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6885Use of the term ‘copy’ for African art : the exam ple of a Baule mouse oracle.

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  • rschust
    Jul 14, 2014
    To my colleagues in the African Arts and Culture Discussion Group:

    I am writing this to invite comments about what I believe to be an example of the problematical use of the term ‘copy.’
    The example is a fascinating device called a mouse oracle that has apparently been in use for a very long time by the closely related Baule/Guro/Yaure peoples to predict the future.

    From Rand: http://www.randafricanart.com/Baule_mouse_oracle.html

    The physical apparatus of the gbekre (mouse oracle) is contained within a terracotta vessel inside a hollow wooden cylinder. A shelf divides the vessel into two distinct chambers, which are connected by a hole. The mice are placed in the lower chamber and pass through the hole into the  upper chamber, in which the diviner has placed ten small sticks (originally, birds' or bats' bones were used). The small sticks, called gbekre nyma (literally, "eyes of the mice"), are coated with flour and attached at one end with fiber to the shell of an earth turtle. The actions of the mice in the upper chamber change the positions of the sticks, creating a new configuration that constitutes the sign to be translated by the diviner. Such reliance on interpreting actions of animals perceived to be innately endowed with insight into human experience is comparable to divination systems elsewhere, most notably spider divination in Cameroon.

    From John Pemberton III http://www3.amherst.edu/~jpemberton/p8.html

    …..According to the Guro, the mouse ascends to hear the client's explanation of the problem, descends to the hole in the base of the container to consult the earth, and then ascends to the upper chamber and "places" the strips. The diviner then interprets the new pattern in terms of a received framework of meaning……What is important in this and similar divination processes, as in spider divination in the Cameroons, is the determination of the patterns by an independent agent; in this case, the mouse as the agent of the earth spirit. The human factor enters in the reading of the rearranged pattern, which, however, is based upon a received oral tradition establishing the paramaters of the interpretation and consultation.

    Probably the most famous instance of a mouse oracle was from the Baule people. It was collected by Hans Himmelheber in the 1930s. You can see this beautiful 'iconic' piece in Susan Vogel’s, Baule: African Art – Western Eyes pp. 268-269. Unfortunately, the only photo I could find was kindly sent to me by a participant in our web forum – it is the example on the upper left. It is attached.
    I also attach a famous example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that better shows the classic features of a  Baule  oracle vessel.

    I am writing this because I recently found an oracle vessel that is remarkably similar to the iconic Himmelheber piece in both the attached human statue and the general construction of the vessel. It is not in great condition, shows multiple signs of use and lacks the lid. Photos are attached.

    To me, the overall condition of my oracle vessel shouts “old,” “used” and whatever else we might want in a piece that might still qualify as “authentic” without the blessing of knowing who collected it and who owned it in the past.

    So the question I pose here is whether it is justified to label mine as a mere ‘copy.’ We all know that this label has a penumbra of negative connotations: not only that provenance is lacking but that it was made for sale and maybe not even a Baule but a mere generic workshop creation for the tourist trade. Almost worthless. And maybe not even worth the EUR50 that I paid for it.

    But it seems to me that it is only our African Arts culture of discovery+museum+private ownership+ publication that reflexly downgrades similar figures to ‘copy.’ And thereby enshrines Himmelfaber’s piece from 1931 as the only authentic one of this type.
    But all we really know is that Himmelfeber’s  Baule oracle was (I believe) the first of this type to be known to the West. And that it has been residing as such in important Western art museums and important books about African art.
    But is this enough to elevate the Himmelfeber oracle to be the only original example and the only one that is authentic?
    How do we know whether this was the first one ever made? Or the only one ever used ritually?

    How do we know whether the Baule studio/workshop that created the beautiful Himmelfeber piece also created a bunch of others with similar features for ritual use by diviners?  

    And how do we know whether some of those others actually pre-dated the creation of the Himmelfeber oracle?

    This reminds me of the absurd claim that David Livingstone ‘discovered’ Victoria Falls in 1855. OK – he discovered it for the West. But the Falls have been known for millennia as Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the Smoke that thunders”) in the Tonga language.  We will never know the discoverer. But we do know for certain that he/she was an African. It is only our Western colonial ethno-centricity that makes a White man the discoverer of something wondrous for Western tourism that has existed for umpteen millions of years as one of the great natural wonders of the planet.

    I also wonder why an esoteric utilitarian piece designed for mice divination - principally a vessel - would be made for sale to tourists. And why so much trouble went into making it appear old and worn.

    So I invite comments about this particular example that would also be relevant to the broader discussion we have been having about ‘authenticity’ and provenance.


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