(The exhibit that was in the entry of the 2006 San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts Show)
The object above was the first one in the exhibit.
Yoruba ceremonial bowl for kola nuts, portraying Olumuye, "One who knows honor"
Nigeria - Late 19th century - Wood - 11" high
Courtesy of James Willis
(Asking price on this piece was $18,000.00)
Perhaps it begins, as Bachelard claims so evocatively in The Poetics of Space, with the elemental forms: nest, egg, shell. Add to these a folded
leaf or slice of bark, an animal skin, a coconut, a turtle carapace—materials found in nature that fulfilled our first nomadic needs for carrying and
storing, and surely suggested our earliest metaphors for containing something precious, life-sustaining. Nests generate twined string, net,
basket, woven bag. Brittle ostrich eggs, incised with patterning, make way for lumps of clay, pressed into shape by thumb and palm, then fired
and glazed. Wood, whittled, hollowed and carved, replaces bark.

All this knowledge evolves in prehistory—first the fiber arts, by at least 15,000 BC, then pottery, around 6000 BC.(1) "Women's work" as
Elizabeth Barber designates these entwined traditions, which developed in the domestic realms of hearth and field, compelled by the urge to
gather, store, and cook foods and grains. This association with a female principle in earthenware and basketry runs through the course of time,
manifesting in visual puns and metaphors having to do with fecundity, nourishment, the belly, and the womb. The techniques may have emerged
in different eras or places, but the expertise has usually passed from mother to daughter, and the resourcefulness and creativity of the weaver
and potter hold their own with the arts generally commanded by men, such as metal and wood working.

As evidenced by this exhibit, the variety of vessels, receptacles and containers conceived and fabricated by indigenous peoples around the
world is surpassed only by the infinite uses to  " which they were put, and the assortment of raw materials pressed into service. "Usefulness does
not prevent a thing, anything, from being art" stated the Bauhaus-trained weaver and designer, Anni Albers—a valuable precept to hold in mind
when considering the unpretentious, utilitarian origins of many of these objects. Within traditional societies, moreover, as Roy Sieber noted, even
modest utensils can reflect the "intensity" with which they are treated, as well as a "powerful psychic bond between owner and object."(2)
Arguably, of course, most containers that have been preserved (mostly in ritual or funerary contexts) were already elevated to a special
purpose. A serving dish remains that even as it is replenished with sacred food for the ancestors; an ordinary water jar becomes a symbolic
vessel in a shrine. Such works may not constitute "art" in the hidebound western sense of the term—but they do indeed embody profound
cultural values and aesthetic considerations.
Female Effigy (for Ritual Substances?)
Cameroon Grasslands
Early 20th century
Gourd, ndop cloth, trade beads
and buttons, animal hair
11.5" high
Courtesy Andres Moraga
Many display, too, that "additional quality of provocative beauty" that Albers deemed essential to functional design. This trait
depends on the eye and hand that succeed in combining practicality with the shape, proportions, and materials suited to the
vessel's purpose. A heavy, porous, unbalanced, or overly embellished container for fluids will fail its intended role, though it may
serve well as a burial urn. But ancient practice has tended to resolve inconsistencies of form and content, so that the neck of a jar
will narrow to channel its flow, a lid or stopper will seal and conceal, and a tight weave ably restrain loose seed.
Angami Hip Basket with Ceremonial Tail Naga Hills, Northeast India
Early 20th century Bamboo, orchid stems, plant fibers, hair 13.5" long
Courtesy Cathryn Cootner
The right vessel may be concave, spherical, cylindrical, pliable, rigid, boxy, purely organic, or fashioned into a human or animal figure. Surfaces
can be modeled, carved, or embossed, then patterned and colored with glaze or pigment, or textured with added or found elements such as
beads, cording or fur. Understated or ostentatious—the variables and effects are limited only by the artist's ingenuity or tradition's dictates.
Within this diversity, there is a startling universality of forms. Categorizing containers by kind may seem, therefore, a logical solution for a
presentation with a broad cultural sweep. Yet, citing the craft specialization that occurs in many societies, Sieber cautioned against such a
formalistic approach in his own ground breaking exhibit African Furniture and Household Objects (1980). Another avenue, then, is to pursue the
commonality of themes that are exposed by a cross-cultural juxtaposition of prestige and ritual containers. The conceptual parallels, as much as
the aesthetic interplay, are quite revelatory.

To begin with, there is the widely held notion that certain raw materials are inherently symbolic. Clay—of, and like, the earth—is what Robert
Farris Thompson describes as a "spirit-embodying" material for Congo cultures, as for so many others.(3) In the Andes, it is the camelid wools,
used to weave exquisite small bags for sacred coca leaf, that are charged with power derived from the alpaca and vicuna's associations with
supernatural forces embodied in mountains and lakes. Natural materials speak of a surrounding landscape: the reeds and sedges from the
Great Lakes of central Africa that are worked into fine Tutsi baskets; the kelp, fish skin and marine ivory that turn up in an Inuit basket or box.
More than just being at hand—there for the plucking—such resources reflect the connection between maker-user and a particular environment.
Of course, exotic components obtained through trade (a cowry shell, a rare feather, a precious metal) are avidly incorporated into traditional
objects as well.

Remarkable containers signal special content, which in this case, is twofold. Outward content, which includes iconography or symbolic
references may or may not be explicit about inner contents. The inner/outer dynamic unfolds in different ways. A presentation bowl enhances its
offering, whether these are kola nuts served to honored guests by the Yoruba or palm wine drunk from an intricately carved Kuba cup.
Something concealed or hidden from casual view conveys value, potency, magic—the forbidden, even, or the unknowable. What cannot be
seen, except by the privileged or initiated, has impact.
Kuba Moon-Shaped Box
for Camwood Powder
D.R. Congo
Early 20th century
13" long
Courtesy Andres Moraga
Another idea of universal scope is the connection drawn between containers, containment and the human body. This goes beyond linguistic
borrowings, as in the "neck" and "foot" of a jar, or visual allusions to the torso's curve. Since antiquity, African terracottas have been executed in
female form or capped with naturalistic heads. Figural Mangbetu vessels wear the hairstyles of the elite; Cameroon pots are decorated with the
same protective designs painted or tattooed on human skin.(4) Luba ritual vessels and gourds have a woman's shape because her body is the
"natural receptacle for spirituality."(5) In a different place and medium, the twined "dilly" bags of the Aborigines in Arnhem Land, Australia,
represent the womb, hence fertility and creativity.(6) While at the other end of the continuum, in the pre-Columbian Americas, huge
anthropomorphized ceramic urns, as well as other effigy jars, were primarily associated with mortuary rites and death— either through housing
ancestral remains or by being buried themselves as offerings to the dead. The analogy was taken even further by the Mimbres people of the
American Southwest, who "ritually killed" their pictorial bowls before entombing them.

Indeed, many vessels are accorded a special function in relation to the spirit world, notably on occasions involving ritual drinking, feasting, or food
sacrifices. Among the array of containers for storing the vital liquids (water, milk, honey, blood, oil), we might single out those reserved for
fermented beverages, such the chocolate and agave brews drunk by the Aztecs, or the palm wines and beers common across Africa. The objects
range in style from the sinuous simplicity of a richly oiled Bamun gourd, to the elegant, tapered form of an Inca aryballo, painted with geometric
motifs, and used for brewing the Andean corn beer, chicha.

Drinking in many societies—both ancient and modern—is frequently associated with acts of ancestral veneration. Much of the copious amount of
broken pottery found strewn along the ritual Nasca Lines in southern Peru, for example, is thought to have been deliberately smashed in water cult
ceremonies directed at mountain ancestors. And just as the Bamileke believe they imbibe spiritual strength from ancestors who pool in the palm
wine vessels from which they sip, so, too, do the Zulus commemorate their forebears over the blackened izinkamba, one of their many specialized
pots for serving sorghum beer, utshwala.(7)
Ceremonial Drinking Vessel, Qero
with Kantu flower motifs
The Andes
Spanish Colonial Era
(Early 18th century)
Painted Wood
7.5" tall
Courtesy Robert Morris
Ceremonial Grease Bowl
Northwest Coast, Canada
Late 19th/early 20th century
Wood (cedar?)
with native fiber repairs
14" long
Courtesy Dave and Nancy DeRoche
Medicine calabash container - Tanzania

"These objects were used to hold medicine. They were
traditionally used by the traditional healer to contain either
liquids or powders that were then used during the healing

It was a tradition in Tanzania to finely carve to tops of
the containers which then gave the container more person
importance and made it possible to directly link the piece to a
certain tribe and region mostly by the shape of the head and
head style on the stopper.

Courtesy - Bryan Reeves (Tribal Gathering London)
Bowl with Coatimundi Imagery
Mimbres Culture, 1000-1150 AD
New Mexico
Painted ceramic
12.5" diameter
Courtesy Christopher Selser
Jars, in fact, provide dwelling places for the soul— harnessing it so that it cannot cause harm to the living. The concept, documented among
groups in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Congo, is still alive in the New World in the curious African-American "bottle trees" whose branches are
festooned with multicolored glass bottles as invocations for protection from the dead.(8) Similar thinking must inform the Fang and Kota traditions
of keeping revered ancestor skulls in baskets or bark boxes. The head is the "seat of the soul" it is said. Yet in a macabre twist on these practices
(for us at least), headhunters, such as the Nagas in northeastern India, also create elaborate baskets to carry the skulls of enemies. And drinking
out of the skull of an enemy (or a skull-shaped cup) is not unknown either.

Ritual medicines, along with magic concoctions and efficacious substances, merit fancy receptacles of their own. Culturally significant intoxicants,
ranging from the mildly stimulating like tobacco and betel nut, to the vividly hallucinogenic snuffs, are dispensed from calabashes, boxes, and
canisters. Indigenous shamans, diviners and healers likewise require places to conceal the tools of their trade. Both the Chokwe divination basket
and the Dayak shaman's box are filled with a constellation of organic and fabricated implements that are used to access the supernatural and
solve human need.

Artistic elaboration is generally an important aspect of all ceremonial containers—as of containers made primarily to reflect and enhance the status
of their owners. The latter objects are often intended for personal use—for instance, Kuba moon-shaped cosmetic boxes for tukula (the red
camwood used for beautification), and many chests and baskets made for storing textiles, jewelry, articles of adornment, or the weaver or hunter's
kit. Such items for "celebrating the person"9 tend to cultivate creativity, aesthetic refinement and taste, while simultaneously projecting social
distinction, wealth or special skill. As repositories of cultural values and activities, moreover, even vessels given over exclusively to display and
prestige yield the deeper metaphors of containment. They also exemplify the very human urge to make something beautiful to hold something else.
It is to be hoped that the inventiveness of the containers on exhibit here, as well as the multitude of cultural sources and narratives represented,
will fill the gaps and omissions in this necessarily limited survey. After all, it could be said that, collectively, these works of art and ritual contain the
Vanessa Drake Moraga is a researcher and writer specializing in textile and tribal art, a contributing editor to Hali Magazine, and author of "Animal
Magic and Myth: Images from Pre-Columbian Textiles" (2005).

1   Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work: The First 2,000 Years (1994)
2   Roy Sieber, African Furniture and Household Objects (1980): 17.
3   Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1984): 117.
4  Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler, Earth and Ore: 2500 Years of African Art in Terra-cotta and Metal (1997).
5  John Pemberton III, "Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa."
Catalogue essay for the exhibit Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2000), on the website:
6  Mary Butcher, Contemporary International Basketmaking (1999): 29.
7  Schaedler: 281; KwaZulu Cultural Museum, Zulu Treasures: Of Kings and Commoners, (1996): 108-111.
8  Thompson: 142-145.
9  Jack Lenor Larsen, Foreword to African Forms by Marc Ginzberg (2000): 7.
Albers, Anni. Selected Writings on Design (2000)
Donnan, Christopher. Ceramics of Ancient Peru (1992)
Feldman, Jerome, Ed. The Eloquent Dead: Ancestral Sculpture of Indonesia
and Southeast Asia (1985) Rossbach, Ed. Baskets as Textile Art (1973)
Ritual Gourds
Ethiopia and Cameroon
20th century
left: 11" diameter
center: 18" high
right: 11" high
Courtesy Andres Moraga
to see the Tanzanian calabash medicine containers in
the Geller Collection, as well as other examples.