Lobi Art and Culture
by Julien Bosc


A presentation of the Lobi

            Approximately 200,000 Lobi live mainly in southwest Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) where the wooded savannah spreads out across valleys intertwined with numerous rivers and streams. The region shares its borders with Ghana and Cote d'lvoire, where many Lobi go to live or for seasonal work. This is particularly true in Cote d'lvoire, where roughly 60,000 Lobi live mainly in the northern region of Bouna.
            Even today, it is impossible to determine with certainty the precise origins of the Lobi. We do know that they arrived in the region they currently occupy from Ghana after having crossed the Black Volta (called Miir by the Lobi). It is on its banks that, every seven years, the Lobi hold the Dyoro, an initiatory ceremony in memory of the journey undertaken by their ancestors (Kontina). According to the Lobi, they came originally from Mali, only stopping in Ghana along the way, which may explain the sometimes striking resemblance between Dogon and Lobi artifacts. It is a question that remains unanswered.
Other populations preceded the Lobi in the region. The first were the Teesse or Teguessie (called Thuuna by the Lobi), who are referred to as the "Masters of the land". They were followed by the Gan and later the Koulango. The Lobi, for their part, came only towards the end of the 18th century, before the subsequent arrival of the Birifor and Dagara.
             These various and different populations were brought together in one "family tree" called "Lobi" by Henri Labouret, who based this usage on "the truly extraordinary resemblance between the clan names of these six tribes"(1) (he did not include the Dagari). Labouret nevertheless recorded the linguistic particularities of each of these populations. These did not go unnoticed by Maurice Delafosse who, as early as 1908, wrote: "It is quite wrongly that we habitually refer to as Lobi the populations that inhabit Bouna and Diebougou. The Lobi form only a very small part of the whole, limited to the area around the Dioulou mountains (Gaoua region). The rest is composed of the Birifor and Dagara tribes, whose language is very different from that of the Lobi, though their customs, particularly those of the Birifo, are analogous to those of the Lobi."(2)
            Indeed, these diverse populations share close ties with one another, sometimes even sharing members. This is true be it through their clans - the same matronyms (or their linguistic equivalents) can be found among both the Lobi and the Birifor, for example -or through their cultural practices and methods, the structure of their societies, their same style of scattered housing, or by their common cultural background. Their languages (for the Lobi: Lobiri), though different, are part of the same linguistic group, "Gur" or "Voltaic". Also, they share certain rituals and ceremonies, particularly the Dyoro, or great initiatory ceremony that takes place every seven years and gathers every man and woman over the age of seven.(3)
             Thanks to Labouret, we know that the "Lobi tree" has, over time, lost several of its branches, since when we speak of the "Lobi" today, we are designating essentially the Lobi, Birifor, Thuuna and Dagara tribes. Today the cultural particularities of each have also been emphasized by new research. For example, research shows that patrilocality is more widely practiced among the Birifor than among the Lobi, and that the Dagara must be divided into the Dagara Lobr and the Dagara Wile. The former resemble the Lobi through the uterine, or cognatic, transfer of cattle ownership, while the other follows an agnatic system of property ownership.
            Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish a real difference between Lobi and Birifor statuary, while Dagara statuary has little to do with either. Well known today, the anthropomorphic Dagara statues are recognizable by their upside-down "Y" shape, more or less stylized according to the sculptor's intentions or talent. Also, some terracotta figurines can be identified today as belonging to the Gan culture, though they had been previously believed to belong to that of the Lobi. Today, for this exhibition, we will limit ourselves to Lobi culture and art, unless otherwise indicated.

Lineage and social organization
             As a result of the work of Henri Labouret, it was long believed that Lobi society was matrilineal when in fact it is bilineal. Indeed, every Lobi belongs to three lineages:
- the caar, or matrilineal group made up of four matriclans (Hien, Da, Kambire, Pale/Some)
- the codaar, or group corresponding to the father's matriclan
- the kouon, or patrilineal group made up of over one hundred patrilineages.
cliquez pour aller voir la statuette entière             If the matronym is passed down according to the system of uterine lineage, the importance of the patrician is made all the more so by the fact that it is linked to the different Lobi cults and ceremonies, the most important of which is the Dyoro: it is on the occasion of this initiatory ceremony that each new initiate (dyorbe) first learns to which patrician he belongs. Moreover, as soon as he is born, every Lobi is placed under the protection of the tikouon (the father's patri-lineage) by being anointed with the nouokathii (the tikouon's medicine). Thus, all his life, a Lobi remains dependant on the spiritual powers (thila), his kouon and his caar. As for the transmission of belongings (cattle, grain, harvest), these are inherited by the fathers uterine nephews (the sons of his sisters), while his home, land, farming tools, thila and statuettes (the thilbia) are transmitted to a father's firstborn son or the son he deems worthy of such an inheritance.
             As for the organization of Lobi social and political life, it is an acephalous system in that it neither recognizes nor knows any centralized power that would exercise its authority over the whole of the group (among the "Lobi" populations, only the Gan have a king). Moreover, the Lobi have no caste of artisans such that, in principle, whoever would want to become a blacksmith or sculptor can do so.
             Nevertheless, an authority is exerted at the heart of every extended family by the head of the family. He is also the tyodaarkhoun, or religious head of the tyor (a term that signifies "household" both in terms of a place to live as well as a unit of production). He is also in charge of the land and responsible for the economic output of the household. It is he who settles any conflicts that arise within the family.
             At the village level, there is a dithildaar, who is the agnatic heritor of the village's founder and serves as the village priest. While not wielding any real power over the village's inhabitants, he serves a regulating function by assuring harmony between them, by policing the prohibitions specific to the village and by looking after the different offerings made at the village altar (the dithit). As a descendant of the villages founder, when asked, the dithildaar decides what land an inhabitant can use to cultivate crops and build his home.
             If, from a temporal view, Lobi society is indeed acephalous, it is also true that a certain structure and authority are exercised over each and every Lobi by the thila. They structure Lobi society both religiously and politically. In the absence of a centralized power, the thila are the keepers of the village authority, order and social equilibrium.
             Also, in so far as sculpture is concerned, one must understand from where arise the thila, who they are, and how and why they act. If only for the sole reason that Lobi statuettes are indeed works of art, carved by sculptors who in some cases are gifted with an incontestable "genius," the statuettes are no less fundamentally linked to these thila of which they are not only a representation but the material, visible manifestation.

From thila to thilbia
             For the Lobi, at the origin of all things is a God and creator, Thangba. He created the sky and the land, the lakes and rivers, the plants, trees and animals, and he gave life to man and woman. As the myth is told, in the first days of the world, men lived to be very old without worry or suffering. Game was abundant; millet and the different foods necessary for their nourishment grew without the land needing to be worked. This perfect life, one that created an ideal balance between the natural elements (earth, water, sky...) and man, as well as between man and Thangba, who shared their daily lives, fell apart the day when two men coveted the same woman. They fought, killing one of the men. From that day on, harmony was shattered.
             Disappointed by the vulgarity of the men he had created, Thangba withdrew himself from their company. But since they needed to be punished, he obliged man to work for his nourishment, to fight animals and sickness in order to survive. Nevertheless, Thangba could not bring himself to abandon man entirely and leave him alone to face his destiny without even the barest consolation to help him endure the universe. Also, so that the connection between himself and man not be so radically cut, he created the kontee, who are "spirits" who live in the wilderness, and the thila, who correspond to what is commonly called "the spiritual powers."
             Among the kontee, one must distinguish two kinds: the kontee-pou (the "bad" kontee) and the kontee-bouo (the "good" kontee).
             The kontee-pou live in caves, underwater or in the trees. Khaldelete Hien, an old soothsayer (bouordaar) living in Dyantara, several kilometers west of Gaoua, describes them this way: "The kontee-pou are the size of a small child, they're red and have thick hair. They can surprise you during the day, but also at night if you go to the places where they live."
             They are harmful and prowl from one place to another, watching over men at almost every moment in order to punish them if they commit the slightest transgression. According to Tyoheepte Pale, a sculptor and soothsayer who died in 2001 at age 86: "The kontee-pou hurt men. They can catch a man and make him disappear for days before they let him go. When they catch a man, they make him stay in the wilderness -you don't know how he manages to eat or stay alive. Sometimes, when a man comes "A back, he's completely crazy... The kontee-pou can have stolen his ability to speak. An eloquent man can suddenly no longer speak but only stare at others with wild and weary eyes."(4)
             These kontee-pou are all the more able thanks to the fact that they remain invisible to the common man.(5) If a man can see them, it is because he has been "struck." As Tyohepte explains, he is then surely going to go mad or fall ill and never recover, unless he possesses or can obtain a thil capable of counteracting and destroying the negative effects of the kontee-pou.
             The thila are directly related to the kontee-bouo (the good kontee) and are, in a way, their emanation. Contrary to the kontee-pou, they ensure good harvests, help women to be fertile and children and adults to resist any pain or sickness likely to befall them. They thus counteract the harm that the kontee-pou inflict upon the Lobi. Like the kontee-pou, the kontee-bouo also are invisible. But, if the former are never visible unless they themselves choose to be, the latter can be brought into the visible world by being represented and incarnated through many, extremely different media. In general, they can be incarnated by a simple piece of wood, metal or even a stone planted in the ground. In the case of a stone, it can be a common stone situated in a particular place (underwater in a stream or river, a stone found at a crossroads or found in a cave...) or a specific kind of stone (clay, shale...). Being the least elaborate media, these require no intervention by the hand of man (except for the metal that is first made by a blacksmith). However, a thil can desire to be incarnated in a more sophisticated manner. And it must be understood that a thil can be incarnated only once it has demanded to be so, something only a soothsayer (bouordaar) is capable of discovering. During a divination(6), the soothsayer reveals to his client that a thil would like to pass from the invisible to visible realm and indicates the medium - a piece of iron, an amulet, a forked branch, a wooden statuette. At this, the client goes to see the artisan of his choice. If it is for a thilbia, the sculptor (tinthildaar) will do his best to satisfy the client's request by respecting the exact dimensions and demeanor indicated by the client, who obtained them during the consultation with the soothsayer.
             A thil can thus be represented by an object in iron or bronze, which for example may depict a chameleon or a snake, in which case a blacksmith is called on to fashion the object according to the client's request. Other times, a sculpture may also be made out of clay and can consequently attain considerable proportions. Surely the most elaborate and complex form, a sculpture in wood can also be used to incarnate the power of the thila. Here again, the sculpture might depict a chameleon or a snake, a bird or a fish, but most often the sculptures are anthropomorphic statuettes. More rarely, these statuettes can be made out of stone or ivory (7). Together, these are the thilbia (singular thilbou). Since the work of Piet Meyer, the Lobi statuettes carved out of wood have often been designated by the term buthibe or buthiba, despite that these are Birifor terms (though some Lobi do also use them). Still, virtually all Lobi use the terms thilbou and thilbia to refer to the wooden statuettes, and these are the terms we will use from now on to refer to Lobi statuary.
            The thila (whose thilbia -the stones, pieces of wood or iron we just mentioned- constitute the "receptacle"(8) of their divine nature), despite that or indeed because they help men in their daily lives, are very demanding. To act, they require bloody sacrifices, they demand to be served and honored, and they require that the prohibitions they dictate be respected. Surely more than anything else, the thila detest being forgotten and neglected, and that their instructions not be followed. And their countless instructions can differ for each thil and in particular according to the person for whom the thil intervenes. A thil, for example, can require that one man no longer eat goat or guinea fowl and that another no longer hunt a particular animal, while another thil can demand that its beneficiary become a thilbia sculptor. This desire, like any of a thil's desires, cannot be refused. Otherwise, illness or death will strike the man or those close to him.
             Some Lobi thus become sculptors when a thil obliges them to, while others choose to sculpt to carry on their father's profession or simply by personal choice. In each case, the individual must undergo a specific initiation ritual that consists essentially of the acquisition of a medicine (the thel-thii) able to protect one against the madness, blindness or paralysis inflicted by the tree-dwelling kontee-pou.

Ways of acquiring thila
There are several ways to acquire a thil:
             First, there is the thil that appears (thil-ke-yi-fini). A Lobi meets this thil when he is in the wilderness and the thil incarnates itself as an animal or a piece of iron. Simply seeing one of these thila suffices to make a man mad or fall ill, or at least upset that man's personality. Also, an animal killed by a hunter can, when it is cut open, reveal a metal object, indicating the presence of a thil manifesting itself to the hunter. A thil can also appear during a recurring and sometimes traumatizing dream. In any case, it is a soothsayer ( bouordaar) who, after consulting his own thila, confirms that it is indeed a thil that wishes to be "installed" by the person to whom it has revealed itself. Note, in passing, that the first thil that reveals itself to a man is called wathil.(9)
             Second, there are the thila that one borrows (thil-dinani-sono). Every thil has a particular competence. Still, one thil can have several competences, and different thila can share the same competence. One may be known to ensure a good harvest, another to make a sterile woman fertile, and another may be known to heal a particular illness. When a Lobi has a problem, he goes to see the thildaar who possesses the thil apt to solve his problem, and the thildaar gives him medicine (thil). If later his client wants to thank the thil who helped him, the thildaar asks him to come back with a hen, a rooster, a chick, some salt, etc. in order to offer these to the thil, who can accept or refuse to be borrowed by the client. If it accepts, the person is able to borrow the thil but must make sacrifices to it as indicated by the thildaar. The thil is then incarnated by a small bell (gyeleni) or a thilbou. If the thil performed what was asked of it, approximately three years later the client must return to the thildaar to ask him to initiate him once again to the thil, and repeat the process a third time three years later. At that point, the client possesses the thil completely and can lend it to others in turn. So to fully install a thil, three steps are necessary. A thilbia sculptor, or tinthildar, in order to obtain the theel-thii, borrows thila from a sculptor who already possesses them in this same way.
Third, there are the thila one inherits (fi-thi-thil). These are the thila that, having belonged to the father, are inherited by his son. These are thila that both appeared to the father as well as those he borrowed from others. If the thila borrowed by the father were not entirely installed (the father ps. not having completed all three initiatory steps), it is his inheritor's responsibility to complete the process.
             Fourth, there are the thila that one receives as a gift {yuwe ye fi). The rarest thila, they are strictly personal and can be neither inherited nor borrowed. They are either received at birth or manifest themselves as a thil that appears (through a vision of an animal, the discovery of a piece of metal inside the body of a fe hunted animal, or through a recurring dream), and it is a soothsayer who reveals to the client that he has seen a yuwe.             Each of these thila exists as an autonomous spiritual power, but each of them is also the intermediary (with the exception of the yuwe) through which an ancestor's (kontin) double (thou) comes back to visit a descendant if he wishes to assist, guide or help that person in life - in exchange for something else, of course. The soothsayer and sculptor Tyophete Pale explains: "All thila are ancestors. The thila appear to you, they are your ancestors that have come to help you because they think that you deserve it, that you show proper respect to your family, your father, your mother and the thila already in the house. You also have to have a wife and children. The thila are intermediaries between you and your ancestors. When you "charlater"(10), you say the names of the thil and of the ancestor. But it's not the thou of just any ancestor that will come back this way. It has to be a person un autel intérieurwho died when old, a person who possessed many thila himself. And when he comes back, it's only through the intermediary of a thil that he already himself possessed."
             To this, one must add that not just any ancestor can come back for any one of his descendants. A father and the maternal uncles can only come back for their sons or their sisters' sons. A mother can return only for her daughter, a mother's mother only for her daughter's sons.
             As for the father, or thre in Lobiri, it's important to note that, on the one hand, he is never incarnated as a statuette but only by a piece of wood or metal (often a small cane) and, on the other hand, he is the only ancestor to whom any true cult is devoted. This means that the other thila, even when they are intermediaries between the living and the dead, are not part of a cult directed specifically towards one's ancestors. They can, however, be incarnated as statuettes, or thilbia, and take their place on Lobi altars.

The principal altars and their thilbia
             Several locations within the Lobi home (tyor) serve as altars to be used for thilbia. One is outside, often near the front door. It is called thildou-bou (small thildou) and can beun autel extérieur, photo de Jean Soyeux protected by a small clay and straw shelter. A second location, the nansi-thil, is situated on the house's roof and terrace. There, often can be found a small statuette (thilbou-bou) and/or an overturned piece of pottery as well as a length of metal -all objects that incarnate the first thil (the wathil) that appeared to the head of the house. Other thila, often symbolized by a thilbou-bou, belong to the wives and are essentially useful to them for their crafts and commercial activities. A third altar is called the thildou. Around it are assembled all of the thilbia that incarnate the thila in the thildaar's possession. Also found there are the medicines (thii thunon) and medicinal flasks {thigboro) made from gourds, the small metal bells (gyeleni) used to call the thila and the ancestors (kontina) during divination ceremonies, horse tails (nansuo) symbolizing other thila, sacred canaries {thil boulabina), money for sacrifices offered to the thila (money described as "bitter", called musoumou-thil or mousoumou-kha in Lobiri), the divination bag (bouor-lokaar), etc. -everything, in short, having to do with the thila. But in addition to this there are often other objects that the thildaar considers most valuable: clothing, silverware, old bottles of alcohol, photographs, identity papers, tarnished childhood jewelry or garments, a hairbrush, other various old things... - in a word, an assorted collection of objects placed here and there that give the thildou an appearance of genuine disarray in which the variously sized thilbia, whose diversity of shape and attitude surprises the observer, give off a certain majesty and mystery, a deeply troubling presence and even sometimes a striking beauty.
             A thil is definitively installed only after three stages. If it demands to become visible in the form of a thilbou, one begins by having sculpted a thilbou-bou, or small statuette, the successive versions of which must grow in size with each stage of installation. The soothsayers and sculptors all explain that a thil is like a man, which is why he is first small and slowly becomes an adult.
             There are thus three categories of thilbia that correspond to the various sizes, though the measurements assigned to them here are approximate:
- the thilbou-bia, or small statuettes between ten and twenty centimeters tall
- the thilbou-manainni sono, or statuettes of intermediate sizes, between twenty and fifty centimeters tall
- the thilbou kontina, which range from sixty centimeters to over one meter tall. These are the most rare.
A fourth category must be added: the bobothila. Not more than ten centimeters tall, these statuettes are used for divination and are kept by the soothsayer in his goatskin bag (the bouorlokaar).
             What all these statuettes have in common, and what sets them apart from the majority of the statuary of Black Africa, is their immense variety of form and demeanor. The range is so large that it's difficult to inventory them in any exhaustive way. Nevertheless, let us mention some of the most frequent:
- statuettes with both arms raised, the thilbou nyella, which protect a home from death
- statuettes with one arm raised, the thilbou banyo, which protect from sorcery
- statuettes with the head turned to one side, the thilbou fi hin, which keep watch against the arrival of enemies
- statuettes of a woman with a child on her back or carried on her hip, the thilbou khe bambi, which are often prescribed to prevent sterility for women
- statuettes depicting a man and a woman making love (the man always positioned behind the woman), the thilbou khe mounkha, which are prescribed for single men so that they find a wife or to women to avoid sterility
- statuettes with two heads, or "Janus" statuettes, called thilbou you-yenyo, which according to some are used against sorcery
- statuettes that are made up of only a long neck and head, the thilbou yo, whose purpose we do not know
- statuettes depicting a seated man or woman with his legs stretched out in front of him, called thilbou gbamgbar. According to certain soothsayers, these protect children and the elderly from paralysis.
             For each of these thilbia, we have indicated the function that any given Lobi may attribute to them. But it must be noted that for other soothsayers, healers or sculptors, the same thilbou can have a different purpose altogether. For example, according to the blacksmith and soothsayer Sipine Khambou, the thilbou nyella ensures that he will have good harvests, rather than protect his house from death as some others believe. For the sculptor and soothsayer Tyohepte Pale, the thilbou gbamgbar ensures that old individuals will enjoy a peaceful old age. All things considered, then, -and this is essential - the same thilbou can have many kinds of power according to the person possessing it.
             Moreover, almost all thila can be incarnated by almost any thilbou. In part this is also why a soothsayer, in his thildou, can designate several thilbia, each with different attitudes, and claim that they incarnate one or another thil. And in fact, when one speaks of a thilbou, one never identifies it according to its appearance. Rather, it is designated by the name of the thil for which it is the visible incarnation.
             But to return to our discussion of thila and their different shapes and attitudes, one must discuss the thilbia with extraordinary appearances: statuettes with two or three heads or with several arms, statuettes depicting one figure standing on another's head, or statuettes with two legs but also with two torsos and heads, etc. These statuettes are to be considered apart from the others. We have already explained that one must distinguish between the kontee-bouo (the good kontee) and the kontee-pou (the bad kontee): the first are thila, unlike the second that are, by definition, harmful to man. The thilbia with extraordinary appearances cannot incarnate the power of the kontee-pou (no more than they can allow them to become visible). On the contrary, they are demanded by the thila in order to neutralize the power of the kontee-pou to do harm by representing a sort of "mirror image" of them. When a soothsayer speaks of these statues, he calls them kontee-pou.
            Without wanting to call into question our analysis up until now, it is important to note that, for the Lobi, there exists no classification of the various forms and attitudes of the different thilbia, if only for the reason already explained that a statuette with a particular form can signify different things depending on its owner, and the same signification can be accomplished with different statuettes whose attitudes are different in every respect.
             Faced with an art form that surprises, disconcerts and fascinates, one feels the need to penetrate the thick obscurity and find a rationality that might reassure us and offer an answer to all our questions. But we must keep in mind that those who use or sculpt these objects - objects that are the visible companions of invisible powers - have no need to classify them in different categories. They know them intimately, each according to his life, his experience, and his needs, like they have learned to recognize day and night, knowledge and mystery, to know life from death...
             In death, the body disappears, the voice is silenced, and the face fades to nothing, never to return. This is what is the most frightening and unacceptable. If the Lobi feel, as strongly as they do, the need to sculpt or possess thilbia, which are a receptacle for the thila (who in turn carry the thou of the ancestors), it's that the thilbia resemble them in as much as time separates yet reunites them. The thila are intermediaries between the living and the dead on the one hand, and between the Lobi and their God and creator on the other. On the one hand they occupy an obscure and invisible world, and on the other they maintain a connection with Creation and the sky.
           This is why the Lobi need the thila to resemble them as closely as possible, in such a way that when the thila go from the invisible to the visible realm, they take on this human and anthropomorphic "appearance" that makes them seem no longer shadowy and distant but instead familiar. They appear fully in this world, where death is unrelenting but whose onslaught - on the condition that one honors them - can be fought by the thila and their visible manifestation, the thilbia. Or, more often, they simply lighten the burden of what leads inevitably to death: life itself. Life precedes the disappearance of the body as day turns to night -the passing of the visible to the invisible. In short, it is the inverse of the path taken by the thila who, in the scuptor's hands, go from invisible to visible in a sort of exchange by which artistic creation is used to try to ward off death. This is made possible by sculpting as beautifully as possible a work of art as close as possible to man's experience - before death -, as if the Lobi needed to appropriate death in order to fear it less. It's a question of esthetics, a universally human question - in short, a question about art.

Everyday esthetics
             Rather than try to explain the Lobi sense of esthetics, I prefer to share the commentary of several Lobi I met on more than one occasion in the Gaoua region. They allow one to grasp, one might say "in the heat of the action", the importance the Lobi accorded then and now to the esthetics of certain ornaments and daily artifacts.
            Over seventy years old, Helera Hien lives in Gongombili, fifteen kilometers south of Gaoua. She wears a T-shirt and cheap loincloth, like all the other women of the village. But when she and the others go to market, attend funerals or other ceremonies, they wear theirhabillement traditionnel dans les années 1950, photo de Jean Soyeux finest loincloths. Up until the 1970s, this wasn't the case. With both liveliness and the nostalgia of an old woman for the days of her youth, Helera Hien shares her memories about the old ways of dress: "Before, we all dressed the same way. At the time, clothing hadn't yet arrived among the Lobi. All we wore were woven belts (yee) around the waist. We made them ourselves by finding tall grass in the wilderness that we wove together by hand. Sometimes we added leaves, while other times, especially for ceremonies, we added wires (dyodyo) that hung in front of our genitals or our buttocks. It was very pretty and when you wanted to look appealing that's how you did it. \When clothes didn't exist, that's how we would make ourselves pretty and alluring. It was very beautiful."
             About the grass belts, Bakana Hien, a potter who lives in Nyobini, roughly five kilometers from Gaoua, adds: "So that the belts look good, they needed to be clean. We bought soap and often washed them by rubbing them with other grass and sand. All the women did that when I was young. When the men saw us go by, they'd say, 'Here's a pretty young woman, everything she's wearing looks good on her!"
             These grass belts that decorated the waists of the women, with leaves or dangling wires sometimes embellished with cowrie shells draping down the stomach and kidneys, were not the only adornment women wore at the time. The soothsayer and sculptor Tyohepte Pale recalls this about his mother: "She wore a belt of grass and leaves, but she also had tattoos. Around her stomach, there were several lines that drew a sun whose center was her navel. It was very pretty and suited her well. She also had tattoos on her upper arms that were made up of three short, parallel lines. And then, like all women, my mother wore a labret in her upper lip. She took good care of it, and several times I saw her wash it to make it shine. It was made out of wood, I think, or ivory, I can't remember. When she wanted to be even more beautiful, she rubbed her body with shea butter to make her body shine. I liked very much when she put shea butter on herself, it was very pretty. Other times, she used a bit of kaolin powder to lighten her skin."
             The sun-shaped tattoo mentioned by Tyohepte Pale was one of the most common Lobi tattoos, and it can be found on numerous female thilbia. As for the men, many of them wore tattoos at the corners of their eyes made up of three lines fanning outwards. They are also to be found on many thilbia. Indeed, the men paid no less attention to their appearance than the women, notably as concerned their hair. In 1934, Arnold Heim, a German geologist, wrote: "The Lobi are tall, handsome men, and none have the same appearance (...). Each has his own style, his hair, his jewelry, his headdress. They only share the same appearance in that they carry the same weapons (...). One is bald, another has his hair braided, yet another wears only a large headdress. The most impressive are the men whose hair have been woven, shining with grease, coated with shea butter and clay. Only the men wear their hair this way, while the women keep their hair very short."(11) Here again, thilbia sculptors do not hesitate to reproduce these diverse hairstyles and headdresses when decorating and stylizing their works.
             To better understand what might constitute the Lobi esthetics of the body, we must note that Lobi women, but also Lobi men, wear all sorts of bracelets, rings, necklaces and pendants. Some of these have spiritual value, not to mention their ornamental qualities. These are often bracelets in bronze, iron, copper or brass, amulets depicting a chameleon, snake or bird, all that symbolize the power of a thil. Of course, when these objects were worn according to the demands of a thil, the woman wearing them was not primarily concerned with the objects' ornamental potential. Nevertheless, like the thilbia, women desire an artifact as well crafted as possible, since an object's function or efficacy is not hindered by, nor is it entirely separated from its beauty.
             Much the same is true regarding the fabrication and daily use of Lobi pottery. These terracotta containers, made by hand without a potter's wheel, offer a great variety of shapes, sizes and motifs. They are used to cook, serve or store food, or to hold objects such as jewelry, cowrie shells, clothing or accessories to which the women are particularly attached. For example, women notably conserve these woven grass belts, or yee, that many old Lobi women keep to be dressed in for their funeral. About this pottery, potter Bakana Hien says: "My mother was a potter and, like her, I make a lot of pottery. To make them attractive, I engrave my own designs into them with pieces of wire. Before, we even stuck cowrie shells onto them to make them even prettier. The clients like the drawings a lot. If you make pottery, you have to put engravings on what you make, otherwise it's just ordinary pottery. That's why we decorate them according to our tastes, like someone who decorates her body to be attractive. This way I dress up my pieces of pottery so that they're pretty and so that someone will buy them. The clients go back home, start a fire, wash the pottery and dry them. And someone who goes to her home says to himself that the pottery is very pretty and that this woman knows what beauty is."
             In her bedroom, Helera Hien has more than sixty pieces of pottery. She uses only five to cook, while the others, in perfect condition, are aligned and piled along her bedroom walls as decoration: "All this pottery is to make my bedroom beautiful. That's why I line them up so well. If you want to take care of them, you have to wash them to keep them clean. For that you go find leaves, cut them down and bring them back home. You use them to polish the pottery so that it shines. For a woman, to have a pretty bedroom is very important." Besides owning pottery for its decorative or utilitarian qualities, possessing pottery is a sign of prestige. The more a woman possesses, the more she seems hardworking and courageous, since it's with the money she will have earned (by selling millet beer, food...) that she can afford to buy them. What's more, they have a symbolic value: when a Lobi dies, pottery is broken in front of his house so that the deceased can symbolically take it with him to the to the realm of the dead (khiindi-douo) to be able to continue feeding himself.
             At the market in Gaoua in 1997, I asked a woman why she bought pottery: "First of all, I buy them so that they can be broken on the day of my funeral. But also I buy them to store food and clothing, and to decorate my bedroom." The pottery she had chosen was decorated with engravings, and I tried to find out why she chose those pieces of pottery and not others: "Because I'm pretty! So the pottery that will be broken at my funeral has to be as pretty as I am!"
             This Lobi woman's remarks are an excellent demonstration of the common thread that binds together the religious, utilitarian and esthetic aspects of Lobi pottery. The same affinity and mingling of different categories can be found in Lobi sculpture.

The art of sculpture
             Beauty, be it that of a woman, a landscape, a sculpture or any other artifact, is almost always a question of criteria that are in part subjective, though they may nevertheless be common to a group, more or less large, that shares the same sociological and/or cultural environment. In truth, we could say that recognizing beauty is an oncological question, if only for the fact that the beauty of a human body, of the sky or of a work of art is often barely different whether one is European or African, the subjective criteria being, in fine, a question of personal taste. This is what Michel Leiris offers for our consideration when he writes: "In 1931, staying in Sanga with Marcel Griaule, I noticed that among the various kinds of masks we had just purchased was one that my sources said to like more than the others: precisely the one that I, who could not possibly be influenced by any functional consideration, found the most beautiful (an opinion, of course, I was careful to keep to myself)."(12) The same is true for the Dogon and their masks, though here we are concerned with statuary - among the Lobi function and beauty go together. This does not keep the Lobi from being able to say, outside of a statuette's function, what esthetical criteria are necessary to make a thilbou beautiful.
             When I met the sculptor Sipine Khambou in Nyobini, I quickly explained to him the purpose of my visit (a study ofLobi sculptors and sculpture). He told me that if I wanted to buy any thilbia, I would do better to go see Dihounte Pale or Tyohepte Pale, because they made sculptures that were far more beautiful than his own. Hence I found myself immediately at the heart of my subject. Soon after, I asked him, "How does one know that a statuette is beautiful?" and he answered: "It must resemble a man. The arms and legs must be well sculpted and the head, especially, needs to resemble a man's head."
             Tyohepte Pale says the same thing: a thilbou must resemble a man, and the face must be carefully sculpted. It is important, for Tyohepte Pale, that a statuette be beautiful, but in sculpture beauty is not an easy affair, which is why he explains: "Each thilbou has imperfections because they're like men, and men aren't perfect."
             As for Gberingyile Pale, a sculptor in Danhal-Pkangara, after telling me that a statuette's beauty depends on an overall equilibrium of form, then said this: "A statuette is beautiful when it so much resembles a man that I'd like to meet him." Also, it came about that when I was at the home of Tyohepte Pale, who sculpts in front of his house where passersby never cease to come and go, that some of them would say to him "a boore" (he's beautiful) or "de boore" (it's beautiful) about a statuette he was sculpting. Since the thilbou he was sculpting were not yet sacred and could not be thought to incarnate a particular thil, the comments of the passersby could only be in reference to the statuette's appearance and not its function. Indeed, a thilbou is made sacred and goes from being a simple object to incarnating a thil through the unction of sacrificial blood, which means that before this, it is nothing other than a simple wooden object, not as it might be found in nature but fashioned, manipulated and sculpted by man.(13)
             But even if we were to abandon this ethnocentric set of problems, Lobi statuary cannot, in situ, be separated from its function, all the more so since its function is only reinforced by its plastic beauty. Thus Tyohepte Pale said to me one day: "If you make an ugly thilbou for your thil, he'll make you have ugly children in return." Another sculptor, Tyohoulinte Hien, who lives in the Passena region, also says about the beauty and efficacy of one's thilbou: "When you have a beautiful thilbou, the thil knows that you venerate it. And if you want to meet a woman, you'll meet a beautiful woman."
             These two remarks attest to how important it is for the Lobi that "ritual objects must be 'as beautiful as possible' to be as efficient as possible, because they must please the gods and the ancestors such that, far from being its only determining factor, a statuette's functional value is closely dependant on its being recognized as esthetically attractive."(14) Here, the Lobi sculptors repeat several times that, according to a thilbou's beauty, its thil satisfies the wishes of the one who honors him with such beauty. This sort of fair exchange - which first brings to mind the sacrifices that are made to the thila -also implies the expenses of varying importance that a Lobi can or must undertake to earn the good graces of the thila in his possession. And this is why the thildara, or those who possess thila, are ready to spend more money for a good sculptor whose statuettes are more beautiful.
             Of course, one does not always have the means to buy the thilbou one desires. Among the Lobi, as elsewhere, beauty and talent cost money, and if the statuette's functional value or efficacy is closely tied to its plastic subtleties, its market value is as well. Indeed, on the subject Tyohepte Pale says: "My prices are high because I know that I sculpt very well. And if you ask me to make different kinds of statuettes, I know how to sculpt it. I can sculpt statuettes of any shape."
             Kaldelete Hien, a thildaar in Dyantara, owns a rather large number of thilbia, some of which were sculpted by Tyohepte Pale and others that were sculpted by Sipine Khambou. Which does he prefer? Without hesitation, he points to those sculpted by Tyohepte, adding: "Sipine! He's a beginner! When I bring out his statuettes for ceremonies and the people see them, they think they're ugly! But as far as Tyohepte is concerned, he knows how to sculpt, he knows what he's doing, and he makes very beautiful thilbia."
            I wanted to know why, if he preferred Tyoheptes thilbia, he still bought statuettes from Sipine, and he explained that if he had had the means, he would buy only beautiful statuettes: "I needed a thilbou, but I didn't have any money. Sipine, he gives you what a poor man can buy, he's not expensive, so you buy from him, what else can you do?"
             About this, it must be said that if a thil is by nature demanding, it isn't unreasonably so. If the person with whom the thil wishes to be installed does not have the means, it understands that a beautiful thilbou cannot be bought in its honor. For this reason, one must not make beauty a condition sine qua non of the thilbia's efficacy. Kaldelete adds: "If the statuettes are ugly, we still perform the divination and understand the thila's wishes".
             It's also important to note that Lobi statuettes cannot and must not be thrown away or destroyed. But as a thil is flattered when a beautiful thilbou is carved in its honor, one must, for the same reasons, replace the thilbia when they become too damaged with new statuettes, which are installed in the thildou alongside the old statuettes (that continue to deteriorate). And this corroborates the idea that, to be as efficient as possible, the thilbia must have, if not incontestable esthetic qualities, at least a certain quality. About this, it must be noted that some talented Lobi sculptors, notably working for the Haoussa dealers, took advantage of this practice of replacing old thilbia with new ones. They approached thildara who did not have the means to buy new statuettes, offering to exchange their old and deteriorated thilbia with new ones. Despite it being prohibited to get rid of one's thilbia or to sell them (only sculptors sell what they create), it appears that numerous thildara participated in this barter of whose purpose they were unaware.
             All things considered, it seems that a division by categories - functional, social, religious or esthetic - is a methodological, or even epistemological error. These categories intertwine so closely that it is absurd to say that thilbia are only functional or symbolic, just as it is to say that they are only works of art. And this demonstrates the inanity of the lamentable debate that still today can confront ethnologists (sometimes between themselves) with collectors or dealers. On the one side are the partisans of a strictly ethnological conception - even if we don't always have a full understanding of our subject -and on the other those who see only in esthetic terms.
             It is thus both as a work of art and as an ethnological testimony that Lobi statuettes must be seen, understood and admired.

Julien Bosc (Writer and ethnographer, specialized in Lobi art)


(click on the number to go back to the part of the text you'v lefet)
(1) Henri Labouret, les tribus du rameau lobi, 1931, p.49
(2) Maurice Delafosse, Les frontieres de la Cote d'lvoire, de la Cote d'Or ef du Soudan, 1908, p. 139
(3) For further information about the Dyoro, see in particular Madeleine Pere, Les Lobi, traditions et chongemenfs, 1988, pp. 230-256
(4) Tyohepte Pale, in Gbakpulona, December 16, 1996
(5) According to Michele Cros, "only a privileged few, hunters or soothsayers, can see them without the risk of going mad..." (Cros, 1990: 26)
(6) Lobi divination was superbly discussed by Piet Meyer in the catalog for the Zurich exhibition in 1981, Kunst und religion der Lobi, notably on pages 41-51
(7) In former times the ivory of an elephant, today the horn from a warthog is used, elephants having since disappeared from the region
(8) To use Michel Leiris' very appropriate expression, when he writes of African sculpture (and that we use here by extension) that if is "the receptacle of a kind of divinity." (Leiris 1996: 1149)
(9) The thil belonging to each mafriclan is also called wathil
(10) Soothsoyers ore said to "charlater", or perform divination, in that they can, during a soothsaying, perceive the hidden reasons for suffering and torment or explain the meaning of the dreams of the person consulting them. The term "charlater" (from the french "charlatan"), dating from colonial times, thus means "to perform a soothsaying."

(11) Arnold Heim, "Fragments du cornet de voyage en pays iobi" (1934), Images d'Afrique et sciences saddles, p. 511
(12) Michel Leiris, Miroir de I'Afrique, p. 1172
(13) Michele Cros writes: "Any adoption of a new thil first necessitates making it active, "awakening" the supernatural power it incarnates. Only o bloody sacrifice will do to obtain this resuif." Michele Cros, Anthropologie du sang en Afrique, p. 208
(14) Michel Leiris, Miroir de I'Afrique, p. 1170

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