In 1850-51, a French military officer named Hyacinthe Hecquard sketched two of the local monuments that captured his attention as he explored the Lagoon region of the southeastern Ivory Coast (Mark 1987: 57). Both were large posts supporting layers of male and female figures. Remarkably, one of the posts that Hecquard had sketched appears in a photograph taken over fifty years later that circulated as a postcard for a Catholic missionary order (Missions Africains of Lyon, France); the image was labeled Sculpture et miniatures indigènes. In this early 20thcentury photograph, the post was still on display in the reception room of an important leader of a lagoon community, even though its figures had lost their upraised arms. Two people in the photograph provide a sense of scale, showing that the post’s surviving figures are about half life-size.
This extraordinary figure on a painted plinth, formerly in the collections of Merton Simpson and Allan Stone, shares many features with the statuary on the post that was documented in the 1850 sketch and in the early 20th century postcard. Her striking hairstyle, formed of two imposing conical structures, is worn by one of the female figures visible in both the sketch and the postcard, and she stands on a flared, pierced base almost identical in form to the platform supporting the 19th century figures. Her sturdy torso, prominent buttocks, and thick segmented legs, as well as her attached, outstretched arms, match those of the 19th century statues. All of these attributes are stylistic markers for 19th and 20th century figures sculpted by Lagoon artists.
On the other hand, the curved hands (with their enormous thumbs) are quite distinctive. Together with the figure’s boldly delineated face and neck, they link her to three other documented works, all attributed to a sculptor we can now only identify as the “Master of the Huge Hands”. One of the works in this small corpus is a seated figure once in the collections of Pierre Verité and Dr. Girardin, now owned by the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Corps sculptés, corps parés, corps masqués: chefs-d’oeuvre de Côte d’Ivoire, Ministère de la Coopération et du Développement, 1989, p. 53, fig. 15). The two other figures, a female and male pair, entered a colonial museum in Abidjan separately, in 1942 and 1950 (Ibid., p. 54, figs. 13 and 14). The two statues from the Abidjan museum (now the Musée des Civilisations de Côte d'Ivoire) will represent the oeuvre of the “Master of the Huge Hands” in African Masters: Art from Ivory Coast, an exhibition organized by the Rietberg Museum that will travel to several European venues during 2014 - 2016.
Unfortunately, we know little of the religious context of sculpted pillars from the Lagoon region. During the colonial period, these carved columns disappeared from the homes and from the public pathways of the southeastern Ivory Coast, and their association with supernatural powers may have been a principal cause of their demise; during the second decade of the 20th century, Christian converts throughout the Lagoon region smashed, burned or discarded sculpture associated with prior religious beliefs. If figures on houseposts had originally been commissioned as self-portraits by their owners, they might have served as sites for ancestral veneration in later generations. Colonial reports also mention that minimally adorned poles received blood sacrifices for clan deities in some Lagoon communities, and Christian iconoclasts may therefore have believed that sculpted houseposts were involved in similar practices.
There are about a dozen diverse populations in the Lagoon region who are collectively known as Lagunaires in French (and “Lagoon peoples” in English). Their ancestral lands, scattered along the coastal beaches, rivers, lagoons and inland hills of southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, are now filled with immigrants; the megapolis of Abidjan has swallowed up several Lagoon groups, and their communities are now surrounded by the city and its suburbs. All of the Lagoon peoples are considered to be “Akan” by their compatriots, as most of their languages are distantly related to those of Akan populations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. In fact, there has always been considerable artistic and cultural interchange between the Lagoon peoples and their Akan neighbors, especially the Anyi (Agni), Baule (Baoule), and Nzema (Apollo), even though differences between Baule and Lagoon sculptural styles reflect radically different aesthetic sensibilities.
Collectors have often attempted to link Lagoon artworks to ethnic categories that were established by colonial administrators. However, Lagoon ethnic classifications and sub-classifications are unwieldy and complex. For example, people who refer to themselves as Akye and Kyaman (correctly pronounced as “Atsheh” and “Tshamã”) are called “Attié” and “Ebrié” by outsiders, while the Gwa (Goua) are known by the pejorative term “M’Batto”. This fine sculptural work by the “Master of the Huge Hands” demonstrates why precise ethnic attributions are also untrustworthy; Hecquard sketched one of the sculpted posts described above in an Abure (Abouré) town, but similar monuments have been assigned by colonial sources and local elders to other Lagoon groups, including the Aladyan (Alladian), Avikam, and Aizi (Ahizi). The personal style of the “Master of the Huge Hands” recalls Lagoon works that have been identified as Kyaman, Akye and Adjukru (Visonà, Constructing African Art Histories for the Lagoons of Côte d’Ivoire, Ashgate, 2010, pp. 79-81) . Early 20th century artists in Ivory Coast evidently crossed linguistic and cultural borders in search of commissions, while patrons sought out the creations of distant artists (Visonà, “Art from Côte d’Ivoire”, Tribal Art, Special Issue #3, 2012, pp. 22-25). It is thus both more convenient and more accurate to label this compelling work “Lagoon” rather than attributing it specifically to the Abure, Akye, or Gwa.
Monica Blackmun Visonà, PhD
Lexington, September 2013
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