lobi statuary
and the statuary of related people
an example of cult art

by Claude-Henri Pirat

summary of the text
help ! ici traduction en français ! this study in french
all other lobi studies
the all other "basic studies"
back to homepage

This is a superb study on the lobi statuary and culture. It was published (1994) in the best revue about "primitive arts", called "Art Tribal"
USA : 1133 Broadway, Suite 706, New York 10010 USA. Tel: 1(212) 465 2683,
AUSTRALIA. PO Box : 1166, Victoria 3150 (Australia)

Web : www.etribal.com

Ceci est une étude magnifique, en anglais, sur la statuaire et la culture lobi (et les sociétés apparentées : dagara, birifor...), tirée du premier numéro (août 94) de la meilleure revue (à mon sens) sur les "arts premiers" qui existe sur le marché. Elle est trimestrielle et paraît en deux versions, anglaise et française. Bientôt la version française!
Voici leurs coordonnées :
Tribal Arts
29, Rue Saint Amand, 75015 Paris, FRANCE. Tel: 0148425776 Fax: 0148560854

Pour consulter l'étude "hors-connexion" et à tête reposée, car c'est vraiment un texte "de fond", mais long, cliquez sur: Edition/Sélectionner tout/Copier, puis "ouvrez" votre logiciel de traîtement de texte préféré, ouvrez un nouveau fichier puis, d'un clic droit, vous choisissez "Edition/Coller". Par la suite, si vous le considérez comme moi fondamental, lorsqu'on on le met en rapport avec une grande partie de la littérature qui traite de l'art africain, vous pouvez l'imprimer facilement si vous disposez d'une imprimante. Un conseil: réduisez la taille des caractères pour que l'impression consomme le moins possible de feuilles.

summary of the text
this study in french
to all other lobi studies
the all other "ground studies"
back to the homepage of the site












Lobi Statuary
Social structure
Figural sculpture
Stylistic variation and the lobi sculptor
(1) This is the minimum distance between a father's house and that of his son. It is often greater, and aLobi "village" is a highly dispersed habitat.

(2) The spelling used for the words in "Lobiri," the Lobi language, attempts to approximate the actual pronunciation.

3) "Family" implies all the people sharing the same dwelling including: the head of the family's household with his wives and children; his brothers who have remained in the father's house; his sons not yet emancipated, though married; and adopted and illegitimate children of unmarried daughters.

4) The entrance to the house never opens toward the east from which misfortune may come from the land of the dead.

(5) Ever since the colonial occupation, the term "Lobi country" or even the "Lobi," has been used to designate the geographic area occupied by these different populations. It is a misuse of language that continues to this day, even in Burkina Faso. Specialists and lovers of African art also speak generally of "Lobi art" or "Lobi statuary." It is difficult, with rare exceptions, to distinguish without any context pure Lobi works from those of related peoples. Thus, in our description of traditional society, we shall refer to that of the Lobi proper, but with regard to statuary we shall refer, unless otherwise stated, to that of the Lobi and of related peoples of the region.

(6) The war of resistance against colonial occupation was essentially the work of the Lobi proper and the Birifor.

(7) With the exception of the Gan people who live under the authority of a "king".

























(8) Many were seen by the author beginning in 1971, both in
Ouagadougou and



















(9) The personal ritual objects that a woman owns in her own right, such as the small portable altar that she takes with her when she goes to live with her husband, will be passed on to one of her daughters.






















































(10) An individual thil reputed for its effectiveness may also be bought from its owner/discoverer and thereby have its cult extended to new adepts.











(11) Even more uncommon are altars of zoomorphic form, for example that of a hippopotamus in the "Sipue" worship performed for this animal.

(12) The works of T. Spini and G. Antognini have shown that the location and orientation chosen for an altar are not arbitrary but relate to the position of the dwelling and the other altars, and are governed by rules defining the coherent relationship between these in order to maximize the altar's protective and propitiatory effectiveness.

(13) Although ivory, metal or earthen sculptures exist, wooden ones are by far the most numerous.




























(14) Father worship is optional with the Lobi and will be performed only if the father requests it in his lifetime or if, after his death and following an unexpected event, the diviner thinks it essential when consulted by the son. Representation by a wooden sculpture is not systematic. The cult is compulsory with the Dagara, however, as is the representation of the deceased by a wooden inverted Y-figure, which is characteristic of that population. When the cult is no longer observed, the statues remaining in the family sanctuary are not destroyed.

(15) Kontome in Dagara is the equivalent of Konte in Lobiri.















































(16) On relatively recent works, the clearly marked feet may rest on a hemispherical plinth.

(17) This appears to be an absolute necessity for altar figures. This is confirmed by the wood analyses which we were able to conduct with the assistance of the M.R.A.C. in Tervuren on a group of ancient statues, including those in the museum collection. Acacia and Combretum wood, for example, are to be found in both statuary and housing. The high resistance of Combretum to termites may be explained by the presence of a high density of calcium oxalate crystals in this wood. To these technical imperatives may be added, in certain cases at least, ritual obligations, and the diviner will then prescribe the use of a specific wood.

(18) D. Bagnolo, who has already undertaken the task of defining the particular features of Teese sculptures, is taking his research in this direction. P. Meyer has already isolated different groups of sculptures that may be attributed to one and the same author.












Two reaches of an arrow! For the Lobi, this is the respectable distance separating two dwellings (1) or tyor (2). The space of family (3) life is jealously guarded among the Lobi and each earthen house is a small stronghold with a single entrance that may be quickly closed in the event of danger (4). As soon as the occupants are within, defense against would-be aggressors is taken up from the flat roof, which is reached from the inside of the dwelling by ladders carved out of tree trunks.

The fine, rough and austere archi-tecture of the Lobi seems to be made to  FIG.1: Figure from an indoor altar. 
The arms are spread in an incantation gesture 
as Lobi women do following a death in order 
to slop evil spells.
Wood with encrusted patina
Height: 73 cm.
Private collectionward off intruders and speaks for itself to the unfamiliar visitor, who will quickly realize that he is not necessarily welcome and that certain manners and behavior must be observed if he is to be invited in. Once a people of hunters and fishermen, the proud and fierce Lobi now live mostly from their farming. They raise cattle and smaller livestock which, together with poultry, are mainly used for dowries and ritual sacrifices. In the not too distant past, when warfare still existed among the Lobi, their houses contained all the grain stores and cattle enclosures. Today some of these may be built on the outside.

Settled in a region of savanna with trees, plains and hills (the Lobi say "mountains"), their population is concentrated in Southwest Burkina Faso, but also extends into Cote d'lvoire and, to a lesser extent nowadays, Ghana. The Lobi seem to have come from the east, crossing the Black Volta River at the end of the 18th century. It is said that they were preceded by other migrants such as the Gan and the FIG. 3: Figure from an indoor altar.
Wood with encrusted patina.
Height: 45 cms. 
Private collectionTeese (or Teguessie) and followed by others, such as the Birifor and the Dagara. These different peoples are related to each other by language, traditions, cults and customs. Together they comprise what has been termed the "Lobi Branch," after H. Labouret's 1931 study, in which the Lobi proper, the Birifor (who might have the same "matri-clanic" origins) and the Dagara form the main part of the population (approximately 350,000 people).Fig.2 : Figure from an indoor altar. 
The surface is darkened by long 
exposure to the smoke of wood fires.
Wood with encrusted patina. 
Height: 68 cm. 
Private collection. (5).

From the start of the European occupation in the latter years of the 19th century, the Lobi showed no cooperation. They quickly distinguished themselves by their unwillingness to submit to foreign authority. During the colonial period contacts between the Lobi and representatives of the administration often resulted in the exchange of a shower of arrows for a volley of gunfire (6).

As the inhabitants of the Lobi region had no desire to submit to anyone and fought only occasionally among themselves, the Europeans were unable to appear as protectors or liberators in order to impose "colonial law and peace". Their task of colonial rule was all the more difficult since these societies were of an acephalous type, lacking any centralized political power (7) with which to negotiate.

The absence of a king or chieftain also meant that there was no art FIG. 4 : Figure, probably from an outdoor altar, 
with visible traces of the last libation of 
blood, millet beer or other substances.
Eroded wood. 
Height: 50 cms. 
Private collection.sponsored by a royal court. Thus there was no centralized concentration of quality works of art that might have been easily noticed by foreign visitors.

On the contrary, Lobi art, and its statuary in particular, is cult art created for individual, family, lineage or village use. Its many works, like the environment in which it exists, are extremely dispersed and are kept away from the gaze of inquisitive eyes by their owners. Thus the first Lobi objects known in Europe were jewelry such as metal or ivory bracelets and pendants, small three-legged stools and carved wooden crooks used during certain ritual dances.

If a Lobi finds it necessary to carve a figure for ritual purposes, he may not always have the time and means to call on a specialist and may have to make it himself. This explains the profusion of hastily carved, often rough works. It was not easy for the early visitor to discern the finely carved statues as they lay on dimly lit altars in houses or sanctuaries where strangers are not tempted to dally, let alone make aesthetic judgments. It is not surprising that the first observers, whose prime consideration was not statuary, were led to pronounce hasty, unflattering judgments. In 1931 Henri Labouret described their statues as "very coarse...ugly and disproportionate...quickly executed and carved anyhow" (Les Tribus du Rameau Lobi, p. 188). Sharing this opinion was an even harsher predecessor, Charles Leon, who in 1911 appears to have been the first to publish Lobi objects and in particular statues, and who spoke of "monstrous statuettes" ("Les Lobi," Revue d'Ethnographie et de Sociologie, p. 210).

It must however be remembered that at that time the enthusiasm aroused by the audacities of "Negro objects" was shared only by a handful of admirers. Judgments like these persisted in the literature devoted to African art, even after Lobi sculpture was no longer unknown. Thus, in his 1954 work La Statuaire de I'Afrique noire, H. Lavachery wrote: "The Lobi...are poor carvers, their figures are rough and wretchedly dry.." (p. 80). In 1956 D. Paulme gave the same verdict about the Lobi Branch, stating: "Their sculpture is poor" (Les Sculptures de I'Afrique noire, p. 41).

In 1958 the Lobi were not listed on the index of Fagg and Elisofon's celebrated work African Sculpture. In 1965, however, Fagg's African Sculptures included a carefully executed janiform sculpture (n° 24) belonging to C. Ratton, which was described as "unique for its kind" because among the Lobi "we find statuettes that are often just shapeless pieces of wood...or mere carved posts on which only the face has been clearly worked..." In 1967, J. Delange's Art et Peuples de I'Afrique noire, followed soon after by M. Leiris in Afrique noire, la Creation Plastique, paid justice to the Lobi and stressed the care and sensitivity they conferred on their sculptures.

Lobi statuary was really discovered by the West only in the fifties, but it was in the sixties and seventies that the statues began to leave the country in large numbers (8), a sign that the Lobi's resistance in the face of.acculturation was seriously beginning to wane. These new discoveries Fig 5: Figure from an outdoor altar. 
This head was once attached to a long neck, now missing.
Eroded wood. Height: 12 cms. 
Private collection. 
Photo: R. Asselberghs, Brussels.could only arouse the interest of new admirers, and Lobi objects began to turn up in exhibitions and catalogues. The famous 1971 Zurich exhibition showed no less than eleven sculptures, thereby giving Lobi art its deserved place in the art of Africa.

The Lobi people, who once swore the oath never to take the white man's path, continue to struggle to preserve the soul of their culture, and their traditional society still manages to survive. The various studies that have been conducted about Lobi culture enable us to understand it better and allow us to appreciate their statuary in relation to the socio-religious context in which it thrives.

(back to summary)

Social structure

It was long thought, following Labouret's work, that Lobi society was matrilineal. Each child, whether girl or boy, receives at birth a matronym, the name of the "matri-clan" (tyar) of the mother, certifying kinship with a common female ancestor. The name is passed on from mother to daughter. Each son bears it but does not pass it on to his children. Thus maternal kinship is lost in the male line. The fact that economic property (furniture, cowries, coins, miscellaneous objects) is passed on in a uterine line seemed to confirm the "matri-linearity" of Lobi society to the outside observer.

However, this ignores the great importance of Lobi patrilineage (kuone) which is kept secret since it is connected for each individual with everything that bears on the sacred and therefore the secret. In particular it determines FIG 5: Figure from an altar.
Wood. Height: 49 cms. 
Private collection.
Photo: R. Asselberghs, Brussels.FIG 7: Small figure from an indoor altar.
Wood with encrusted patina. Height: 21,5 cms. 
Private collectionmembership in an initiatory group in the cult of the dyoro. The child, whether girl or boy, will learn the name of its group only at the moment of initiation. This name will remain secret and be known only to the initiate. Paternal kinship is passed on from father to son. Each girl benefits from it during her lifetime but does not pass it on in turn.

In addition, the performance of all the rituals connected with the many cults is dependent, on the domestic level, on the male head of the family. All the sacred property that is attached to cult practices (altars, sanctuaries, house, land) is passed on from father to son along the male
line (9). The importance of male property is further emphasized by the Lobi practice of "virilocal" residence, in which a wife goes to live in her husband's house upon marriage. Lobi lineage thus appears to be a complex bilinear construction rather than a simple line traced through a single gender.

Each Lobi lives under the guardianship of his father's matri-clan (thit-yar) from which he will never be wholly independent. This link with his father's uterine relations provides him with potential guardians against the event of the father's death. Everything that concerns him during his lifetime (initiation, marriage, building of his house, his altars, his funeral) will be governed by his father or by one of his close uterine relations. Because of his central family and lineage position, the father therefore ultimately appears to be the key figure in Lobi socio-religious organization.

Finally, each Lobi also belongs to a village space (dil) and therefore to a community attached to the same land whose surface is under the protection of a spiritual presence venerated by all its occupants, even if they belong to different lineages.

The place of every individual within Lobi society is perfectly defined by his different relationships of family, lineage, initiation and village. This structure applies to everybody in society. All Lobi are equal, and they have great respect for the individual. No one may be invested with power over others. No lineage or clan has ascendancy or j authority over others. An individual may enjoy power within the framework of the family (as in the case of the father), or he may have a temporary, specific or circumstantial authority over a community. The head of a cult, for example, is simply a peasant like the others and is treated J as such, warranting no special considerations outside the context of his religious function.

(back to summary)


The Lobi acknowledge real power only in spiritual matters, and their social organization entertains close relations with the sacred at all levels. Their Fig 8: Small figure from an indoor altar.
Wood with encrusted patina. 
Height: 21,5 cms. 
Private collectionreligious system is dominated by Thangba, the supreme being and creator of all things including the earth (which he makes fertile by the rain) and all things that live there. This inaccessible entity manifests himself by certain powers, such as lightning, which might be the subject of a cult and possess an altar. Thangba does not intervene directly in life on earth. This is done through a multitude of thila (singular thil), supernatural beings and invisible spiritual powers. Each thil may be the subject of a cult and the cause for the raising of one or several altars.

Other types of extraordinary beings also exist. The konte, for example, are also mostly invisible and populate the mountains, rivers, trees and brushwood. They have the ability to make certain places dangerous by their presence. They must therefore be distrusted, and the Lobi must protect themselves from them and try to conciliate them.

The dead are thought to return to the land of their ancestors beyond the Black Volta and live there underground. In some , cases, however, they may continue to man-! ifest themselves to successive generations. These may be raised to the position of thil, become the subject of a cult and possess altars.

Fig 9: Small protective and/or propitiatory 
charm attached to a hunting horn.
Wood, beads, leather and ivory. 
Height: 38 cm; Fig. 10 cm. 
Private collection. 
Photo: R. Asselberghs, Bnixelles.Throughout his life, the Lobi will have to carry out certain rituals and respect the interdicts attached to them. If in one way or another he fails in these sacred obligations, he exposes himself to great perils such as sickness and death, and in the most serious cases he may even attract misfortune to the whole family or community. The rules of the prescribed and the forbidden connected with the different cults make up a true code of etiquette and conduct in Lobi society. Violation of this code calls for a sanction, which is not dependent on men but on spiritual powers. It is therefore the sacred which has traditionally maintained the social balance and the slow disappearance of this poses a threat to Lobi culture today.

The numerous cults may be grouped into four main categories:
lineage cults; inter-lineage and inter-ethnic cults; village and inter-village cults; and. family cults. Within these, as P. Bonnafe pointed out with regard to the dyoro, ritual practices may vary considerably according to the specific region, clan and lineage.

Lineage cults relate to each individual matriclan (tyar) and patrilineage (kuone) as well as their many segmentations. Each has its own guardian thil, honoring it with a main altar at its place of origin and the numerous intermediary altars that many Lobi set up in their dwelling places.

Inter-lineage and inter-ethnic cults are mainly linked with initiatory societies, the most important of which is the dyoro, involving all the patrilineages of the Lobi as well as those of related peoples such as the Birifor and the Teese. Every seven years a dyoro session is held in which the young people, both girls and boys, make a ritual journey to the banks of the Black Volta. They stop at the different sanctuaries of their patrilineage as they retrace the route their ancestors took from the east, traveling as far as the most important shrines near the river.

Village and inter-village cults address the thil who protects the sacred ground and the space on which a village is established. This thil possesses an altar and is worshipped by all the villagers regardless of lineage. The same applies to the markets where the inhabitants of several villages gather. A thil will protect the marketplace and will have an altar for common worship.

Regarding individual and family cults, particular mention must be made of father worship (thrè), which may be performed by a Lobi and his family after his father's death. The cult may be continued by the dead man's grandson, but rarely extends beyond this.

If certain thila and their cults are "received" by virtue of lineage, village, initiation and family relations, other thila will be encountered or discovered throughout life and may be the subject of particular worship performed individually by their discoverer and his family (10). The thila may appear to a Lobi at any moment. A strange dream, an unusual object found in the bush, an unexpected meeting with an animal, a death or any other misfortune may be different signs of a thil's manifestation. A diviner must then be consulted as soon as possible in order to find out the meaning of the unexpected event, identify the thil and determine what must be done to win its favors or calm its wrath.

There are many diviners in the Lobi region and they play a very important social role. Their practice is founded on the knowledge of secrets acquired during mysterious, specialized initiations, which are very stable institutions.

The diviner must discover by himself the reasons that have brought his visitor. In addition to various divination objects such as cowries or metal ornaments, he may use small statuettes which are kept in a goat-skin bag. These statuettes are often passed on by a diviner to his successor.

The diviner will designate the thil that has manifested itself. If the thil was unknown to his client until then, the diviner may prescribe the raising of an altar in a set place and the appropriate sacrifices and offerings. If the thil already has its altar (the matriclan's altar for example), he may prescribe sacrifices as well as the raising of an additional altar.

The Lobi altar is generally a conical, earthen edifice ranging in size from four inches to a yard or more. It may sometimes have a more or less recognizable anthropomorphic form (11). In the case of lineage cults, a branch from the sacred tree of the lineage is planted beside it. There are often closed earthenware urns containing the thil's "medicine" made with water and specifically prescribed ingredients. When used by oiling the skin or by absorption, this medicine may have a therapeutic or protective effect. Gourds intended for receiving offerings are also placed there.

Altars may be set up in the open air or in a place close to the dwelling. They may also be installed on the flat roof of the house, against an outer wall, or in a small sanctuary (thiltyor) usually built in front of the entrance to the house. Finally, they may be placed inside the dwelling in a special sanctuary chamber, the thildou (Fig. 8), located in the common room or one of the occupant's rooms, often that of the first wife (12).

(back to summary)
(back to top of the page)

Figural sculpture

Whatever the thil or type of altar concerned, the diviner may prescribe that Fig 10: Propitiatory charm dedicated to female fertility.
Wood. Height: 25 cm. Private collection.his client make a wooden figur (13), most often anthropomorphic, which will be either set on the altar with its feet placed in the earthen edifice, or simply laid beside it. These statues may be associated with various types of cults in the Lobi region.

The diviner will also indicate the features of the sculpture. In addition to its size and sex, he will stipulate the posture in which the image should be carved. Lobi statuary is unquestionably among the most diverse of African sculpture in this respect. Most of the positions that the human body can adopt seem to be encountered. Whether the statue is seated or standing, there is a particularly wide range of arm positions used in a system of gestures reminiscent of semaphore. One or both arms may be raised either very high or simply spread out (Fig. 1). They may be brought up to the chin or mouth (Fig. 2) or simply kept by the body (Fig. 3).

Fig 11: Small figure, prossibly for divination, which seems 
to depict a prisoner with his hands tied behind his back 
(as colonial prisoners were bound early this century).
Wood. Height: 11.5 cm. 
Private collection. Sometimes couples are represented. These may bring together a mother and child in a single piece, or a man and woman arranged one behind the other, united Fig 13: Small figure, possibly for divination. 
Small figures of this sort are used by fortune-tellers.
Wood.Height: 11.7 cm, Width: 13.5 cm.
Private collection.
Photo: G. Meisler.up to the hips in copulation.

There are also bizarre characters with multiple arms, legs or heads. These may have a double body like Siamese twins, or a janiform or zoomorphic face. Sometimes only a head is sculpted over a long neck without any other anatomical indication (Fig. 5).

As P. Meyer has shown, the choice of stance depends on the expected effect. His field research among the "Mountain" Lobi in the Wourbira region allowed him to interpret the meaning of these highly varied postures and thereby distinguish different types of statues:

"Sorcerer Figures" intended for combating the evil spells of sorcerers. The most dangerous and therefore the most effective are often those raising one or both arms in an incantatory gesture, or those representing the extraordinary creatures described above.

"Sad Figures" that may adopt the different attitudes of women at a time of death and mourning. These are intended to take misfortune on themselves rather than their owner. The statues with outspread arms are also associated with this use.

"Specialized Figures" intended for a specific function such as favoring a woman's fertility or remedying a man's sterility. This group includes the small maternity figures and the copulating couples.

Thus, Lobi statues have protective, conjurative and propitiatory powers that Fig 12: Protective and/or propitiatory charm. 
The figure seems to represent a person blowing a whistle.
Wood, probable trace of a cord around the neck. 
Height: 13.6 cm. Private collectioncan be strengthened according to need by a system of gestures related to a complex symbolism. Meyer takes the precaution of stating that this symbolism may not be entirely consistent throughout the region and may vary by clan, lineage and location. The different types of statues appear to be polyvalent in their use and various postures may be encountered both in the small statuary of divination and in that intended for the altars of a wide array of cults.

Some of these statues are said to be representations of ancestors, which brings up the question of the existence of ancestor worship among the Lobi. If this is understood as worship performed for lineage and clan ascendancies, then ancestor worship unquestionably exists in Lobi religion and, as M. Pere has shown, assumes great importance in its different forms. However, she also stresses that although distant ancestors are sometimes invoked and designated by name during certain rites, this is not common. Commemorative statues associated with specific ancestors may have been observed from time to time, but they seem to be rare.

In individual father worship (thré), the figures placed on the altar are sometimes designated by their owner as representing a father or near ancestor, whose cult is usually not continued beyond one or two generations (14).

Certain statues might also embody the spiritual "double" of an individual. Each individual is perceived to have a spiritual counterpart who leads an independent existence and appears during dreams

In some regions, particularly among the Dagara, certain figures represent kontomê (15), the supernatural beings of the bush. These creatures need to be conciliated by creating figures for them in human form or as a hybrid with a man's body and an animal's head.

Thus the statues of the Lobi may be associated with a wide variety of beings, and their identification by their owner seems to be the subject of numerous variants.

With regard to their spiritual nature, Meyer holds that these figures are considered by the Lobi to be beings in their own right, whose essence is answerable both to the thila and to- men. When placed on an altar dedicated to a thil, they strengthen its protective power by their presence. The wooden figures are also considered to be beings gifted with speech, but their language can only be understood by the diviner. Among the Lobi, for example, the figures are designated by the term buthibé, which means "murmuring medicine." To the Dagara, the bétibé are the "talking wooden people" or, quite simply, the "talking woods."

Two categories of sculptures have been mentioned above: divination figures, the small-size statuettes used by diviners, and altar figures which are by far the most numerous and may be associated with different types of cults. The divination figures are small and do not exceed sixteen inches in height. The altar figures tend to be larger. Although small ones do exist (four to eight inches), there are also some that are over a yard in height.

Two types of altar figures may be identified: outdoor altar figures, which are exposed to the open air; and indoor altar figures, which are kept under shelter in the sanctuaries or dwellings.

A third category of Lobi sculpture is made up of protective or propitiatory Fig 14: Protective and/or propitiatory charm. 
This is a rare example of a small ivory figure 
which appears to have had something tied around its neck.
Height: 10 cm. Private collection.charms. These are very small figurines (two to ten inches) made for personal use and may be carried on one's person or kept in a hidden place. They can also be seen fixed to a hunter's bow, quiver or horn (Fig. 9), on newly born infants' baskets, on musicians' xylophones, or hanging around children's necks.

This classification by use and ritual environment is not exclusive of any other and may be applied to all statuary of the Lobi region. It may also be used to explain the differences in appearance and patina which are often observed in the sculptures.

The altar figures are objects that are rarely handled if at all. They are moved only when an altar changes location. During sacrifices and ritual offerings, libations may be made on them with blood, millet beer or any other substance prescribed by the cult. If the statues are placed outside and exposed to the adverse effects of the weather, only the most recent sacrificial traces will remain and the surface of these figures will present a washed-out or even furrowed appearance (Fig. 5). In the case of indoor altar figures, sacrificial deposits may accumulate, causing the formation of a crusty patina particularly on the upper part of the statues (Fig. 1). Those placed in a house are sometimes exposed to the smoke of wood fires, which in time will darken the patina (Fig. 2).

The same does not apply to divination and protective figures. Ritual libations are also practiced on them in order to consecrate them or renew or increase their power, but these objects are handled frequently and with time their surfaces take on a characteristically smooth and shiny patina (Figs. 10, 11, 12, 13).

This classification seems to be the only practical one for objects whose place and ritual context of collection are unknown. It has certain limits however. Though we may distinguish altar figures with some assurance, owing to their size and/or patina, classification is often more problematic with works of the two other categories, since their size and patina are similar. A figure may also have undergone a change in its ritual destination. Thus, the divination statuettes of a diviner who has died without a successor may be placed by his heirs on the family altar and, with time, will undergo modification to their patinas.

Finally we must address the issue of sculptural style. It must be remembered that the stylistic scope of this statuary is broad and extends beyond the Lobi themselves to include aspects of the sculptural styles of related peoples.

Lobi statuary is most easily characterized by its specific treatment of certain morphological components and anatomical details. The usually concave faces have eyes that are coffee bean or almond-shaped, or are simply suggested by the protrusion of the upper lid. The arches of the eyebrows are sometimes marked and mostly blend in with the projection of a low falling forehead, thus darkening the gaze. The nose may be pointed, straight or triangular, with nostrils that are sometimes drawn in, over a narrow mouth. The more or less prominent lips recall, even on the male figures, the deformity brought about in women by the double lip-plate. The ears are horseshoe or cup-shaped.

The head of the female statue is usually devoid of hair or seems to be covered in a kind of helmet evoking closely cropped hair. The male figure often wears a single or multiple crest, sometimes with a cluster of plaits parallel to it, which may join up above the nape of the neck in a small tail.

The strong, vertical neck joins a trunk to square shoulders. The chest maybe slightly prominent or flat like a breast-plate. Above genitals that are most often discreet, the navel is always well marked by the button-shaped protuberance at the tip of the abdominal swell, itself balanced by equally vigorous hips.

The often long arms, when they are not extended or brought up to the shoulders or face, are separated and may fall very low along the thighs. The hands are not always represented or may be suggested by a plate-shaped applique, with the fingers missing or simply marked by small notches. The somewhat elongated lower limbs terminate in hoof-shaped feet which are only rarely fixed on a single base (16).

All of the statues, which are usually made of a very hard wood, highly resistant to wood-pests (17), are characterized by a kind of hieratic rigidity in conjunction with one of the many postures described above.

(back to summary)

Stylistic variation and the lobi sculptor

Although the common stylistic basis discussed above enables a sculpture to be quickly recognized as Lobi, the examination of a large number of works reveals the striking diversity with which Lobi sculptors express themselves. Fig 15: Entry of a dwelling (tyor) of Bindoute Da 
(died in 1987) at Gbomblora, Gaoua area. 
In the foreground are two small altars with their urns. 
The ladder to the flat roof is identical to those leading inside. 
A large straw This is particularly apparent in the general configuration of the figure, which may be anything from squat to attenuated, with angular or fully rounded volumes. The ethnic, clanic and regional diversity that has been discussed with reference to ritual practices with a common cultural basis is probably manifested in the statuary as well, with each variable element relating to the sculptor's seemingly broad freedom of execution.

Although certain authors have undertaken a stylistic study and reached interesting results, they remain partial and fragmentary. An overall, systematic study still remains to be done in order to reveal which elements, drawn from a sufficiently vast corpus of ancient works, might be dependent on ethnic or clannic constants, on borrowings and influences resulting from a common history, or even on the possible stylistic focuses and personality of an individual sculpto (18).

For the Lobi, the sculptor does not belong to a caste. One often becomes a sculptor through chance or necessity. Someone who needs a statue for one of his altars may have to execute it himself. If, on the ritual level, the result is judged satisfactory, his sculptural services may be rendered to his family and then other petitioners.

It is common for an individual to learn from a diviner that a thil designates him to be a sculptor. Attempting to back out would expose him to misfortune.

Once the knowledge has been acquired, it bestows no privilege whatsoever on the holder. Like any other Lobi, the sculptor must confront a life filled with labor and struggle, always at the mercy of mysterious evil forces which are ready to set traps for him and which he must try to outsmart.

In court arts, in Africa as elsewhere, other motivations intervene between the work and its author. The Lobi sculptor, however, is in the heart of the battle that men fight against the occult and for which he is carving wood. If necessity colludes with talent, the act of carving, which doubtlessly frees the sculptor's very being, leads him, though he may not be aware of it, to intense and feverish accomplishments.

Tied to each other by the spiral spring of cults, these sculptures are for us not just improbable lessons of strange rites, but the expression of an immediately appreciable creative act. The sculpture transcends its ritual meaning, and its survival because of its artistic merits may preserve an important part of the past for the Lobi of the future.

Claude-Henri Pirat
back to summary
back to the beginning
to other lobi studies
to all other "ground studies"
contact m
e (to submit other studies)

the other texts

back to homepage of the site


General books

DELANGE, J. Arts et peuples d'Afrique noire, introduction a une analyse des creations plastiques.Paris, 1967, NRF Gallimard.ELISOFON,
E. and FAGG, W. La sculpture africaine. Paris, 1958,
F. Hazan.
FAGG, W. Sculptures africaines, Paris, 1965, F. Hazan. LAVACHERY, H. Statuaire de I'Afrique noire. Bruxelles, 1954,Office de Publicite.
LEIRIS, M. and DELANGE, J. Afrique noire, la creation plastique Paris, 1967, Gallimard.
LEUZINGER, E. Kunst von Schwarz Africa. Kunthaus Zurich, 1971,Aurel Bongers.
PAULME, D. Les sculptures de I'Afrique noire. 1956, Paris PUF.

Specialized books and articles

BOGNOLO, D. Le jeu des fetiches. Signification, usage et role des fetiches des populations lobi du Burkina Faso. Arts d'Afrique noire, 1990 (n° 75, pp. 21-31 et 76, pp. 19-28).
BONNAFE, P. Compte-rendu de mission effectuee dans le pays lobi Ouagadougou, 1974, C.V.R.S.
FIELOUX, M., LOMBARD, J. and KAMBOU-FERRAND, J.M., (sous la direction de). Images d'Afrique et sciences sociales, les pays lobi, birifor et dagara, Paris, 1993, Karthala-Orstom.
HIMMELHEBER, H. Figuren und Schnitztechnik bei den Lobi. Elfenbeinkiiste: Tribus-15, 1966. (pp. 63-87).
LABOURET, H. Les tribus du rameau Lobi, Paris, 1931, Institut d'Ethnologie.
LEON, C. "Les Lobi", Revue d'Ethnographie et de Sociologie, 2, 1911, (pp. 202-220)
MEYER, P. Kunst und Religion des Lobi, Zurich, 1981, Museum Rietberg.
PERE, M. Les Lobi, tradition et changement, v. I and II, Laval, 1988, Siloe,.
ROUVILLE, C. de Organisation Sociale des Lobi, une societe bilineaire du Burkina Faso et de Cote d'lvoire, Paris, 1987 L'Harmattan.
SCHNEIDER, K. La grande maison de Bindoute Da : histoire d'une habitation Lobi au Burkina Faso, Stuttgart, 1991, Steiner.
SOME, R. Essai d'Anthropologie Philosophique : La statuaire lobi et dagara du Burkina Faso, Thesis presented at the Universite des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, 1993.
SPINI, T. and ANTOGNINI, G. // Camino degli Antenati - I lobi delle'Alto Volta, Rome, 1981, Laterza.
WARIN, R "La statuaire lobi : question de style", Arts d'Afrique noire. no. 69, pp. H-21, 1989.


- To the Lobi, Birifor, Dagara and Gan who have received, guided and informed us in discovering their country.
- To the M.RA.C. of Tervuren and, most particularly, to Huguette Van Geluwe, former chief of the ethnographic section, to V. Baeke, attached, and R. Dechamps, chief of the wood anatomy laboratory.
- To Madeleine Pere, Cecile de Rouville, Piet Meyer and Roger Some, for their help and advice.
- To the collectors for the loan of pictures.

to all other lobi studies
to all other "basic studies"
contact m
e (to submit other studies)
website of the revue "Tribal Art": www.etribal.com/

the other texts

back to homepage of the site