British Museum blog

The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Throne of Weapons

Throne of weaponsChristopher Spring, British Museum

Throne of weapons

Throne of weapons. © Kester 2004

From 1977 until 1992 Mozambique, in south-east Africa, fought a civil war which was fuelled by a global power struggle between east and west – the ‘Cold War’. During this period millions of guns were poured into the country via the international arms trade.

Many weapons remained buried or hidden after the war, representing a threat to peace and stability. In 1995 Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane of the Christian Council of Mozambique set up the Transforming Arms into Tools project, which offered farming equipment and other materials in exchange for guns. Mozambican artists then turned these weapons into sculptures that reflect the collective creativity of the people of Mozambique and their refusal to submit to a culture of violence.

The Mozambique civil war claimed almost one million lives and left five million people displaced. The Throne of Weapons represents both the tragedy of that war and the human triumph of those who achieved a lasting peace. Its anthropomorphic qualities – it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face – actually two faces – link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen and described as human beings.

Although made of guns, the Throne of Weapons harks back to older wooden African stools and thrones used by leaders that showed their prestige, but also their willingness and ability to talk to their fellow men and to the ancestors. The throne is also a contemporary work of art with a global significance, linking the arts of Africa with the Western arts scene, and Mozambique with the global arms trade. None of the guns used were made in Mozambique, or even in Africa, thus it becomes a sculpture in which we are all, one way or another, complicit.

The throne is a war memorial, but it celebrates another kind of courage and another kind of victory. Museums are more and more concerned with portraying intangible as well as tangible heritage as a way of building an emotional bridge with a past inhabited by people rather than by the objects they created, especially when charged with describing traumatic histories of warfare, slavery and the abuse of human rights. The Throne of Weapons allows us to cross that bridge.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 29 November 2012.

The Throne of Weapons is on display in Room 25: Africa

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London, a world city in 20 objects: eagle coffin from Ghana

Eagle coffinFiona Sheales, British Museum

The past 60 years have seen the emergence and development of a dynamic and unique art form in coastal towns situated close to Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.

This trend began in 1951 when two carpenters decided to honour their late grand-mother’s dream to fly by burying her in a coffin shaped in the form of an aeroplane. Soon other families began to commission other coffins that represented the life achievements or aspirations of deceased relatives, or characterised aspects of their personality.

Many coffins take the form of traditional status symbols such as this eagle which is believed to have been inspired by the eagle-shaped palanquins used to carry chiefs on important public occasions. A coffin of this shape would therefore be suitable for the burial of a man of some social standing in his community.

Eagle coffin

Eagle coffin

This eagle coffin was made in 2000 in the workshop of Paa Joe (full name Joseph Tetteh Ashong) by a team of specialist carpenters. Paa Joe was one of the first craftsmen to make representational coffins, which are all hand-made on commission. Plans, photographs and sketches are rarely used, instead the components are drawn directly on to the wood which is then sawn out, planed and painted. In some cases up to 20 individually cut and shaped pieces of wood are required to form the shape of the coffin, depending on the model ordered. The eagle coffin’s body, lid and base are carved from the hardwood of the wawa tree (triplochiton scleraxylon) which does not crack and resists attacks from insects. The two wings are carved from separate pieces of wood and are joined to the body using metal hinges which allow them to be folded down flat or to be extended.

In Ghana, death is traditionally viewed as a transition from the world of the living to that of the ancestors. Ancestors are believed to exert influence and power over their living relatives so it is important to show them love and respect. One of the ways of doing this is to bury deceased family members in expensive coffins and hold big funerals. On the day of the funeral the deceased is processed through town to the graveside and large crowds of mourners will have the opportunity to see the coffin for the first time.

Although traditional subjects such as the eagle remain popular, casket choices reflect changing fashions and social aspirations. Modern consumer goods such as laptops and mobile phones provide the models for innovative new coffin shapes.

The popularity of these so-called fantasy coffins continues to grow and has stimulated a thriving industry in Ghana. Thanks to the Internet, fantasy coffins can now be ordered online and are exported all over the world to meet the needs of the diasporic Ghanaian community.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard 15 November 2012.

The Eagle coffin from Ghana is on display in Room 24: Living and Dying

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figureNeil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

Otobo masquerade figure

Otobo masquerade figure

This extraordinary painted steel sculpture was made in London by British/Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE. It depicts a man of the Kalabari people of southern Nigeria in an Otobo or hippopotamus masquerade costume; masquerade is a composite phenomenon in which song, movement, music and the different elements of the dancer’s costume are all integral parts of the performance.

The Otobo masquerade has been danced by Kalabari men for at least 200 years, yet here is a version made by a woman working in metal, a traditionally male medium of expression in Africa. Masquerade in Africa is an art of transformation, harnessing the powers of the natural and spirit worlds for the benefit of humankind, so Sokari’s innovative re-interpretation of a long-standing tradition would seem entirely appropriate.

Sokari was born in 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria, the cultural capital of the Kalabari people who live on 23 islands in the Niger Delta. She moved to Britain as a child and now lives and works near the Elephant and Castle in London. “My work is about what’s going on in London” she says, though part of that is a celebration of her own Kalabari culture, a theme which occurs in different ways in her work. “I live the reality of being both Nigerian and British, but feeling outside both cultures”.

The UK’s largest Nigerian population is found in the capital, in Lambeth and Southwark, but in particular, Peckham. Census figures show Peckham – one of the most diverse areas of the country – with the most Nigerian-born people in Britain.

Sokari’s version of an Otobo masquerader is displayed in the African Galleries next to three examples of carved wooden Otobo masks, one of which (collected by Sokari herself) was made in the late twentieth century, over a century after the other two, though stylistically they are almost identical.

However, avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century would almost certainly have assumed these masks to be examples of spontaneous creativity, unfettered by the artistic conventions of Western tradition, rather than representing slowly changing, highly conservative artistic traditions – the very things European artists were trying to escape.

The African Galleries – with the help of artists such as Sokari – seek to overturn this approach, showing the strength and diversity of art from across the continent from the earliest times to the best of contemporary art from Africa.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 4 October 2012.

The Otobo (hippopotamus) masquerade figure is on display in Room 25: Africa

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