Bassari Boys’ Initiation, Senegal
Initiation into adulthood for Bassari males of southern Senegal occurs between the ages of fifteen and twenty and takes place over several months. In the sacred forest, the boys undergo the deaths of their childhood identities through a series of harsh rituals, and they emerge from the forest behaving like infants. During this limbo period lasting a week, the boys are treated as unable to fend for themselves and are cared for by a group of ritual guardians, who carry, feed, and clean them, and even lay them down to sleep. This simulated regression recreates a state of purity, from which they will emerge as adults ready to assume mature roles in the community.
Bwa and Bobo Masquerades, Burkina Faso
The Bobo and Bwa of Burkina Faso see nature as a benevolent entity, and for them it is the mistakes of humanity that upset the natural equilibrium established by the creator god, Wuro. They take great care to maintain the harmony between Wuro, man, and earth through a series of ritual masquerades, which are believed to purify the community and chase away evil. Carved and painted in the form of animals and bush spirits, the masks of the Bobo people of Burkina Faso represent the nature spirit, Do, who functions as a mediator between man and the creator god, and offers atonement for human misbehavior.
Yoruba Gelede, Nigeria
The Gelede masquerade, a rich spectacle of drama, poetry, and drumming, plays an important role in the lives of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin. Performed by male members of a ritual cult who have been trained in the arts of masking from the age of four or five, the Gelede masquerade offers a comedic, often farcical, spectacle that belies its more serious social and spiritual function. The dancers are concealed both in puppet masks that lightheartedly represent traditional proverbs and in intricately carved animal masks that remind the audience of the dangers of ignoring social position and natural order in the world.
Yoruba Egungun Masquerade, Nigeria
The ritual of Egungun, a word literally meaning “bone” or “skeleton,” honors the ancestors of the Yoruba people of western Nigeria and eastern Benin. It takes place once a year at a month-long festival. The Yoruba believe that all spirits must be summoned back to earth to advise the living and re-balance the cosmic order upset by human transgressions. The visiting spirits enter the bodies of members of the secret Egungun masking society, who wear masks and vibrant, lavish costumes.
Baganda Coronation, Uganda
The Baganda people are the largest ethnic group in Uganda. They pledge loyalty to the kingdom of Baganda, which originated in the fourteenth century with the unification of many clans. The installation of H.R.H. Ronald Mutebi II as king, or Kabaka, took place in 1993. One by one, the elders of the fifty-two Baganda clans prostrated themselves before the king, and he was presented with two spears and a shield symbolic of his role as protector of the kingdom. Around his shoulders were tied four robes of office—a leopard skin, a calf skin, and two bark cloths. Later in the day a second coronation was held in an interdenominational religious service, during which the Anglican bishop placed a gold crown on the head of the new Kabaka.
Reed Dance, Swaziland
Swaziland, a small kingdom in southern Africa, is governed by the Swazi monarchy and its parliament. At the head of traditional Swazi society is King Mswati III, called the Lion, and Queen Mother Ntombi, known as the She-Elephant. They are considered the embodiment of the nation; their health and prosperity are seen as relating directly to the nation’s well-being and the fertility of the soil. The Reed Dance serves as an annual reminder to the Swazi nation that its people all come from the same root, the ancient stock of their ancestors. The ceremony provides an opportunity for unmarried women to express their allegiance to the Queen Mother and for the king to survey his female subjects with a particular view to finding wives among them. The Swazi believe that it is the king’s duty to support as many wives and raise as many children as possible.
Fulani Sallah Festival, Nigeria
A ritual show of leadership and authority, the Sallah Festival at Katsina in central Nigeria is held annually at the end of Ramadan. At this time, the Fulani ruler, known as the Emir, appears with his retinue of mounted noblemen before the town’s Hausa and Fulani inhabitants. Dressed in their most extravagant robes and riding richly caparisoned horses, they proceed along a historic route that links the sacred space of the mosque’s communal prayer ground and the secular space of the palace, reflecting the Emir’s dual role as the religious and political leader of the region. Each year thousands of riders parade through the old town, paying their respects to the Emir.
Ashanti Silver Jubilee, Ghana
The Ashanti kingdom of Ghana gathered vast wealth over the past three and a half centuries by controlling the region’s gold mines. The kingdom’s gold heritage was never more magnificently displayed than in August 1995, at the Silver Jubilee of the late King Otumfuo Opoku Ware II in Kumasi. A yearlong celebration in honor of the monarch’s twenty-five-year reign culminated in a royal procession that lasted for more than six hours. The king and hundreds of dignitaries, chiefs, and royal attendants filed into a huge arena before some seventy-five thousand loyal subjects, displaying the most extravagant collection of gold regalia to be seen anywhere in the world. The procession symbolically reaffirmed the wealth, power, and solidarity of the Ashanti nation.
Senufo Funeral Rites, Ivory Coast and Mali
The Senufo people of the Ivory Coast and Mali believe that after death, the spirit of a deceased person, when strongly attached to the mortal world, may linger around the village in which he or she lived. Fearing that this will bring adversity to the community, villages conduct a protracted funeral rite to exorcise the spirit from their midst and send it to the afterworld. There, as a respected ancestor, the deceased will benefit both family and community.
Dogon Funeral Rites, Mali
Believing that all living beings and matter have spirits, the Dogon people of Mali say that when a person dies, the spirit becomes detached from the body and has the power to disrupt the order of the world. Ritual acts must, therefore, be performed to restore balance. Once every twelve years, the Dogon hold a collective funeral called the Dama honoring all those who have died during that time. Three days of masked dancing are the climax of six weeks of Dama rituals. As the masks wind their way down the narrow footpaths of the Bandiagara escarpment above the village, they create an otherworldly spectacle for the crowds below. Reaching the village center, they burst into an explosive display of dance and drama.
Ga Fantasy Coffins, Ghana
Specially made coffins that relate to the lifetime professions of deceased persons are a recent feature of funerals among the Ga people of Ghana. The originator of this tradition was a carpenter, Kane Kwei, who created the first fantasy coffin in the early 1960s to honor the death of his uncle, a fisherman, who wished to be buried in a coffin symbolic of his trade so that he could arrive in the afterworld ready to fish.
Bedik Planting Rites, Senegal
Planting rites ensure the fertility of the land among the Bedik agricultural people, who live in a remote, mountainous area in southeastern Senegal. In May the Bedik hold their annual Minymor festival, during which the community calls on a group of nature spirits to bless the land and drive out any evil forces that could prevent a successful harvest. Clad in bark and leaves of the geewol tree, each spirit is brought out of the sacred forest to interact with the villagers in its own unique way.
Spiritual Healing, Togo and Ghana
Voodoo (variously known as vodou, vodun, and vodu), one of the oldest religions of West Africa, originated in Benin, Togo, and eastern Ghana and is practiced by the Fon, Ewe, and Ga peoples. This ancient religion has more than thirty million believers in West Africa alone and is practiced today in Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil, where it was carried by the slave trade. The deities of Voodoo inhabit nature —animals, trees, and stones—and are embodied in objects, which range in form from sculptural figures to amorphous mounds of earth. The highest state of being for a Voodoo believer is complete abandonment to the spirit of a particular deity.
Krobo Girls’ Initiation, Ghana
Female initiation rituals, called Dipo among the Krobo people of eastern Ghana and their cousins the Shai, celebrate femininity and fertility. The initiates enter a three-week period of seclusion, during which they learn the ways of adult women: personal grooming, female conduct, domestic skills, and, finally, the arts of music and dance.
Maasai Age Sets, Kenya and Tanzania
For the Maasai males of Kenya and Tanzania, the ritual cycle extends over more than twenty-five years. Beginning with circumcision and ending in elderhood, they move from one stage of life to another with elaborate ceremonies marking each passage. Midway through the cycle is the Eunoto ceremony, during which they pass from warriorhood into elderhood. The Eunoto is performed roughly once every seven years at a place selected by the most revered holy man, or Laibon. The mothers of the warriors build a manyatta, or ceremonial circle of forty-nine huts, including a large ritual house called an osingira. There, and at sacred chalk banks nearby, the important rituals of transformation take place. During his youth, a Maasai is responsible for protecting the group’s cattle. He has a great deal of freedom and may take girlfriends from the community of young, uncircumcised females. The warriors establish physical and emotional intimacy with them, although often the girls are too young for sexual relations. At the conclusion of the Eunoto, the young men must take on the responsibilities of adulthood, beginning with marriage to older, circumcised women.
Dinka Cattle Camps, Sudan
Seasonal meetings of young Dinka men and women take place during the dry season, when the vast plains of the southern Sudan become so dry that the herdsmen must move to the swampy lands near the Nile to graze their animals. With most of the older people left behind in the highlands, Dinka dry-season cattle camps are run mainly by the young men and girls. During this favorite, leisurely time of the year, young people enjoy a convivial social life. A young man makes a special point of visiting his girlfriend accompanied by his favorite ox, and he will sing songs extolling the virtues of the magnificent beast and the beautiful girl he is courting.
Surma Stick Fights, Ethiopia
The Surma people live in the remote wilderness of southwestern Ethiopia. Their celebrations of courtship and marriage take place after the harvest season, when food is plentiful. During this time, young men and women spend considerable time painting their bodies and adorning themselves to attract the opposite sex. Marriage proposals are traditionally made among the Surma by a man’s selecting a bride and then negotiating a dowry, paid in cattle, with her father. A dramatic alternative exists, however, in which young women choose husbands after an extraordinary competition among the men called the Donga stick fight.
Wodaabe Charm Dancers, Niger
In Central Niger, between the great Sahara desert and the grasslands, lies the inhospitable terrain that is home to the Wodaabe nomads. They are among the last African groups to maintain a truly nomadic existence. Throughout much of the year, Wodaabe camps are scattered in order to graze the animals. At the end of the rainy season, when there is sufficient pasture, a magnificent celebration takes place. Up to a thousand men gather together for seven days to participate in a series of dance competitions judged solely by women. During this week, the women will single out the most desirable men, choosing husbands and lovers.
Tuareg Marriage, Niger
Descended from the Berber of North Africa, the Tuareg nomads live in and around the Sahara desert. The Tuareg are both Muslim and matriarchal. Tuareg women, unlike those of most other Islamic societies, are unveiled and free to choose their husbands and divorce them. The men, on the other hand, normally wear a turban and veil and are not permitted to divorce their wives. The local blacksmith is believed to possess magical powers and, with his wife, plays a special role in ensuring the success of weddings and marriages.
Himba Marriage, Namibia
The Himba people live in the remote northwestern corner of Namibia, along the edge of the Namib desert. Their marriages are usually arranged by the parents. Even in the case of a love match, the couple must have the agreement of their parents regarding the number of cattle to be given as dowry.
Ndebele Nuptials, South Africa
One of two major groups of southern Ndebele people, the Ndzundza Ndebele live north of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. Despite feudal wars, colonization, and relocation because of apartheid, they have managed to retain their language and distinct cultural identity. For the Ndzundza Ndebele, traditional ceremonies, and marriages in particular, are important occasions to assert cultural solidarity.
Rashaida Wedding, Eritrea
The Rashaida nomads, a Bedouin group from Saudi Arabia, crossed the Red Sea more than a hundred and fifty years ago and entered Eritrea and Sudan. They survive by carrying on a lucrative camel trade with Egypt along the coastal desert region. To protect their traditions, they marry exclusively within their own community. As the sexes do not mix freely in Rashaida culture, young men and women have few chances to meet of their own accord. Marriages are usually arranged by families, and brides as young as sixteen may be married to men of fifty or older who can afford the large dowry of jewelry, camels, cloth, and cash. On the first day of the ceremony, the bride is asked if she is being married against her will. If so, the proceedings end immediately.
Kassena Seasonal Rites, Ghana
The Kassena, Lobi, and Senufo are neighbors who share a common environment as well as many similar patterns of daily living. In their villages, the daily routine is focused on the mundane tasks of sustaining life. At certain points in the year, such as the beginning of the planting season or at the harvest, however, the Kassena and their neighbors seek to ensure the blessings of the earth and their ancestors through ritual acts. They may also appeal to diviners, who are able to reveal the causes underlying the disruptions that affect daily life, for guidance about the proper conduct of everyday affairs, as well as for help in making critical life decisions.
Dramatic images of African life will be displayed along with objects from the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s world-renowned African art collection in Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, on view July 14 through September 24, 2000. The photographers have spent thirty years traveling through Africa to document customs, rites of passage, and aspects of ceremonial life. Passages provides a rich portrait of time-honored African traditions in a continent undergoing rapid change.
“This exhibition represents both the wealth of African culture and the photographers’ lifelong passion to document it,” said William Siegmann, Curator of the Arts of Africa at the BMA. “Passages helps to make the Museum’s African art collection come alive.”
The exhibition covers the cycle of life in Africa as well as the spiritual beliefs of its societies. Ninety-five large-scale color photographs will be grouped according to birth and initiation, courtship and marriage, seasonal rituals, wealth and royalty, and finally, death and passage to the spirit world. Among the images in the exhibition are coming-of-age ceremonies for Maasai boys in Kenya and Krobo girls in Ghana; an extraordinary stick fight that is part of courtship among the Surma of southwestern Ethiopia; and the wedding ceremonies of Himba women adorned with the ocher earth of northwestern Namibia. Among the most intriguing ceremonies are the Wodaabe charm dances from central Niger. As part of their courtship rituals, Wodaabe men dress in elaborate costumes and wear makeup for a “beauty contest” judged by women.
“During Beckwith and Fisher’s decades of travels through Africa, they have sought out societies that are maintaining their traditions in the face of encroaching modernization,” Siegmann said. “The photographers are drawn to this vision of Africa above all else, and their deepest desire is to share it with the world.”
Passages will include forty objects, mostly drawn from the BMA’s collection. Some of the works have never been on view before or have not been exhibited in many years. The exhibition provides an opportunity to show these works in a manner that illustrates how they would have functioned in their original settings.
Passages will include:
• A full-body Yoruba Gelede mask,
• An eleven-foot-high Dogon mask,
• A fantasy coffin from Ghana, where coffins reflect the deceased’s occupation,
• Gold earrings from the Fulani people of Mali,
• Berber jewelry from North Africa,
• Ivory bracelets from the Lobi people of Burkina Faso,
• A silver sugar hammer from the Tuareg people of Niger.
The exhibition was organized by William Siegmann, Curator of the Arts of Africa at the BMA, with Barbara Head Millstein, Curator of Photography. Passages will be on view in the BMA’s Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing fifth-floor galleries. Beckwith and Fisher’s moving images first appeared in African Ceremonies, a deluxe two-volume set published by Harry N. Abrams last year. Abrams will publish the images from Passages in a large-format, full-color volume that will be available for $19.95 in the BMA shop.
About the Photographers
Before they began their collaboration, Beckwith and Fisher had each lived and traveled extensively throughout Africa. Carol Beckwith was born in the United States and educated at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. She has been cited by UPI as “foremost among photographers who have recorded the cultures of the Far East, Pacific, and Africa.” She is the author of three previous books on African cultures all published by Harry N. Abrams: Maasai, which won the prestigious Annisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations; Nomads of Niger, based on her three-year experience of living with the Wodaabe nomads; and African Ark, with Angela Fisher, a study of the peoples and cultures of the Horn of Africa. Angela Fisher was born in Australia and educated at Adelaide University. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed Africa Adorned (Abrams), a fourteen-year study of traditional African jewelry and body decoration. This publication was also the subject of a National Geographic cover story.
Passages Public Programs Thurs. July 20
Join photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher for a discussion of their work. Free with Museum admission. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium
Sat. August 5
7 p.m. Family Film: Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998, Dir. Michel Ocelot, 70 min., France) This animated film recounts the tale of tiny Kirikou, born in an African village on which Karaba the Sorceress has placed a terrible curse. Kirikou sets out on a quest to free his village and discover the secret of Karaba’s wrath. Part of the BMA’s free First Saturday program. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium.
9 p.m. Film: Sango (1997, Dir. Obafemi Bandele Lasode, 160 min., Nigeria) This film recounts the epic ascension of Sango, the Yoruba king of the Oyo Empire, from legend to deity. Part of the BMA’s free First Saturday program. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium.
Sat. September 17
4 p.m. Performance: Djoniba Dance and Drum Troupe. Join performers of all ages for an interactive African music experience. Free with Museum admission. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium.
About African Art at the BMA
The first museum in the United States to display African objects as art, the BMA’s collection, particularly strong in works from central Africa, is one of the largest and most important in the country. In 1995, the African galleries were expanded and reinstalled with 250 works of art, including several pieces that have never before been on public view. Also on permanent display are a carved ivory gong from the Edo people of Benin and an eighteenth-century wooden figure of King Mishe MiShyaang maMbul of the Kuba people of Zaire—both of which are the only objects of their kind in the country.