standing_femal_figureNgbandi people, Democratic Republic of Congo, Standing Female Figure, ca. 1920, wood, glass, beads; height: 14 inches. Gift of David Christensen, 2012.108

Recent Gifts of African Art from David Christensen

The Ngbandi rarely create anthropomorphic figures, but sometimes ones like this are used by magicians (wa kokoro) who neutralize witchcraft and by diviners (wa bendo) who try to determine the course of the future for their clients. The triangular hairdo incisions and keloids on the nose bridge are classic Ngbandi motifs.

owl_maskLuba people, Democratic Republic of Congo, Owl Mask, ca. 1960, polychromed wood; height 15.25 inches. Gift of David Christensen, 2012.109

Since the owl is a creature of the night and a symbol of death, the carving of this mask alternates between loose and precise, to reflect the nature of existence—demonstrating disorderliness and orderliness within the same composition. Luba animal masks have been introduced in the post-colonial era.  

face_maskKran people, Ivory Coast, Face Mask, 1890-1910, wood, nails; height 10 inches. Gift of David Christensen, 2012.110

This Poro Society initiation mask features an arrowhead in the tongue, suggesting the necessity for young initiates to maintain secrecy regarding their initiation ritual.  In traditional times, boys who violated Poro secrecy were killed to maintain strict order and purity within the community.



staff_with_seated_female_figureSapo-Sapo (Nsapo) people, Democratic Republic of Congo, Staff with Seated Female Figure, ca. 1930, wood; 13 inches. Gift of David Christensen, 2012.111

The left hand of the aged female figure that tops the staff is in the mouth of a serpent, symbolizing punishment or perhaps the need to maintain secrecy.  The spiral form of the shaft probably is Islamic in influence, and reflects the impact of the slave trade in the Great Lakes region of Central and East Africa.

Mbole group, Democratic Republic of Congo, Executioner’s maskMbole group, Democratic Republic of Congo, Executioner’s mask, ca. 1900, wood, pigment, pyro-coloration, 12.25 x 8.94 x 3.56 inches. On loan from the Owen D. Mort Jr. Collection, L2011.009.076

The Owen D. Mort Jr. Collection of African Art

The large traditional African art collection of Owen D. Mort Jr. is in the process of being donated to the Snite Museum of Art.  The collection features dazzling, high-status and royal costumes and beadwork, iron and brass weapons, symbols of authority and currency, as well as masks and other objects used to communicate with the spirit world in order to maintain social stability and traditional moral structures. Numbering about one thousand works of art, the collection contains important nineteenth- and twentieth-century objects from traditional African groups throughout the continent, but the main portion was developed in Zaire, present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mr. Mort lived and worked from 1974–1983.

Oyo Yoruba People, Nigeria, Esu-Elegbara Dance StaffOyo Yoruba People, Nigeria, Esu-Elegbara Dance Staff, ca. 1900, wood with indigo and other encrustation, 19.25 x 4 x 11.25 inches. Acquired with funds provided by an anonymous benefactor in memory of Erskine A. Peters, 1997.048

This dance staff depicts the Yoruba trickster god Esu-Elegbara.  It would have been held with the large, curving projection resting over the performer’s shoulder.  Mediator between mankind and the gods, Esu-Elegbara carries human divination petitions to Ifa, lord of wisdom, and other deities and delivers replies to mortals.  If Esu is not appeased by sacrifices, he may confuse the message in his trickster role.  Here, the god plays a flute similar to those used to summon him to divination sessions.

Alatishe Ogundipe workshop, Ijebu Yoruba people, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Oro Society StaffsAlatishe Ogundipe workshop, Ijebu Yoruba people, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Oro Society Staffs, ca. 1850, lost-wax cast copper alloy on wrought iron, 15.88 inches high. Acquired with funds provided by the Lake Family Endowment and the Rev. Anthony J. Lauck, C.S.C. Sculpture Endowment, 2004.025

These two superb sculptures joined by a chain are mid-nineteenth-century Yoruba staffs of the elite Oro Society.  This group of senior male community leaders carried out the judgments of the secret Ogboni Society against those who offended the ancestors with immoral or criminal behavior.  Crimes such as murder, adultery, and other heinous acts were punishable by death.  Because of the secret nature of Oro and Ogboni, it is difficult to know all of the ways the staffs were used, but sometimes they were placed in the ground outside the home of a person who had been judged, alerting them to their upcoming punishment.