Purchase, Pace Editions Inc., Fred and Rita Richman, and Mr. and Mrs. Milton F. Rosenthal Gifts, 1977
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
A dramatic spectacle enhanced by dance and music provides the arena for revelations made by Baule trance diviners (komien). The sound of a gong hit with a finely carved gong striker, such as this example, acts as a catalyst that triggers the state of awareness necessary for komien to serve as mediums. This work was originally designed to be struck against a bell-shaped iron gong by the diviner in the privacy of his or her shrine room before initiating a public session. The percussive ring induces trance and possession by nature spirits (asye usu), and if the diviner sense their departure at any point before the vent’s conclusion, it is struck again. Within the context of the consultation witnessed by the community, the beauty of this carefully carved implement contributes to the aesthetic appeal of the dramatic spectacle, which is choreographed to combine costumes, dance, and music with a display of various sculptural forms owned by the diviner. These add to the theatrical appeal of the event and denote the diviner‘s professional stature.
There are two distinct types of gong strikers: kokowa, utilitarian strikers devoid of embellishment, and lawle, intricately carved implements that display their maker’s deliberate aesthetic intentions. In these more elaborate works, the repertory of motifs joined to the handle includes female figures, zoomorphic imagery, and bo nun amuin masks (men’s sacred masks kept in bush sanctuaries where women are forbidden to enter). Although the maker of the example shown here would not have seen the equestrian subject it depicts, the design of this lawle ranks among the most accomplished of its genre.
The overall conception of the expressionistic horse fuses together a swayback and a long camel like muzzle with the carefully rendered minutiae of the carved reigns. The scale of the rider’s upper body contrasts sharply with that of his legs. Below, the broad concave curved of the horse’s stomach is emphasized by the crescent shaped negative space between it and the concave curve of the finely carved base. The delicate imagery featured in the base both distinguished its two sides from each other and unifies them. A turtle is the principal protagonist on one side, and a serpent that dominates the other reaches over to bite its foot. This bilateral asymmetry is an intentional aesthetic device used by the Baule makers of such works to create contrast as well as to surprise and to demonstrate their inexhaustible invention. At the base, a small pad of woven cloth is attached to the striker’s hammering element. The top of the base, decorated with a carved openwork figurative passage, is joined at a slight angle to the handle, which has been rendered in a classic ropelike form. Baule sculptor Lela Kouakou has noted that this design element is recognized as a mark of an artist’s virtuoso talent.
Further Reading: James Baldwin et al., Perspectives: Angles on African Art, exh. Cat., New York: Center for African Art, 1987. Marie-Thérèse Brincard, ed. Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments. The American Federation of the Arts: New York,1989. Alisa LaGamma. Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Susan Vogel. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes. Exh. Cat. New Haven: Yale Art Gallery, 1997
[Marie-Eliane d'Udekem d'Acoz, F. Rolin & Co., New York, until 1977]
Moore J. Kenneth, Jayson Kerr Dobney, and Bradley Strauchen-Scherer. Musical Instruments: Highlights of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First Printing ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015, p. 152.