Lobi Sculpture of a Man with Upraised Arm

SKU LSO.232
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

16.75″ (42.5cm) high

Medium

Wood

Origin

Burkina Faso / Ivory Coast / Ghana

Gallery Location

UK


 

This striking piece is an example of a bateba thil figure from the Lobi group. The current example is a powerfully built man with right arm upraised (a pose associated with bateba yadawora – see below), and the other arm folded across the abdomen. The proportions are naturalistic, but the detailing is much more clear and expressive in the head area. The bridge of the nose extends into a ridge that divides the head along the sagittal plane. The eyes are oval and demarcated by a fine rim, which also defines the brows. The nose is aquiline, the lips pursed, the ears concave and protuberant, and the chin is sharply and strongly defined. The expression is more serene than miserable, as is often the case with these works. The limbs and extremities are monumental in their rejection of detail and sense of massivity. The upraised hand is spatulate in overall form, with no fingers detailed. The feet are similarly treated. While most likely male, the genitalia are ambiguous.
The Lobi were founded during the 18th century, when they moved to their current territory of Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso. The term “Lobi” – whose name literally means “children [lou] of the forest [bi]” in Lobiri – covers various subclans (including the Lobi, Birifor, Dagara, Dorossy, Dyan, Gan and Teguessy) which can be differentiated, but which are usually identified as a homogenous unit by academics as they share common traits in terms of architecture and village structure, social/religious beliefs and thus artistic production. The country is intimately tied up in their beliefs. For example, the main river along which they settled – the Mounhoun – is believed to symbolise the division between this world and there hereafter, and must be crossed upon death; for this reason many Lobi initiation rites take place on its banks, and the animals which frequent it and its surrounds are considered sacred. They are an exceptionally martial group, and have a long history of struggles and sanguineous battles with long-serving enemies including the Guiriko and Kenedougou empires. The French, unsurprisingly, had problems with colonial administration in the area, and embarked upon a bloodbath of oppression in order to bring them under control. This powerful resistance also extended to Christianity, which the Lobi have eschewed for decades. Christian missionaries working in southern Burkina Faso reported that an elderly man in a Lobi village renounced the spirits in favour of Christianity by discarding his fetishes in a nearby lake. As he turned his back on the traditions, the fetishes leapt out of the lake onto his back again to reclaim him. Possibly for this reason, the artefacts associated with traditional belief systems are comparatively common, and display a healthy range of diversity that is often absent in older pieces from areas where the formidable power of forced Christianity was successfully brought to bear upon the native populations.

Lobi artistic production is intimately tied up with their beliefs. They are governed by a set of social conduct rules that are known as “zosar” Ancestors and fetishes of various sorts are commonplace, both domestically and on a wider social scale. They appeal to “thila” (or thil) spirits, who act as intermediaries between this world and high-power deities such as the creator god (Thagba). There are also various bush spirits, although these are not as powerful as the thila. Access to the thila is controlled by the thildar, or diviner. The Lobi commission – with the help of the village sorcerer – figures known as “bateba”. These serve either an apotropaic function (bateba duntundora) or act as personifications of thila whose personal qualities are especially desirable. In the latter category, the specific sentiments are expressed by body position. The figures with one arm upstretched, for example, indicate a dangerous thil spirit, while erotic thil duos are designed to guarantee fertility to the females in whatever house it is displayed. It is likely that many of the variants reflect personal characteristics of thila, with corpulent, jolly or dejected individuals all known from older collections. However, there is a distinctive subset of bateba known as “bateba yadawora” – literally “unhappy bateba” – whose expressions and stances are believed to reflect sadness and mournfulness, and thus take any such sentiments away from their owners. Non-erotic double figures include examples which are usually assumed to be “maternity” figures (i.e. women with children); the precise significance of these is uncertain, although they may be intended to play a fertility-boosting role like the erotic sculptures mentioned above. Bateba are usually kept on domestic shrines inside or even on top of homes, and are revered alongside a number of other objects including iron statues and ceramic vessels that are often appeased and appealed to by the sacrifice of food, drink and miscellaneous substances, and many bateba still retain some encrusted offerings.

This is a striking and well-rendered piece of Lobi art.

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