Negotiating Power through Separation and Ambiguity
By: SIDNEY LITTLEFIELD KASFIR
African Arts - Spring 2000
he dissection and reinvention of identity claims was a major (and eventually overworked) curatorial
theme of the eighties and nineties in much of the contemporary art world, including that of the
African diaspora and its "imagined communities" (Hylton & Mercer 1995). But by raising some of
these same questions in relation to African artists working primarily within local contexts, Alisa
LaGamma and the writers she assembled in two special issues of this journal devoted to
discussions of authorship in African art (African Arts, Autumn 1998 and Spring 1999) forced us to
look at them through a modern critical lens. What can be discerned about these African artists as
creative individuals, well known in their time to their local patrons and publics but relegated to a
hazy penumbra in today's international art world? How has the movement of their work through
colonial and postcolonial collections affected their identities and reputations? Where do they stand
relative to a more contemporary discourse about artists/authors, spectatorship, and the blurred
boundaries between them?
Roslyn Walker's essay on Olowe of Ise (1998b) and LaGamma's remarks (1998) on other
important Yoruba artists such as Areogun, Bamgboye, and Abatan addressed the first question
through a careful combing of documentary sources. Mary Nooter Roberts (1998) focused instead
on the situational and collection driven nature of Luba artistic reputation, the linked identities of
objects with royal patrons, and the requirements of secrecy which could submerge artists'
identities. Zoe Strother (1999) argued strongly for a wide gap between the local perceptions of
innovative Pende sculptors, such as Gabama a Gingungu, and the international art market in which
Pende sculptors became early players and whose rules precluded individual recognition of "tribal"
artists. Moving into the postcolonial era, LaGamma sees contemporary Punu masquerade
performers as upstaging the actual sculptors of the masks in their ability to gain audience
recognition. For reasons which have varied substantially with time and place, she observes that it
has been a difficult and sometimes intractable problem to unearth African artists' identities,
reputations, and careers using the standard field work techniques. Yoruba studies, the only cultural
area in which there has been a rich critical mass of informed scholarship on individual artists,
seems to be the best case in which certain broad outlines have emerged, and even there the
coverage is uneven and weighted toward certain regions. So what does one do about this?
Abandon the older approaches and try something else? And if so, which something else?
It's a problem: to apply poststructuralist models of the artist/author to pre-colonial- and colonial-
period cultural production -would subject the African artist to a second dose of Western-invented
critical stances. The first is based in the old primitive-art discourse (French collector to Sally Price:
"If we know the artist's name it isn't real primitive art" [Price 1989]), which Strother (1999:31)
reminds us would still be in force if you tried to buy a Pende mask in SoHo today. The second is the
critique of subjectivity and desacralizing of authorship which developed to counter the almost
worshipful attitude toward the author/artist as creator, an attitude embedded in pre-1970s modern
Western criticism (e.g., Barthes 1977). But the effect of adopting either stance toward late-
nineteenth- and early-to-mid-twentieth-century art produced for African patrons and audiences is
to displace local understandings of artists by rendering them invisible or irrelevant.
On the other hand, there are nontraditional genres, patrons, and audiences for which these local
assessments begin to approach those found across a wide range of societies outside Africa. Thus
Elizabeth Bigham's use of a poststructuralist approach (1999:57) to get at a closer understanding
of Seydou Keita's relation to his subjects succeeds because it is situated in the modernizing late-
colonial cultural matrix of 1950s Bamako and extends up to the artist's 1990s rediscovery by the
New York art-and-fashion world; and even more important it succeeds because in the case of
portrait photography, the artist's patron is also his subject, thus collapsing distinctions about whose
agency is at play.
To counter the earlier anonymous-"primitive" discourse there is now a substantial body of
interpretation concerning known, important artists (e.g., Walker 1994,1998a, 1998b; Yai 1999;
Strother 1998, 1999). Yet that achievement seems a volatile thing, or at least very situational, for it
is viewed skeptically not only by deconstructionists and their supporters but, much more to the
point, by long-time Africanist scholars such as Susan Vogel, who asserts that despite her best
efforts to dredge up identities, Baule communities over the past generation seem to have a
collective amnesia about their own artists. People remember patrons instead, or more broadly, the
cultural context for which the art was produced (a point Mary Nooter Roberts has also made about
the Luba). And prior to the arrival of the first French colonial administrator and the subsequent
diffusion of Baule art to a wider art audience, how important was the artist? In Vogel's words,
"cultures preserve the information that they value" (1999:50), and the artist's identity apparently
mattered less than the patron's or the object itself. She further suggested that this obsessive
concern for the artist as an individual creator was driven perhaps by a Western idea of creativity as
something essentially singular and isolatable.
As far as the forgetting of artists' identities is concerned, I could certainly add the example of the
Idoma in Nigeria, where in the 1970s and 1980s people in Akpa district were apt to claim that
almost every noteworthy mask or figure of whatever age, genre, or style was "by Ochai," the very
fine and prolific Akpa sculptor who died in the 1950s. Ochai's work was collected first by colonial
officers for the Pitt Rivers and British Museums, and then in 1959 by Roy Sieber for the Nigerian
Museum at Jos and published by the Museum of Primitive Art (Figs. 1, 2).1 But in Idoma, individual
styles tend to be quite recognizable since there is no apprenticeship system, and as opposed to
the Baule case it did not require minute technical scrutiny (e.g., Vogel's strategy of identifying a
certain adze blade's markings on the wood) to separate most of Ochai's work from that of other
Akpa artists or to make parallel attributions among artists in several of the other Idoma districts.
That does not mean I was able to retrieve names for all of these sculptors, and they remain in my
fieldnotes rather like Berenson's "amico di Botticelli"—nameless individual artists who were out
there and active in a certain time and place.
|1. Afufu mask by Ihe Idoma artist Ochai. Akpa district, Nigeria, 1977.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
People in the district tended to attribute nearly all noteworthy sculptures,
regardless of style, to Ochai. Neverthless the styles of most Idoma artists
are individual and recognizable.
|2. Idoma anjenu shrine figures by Ochai. Akpa district, Nigeria, 1974.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
Ochai is by far the best-known Idoma sculptor, though he comes from an
Akweya-speaking clan from Ogoja which adopted Idoma ethnicity during
the early colonial period.
|But beyond this and other parallel cases which appear to support it, Susan Vogel's point stimulates
further comment because it appears to transfer aura (in the sense used by Walter Benjamin )
away from the artist to the patron in a way that diminishes the artist's power. Although Vogel herself
is careful not make this explicit claim, a reader might easily conclude that in the local hierarchy of
values, the artist was regarded as little more than a highly competent technician. I'd like to explore
why in many places this wasn't the case and why the artist-patron relationship, while always crucial
for artists, is too narrow a frame in which to examine the question of creative agency. Various
ethnographies, including my own work in Idoma chiefdoms in central Nigeria, suggest a different
dimension of what it is to be designated an artist, particularly in the distancing of the creator of
images from other members of the community, and the subsequent ambiguities surrounding his
status.2 He (in the case of male wood sculptors) is also in possession of a special knowledge-
practice repertory which neither the patron nor the wider public can fully share. My point will be that
this very ambiguity about his status, and the awareness that he knows things that others do not and
uses this knowledge to mediate on several levels, is what allows the artist to retain both power and
agency while he is still active, despite the overarching shadow of higher-status patrons who may be
recognized and remembered longer than he, once his active career passes into history.
High/Low and Inside/Outside Distinctions
In a spectrum of African artisanal identities, blacksmiths may represent the most highly marked
specialization, yet sculptors engaged in traditional forms of production (who in some cultures may
be the blacksmiths themselves) share some of the same distinctions.3 Much of the unresolved
ambiguity in the representation of Sudanic West and East African smiths (i.e., that they are of low
social status yet unquestionably powerful relative to their social superiors) also surrounds sculptors,
though for somewhat different reasons. This occurs not only where the sculptor belongs to a
stratified occupational group but even where he is socially undifferentiated from the dominant
occupational category—farmer, fisherman, and so on. In the former case, Dolores Richter (1980:
41) describes the fear which other Senufo have for the Kulebele-controlled kafigdedjo, a
supernatural instrument more powerful than anything associated with blacksmiths. In unstratified
societies, on the other hand, there is less likelihood that carvers (or smiths) as a group will be
associated with ritual pollution or powerful supernatural agency, yet they are nonetheless apt to be
regarded as different from ordinary people. Even among the egalitarian Dan, the carver is seen to
distance himself by assisting the work of the go-master, who is the spiritual leader of the village and
a person of great authority in his role as keeper of masks (Gerbrands 1957:376). For the very
reason that the representation of a spirit world through masks or figuration is often seen as a form
of divinely inspired mimesis, sculptors are frequently locked into a set of identities which separates
them from the rest of the community even where there is no occupational stratification system and
no associations with sorcery, and where their position in the community is respected (see Kasfir
1987:32-34). Warren d'Azevedo (1973:323) described the reaction of Gola parents to the display
of woodcarving talent in a young son as a mixture of admiration and dismay, reflecting Gola
ambivalence toward the occupation itself. In Gola terms the person is either yun edi (a person of
special mind) or yun go gwa (a dreamer), both psychological types which are recognizable through
early signs of deviance (1973:296, 323). At this stage, attempts may be made to dissuade the
youth from a carver's career through punishment or appeals to a diviner. If none of this works, he
may then be sent to be apprenticed, though some parents will refuse.
|3. Boys with masks that they carved themselves. Akpa district,
Nigeria, 1974. Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
Among the Idoma there is no formal instruction in carving. Such
knowledge is acquired in a piecemeal fashion from boyhood, by
watching a village sculptor at work.
|4. Idoma sculptor Onu Agbo with his Fok-No-Paymask. Okwoga
district, Nigeria, 1977. Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
Because Idoma sculptors do not belong to workshops, which tend
to promote adherence to a particular style, they are free to
experiment, as in this case.
|5. Idoma anjenu shrine figures, "Sgt. Augustine Idoma and his beautiful
wife Elizabeth" by Onu Agbo. Okwoga district, Nigeria, 1977.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
Onu Agbo's inventive variations within traditional genres complicate
attempts to define his identity.
|Establishing Power and Separation through the Workshop
Apprenticeship, especially in kin-based workshops, supports the creation of self-selecting
hereditary artisanal groups—a practice which also furthers the social separation of the artist from
the rest of the community. This distancing is sometimes further exaggerated by social
circumstances having nothing to do with carving. Maconde immigrant carvers from Cabo Delgado
province of northern Mozambique have been settling around the outskirts of Dar es Salaam in
Tanzania since the late colonial period. In the early postcolonial period they were carving in kin
groups of up to eight or so experienced carvers and one or two apprentices, next to their farms
along the Bagamoyo Road (Kasfir 1980). Mozambican Maconde, unlike their southern Tanzanian
Makonde neighbors, at that time still heavily cicatrized their faces and filed their teeth. Many of the
women still wore small lip plugs, by then no longer seen in Tanzania. Although they all spoke
Kiswahili as well as Kimakonde, they lived outside the city and did not attempt to mix with the local
inhabitants. To people in Dar es Salaam they were "fierce" looking and were said to be cannibals
who ate children. (Pere Knops records the same belief about the Kulebele.)4 In this case it was a
combination of perceived "primitive" cultural practices and their immigrant status which allowed for
their distancing and alterity in the local community, quite apart from their workshop system with its
exclusive, kin-based membership.
But if we focus only on the workshop as a way of preserving symbolic space and exclusivity, we
overlook what was distinctive about sculptors in precolonial Africa: they were not only living
representations of something else (let us say otherworldly power), they were themselves makers of
representations of that same otherworldly power in the form of images. The workshop therefore
became a repository for continuously reconstituting these images as part of a system of knowledge
endowed with exclusivity and at times even secrecy. The fact that there were and still are, for
example, "readable" regional, local, and family workshop styles in Yoruba carving is evidence of this
exclusivity: no one experienced in looking at Yoruba sculpture would confuse the Ekiti style and
repertory with the Igbomina style and repertory, and an Igbomina specialist (e.g., Pemberton 1987:
121-31) can describe the local Ila-Orangun variant of the Igbomina style and further refine this into
the various Ila workshops of Inurin's, Ore's, Obajisun's, Aga's, and Oloriawo's compounds.
While each of these carving compounds represents a slightly different version of that combination
of knowledge and practice which constitutes an "Ila style," none of these are fixed, because over
time different artists enter and leave the workshops. It is thus clear at the center—a few identifiable
distinctive practices—but less easily defined at the edges. Not only that, artists who are trained in it
don't always conform to the generally practiced workshop style. John Pemberton (1987:125)
describes one of the best-documented examples in Yoruba carving of an artist crossing over from
one regional style to another. Lamidi Fakeye, son of the venerable carver Fakeye of Ila (ca. 1870-
1946), began carving in the Igbomina style of his father and older brothers, but, at about age
eighteen, saw for the first time the work of the great Ekiti sculptors Areogun and Bamgboye. He was
invited by Father Kevin Carroll to join Areogun's son Bandele (Bamidele) in the workshop run by
Carroll to produce Roman Catholic religious sculpture in the Ekiti carving idiom. In this somewhat
unconventional way he learned the Ekiti style from Bandele and eventually became its most widely
known practitioner. Lamidi thus acquired two stylistic and two iconographic repertories, each a
knowledge system in its own right but with connections to the other. Another sculptor in the Ekiti
style, the late Lawrence Alaye, kept a photograph album in his workshop in Ile-Ife so that clients
could see for themselves the workshop's complete repertory of objects. Like Lamidi, he learned
from Bandele how to carve Christian church subjects, though his knowledge of the conventional
Ekiti carving repertory came from his father and uncle (Kasfir 1987:31). The album, as a
representation of the workshop's output but also of what Alaye knew how to make, sequentially
linked the two knowledge systems in a single practice.
The ability of Yoruba artists such as Lamidi Fakeye or Lawrence Alaye to work simultaneously in
two knowledge systems has its counterpart in the Maconde carvers of Dar es Salaam who learned,
back in Mozambique in the early colonial period, to make animal and genre sculptures on demand
for colonial administrators while continuing to produce mapico masks, figures, and other objects for
their own use. Later in Tanzania, the greater opportunity for new kinds of patronage caused a
florescence of the colonial genres into several subrepertories, but the branching into a second
knowledge system actually occurred as early as 1910, when the first Portuguese administrators
began to appear. Moving from one knowledge-practice repertory to another is itself a form of
innovation, of "breaking out" of the conventional workshop mold, though the new system can
eventually become as convention-dominated as the old one. Working for different types of patrons
is another aspect of this breakout, as Strother (1999:29, 31) demonstrated through Pende
sculptors' very early embracing of the international art market along with the local one. And most
obviously, it is one more way of cultivating ambiguity (or call it lack of purity) of status, for which
both Maconde and Pende artists have been criticized by institutions of the Western art world.
The workshop as model (as opposed to its rather more messy reality), with the authority of its
master carver over his apprentices, operates not only as an exclusive guild but also as a force for
stability rather than innovation. In Alaye's photo album, the Christian subjects differ from those of
orisha worship only in the iconographic details. And although there are new "things," such as a set
of free-standing Nativity figures, there is no new style, even though the work encompasses a totally
different knowledge system. Without the intervention of church patronage through Father Kevin
Carroll or a hypothetical Christian Yoruba counterpart, it is unclear whether the Christian repertory
would ever have become part of Ekiti carving practice. One returns once again to the fact or the
possibility of new patronage as a primary stimulus for invention, while the workshop, with its
investment in a known repertory of forms, is counterpoised as a guardian of artisanal tradition and
a guarantor that sculptors occupy a specialized status within the community.5
|6. The Tiv sculptor Aba. Agagbe district, Nigeria, 1977.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir
Tiv artists like Aba are known for imitating the styles and
works of other artists, including those of the neighboring
|7. The Idoma sculptor Okati. Adoka district, Nigeria, 1978.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
This artist, locally famous, provided inspiration for the Tiv
|8. Idoma "Ije Honda" mask by Okati of
Adoka district. Jos Museum, Nigeria.
Like Onu Agbo, Okati was an artist
whose whimsical and innovative ideas
belied his dignified status in his village.
|9. "Mami Wata" kwaghir mask owned
by Aba. Agagbe district, Nigeria, 1978.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
This mask in the style of an Annang
Ibibio workshop may actually have
been made by Aba.
|Sculptors as Free Agents
But not all artists belong to workshops, which radically changes the way they embed themselves in
a system of knowledge and practice and, equally, how they are perceived. It also has important
consequences for the systemization and stability of knowledge and practice themselves. In Idoma,
Ebira (Igbira), Kalahari, and Tiv communities in Nigeria, to name fairly random examples, carvers
are free agents, having picked up their knowledge in piecemeal fashion since boyhood (Fig. 3).
They do not receive any direct instruction in the correct way to carve an eye or an ear, and must
rely on the examples of completed work they see around them. While liberated from the
conventions of the workshop, the boys must ultimately learn the equivalent skills by trial and error
instead. Theoretically at least, there is greater tolerance for individual idiosyncrasy, yet the majority
of Idoma masks and figures exhibit sufficient style uniformity to be recognizable to a skilled observer.
Nonetheless there is a kind of freewheeling inventiveness in the work of quite a few Idoma carvers
which would be out of place in a workshop devoted to canonical genres.6 An example is the Idoma
mask I saw in the mid-1970s which had been named Fok-No-Pay ("free sex") by the exuberant
young men's age set which had commissioned it (Fig. 4). Onu Agbo, the Idoma artist who carved
this, was over seventy himself, a respected anjenu (water spirit) priest and blacksmith, yet known
for constantly trying out new ideas in his carvings. Other people's anjenu shrines were peopled with
conventional mother-and-child figures or sacred animals such as hornbills, lions, and leopards.
Onu's anjenu shrine figures included a "lady doctor" and a colonial policeman, "Sgt. Augustine
Idoma" reading a letter (Fig. 5), as well as a somewhat more enigmatic but colonially inspired
"information officer." The reputation of Onu Agbo not only as an embodiment of local tradition in his
roles as blacksmith and priest but also as a carver amusingly inventive in his treatment of genre
forms inevitably destabilized all attempts to bequeath upon him a uniform, designated status. This
ambiguity was an important aspect of his identity, which he found very satisfying.
Tiv carvers were equally iconoclastic and ever ready to co-opt other carvers' styles and even
identities: one elderly Tiv that I knew, Aba of Agagbe (Fig. 6), had perfected an imitation of the style
of the locally famous Idoma carver, Okati of Adoka (Fig. 7).7 While living on different sides of the
Tiv-Idoma borderland, their settlements were only about fifteen kilometers apart through the bush.
Okati's patronage radius extended well beyond Adoka district: an innovator like Onu Agbo in
Okwoga district, he had even designed a whimsical throne with moving parts for the Och'Idoma's
palace in Otukpo, and his "Ije Honda" mask of a man riding a motorcycle was in the collection of the
Jos Museum (Fig. 8). All this was belied by his dignified bearing and status as an important elder in
his village. Aba, by contrast, was an assiduous collector of other people's carving repertories. It was
never one hundred percent certain to either me or Jill Salmons whether his Mami Wata for the
kwaghir puppet-masquerade performance was a perfect copy or an actual product of the Annang
Ibibio carving cooperative at Ikot-Ekpene in the Cross River region (Fig. 9). The same ambiguity
hovered around "Gowon," the janus-faced platform mask of soldiers and horsemen which was
intended to represent the (locally popular) former Gowon regime of the military government (Fig.
10). The faces were identical to those on the Ije Honda mask carved by Okati, yet Aba claimed it as
his own creation, spinning out a complex iconography with ramifications from Tiv popular culture.
When I showed him a photograph of it a few months later, Okati had no recollection of carving it or
even of having heard of the Tiv sculptor Aba, but with characteristic restraint he did acknowledge
that it "resembled" his work rather closely.
The matter of Aba and his skill at copying and/or hoodwinking researchers could provide the
material for a different discussion on the whole issue of emulation (Kasfir 1999:129-30), but I raise
it here as evidence of the way distancing and ambiguity are intentionally cultivated as a way of
keeping the public from knowing too much about what artists do. Outside the constraints and
supports of the workshop, artists essentially invent themselves in ways that society will accept, or at
least believe. There are such people as Onu, Okati, and Aba in workshops (and nowadays even in
cooperatives), but they don't sit well or happily with workshop rules; if they belong to cooperatives,
they often do much of their work on the side. Aba, through appropriation of both Idoma and Annang
models, acquired two explicitly non-Tiv styles, iconographies, and genres. But without any contact
with their originators, he could only employ his own knowledge system to explain them. Lone artists
in Idoma and Tivland are mavericks. They create their own knowledge and practices out of
networks of actual contact, stealth, imitation, and even dreaming, as opposed to the more orderly
and limited chains of transmission of knowledge and practice which come through training, and of
intimate daily familiarity with the work of a selected cohort of other artists. Although they are far less
wedded to a particular repertory, they are like workshop artists in their ability to materialize what are
for other people just ideas. And it is this ability which brings the distancing mechanisms into play.
Beyond Human Agency: Power by Revelation
These are in one sense loaded examples: not all Tiv carvers are as sly as Aba or as enamored of
imitation. Workshop carvers dream too. (For the Maconde it is the normal way that one gets new
ideas.) And I have left aside until now the very different Idoma attitudes (dogmas, actually)
concerning the creation of ancestral masks, which are not carved from wood. All of the secrecy and
supernatural agency and general sense of portentousness which is missing from Idoma carving is
found in the production of alekwuafia and unaaloko, both elaborate textile masquerade ensembles.
Unaaloko, a royal masquerade of Agila and Igwumale, is claimed to be made by och'aba (literally,
"chief of masquerades"), a mask spirit, and not by human hands at all (personal communication,
Emeje Ogbu, Agila; April 11, 1978).8 Alekwuafia (Fig. 11) are fashioned by a ritual tailor (abakpa,
literally but not actually a Hausa) said to be chosen through revelation in a dream. In one account
the dreamer learns he must locate the sacred needle for sewing the costume—it is stuck in the bark
of a certain tree—after which he is declared to be abakpa (Bassing 1973:8). In this version of
Idoma mask making, the artist-tailor is far from the free agency that characterizes the woodcarver:
he is chosen by revelation, works in secret, and is under numerous ritual prohibitions, which in the
past included the threat of death for noncompliance.
His is the other, concealed, side of Idoma image-making, though once again the creator is
untrained and unapprenticed, despite the great complexity of the ensemble. What do the Idoma
intend by this representation of how the ancestral masquerade comes into being? Is it a story made
up to protect the abakpa (who holds a lucrative position) from too much jealous scrutiny? Or does
his alterity act to ratchet up by several notches the mask's already numinous presence? Whichever
way we choose to interpret it, the representation is useful. It plays (in both senses) into our
exegesis of the knowledge-practice system from which it protrudes rather like the tip of an otherwise
invisible iceberg. The artist's identity as abakpa, for example, opens up a set of clues, some of
them false, concerning the historical origin of the masquerade and its northern connections to the
non-Muslim Hausa (Kasfir 1984,1985). Self-representation in this case is intended to be a path of
blind alleys, deflecting inquiry and masking the maker's identity in order to preserve the illusion that
the alekwuafia is literally the incarnated ancestor, bidden from his home beneath the earth to save
his descendants from error and wrongdoing. The result of this contradictory Hausa (abakpa) versus
not-Hausa representation is contested identity, an outcome which serves to maintain secrecy,
ambiguity, and distance.
All of this is strategic in distancing the actual production of the mask ensemble from the eyes of the
community. Instead, production appears to materialize in a space somewhere between family
obligation (the patrons who are resurrecting their ancestor) and secretly mediated knowledge and
practice (the artist who makes the ensemble). Patrons clearly are essential to artists and vice
versa, but the fuzziness of memory which may surround a community's knowledge of an artist, or
even the ambiguity of something so basic as his name, should not be construed as meaning that
he lacked power or forfeited his own agency to his patrons.
|10. "Gowon" mask owned by Aba. Agagbe district,
Nigeria, 1978. Photo: S. L. Kasfir.
The faces on this work, which Aba claimed to be his
own creation, closely resemble those in Okati's "Ije
Honda" mask in Figure 8.
|11. Idoma ekwila masquerade, a type of alekwuafia found
in the southern districts. Agila district, Nigeria, 1986.
Photo: S. L. Kasfir
In contrast to Idoma carvers who are free artistic agents,
the artist-tailors who make these cloth masquerades are
denied an artistic identity, working in secret and with