, a notable recent exception is Cécile Fromont’s study of art and society in 16th- and 17th-century Kongo.4 One might also cite the ongoing, multi-disciplinary research project, based in Lisbon, that focuses on 16th–18th-century ivory carvings from Upper Guinea.5 If an important aim of art historical research is to determine the initial, contextualized meanings and use of a given work, then historical methodology is crucial.

  • 6 J. Horta, 2000, 2009; J. Horta, P. Mark, 2013, 2019.
  • 7 J. Horta, P. Mark, 2019; P. Mark, 2002, 2019.
  • 8 Numerous historians and anthropologists have contributed to the articulation of this identity model (...)

4In primary sources for 16th-century Upper Guinea, one observes an inexplicable anomaly: some Africans appear in different guises. In one instance the individual would be a slave and a Christian; in another, the same person appears as a member of local Muslim nobility. Some merchants, who are referred to as “Portuguese” in both European sources and (according to those sources) in their local culture, were physically indistinguishable from other Africans.6 From the 17th through the mid-19th century, European observers noted that some West African merchants who were considered “white” in their local societies appeared to be “black” to Europeans. Phenotype did not determine whether one was “white” or “black.”7 And, just as an individual could be both “white” and “black,” or both Portuguese Christian and African Muslim, so too today, one can be Jola in one context, but Wolof in another. This indigenous West African identity model is not based on fixed and clearly bounded, discrete identities that are phenotypically determined. The Upper Guinea Coast model of identity—multiple, flexible, and contextually contingent—is itself now widely accepted as something of a paradigm.8 This fact has significant implications for art historians who seek to assign art forms to specific “ethnic groups.”

How should one identify or categorize African art?

  • 9 R. Bravmann, 1973.

5Style has long been a crucial parameter. Style in turn has been associated with “ethnic groups,” or “ethnies” in French. This has led to the articulation of what was formerly referred to as “tribal style” or to identification by “style égal ethnie.” This is despite the fact that discrete styles may be shared among adjacent cultures. To label art by ethnic group is an unsatisfactory method, as was already recognized by some scholars in the 1970s.9

  • 10 S. Kasfir, 1984. Kasfir attributes the origins of this model, which she recognized as “no longer ad (...)

6Many of these presumed ethnic identities are themselves at least partially the product of the colonial period. To identify a precolonial object with a specific ethnic group is to engage in historical anachronism. In the absence of specific confirmation in early documents, to apply these categories is to imply that such socio-cultural groupings have been fixed over centuries. This is dangerously close to accepting the discredited paradigm of static “traditional” African societies. The inaccuracy of categorizing African art in this manner was articulated in the 1980s by Kasfir.10 Yet, the paradigm survives, especially in museum labels.

  • 11 P. Mark, 2016.

7In many instances precolonial identities were not fixed; individuals and groups migrated; and along the Upper Guinea Coast, people could and did have multiple identities. Thus, to label precolonial objects by ethnic origin is, in most cases, as ill-advised as it is hopeless. So, where do we as art historians go from here? I would answer: we need to write historically based art history. Our methodology must be founded on the critical reading of available primary historical sources. As I have written elsewhere, study “first the documents, then the style.”11 Knowledge of the local language(s) is desirable, if not fundamental. This entails fieldwork—where possible. The cultural historian is then also a cultural anthropologist, but parenthetically also an art historian.

Case study I: The Luso-African saltcellars

  • 12 P. Mark, 2014, p. 239.
  • 13 Of course, ideally one would like to be able to identify the creators. As, however, these 16th-cent (...)

8My current research focuses on 16th- and 17th-century ivory carvings from the Upper Guinea Coast. The finely carved and elaborately decorated lidded bowls, or saltcellars, were produced for export to Europe, via Portuguese merchants. Referred to as Luso-African (or, less accurately, since these are essentially African creations with primarily local iconography, as Afro-Portuguese) ivories,12 these vessels (along with more numerous spoons and decorated ivory hunting horns or oliphants) incorporate European (occasionally Christian) motifs into an essentially West African symbolism. The Luso-African saltcellars illustrate two fundamental problems that plague the attribution of ethnic labels to historical objects. Both the geographical origins and the supposed ethnic identity of the artists are the subject of considerable terminological confusion. The ensuing misidentification points to a more fundamental problem with the use of fixed categories to identify precolonial objects. Geographical and ethnic labels are, in fact, two formulations of one issue: the desire to label objects according to their origin.13 But the labels, as well as the entities to which they refer, are subject to change over time.

  • 14 A. Donelha, 1977; A.A. de Almada, 1964 (based on manuscript of 1594); F. de Lemos Coelho, 1990; M. (...)

9The ivory carvings are documented in Portuguese accounts and customs records from 1505–1510 and in four narratives, written by merchants and a Jesuit missionary, dating from the period 1505 to 1684.14 These primary documents clearly attribute the carvings to “Serra Leoa” (fig. 1). That term had a specific meaning to early Portuguese traders. It referred to the Upper Guinea Coast, from Rio Grande (in present-day Guinea-Bissau) or Rio Nunez (northwestern Guinea-Conakry) southeast through coastal Guinea-Conakry, to northwestern Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, some scholars and museum curators have confused the Portuguese “Serra Leoa” with the country of “Sierra Leone.” This mistake greatly reduces the area that they identified with the production of ivory carvings.

Figure 1: Map of the Upper Guinea Coast

Figure 1: Map of the Upper Guinea Coast

Peter Mark & José da Silva Horta

10The geographical confusion was exacerbated by the mistaken interpretation of ethno-linguistic labels. Here, too, historical change has played a role in what we might term “proto-ethnic groups.” As early as 1505, Portuguese sources attribute the ivories to a nation (or a people) whom they refer to as the “Sape.” But who were the Sapes? Around 1550, Sape society in Guinea and Sierra Leone was subjected to armed incursion and attendant warfare, visited on them by a people called the “Manes.” The Manes were part of the Mande cultural area and language family. Some contemporary accounts describe the “Mane invasions” as visiting calamitous destruction, including cannibalism, upon the Sapes. Subsequent European documents contain fewer references to “the Sapes.” This has led some art historians to posit the destruction of Sape society and, along with it, the loss of artistic traditions.

  • 15 A. Jones, 1981.
  • 16 P. Mark, 2014, p. 244.
  • 17 M. Alvares, 1733, fol. 55v.

11Since the 1980s, however, following the work of Adam Jones,15 historians have reassessed the “Mane invasion.” Certainly, there was warfare, evidenced by a significant rise, for a decade or more, in the percentage of Sape captives entering the Atlantic slave trade. However, as I have written elsewhere, “Within a generation, the Mane invaders were transformed into settlers who lived peacefully and intermarried with the original inhabitants, leading to a thriving, hybrid Sape/Mane society.”16 As the Jesuit Manuel Alvares, who lived among the Sapes, wrote in 1615, they continued to carve refined works in both wood and ivory, a generation after the Mane invasion.17

  • 18 The reattribution, based in significant part on stylistic analysis, but also upon the mistaken pres (...)

12Nevertheless, several art historians continue to credit the theory of a wholesale destruction of Sape society by the Mane, citing the virtual disappearance of references to Sapes by the latter part of the 17th century. This interpretation would have implications for the chronology and provenance of the Luso-African ivories: it would necessitate a reattribution of all later ivory carvings to other societies.18 In fact, surviving documentation does not provide a precise dating for any specific ivories. It is conceivable—but highly unlikely—that all of the saltcellars carved in “Sape” style did arrive in Europe by about 1550. Regardless, it is now abundantly clear that what disappeared during the 17th century was not the society, nor the culture previously identified as “Sape,” nor the ivory carvers. Rather, it was the ethnonym that disappeared, to be replaced by other labels.

13From the narrative of André Alvares d’Almada (1593/1594), it is clear that “Sape” was something of an umbrella term, referring to the diverse populations—all speaking related languages—who inhabited the region called “Serra Leoa.” Today these groups would be identified as speakers of the Mel subgroup of the West Atlantic language family. The same confusion that accompanied the geographical label “Serra Leoa” also affected the terms used to refer to the inhabitants of that region. Almada’s contemporary, fellow merchant, and fellow author André Donelha (1625) also uses the term “Sape” to refer to the peoples who inhabited the region of “Serra Leoa.” Donelha provides a succinct description of the region and of the populations. His description makes the meaning of both terms explicit:

  • 19 A. Donelha, 1977, p. 98–99.

All of the country that extends for 53 leagues in a straight line, from Serra Leoa towards the north and northwest as far as Cape Verga at 10 degrees latitude, all of this territory, as I say, is called Serra Leoa. Although it is populated by people of diverse nations speaking various tongues, these nations can understand one another and they are all subjected to the Manes; and as soon as they pass Cape Verga the navigators who come to trade and carry out commerce say that they are in the Serra Leoa.19

  • 20 Modern terminology has its limits. There are additional populations, whether currently labeled as e (...)

14The “Sape” thus included several peoples whose descendants would today be termed “ethnic groups”: Temne, Bullom, Baga, Landuman, Nalu.20 The ancestors of these populations—to avoid anachronism, it is easier to refer to them as the “Sape”—inhabited a much wider area than just northern Sierra Leone. Did all of the Sape groups produce ivory carvings? Portuguese documents do not specify. We do know from surviving customs records (1505) that the earliest ivories arrived in Lisbon on ships that had stopped in Sherbro; this has led historians to locate the artists at the southeastern portion of Serra Leoa. But Sherbro was simply the port, not the locus of production, so that geographical attribution, too, is unnecessarily limited. And if the Luso-African ivories did come from several centers of production distributed across the entire Serra Leoa region, the implications for further art historical research are profound.

15None of the Portuguese sources claims that only some of the Sapes created ivory carvings. If we assume that some of these carvings were produced in the northern reaches of Serra Leoa, this would necessitate not only revising the history of the ivory carvings themselves; it would also very likely connect ivory exports to the nearest port, which was not Sherbro, but Cacheu.

  • 21 The ivory trade from Cacheu and Bissau to Santiago would then also become of greater interest to th (...)
  • 22 See W. Hart, 2019.

16Cacheu was the main entrepôt connecting Portuguese trade in Serra Leoa to the Cape Verde Islands.21 Both Donelha and Almada confirm the presence of several exiled Sape rulers at Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands. These rulers, along with their families and some followers, had taken refuge among the Portuguese at S. Domingos, in northern Guinea-Bissau. Might the attendants have included artists? One exiled claimant to rulership was a schoolmate of Donelha on Santiago. Perhaps he was accompanied to the Islands by artisans. The hypothesis, proposed by William Hart, that there were Sape carvers working in the Cape Verde Islands might profitably be considered.22

  • 23 T.H. Mota, 2019.

17As Thiago Mota has demonstrated in his contribution to the present volume23, the geographical range of ivory carving included the northern Sapes, who inhabited Guinée-Bissau. This observation is of significance for the art historian, for it expands the range of populations whose culture and artistic production, including sculpture in other media, may fruitfully be compared, especially iconographically, to the Luso-African ivories.

  • 24 For example, the representation of an immense man riding on the back of a diminutive elephant (Welt (...)

18The iconography of the saltcellars reflects local cultural practices. The bases of many vessels incorporate references to religious concepts and rituals, and several of the lids are decorated with vignettes that embody temporal authority; these lids refer to specific attributes or prerogatives that defined elevated social status24 (fig. 2). The interpretation of these vignettes is facilitated by contemporary documentation of local practices, as provided by Almada, Donelha, and Father Alvares. If Sape ivory production extended north into Guinea-Bissau, then scholars may expand their consideration of ethnographic information in those primary sources, to focus on other societies located there.

Figure 2: Saltcellar, inventory number 118.660 a

Figure 2: Saltcellar, inventory number 118.660 a

Sammler, Freiherr von Joseph Dietrich, credit: KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Vienna.

19This in turn provides additional documentation of local rituals and social practices that are depicted in the ivories. Expanding the range of iconographic comparisons to include art works from populations in Guinea-Bissau, may, therefore, help us to interpret the iconography of the saltcellars.

20Where detailed information about those local rituals is lacking, ethnographic data about more recent rituals and social practices may provide further insight to help interpret symbols that are depicted in the ivories. There is, of course, a caveat: the historian cannot be confident that a specific cultural practice has remained unchanged over 400 years, in part because migration may have brought different groups, with different practices, into that area.

  • 25 The more extensive the cultural continuities that can be demonstrated between two groups, the more (...)
  • 26 In coastal Guinea-Bissau, from the earliest contact with Portugal, iron implements were a highly so (...)
  • 27 F. de Lemos Coelho, 1669, p. 46: “They worship wood[en objects] and animal horns, which they call t (...)
  • 28 A shrine now in the Louvre (Pavillon des Sessions) was initially acquired by an officer in the Fren (...)

21If we extend iconographic comparisons to include art works from related populations, this would in turn add independent input in the form of wooden sculpture from that region.25 Wood carving skills are readily translated into ivory. From the late 15th century, trade with Portugal led to the increased availability of iron and steel cutting tools for coastal populations.26 While Nalu and Landuman (descendants of northern “Sape” groups) carved wooden sculpture well into the colonial era, their northern neighbors, the Bijogo, maintain a particularly rich and extensive woodcarving tradition. Furthermore, the history of Bijogo carvings can be reconstructed with considerable historical depth. Bijogo local shrines, “irañ,” are mentioned by Lemos Coelho in the mid-17th century,27 and examples of “irañ” carved in wood entered French collections in the 1850s.28 Bijogo sculpture thus provides a promising source for thematic and iconographic comparisons to Sape saltcellars.

  • 29 The saltcellar is first documented as part of the collection of Marquis Ferdinando Cospi (1609–1686 (...)

22One example will serve to illustrate the potential for comparative iconological interpretation. A saltcellar in the Museo Civico, Bologna depicts, on the lid, a naked woman riding on the back of a horned animal, a surprising theme. The saltcellar probably dates to the 16th century.29

  • 30 E. Bassani, 2012, p. 103–104.
  • 31 See inter alia W. Simmons, 1971; R. Baum, 1999; P. Mark, 1985.
  • 32 A.A. de Almada, 1964, p. 68: “Cavalgam os Reis desta terra algumas vezes em cavalos, e as mais das (...)

23Art historian Ezio Bassani postulates that the image depicts a witch riding on the back of a goat. He suggests that the carver was inspired by a contemporary German woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien.30 However, one need not look to German culture to interpret the image of a naked woman riding on the back of a horned animal. The source for the artist’s intended meaning is rather to be found in local culture. All Upper Guinea Coast societies are intimately familiar with witchcraft. A local ontology of cannibal witches (kussay in the Jola language of Casamance; wi-k rfin to the Baga) ascribes to them the ability to transform themselves nocturnally into animal familiars.31 But they do not ride on goats. A different interpretation of this imagery reflects more closely local beliefs. In 1594 Almada, writing of the populations between the Geba and Casamance rivers observed: “The kings of this land occasionally ride about on horses, but most of the time they use [steers and] bulls if the journey is short.”32

  • 33 A.A. de Almada, 1964, p. 98.
  • 34 P. Mark, 2014, p. 248.

24Almada then adds that the Bijogos, Bainunks, and Cassangas also ride on cattle.33 In precolonial Casamance, social structure was egalitarian. Only one person, the oeyi or priest-king of the village, enjoyed special privileges. Anything he touched with his scepter—made of the tail of a bull—including any woman who appealed to him, became his possession. Accordingly, one may assume that the bull-riding woman is a local expression of royal status, comparable, in terms of symbolism, to the man riding on a tiny elephant.34 The woman, her low social status indicated by her near-nudity, is actually a possession of the person who normally would ride on a bull, namely, o rei, or the king.

25In this work, meaning is inferred, based on the evidence provided by Almada, along with the Jola example of the priest-king; to this ethnographic context, one can now add visual documentation from the corpus of Bijogo sculpture. A Bijogo wooden stool in the form of a caryatid female figure (fig. 3), recently identified in a private collection in Lisbon, relates thematically to the ivory bull-rider. The Bijogo woman, too, is shown naked and riding on a horned animal. The bull, or vaca bruto, plays a central role in Bijogo initiation rituals and in the iconography of Bijogo sculpture. This animal is definitely a bull. Unlike the prone figure in Bologna, the Bijogo rider sits almost upright, her long arms extended, while her head and hands support the seat of the stool. Despite her bearing, she is distinctly in a subservient position: she literally supports another person. The subject is essentially the same as in the saltcellar.

Figure 3: Bijogo caryatid stool

Figure 3: Bijogo caryatid stool

M.V. Gomes Archive, photo by J.P. Ruas.

26In neither carving is social subordination inconsistent with riding on a bull. Indeed, the bull, supreme symbol of masculinity and with additional implications of elevated social status, may imply an association between the subservient women and men of elevated position.

  • 35 British Museum, inventory number Af1947.31.7; no photograph available online: https://www.britishmu (...)
  • 36 The damaged protuberances, either horns or ears, make the animal hard to identify.
  • 37 As I write, the Baga sculpture is exhibited (in spring 2019) at the Musée du Quai Branly. The piece (...)

27Building on this comparison, one may turn to an example of wood carving that is possibly closer to the presumed Sape heartland. This carving, in the British Museum and formerly in the Fénéon Collection, has been tentatively identified as Baga, although the attribution is open to debate.35 Among the 16th-century groups included under the appellation “Sape” were, according to Donelha, the Bagas. And this is, indeed, an extraordinary sculpture. Probably dating to the 19th century and thematically closely related to the Bijogo caryatid stool, this statue depicts a woman, seated on the back of a small quadruped.36 The woman’s back is straight, her arms extended far above her head to hold a bowl. Indeed, the carving seems full of contradictions, for her dignified bearing belies the fact that she is totally naked; her vagina is prominently exhibited, her body richly scarified. And despite the proud posture, the large bowl she carries means that she is both bearing this burden and presenting the contents to someone, presumably of higher status. As in the caryatid stool, the implication is one of subservience. Indeed, in profile this Baga sculpture bears startling similarity to a stool.37 In the broader sense, this sculpture, like the Bijogo piece, presents a naked woman as bearing a burden: in one instance that burden is an actual seated person; in the other, it is a large bowl.

  • 38 The irony here is not lost on the writer: in the process of calling for a careful reconsideration o (...)

28Comparison of Sape iconography to Bijogo and (possibly) Baga iconography,38 combined with 16th-century “proto-ethnographic” descriptions and complemented by recently collected local oral traditions, confirm this reading of the saltcellar’s otherwise inscrutable imagery. Of course, a fundamental prerequisite to both the ethnography and the comparison of the carvings is the accurate identification of both the geographical and the socio-cultural provenance of the objects. Misinterpretation of geographical and cultural terms that appear in early documents has hindered art historical research and led to inaccurate conclusions. While ethnonyms are a convenient means of ordering disparate and unfamiliar objects, when applied to precolonial material culture they are by their very nature anachronistic and they oversimplify the complex and dynamic process that we call identity.

Case study II: The horned-initiation masks from Casamance

  • 39 On Casamance initiation masks, see P. Mark, 1992.
  • 40 P. Mark, 1992. p. 65; illustration p. 11.

29Even when the provenance of a group of works is clearly established and their role in a particular society is documented in written and oral sources and in contemporary photographs and video, it may be difficult to attribute a specific ethnic label to these objects. A case in point is the subject that has engaged me for much of my career: the horned initiation masks, made of woven fiber, from the Casamance region of southwestern Senegal. These masks are associated with the men’s initiation, or bukut, which is celebrated once per generation in each community among the northern Diola (Jola/Joola) peoples.39 The northern Diola inhabit the region between the lower Casamance River and the Atlantic coast, and north to The Gambia. The history of these horned masks can be traced through museum collections and printed documentation to the mid-19th century. At least one mask that is now in the Musée du Quai Branly was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1855.40 Another horned mask, in the same museum, arrived in France in the mid-18th century.

  • 41 Inventory number 71.1934.33.38D. An image of the work may be accessed through the website of the Mu (...)

30This latter work is, to my knowledge, the oldest documented African mask in any collection.41 As such it has attracted the attention of numerous art historians and curators. It has a fascinating history of misattribution and multiple (contradictory) attributions. As it was I who initially attributed it to the Casamance region while connecting it to the corpus of Diola initiation masks, I can offer here an overview of the mask’s journey, attributed to three (or possibly four) different cultures on two continents.

  • 42 These masks appeared at the most recent initiation in the commune of Thionk-Essyl, in 1994.

31Even where fieldwork and historical documentation enable one to establish beyond doubt where a mask was made, who made it, and what its ritual purpose was, terminology may pose a problem. The horned initiation masks are made today by the northern Diola;42 they are called ejumbi/sijumbi, and they are danced by initiates upon their departure, or graduation, from the initiation retreat in the forest, or initiation grove.

  • 43 P. Mark, 1992.

32The masks have been documented in several Diola communities, one of which is Thionk-Essyl, now a commune of 6,000 people, where I did my fieldwork. In Thionk, oral tradition dates these masks back anywhere from twelve to fifteen generations, that is, to the 17th century. They appeared at the most recent initiation in 1994. Ejumbi is the name in Thionk-Essyl. Whether the horned masks are called ejumbi by all Diolas, I do not know. But that is the term used in my book43 and, over the past 25 years, it has gradually been adopted as the generic name for these masks (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also applies in ethnography.)

  • 44 This is the subject of an appendix in P. Mark, 1992.

33The mask that dates to the mid-18th century was collected by a Frenchman employed in the Atlantic slave trade, Charles Philippe Fayolle. It was acquired before the French Revolution by the Marquis de Sarent and was inventoried shortly after the Revolution, in the collection of the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Versailles.44

  • 45 There, it was filmed by a missionary, Father Henri Goovers, who kindly gave me access to this film. (...)

34The same trapezoidal masking type is made and danced even today. It was documented during a 1962 initiation in the Diola village of Niomoun.45 Interestingly, the mask appeared separately and alone, not with the kambaj when they emerged from the initiation retreat wearing horned sijumbi. Possibly this mask goes by another name than ejumbi; but it is definitely a Diola mask. Interestingly, anthropologist Peter Weil has documented a nearly identical mask during his fieldwork among the Mandinka of the Lower Gambia. There, it is called “Red Spear.” And the mask is similar in form to an illustration published in 1698 by François Froger that represents an initiation mask from the Manding state of Barra, on the lower Gambia River.

  • 46 Kankuran as the Diola call it—and Mamma Jombo, or the vernacular Mumbo Jumbo among the Manding of t (...)

35This is clearly an example of a masquerade which—like the Kankuran anti-witchcraft figure46 that is found today among the Diola and the Bainunk peoples in Casamance and among the Mandinka of the Gambia—transcends ethnic boundaries. In fact, ethnic boundaries can hardly be said to exist in southern Senegambia; they are fluid and the adjacent populations are totally mixed. To speak of “the Diolas” as opposed to “the Mandinka” ignores the hybridization that characterizes the region. The trapezoidal mask is certainly Diola; it may also be Manding, as it certainly was in the 18th century.

  • 47 The Manding or Mandinka are Mande-speakers; there are some ten million Mande, living primarily in M (...)
  • 48 The first convert in Thionk-Essyl, Cheikh Suleyman Sane, became a Muslim in 1916.

36The overwhelming majority of people living in the Gambia-Casamance region are Muslims. Yet masking traditions that predate the arrival of Islam survive among the Diola. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the Mandinka47 of the lower Gambia, although Muslim, maintained non-Muslim masquerades to a greater degree than their descendents do today. On the other hand, the Diola of Thionk-Essyl continue to dance the ejumbi as well as the Kankuran; Thionk-Essyl has now been overwhelmingly Muslim for nearly 80 years.48 Islamization is thus not a reason to exclude possible Gambian provenance for the mask now in the Musée du Quai Branly.

  • 49 From ejam (to understand). The “Kujaamatay” is the area inhabited those who understand the language (...)

37Today this form of mask would most likely be made and danced by Diola-speakers. It is nevertheless misleading to identify it as Diola, because Diola identity—unlike Mande identity—is indeed a product of the colonial period. Prior to the late 19th century, the ancestors of today’s Diola would have identified themselves as “Djigudj [Djougouttes]” or as “Kujaamat.”49 Only with the establishment of colonial administration in the Basse Casamance did the thirteen diverse groups that speak related dialects come to identify themselves as “Diola.”

38The art historian who seeks to attribute an ethnic label to the mask is faced with a conundrum: either it is “Mandinka,” though rarely encountered among that group today, or it is “Diola” (where the mask is more common today). But to call it “Diola” is anachronistic in the sense that “the Diola” per se did not exist in the 18th century. Less problematic, and more accurately reflecting the local history of cultural interaction and hybridization, is a regional appellation: “Lower Casamance / (Lower Gambia).”

  • 50 P. Mark, 1992, p. 156–159.
  • 51 P. Mark, 1992, p. 156 ff.
  • 52 E. Bassani, M. McLeod, 2000, p. 77. Inexplicably, Bassani also cites Wild Bull in the same entry. H (...)

39The history of this mask after its arrival in France is a fascinating study in changing attributions.50 In 1806, shortly after it entered the collection of the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Versailles, it was identified as a Native American mask from Louisiana Territory (i.e. the Mississippi or Missouri River Valley). It was reattributed to West Africa some time after 1897, presumably after an observer noted the presence of parchment with Arabic writing.51 In 1992 my monograph narrowed the provenance to the Casamance. But in 2000 another—mistaken—identification was proposed by Ezio Bassani in his catalogue of African art in early European collections: “Balante.”52 Bassani’s is precisely the kind of generalist catalog that is widely consulted by curators faced with the daunting task of identifying art from all over the continent. And so, presumably, the label of “Balante” may proliferate.

40The Balantes are southern neighbors of the Diolas, living primarily in northern Guinea-Bissau. The Balante also incorporate a horned masquerade in their young men’s initiation ceremonies. However, Balante headdresses do not resemble the ejumbi. Furthermore, Balante horned masquerades are well documented, notably in the photographs of Hugo Bernatzik. Balante initiates, known as bluffo, wear huge and bulky basket-like headdresses, from which emerge not actual cattle horns, but two wooden logs. To dance with this heavy appurtenance on one’s head is a feat of strength and athleticism.

  • 53 P. Mark, p. 79.

41So where did the “Balante” label come from? Most likely it was copied from an earlier and similarly misidentified Diola horned mask. A likely candidate is the impressive “ejumbi” that was acquired in 1934 by the Musée d’Angoulême. In 1986 the Angoulême mask was labeled as “Balante,” a mistake that was corrected in 1992.53 The correct identification—Diola, or Casamance—was quickly noted by Etienne Féau, then Curator in Angoulême. At the Musée de l’Homme, the identification as “Diola” or Casamance was also accepted. That label, as accurate as our current knowledge permits, is to be found today at the Musée du Quai Branly: “Masque d’Initiation Kebul; Population Diola; Sénégal, Casamance; Première moitié du 18e siècle.” But the museum’s website gives the dual (and inherently contradictory) identification: Diola AND Balante. Did the person who wrote the electronic entry consult Bassani’s catalogue? This would appear to be the source of the misidentification. As the saying goes, “the halt leading the blind.” In this instance, someone was blind to the fieldwork and scholarly publications of the present writer. And how did the photograph of this same mask come also to be identified, on the museum website, as “Bidyogo”?

Concluding comments. Nomenclature: Ejumbi vs. kebul

42There remains a question of nomenclature. Is the trapezoidal mask a variant of the ejumbi, or should it be considered as belonging to a separate category? It shares with the ejumbi the bovine symbolism that constitutes the dominant idiom of the bukut initiation. In Father Henri Goover’s 1962 film of the initiation in Niomoun, however, the trapezoidal mask appears alone, before the masked initiates exit from the forest. I suspect that the kebul is a separate figure. And the name kebul may be specific to The Gambia. It did not occur to me when I wrote Wild Bull that English-speaking informants in Banjul were using the same English word as I, “bull,” to which they added the prefix ke-. In Diola, ke (pl. we) is the noun class marker for hard organic substances, notably for bones (kol/wol). The name was too close to home; I missed it. The lesson: no matter how careful one may be about names and categories, there is always room for improvement. Labeling precolonial objects: whether the terms and the categories one uses refer to the work’s geographical origin; to the culture that created (or used) it; or to the presumed local name for the object, we as ethnographers, as art historians, or as curators face the ever-present challenges of correcting earlier misidentifications, and then, in our own work, of minimizing ambiguity and anachronism.

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Hart, W., 2019, “Where were the Afro-Portuguese ivories made?,” Keynote paper at the conference “African Ivories in the Atlantic World,” University of Lisbon, Faculty of Letters, February 25, 2019.

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Notes

1 See, inter alia, J. Vansina, 1961; D. Henige, 1982; Y. Person, 1968, 1970.

2 See L. Szecsi, 1934, p. 679–681. Also, interview by the author with Ladislas Segy, New York, September 1980 (Segy went by the name of Szecsi when he first arrived in the United States).

3 See inter alia P. Mark, 2015, 2016, p. 95–100.

4 C. Fromont, 2014.

5 “Marfims Luso-Africanos no Mundo Atlantico/ Luso-African Ivories in the Atlantic World;” Universidade de Lisboa, Faculdade de Letras, Centro de História; conference at University of Lisbon, February 25–26, 2019. See also L. Afonso, J. Horta, 2013.

6 J. Horta, 2000, 2009; J. Horta, P. Mark, 2013, 2019.

7 J. Horta, P. Mark, 2019; P. Mark, 2002, 2019.

8 Numerous historians and anthropologists have contributed to the articulation of this identity model. Ground-breaking scholarship was carried out by J.-L. Amselle, E. M’Bokolo, 1985; J.-P. Chrétien, G. Prunier, 1989. Important theoretical and empirical work was also done by my colleague (and co-author) José da Silva Horta, 2009. Noteworthy contributions were also made by M. de Bruijn, H. van Dijk, 1997. For my own contribution, see P. Mark, 2002, especially on architectural matters.

9 R. Bravmann, 1973.

10 S. Kasfir, 1984. Kasfir attributes the origins of this model, which she recognized as “no longer adequate,” to anthropological models. That Africanists must still call for the replacement of this model is a commentary on the state of the art, but also reflects the epistemological problem of bringing logical order to a mass of unfamiliar data (the art), without relying on categories.

11 P. Mark, 2016.

12 P. Mark, 2014, p. 239.

13 Of course, ideally one would like to be able to identify the creators. As, however, these 16th-century artists remain entirely anonymous, such a personal identification is reduced to the equally anonymous “Master of the xxx.” Geographical origin remains the best we can aspire to.

14 A. Donelha, 1977; A.A. de Almada, 1964 (based on manuscript of 1594); F. de Lemos Coelho, 1990; M. Alvares, 1733.

15 A. Jones, 1981.

16 P. Mark, 2014, p. 244.

17 M. Alvares, 1733, fol. 55v.

18 The reattribution, based in significant part on stylistic analysis, but also upon the mistaken presumption that Sape society had been destroyed by the Manes, was articulated by Curnow; subsequently Bassani published a similar stylistic argument for two originating cultures. Bassani’s stylistic arguments were startlingly (even uncomfortably) close to elements of Curnow’s then-unpublished dissertation (see later K. Curnow, 1991). Bassani simply assumes that ivory production “ceased or diminished in Sierra Leone [sic]” in the second quarter of the 16th century, without offering any historical context for his assumption (see E. Bassani, W. Fagg, 1988, p. 150).

19 A. Donelha, 1977, p. 98–99.

20 Modern terminology has its limits. There are additional populations, whether currently labeled as ethnic groups in their own right or considered as sub-groups, whose ancestors would have figured among the “Sapes.” These include the Cocoli.

21 The ivory trade from Cacheu and Bissau to Santiago would then also become of greater interest to the art historian. During the 17th century, this trade was controlled by a few wealthy merchants. But, in the words of an historian who studies it, “the ivory circuits coming from the Coast of Guinea … after entering Santiago, seem to vanish into the vast Atlantic” (M.M. Torrao, 2019).

22 See W. Hart, 2019.

23 T.H. Mota, 2019.

24 For example, the representation of an immense man riding on the back of a diminutive elephant (Weltmuseum Wien, Inv. 118.609) refers to the ultimate temporal authority along the coast and in the more distant interior, the Mande Mansa, whom the Mande called “the great elephant.” For an illustration of this figure, see E. Bassani, W. Fagg, 1988, p. 78. The large figure (Museo Pigorini, Rome) who is in the process of decapitating a series of tiny victims (his axe is not original) depicts the ruler who literally holds life and death power over his subjects (a prerogative of kingship in Guinea-Bissau cited by Almada); see an illustration in E. Bassani, W. Fagg, 1988, p. 81.

25 The more extensive the cultural continuities that can be demonstrated between two groups, the more confidence one may have in comparing similar or identical iconographic elements in different media.

26 In coastal Guinea-Bissau, from the earliest contact with Portugal, iron implements were a highly sought-after import, and iron was imported in quantity (W. Hawthorne, 2003).

27 F. de Lemos Coelho, 1669, p. 46: “They worship wood[en objects] and animal horns, which they call their ‘reboques,’ to which they sacrifice cows, goats, and chickens;” “adorão páos, e cornos de animaes, a que chamão seus reboques, aos quaes matão vaccas, cabras e galinhas…”

28 A shrine now in the Louvre (Pavillon des Sessions) was initially acquired by an officer in the French navy in 1853, during a punitive expedition against the Bijogos/Bidyogos (inv. n°70.1998.81., on the website accessed 30 October 2019 at http://www.quaibranly.fr/en/collections/all-collections/pavillon-des-sessions/all-masterpieces/the-pavillon-des-sessions/parcours-notice-type/Parcours/parcours-notice-action/details/parcours-notice/6/parcours-referer/search/). Subsequent rich photographic documentation of Bijogo shrines is provided by Hugo Bernatzik’s several publications of the 1920s and 1930s (see inter alia H. Bernatzik, 1933).

29 The saltcellar is first documented as part of the collection of Marquis Ferdinando Cospi (1609–1686). E. Bassani’s dating of the mid-16th century is credible (E. Bassani, M. McLeod, 2000, p. 137; illustration in E. Bassani, W. Fagg, 1988, p. 66.).

30 E. Bassani, 2012, p. 103–104.

31 See inter alia W. Simmons, 1971; R. Baum, 1999; P. Mark, 1985.

32 A.A. de Almada, 1964, p. 68: “Cavalgam os Reis desta terra algumas vezes em cavalos, e as mais das vezes em bois, sendo a jornada perto.” (cited in P. Mark, 2014, p. 247).

33 A.A. de Almada, 1964, p. 98.

34 P. Mark, 2014, p. 248.

35 British Museum, inventory number Af1947.31.7; no photograph available online: https://www.britishmuseum.org.

36 The damaged protuberances, either horns or ears, make the animal hard to identify.

37 As I write, the Baga sculpture is exhibited (in spring 2019) at the Musée du Quai Branly. The piece is large: a meter tall. And it is exhibited in an elevated case, making it impossible for anyone except very tall museum visitors to look over the top of the disk-shaped object she bears in her raised arms and hands. I was unable to determine whether the object is a bowl or the seat for a stool. An obliging—and tall—museum guard kindly looked above the rim; he confirmed that she bears a hollowed-out bowl.

38 The irony here is not lost on the writer: in the process of calling for a careful reconsideration of the practice of labeling objects according to ethnie or ethnic origin, I am in this instance relying upon precisely such a museum label. Regardless of its provenance, it is a magnificent work.

39 On Casamance initiation masks, see P. Mark, 1992.

40 P. Mark, 1992. p. 65; illustration p. 11.

41 Inventory number 71.1934.33.38D. An image of the work may be accessed through the website of the Musée du Quai Branly.

42 These masks appeared at the most recent initiation in the commune of Thionk-Essyl, in 1994.

43 P. Mark, 1992.

44 This is the subject of an appendix in P. Mark, 1992.

45 There, it was filmed by a missionary, Father Henri Goovers, who kindly gave me access to this film. For information on the initiation in question, see L.-V. Thomas, 1965.

46 Kankuran as the Diola call it—and Mamma Jombo, or the vernacular Mumbo Jumbo among the Manding of the Gambia—consists of a costume of cascading strips of bark that entirely covers the dancer’s body. The figure is described in 1732 by Francis Moore (F. Moore, 1738) in The Gambia; see P. Mark, 1985, p. 45.

47 The Manding or Mandinka are Mande-speakers; there are some ten million Mande, living primarily in Mali, Guinea, and Senegambia. Mande identity is among the most ancient in West Africa. Mande peoples speak variants of a common language and share a social organization that is hierarchical and includes endogamous professional groups, or nyamakalaw. And Mande claim descent from the Mali empire, founded by Sunjata Keita in the 13th century.

48 The first convert in Thionk-Essyl, Cheikh Suleyman Sane, became a Muslim in 1916.

49 From ejam (to understand). The “Kujaamatay” is the area inhabited those who understand the language, today identified as Diola-Fogny.

50 P. Mark, 1992, p. 156–159.

51 P. Mark, 1992, p. 156 ff.

52 E. Bassani, M. McLeod, 2000, p. 77. Inexplicably, Bassani also cites Wild Bull in the same entry. How it was possible for him to read the book and still come away with the impression that the mask is Balante, I have no idea.

53 P. Mark, p. 79.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Map of the Upper Guinea Coast
Crédits Peter Mark & José da Silva Horta
URL http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/docannexe/image/2752/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 477k
Titre Figure 2: Saltcellar, inventory number 118.660 a
Crédits Sammler, Freiherr von Joseph Dietrich, credit: KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Vienna.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/docannexe/image/2752/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 144k
Titre Figure 3: Bijogo caryatid stool
Crédits M.V. Gomes Archive, photo by J.P. Ruas.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/docannexe/image/2752/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 453k
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Référence électronique

Peter Mark, « Finding provenance, seeking context »Afriques [En ligne], 10 | 2019, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2019, consulté le 14 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/2752; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/afriques.2752

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Auteur

Peter Mark

Chercheur Invité à l’INHA, Professeur émérite à Wesleyan University

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