A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Religion and productions of the Lobi.
read also: Lobi book "Anonyme Schnitzer der Lobi" by -Katsouros/Herkenhoff
An English synthesis on the plastic religion and productions of the Lobi. By Christopher D. Roy, Professor of Art History with the University of Iowa, 2002.
Lobi sculpture has been widely collected, in part because the figures they carve display the sort of strength of form that is admired by collectors of African art, and in part because the Lobi are such prolific artists and much art has been available on the market. Because each Lobi male considers himself potentially an artist a great variety of styles have appeared, ranging from very abstract, rather rough and stylized to very naturalistic and polished.
In the past the Lobi were well-known as a people who have resisted any form of political authority imposed on them from outside their communities. The Lobi community is not organized on the basis of kinship or political ties and lacks any kind of centralized political authority in the form of a chief king or council of village elders. Instead the members of the community are united by common adherence to the cult of a nature spirit (thil pl thila) and the rules that determine correct social behavior in the community are the rules (zoser) that the spirit dictates through the diviner (thildar). The thila are invisible spirits of nature with certain supernatural abilities and powers that they can use for malevolent or benevolent ends. Each village has a particular spirit (dithil) that is resp onsible for the entire village (di). The dithil establishes the religious laws that govern the relationships between the community and the natural world and between the natural and the supernatural worlds. The thila are normally invisible but they can temporarily appear as animals or men. Through a diviner they can demand that a shrine be constructed where they can reside and through which they can receive offerings and in return provide their blessings over the keeper of the shrine and his family.
The character of the thila is basically human: they have virtues and vices strengths and weaknesses they can be mean forgetful lazy wise responsible or capricious. There are two major types of thila; those that can be found by individuals as chance encounters with the supernatural, and those that can be acquired by one person from another. The former usually appear to people while they are in the wilderness, hunting, gathering firewood, clearing fields, or herding animals. The latter are acquired by people with a specific problem who then acquire access to a thil that has the ability or talent of dealing with that problem. Often the thila that can be acquired are in fact acquired by the entire community, and shrines to them may spread quickly over an entire area.
The thila are controlled by men thildara who may posses as many as fifty distinct nature spirits, and who have become famous because they can, for a fee, provide the protection of any of their spirits to strangers. The shrines over which such men preside may include dozens of carved figures in a variety of poses, each ready to deal with a specific concern or threat.
The thila are represented by figures in wood brass clay, ivory or other materials but most are carved of wood. The figures are called boteba and may be placed on shrines to make the thila visible. The particular character of ability of the thil that the wooden figure represents may be expressed through specific gestures. It is essential that we understand Lobi gestures if we are to understand the meaning of the sculpture they produce. A figure with its head bowed and its hands clasped behind its back is mourning the death of a loved one so that it owner the keeper of the shrine will not have to mourn. A figure with one arm stretched out to the side blocks the entrance of malevolent spirits into the family home. In addition to their major talents boteba can perform temporary tasks includin g finding lost items, helping women conceive children, helping to prevent illness or curing disease. Lobi boteba are very good examples of the importance of abstraction in African art. Many Lobi figures include multiple arms legs or heads. These represent ti bala or exceptional persons. These are thila that are exceptionally strong or powerful. They are particularly un-human. The more un-human the spirit is the more powerful it is. Thus a figure with more than one head is doubly perceptive and quick to act against malevolent forces and such double-headed figures remind us that these are images of supernatural rather than natural creatures.
The Lobi provide an example of a people whose lives are so closely controlled by invented spirits that the very fabric of their social structure is determined by the rules for behavior these spirits have established. Lobi life is dominated by thil, (pl. thila) or spirits. These are invisible beings with supernatural powers or abilities. The individual thil may give a group of people rules for behavior through a diviner, creating what in Lobi country constitutes a village. The group of followers of a particular spirit form a cult, and form a community in which all inhabitants are followers of the cult. A thil can punish a single person or an entire village that fails to obey the rules it has established. These rules are called soser, or prohibitions and may include rules for proper and smooth functioning of life in a community, effectively providing the social glue that is otherwise provided by a chief in centralized political societies. Rules may include the type of clothing worn, the type of food eaten, the species of animals that may be or may not be hunted and eaten, abstinence from sex during certain times, and especially certain types of scarfices.
"The village thil creates through these rules the social and political order as well as the feeling of togetherness and trust, which is so necessary in order for the people to live, and in light of the production techniques used in the fields and houses (and earlier in war) to work together efficiently" (Meyer 1981:2). In addition to the thila there are red-haired beings called kontuorsi who live in the "bush" and work in their fields but are generally invisible. These beings taught the Lobi the art of divination, how to question the dead about the cause of death, and how to play the balafon. The characters of the thila are basically human: they help Lobi on a quid pro quo basis, can be lazy, mean, vindictive, etc.
Wathila are encountered in the bush by men, women, or children who may find a strange object, usually made of iron, which he takes to a diviner who says that it belongs to a wathil that has appeared to the person and that the spirit wants to enter his home and receive sacrifices from him. The person then builds a shrine in the courtyard of his house or on the roof, which includes a pot for sacrifices to which is added the iron object the person found.
Spirits, thil are represented by wooden fugures bateba (or boteba). The wooden figures become living beings, with the ability to move, strike out agianst evil, especially witches, as soon as they are surrendered to the thil by being placed on a shrine. Unlike thil (spirits) the bateba (wooden figures) have bodies which they can use as humans do, to fight evil. They can strike witches with their fists. Bateba can save people in the following ways: They can protect them from witches and sorcerers. These bateba are called "bateba witches" (bateba duntundara). The term here also includes the sorcerers. They mourn, so that the members of a house later on don't have to mourn themselves, i.e. they don't have to experience great sorrow. These bateba are called "sad bateba" (bateba yadawora). Sad o r mourning bateba are distinguished by gesture, they hold their hands behind their backs in the Lobi attitude of mourning. They fulfill various temporary tasks such as finding men a marriage partner, helping women conceive children, and helping to prevent certain illnesses or healing them (Meyer 1981:20).
Among the Lobi and most other peoples in Burkina Faso, wooden figures represent spirits that men encounter in the wild bush, far from cultivated fields. The most powerful and dangerous spirits appear to men who possess special skill as manipulators or users of supernatural forces. These men are called vo koma in by the Winiama, vuru by the Nuna, thildara by the Lobi. In each Lobi village there are usual ly one or two men who own many thil and who control them for the benefit of the community, they are called thildar (sing. thildara). Such a specialist's shrines may have 40-50 statues representing the thil.
In addition to wooden figures Lobi men carve beautiful three-legged stools, sometimes decorated with animal heads, that they carry with them in the evenings when they visit small bars in which sorghum beer is sold. When fights break out, the stools become handy weapons. Large quantities of cast brass jewelry are produced and permit the wearer to carry the supernatural protection of a thil with him or her wherever he may go. Among the most beautiful of Lobi objects are the very stylized pendants carved of ivory to represent small whistles and called thungbubiel. These elegant carvings are often rubbed with palm oil, and examples range in color from new, almost pure white, to old, with a translucent reddish-orange color, and ancient pieces that are almost black.
See Lobi pictures at http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/lobialbum.htm
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Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
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