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Use of Cowrie Shells in African Art

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  • Lee Rubinstein
    In response to Willy s inquiry some time ago, I had put together a quick selection of cowried objects for which I was able to find accessible images and
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 17, 2006
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      In response to Willy's inquiry some time ago, I had put together a quick selection of cowried objects for which I was able to find accessible images and thought perhaps some of you might be interested in viewing the images and/or visiting some of the sites linked.  This is by no means a compete, exhaustive survey nor does it provide deep analysis of the culture-specific meanings or history of the individual instances in which cowries are used.  Nevertheless, it does offer a glimpse and directions for further inquiry and discussion.

      Among the most extraordinary and beautiful cowrie-inclusive objects are those of the Kuba in the Kasai region of Zaire.  The neighboring Lele also do exquisite embellishment of mask headdresses with cowries. Although these are just two sources where you can see some incredible relevant examples, I encourage you to look at the sites of the Peabody Museum at Harvard (http://www.peabody.harvard.edu/col/Search.cfm) and in the Smithsonian's Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (http://sirismm.si.edu/siris/eepaculturegroup.htm) at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC:  

      Necklace with cowrie shells; Peabody Number 998-18-50/12837

      I'm not sure whether the image above has come through but it can be searched through the Peabody link above by searching for Kuba. (http://www.peabody.harvard.edu/col/default.cfm)  The catalogue number for this object is 998-18-50/12837.

      You can search the Elisofon archives through the "eepa" link above.  Among the most beautiful and ornate uses of cowries by the Kuba in their royal regalia, see -- for example:    http://sirismm.si.edu/eepa/eep/eepa_02141.jpg
      Another wonderful example use of cowries that comes to mind are their use in wedding baskets generally attributed to the Yoruba but a Hausa/Kanuri informant has told me that these baskets are Hausa not Yoruba.  (Perhaps there is overlapping use...)  These images are from a commercial site but I have some of these baskets as well and can forward better images, if you decide that this type of object is something you wish to include.
      These images came from the web-site of GORGEOUS textiles from Marla Mallett (www.marlamallett.com)

      Also from Nigeria, there are various Yoruba objects ehich are embellished with cowrie shells such as this:

      Eshu Staff
      Yoruba Culture, Nigeria/Republic of Benin, 1800s-1900s
      Wood, cowrie shells, glass beads, string, cloth, seeds
      15 3/8 inches high
      Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Purchase, The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 88.43
      Source:  http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/collections/88_43.html
      Another instance of use that you may find particularly intriguing is a small number of rare Kongo nkisi figures which feature a HUGE cowrie shell in place of the more common glass or mirror that is usually placed in the abdomen.  There are a few examples; these two are from the Dallas Museum of Arts and the Detroit Institute of Arts:

      Standing male figure (nkisi Mangaaka)
      Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cabinda, Chiloango River Valley, Kongo peoples, Yombe group
      Late 19th century
      Wood, iron, raffia, kaolin pigment, red camwood powder (tukula), and cowrie shell
      44 1/32 x 15 5/8 x 1 3/8 in. (111.8 x 39.7 x 3.5 cm)
      Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the McDermott Foundation, 1996.184.FA

      All minkisi (power figures) in whatever form—wooden figures, snail shells, fiber bags, or clay pots—are containers for the magical substances, or “medicine,” that activate them. Carved figures usually have cranial and/or abdominal cavities into which the medicine is inserted. Nkisi Mangaaka have beards that also serve this purpose. The function of the nkisi Mangaaka was to assure that oaths sworn before it were honored.

      When agreements or oaths were sworn in its presence, a nganga (ritual specialist) activated the spirit force contained in the figure by hammering a nail or blade into its body. As suggested by its aggressive posture, called vonganana (“to come on strong”), the figure stood ready to attack or defend, as required.

      This nkisi Mangaaka is one of eight that originated in the workshop of an unknown Kongo master sculptor along the boundary between Portuguese Cabinda and the old Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Its unique style is distinguished by the treatment of the eyes, the modeling of the head and shoulders, a giant cowrie shell covering the abdominal cavity, and the placement of the feet on separate rectangular blocks instead of a common base.

      Nail Figure (nkisi n'kondi)

      ca. 1875-1900; Zaire, Yombe; Wood, screws, nails, blades, cowrie shell, other
      materials; height 116.8 cm (46 in.) Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art;

      This Nail Figure served as doctor, judge, and priest. It was carved to capture the power of spirits (minkisi, singular nkisi) which was necessary for healing and adjudicating disputes. The figure was filled with powerful magical substances (bilongo) by priests (naganga) who tended it in a shrine and made its spirit powers available to individuals. The large cowrie shell beld strong medicines that gave the sculpture its power. This nkisi n'kondi would have originally worn a large beard and a straw skirt.

      When an agreement was reached both sides would swear an oath before the nkisi n'kondi and drive iron blabes or nails into it to seal the oath. In this way the figure's supernatural powers could be called upon to punish those who broke their oaths.


      Also of interest may be the use of the cowrie in Dogon divination in Mali...

      A Dogon elder tells the future with Cowrie shells. Mali. West Africa.

      © Bryan & Cherry Alexander Photography

      Source:  http://www.arcticphoto.co.uk/gallery2/other/dogon/mal0279-27.htm


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