When we think of African tribal art, we think of figurative sculptures of astounding originality in their form and style rather than of everyday artifacts – what is known as utilitarian art. We imagine masks and statues imbued with supernatural powers which give a tribe its socio-religious identity.
Although we use this distinction of figurative and utilitarian art, in fact African cultures do not see that difference. All the art of African traditional cultures is functional and part of daily life. Whether they are used for physical, social or spiritual purposes, they are tools. In fact, Africans do not have a term for art. Aesthetics and functionality are inextricably linked.
Since the West was first exposed to African art, the greater appreciation was for masks and statues. Perhaps more than the sculptures meaning and use, it was the originality – the highly abstract and stylized planes , pared-down forms, shapes and contours – that resonated. The most familiar examples of figurative works of art include the Dan, Baule and Punu masks with their serene naturalistic faces, or the abstract, polychromed masks associated with Bobo, Mossi and Bwa tribes of Burkina Faso. Power figures such as the Kongo tribe’s nkisi or fetish figures – wooden statues with earth and stones, feathers, cloth, fiber, nails, and mirrors added to attract forces – are appealing, as are ancestral shrine objects like the reliquary figures of the Kota people.
Most utilitarian items demonstrate a remarkable artistic economy. The designs are simple and elegant, created with as much attention to detail, forma and technique as figurative art. However, utility art objects in many Western collections tend to be unusually decorative; for example, the detailed geometric motifs carved into the surfaces of Kuba cups and boxes, or the curvilinear patterns of Shona headrests from Zimbabwe. Objects such as these – rare, with proven age and authenticity – now fetch very high prices.
The simpler and more prevalent forms of African utility objects have largely been overlooked by collectors. Although more collectors are focusing on the everyday objects, they do not fetch the kinds of prices that antique figurative pieces do. For this reason, objects such as stools, pillows (headrests) and bowls which are authentic, beautiful and old are not only available on the market, but many are affordable.
What Is Utilitarian Art?
Utilitarian art refers to those objects which have been made for everyday use.
Some objects – staffs, stools, pipes, hairbrushes, combs, snuff-boxes – may be owned by one person, and others – pots, spoons and bowls – collectively owned by the household.
Bahima Cup, Ankole people, UGANDA
One can, with some degree of accuracy, tell from the style of the object which tribe, or region, an object comes from. The artist works within the rules of style and form of his tribe. But because this is a personal object, the artist lends to the work his or her own individual style. Thus, although there are many examples of a particular tribal style of personal objects, their uniqueness is conveyed by the artists’ choice of material, form, proportion and decoration. (Although Western collectors of African art ascribe the workmanship of a piece, whether it is a mask or a clay pot, to a tribe rather than an individual, the artist is not anonymous in African society. The very best artisans are famous, often beyond their immediate tribal borders.)
Materials used are mainly wood, clay, raffia, iron, leather or other locally available materials. The dictates of environment as well as tradition influence the shape, size and form of a utilitarian object. West and equatorial African societies use clay pots for water or palm wine. Because the soils of the semi-arid regions of large parts of East Africa are unsuitable for clay, tribes such as the Maasai and Turkana store their water or milk in woven fiber vessels which are waterproofed with wax or fat, or in wooden containers. In these semi-nomadic pastoral societies, personal objects are kept to a minimum. They have to be light, not easily breakable, and easy to carry (another reason not to have clay pots).
Conversely, the furniture from the western and central regions of Africa is often on a much larger scale, carved from heavy woods (e.g. Senufo beds from Cote d’Ivoire, Bamileke stools from Cameroon, Ashanti stools from Ghana) as the tribes here are settled agricultural communities.
Wooden objects are usually carved from one piece of wood. In some cases, the shape of material will determine how the object is fashioned. A Rendile headrest or Lobi bed or stool uses the angles of the branches of a tree to shape the piece.
Lobi Beds, BURKINA FASO credit: Hamill Gallery
Form is not sublimated by function. That is why these pieces are perceived as sculpture. The simplicity of form, distilled over generations, characterizes most utilitarian objects in Africa. Maasai stools, with their pure form and smooth golden-brown surfaces, Lobi stools (characteristically with three legs) and old Batonka stools are wonderful decorative pieces, and inexpensive ($250-$450).
The Social Function of Utilitarian Objects
Besides being functional, utility objects can also be a measure of wealth and prestige. The Kuba tribe of the southern Congo awed early visitors to their kingdom with the abundance of their arts. The prized design above all else, and the more intricately decorated an object, whether a textile or a palm-wine cup, the greater the prestige of the object’s owner. Luba kings used to commission magnificently carved objects – stools, staffs, personal ornaments – to distribute among newly installed chiefs in outlying areas as a means of extending power and commanding loyalty.
Stools in African societies confer status upon the user, as do staffs. Person of status carry staffs in ceremonies, and individuals carrying the stool belonging to the chief will accompany him in personal marches. Each member of Ashante society in Ghana owns a stool (image: left), which is of great spiritual importance to its owner and of great significance in his daily life. The stool is thought to be the seat of the soul of its owner. When not in use, it is leaned against a wall to prevent wandering souls from sitting on it. The bond between an Ashante and his stool is such it is believed that there is no secret between them.
Ashante stools cost between $400 and $600. Larger Ashante stools, used by royalty, fetch higher prices.
In a Somali poem, a milk-vessel, when overflowing with milk, becomes a metaphor for a proud man. (Held by a leather strap and exquisitely carved in the shape of a long graceful cylinder, these objects are around $200.)
Mentions need to be made of architectural objects, such as doors Dogon, Nupe and Senufo being the most common), Dogon ladders, Tuareg tent poles and house pots. Although utilitarian, such pieces often have social and religious significance as well. Most styles have long been on the marketplace, sought after by collectors as well as architects who use them as sculptural pieces in large spaces and on walls. Because of the demand, copies abound, and the original pieces fetch high prices. (Old doors $5,000 – $7,000).
Why buy Utility Art?
They are unique sculptural works. The purity of form goes well with modern art and contemporary interiors.
They are inexpensive, compared to their authentic figurative counterparts – the masks and statues which have found greater favor and higher value with collectors.
The objects on the market are mostly authentic, while the figurative African art on the market is mostly not.
You can use (some) utility art – bowls as bowls, stools as stools or small tables, beds as tables, spoons as spoon, textiles as cushion covers or wall art. Horn Spoons, ETHIOPIA
Although many societies still use the traditional utility objects, obviously they do so less as their societies are disrupted by war (as have been the Kuba in what was formerly Zaire) or have increasing access to cheap manufactured objects – aluminium and plastic bowls, cups, spoons etc. The rarer these objects become the more collectible. Used Shona headrests are virtually impossible to find now and fetch thousands. Kuba skirts of the best quality sell for $7,000 to $12,000 in Germany and Zulu spoons cost as much as $600.
The Question of Authenticity
Masks and sculptures – figurative pieces which have appealed to our Western aesthetic – challenge us with questions about their ritual use and about their authentic. Without a provenance, one estimates age with difficulty. There is little on the market that is over 100 years old. Anything that originated before 1950 is hard to find. A piece that has been created for an individual or for traditional ceremonial/ritual use within that tribe, however old, can be considered authentic.
All kinds of misrepresentations can occur. Without a provenance a merchant is often not absolutely sure about the authentic and even less the age of a piece.
If the buyer is in any doubt about a piece, he or she might want to do some research or obtain a second opinion. Due to the fact the prices that can be obtained for good examples of masks and statues are so high, the market has been flooded with pieces that have been deliberately aged and ingeniously made to look used. Prices are lower than for authentic pieces but they have no value as collectibles.
Unlike many of the figurative objects from Africa, utilitarian objects offered on the market show signs of use, if not always age. Whatever their function, they should carry the corresponding signs of use. Know the use to which the piece was put. A stool should be worn in the seat, a Turkana drinking vessel smell of soured milk. Many pieces have been cared for with oil, waxed – many even repaired. Original repairs, like stitching on leather, patchwork on cloth, rough staples or metal patches to repair cracks in the wood add to the ‘realness’ of the piece. They also reflect the emotional attachment that the creator/owner has to the object.
As long as prices of utility art don’t reach those figurative pieces, there won’t be the incentive to create such objects exclusively to sell to Western collectors, and therefore less chance of misrepresentation. Furthermore, while you might develop a feel for what is an authentic mask or statue, chances are that you will find the stamp of authentic more readily in a utility object.