Sukuma (?) figure from Tanzania
3 feet (.91 meters) - span of arms  26 inches
Haya (?) Sukuma (?), or neighboring people, Tanzania
Yale African Art Archives # 0116172~01

Use/function unknown

My thoughts - due to it's aggressive stance (arms back and head forward) and threatening (?) appearance it could have possibly been a guardian figure
for a village to ward off evil or some similar purpose. From what I've read there are figures that are used in this context in some East African cultures.

After showing photos of the piece to several people familiar with the artwork of people from Tanzania, the general consensus was that this figure was 'most
likely' used in the context of a "scarecrow" figure to protect crops (as is mentioned in the information below). Who knows for sure?!?

The figure is simply carved, even crudely sculpted with rough holes for eyes and a mouth carved in relief with real teeth inserted. The hands, feet and
buttocks and genitals are colored in a faded black pigment, while the rest of the figure is covered in a faded white pigment. This carving reflects a style
shared by a number of western and central Tanzanian peoples in which features are abstracted with little detailing of the body, and yet they remain
visually very powerful/interesting figures.

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"The Sukuma people are a comparatively large tribe and number approximately one million. They live in small villages in the northern part of Tanzania,
each of which is headed by a chief who is also a sorcerer and whose power is counterbalanced by secret societies.

Sukuma carvers are associated with large, rough-looking, standing figures, which have a weathered patina. In some instances these statues were made
either with articulated limbs or were carved without any arms and legs at all. The later figures may have been used as scarecrows and the figures carved
with articulated limbs, known as Amaleba, are used by musicians and dancers during ceremonies in the dry season, following the harvest. Another type of
tall, carved figure, to which fetish material is attached, is thought to represent an ancestor.

Sukuma masks have a fearful expression, exaggerated features, including applied eyebrows, and a beard and moustache, and, like their statues, have a
weathered patina. In common with the Amabela, Sukuma masks were also employed during dance ceremonies in the dry season. Steatopygous terracotta
figures with a small head and hands resting on their hips and long ivory necklaces were also made by Sukuma craftsmen."
Source: The Tribal Arts of Africa

Additional online resource on the Sukuma:

Sukuma Culture and Tanzania by Mark H.C. Bessire
The
Sukuma Museum website


Click on any image to see larger version
The 2 photos above can really change your perspective on this object, at least they do for me. When you
look at it only from the front or back it seems "flat", but when you see it from the side like this with the head
forward and the arms back it gives it a lot more depth and character. It gives me a whole new perspective
on the object because the position of the head and arms give it a sort of motion or "action", the pose is
almost confrontational and the figure seems to be "in your face" or "standing his ground".
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you?
Is this object powerful to you? Is this object ugly to you?
Does this object move you one way or another?
See people's answers to these questions at the bottom of this page!
The figure from Tanzania shown above made me think about the question of aesthetics and art. Would someone else who looked at that figure feel the
same emotion about it that I did? Would they think it was ugly when I think it was beautiful in it's own right? OK, beautiful may not be the word to describe
this piece, but it does have a certain "aesthetic" quality to it. It isn't your "classical" beautiful object, but does it still have merit in the world of African art?
In my opinion it certainly does.

Aesthetic value, or gauging one's emotional reaction to a particular object seems to be a very important factor not just in African art, but in all art. We, as
collectors, generally collect things that "move" us in one way or another. We may be moved because an object is "beautiful" in an aesthetic sense, we may
be moved because an object is perceived as "powerful", or we may be moved in ways in which we can not describe. The bottom line is that generally objects
that we collect resonate with us on a conscious or sub-conscious level in one way or another, if we can describe it or not.

Aesthetics are often subjective, one person may look at a particular object and say it is beautiful, while another will look at the same object and not see the
same qualities in the object and may think it is ugly. We may look at an object in a different way then the people who originally carved it or the people who
originally used it.

Take for instance the 2 examples below, both are examples of black Punu masks in different styles. The one on the left is finely carved, great attention to
detail and has a very real "human" quality of beauty. The mask on the right lacks the level of detail the other mask possesses, but in my opinion it still has
wonderful qualities in the face of the mask and has an indescribable wonderful presence about it.

Which mask would inspire a "Western" artist, a "western" collector. Which mask would inspire the African people who carved and used these masks?
Is one of these masks good? Is one of these masks bad? Is the mask on the right ugly?
Does one mask draw you to it over the other? Is it the thought of possible age and use that draws you to one or the other, or do
you find each mask beautiful in it's own way? What goes through your mind when you look at 2 examples of the same type of mask,
how do you "judge" them?
________________________________________________________________________________________

The 2 statements below are from Williams Melendez from Venezuela:

There is a proverb that says "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," I think it is true. This means that something or someone is
beautiful, depending on the person who is looking. For example, if my child draws a picture, using many colors and asymmetrical
lines, and writes down, "Dad, I love you", I think that it is beautiful. But if another person looks at the picture, he may think, "It's
good, but my son drew a better picture."

Another example is in art. If I look at a painting by a famous artist, it is possible that I can't understand it and think it's ugly, but if
another person such as a famous painter sees it, he will surely say that it is beautiful.
________________________________________________________________________________________


An interesting statement made about Lobi figures:

"Sometimes grotesque, often moving, always full of humanity, these abstract Bateba are among the most primitive, but are
nonetheless engaging for all this. Despite awkwardness on the part of certain amateurish sculptors, the stattuettes demonstrate a
precision of look and a strength of concentration."

Giovanni Franco Scanzi, Lobi Traditional Art: 160


Do we as "outsiders" need to fully understand the context of an African art object in order to relate to and appreciate the
"aesthetics" of the object? Does it matter to us? If an object is ugly, then it's just ugly to us and we are not interested in it?

With our "western" tastes and values we may look at an object and think it is ugly or grotesque, but the African person or people
who originally commissioned that same object for ritual use may have looked upon the same object with much different eyes.
Granted, they may not have considered the object to be beautiful, instead they see the object as having great importance or power
because it was created to serve a specific purpose for them, and the aesthetics of the object (whatever they may be) meets their
requirements for this purpose.
The masks on either side of my figure are from the book "The Tribal Arts of Africa"

The Sukuma people and the Haya people are neighbors in Tanzania, and objects from each group share many stylistic similarities.  If I had
to base an attribution of my figure on stylistic similarities to one of these masks I would say it is more similar to the Sukuma mask because of
the rectangular mouth and the presence of ears on both of them. The Sukuma mask is also white or has a white pigment which is also
present on my figure. It's hard to definitively give an object a correct attribution unless you have accurate collection information. There are
MANY cultures in a relatively small area of Tanzania (map below), a lot with very similar stylistic qualities in the limited amount of objects they
produced and the cultures of this region have not been studied to the extent that other "popular" cultures in Africa have been so often times
little is known about their traditions.

Sukuma mask (left)
wood and teeth; height 36cm (14")
Fred Jahn Gallery, Munich

Haya mask (right)
wood; height: 24 cm (9 1/2 in); private collection
"Like most Tanzanian masks, this Haya mask has rough features, which have been further enhanced by the addition of hair and human
teeth. The use of these masks is unknown, although it is likely that they were worn during initiation ceremonies."
Map above showing the concentration of different ethnic groups in Tanzania.
The Haya and Sukuma are in the upper left hand side. You can click on the map to see a larger version.
The Good, The Bad, and the....Ugly???

Back in July I posted a message to the African Arts and Culture Discussion Group as well as inviting people who visited my website to post their
thoughts and comments on this figure on my website. It was interesting for me to see the different reactions from people across the world and
see how different people saw the same object and I wanted to share the results with everyone so they could also see how different people
reacted and compare those reactions to their own.

I asked the following 7 questions, at first the questions were phrased a little different but the meaning of the question was the same:

1) Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?

2) Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  

3) What do you think it's intended purpose may have been?

4) Is this object ugly to you?

5) Does this object move you one way or another?

6) Is this an object YOU would have in your own collection (YES or NO)

7) What are your thoughts about the authenticity of this object (AUTHENTIC or NOT AUTHENTIC or DON'T KNOW)

Below are the responses I got, there weren't a lot, but the answers cover a wide range of opinions. At the beginning of each response I have
identified where the person who provided their responses was from.

Response from someone in Richmond Virginia, US
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically pleasing to you in any way? Not very much

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful? No

Is this object ugly to you?
Sort of.  But it has a certain wonky attractive quality, like an old Volkswagen

Does this object move you one way or another? No

Collection NO = on
Authentic - don't know = on

Response from someone in Manchester, England
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically pleasing to you in any way?
Yes I like quirky "folksy" and sometimes rough looking items that aren't in the usual realms of collecting. I have things that I know some people
would think are ugly items.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  Yes

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? Don't know

Is this object ugly to you? No

Does this object move you one way or another? Yes
Collection YES = on
Authentic YES = on

Response from someone in Bangkok, Thailand
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically pleasing to you in any way?
I thought it was ugly until I saw the last two photos -- shot from side angles -- which give it a powerful dynamism.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?
Yes, the face is aggressive to the point of being offensive.

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been?
Guardian, dispelling evil, or something similar

Is this object ugly to you?
Yes, especially the front view.

Does this object move you one way or another?
I wouldn't use the word 'move' but it certainly has a strong presence/character.
Collection NO = on
Authentic - don't know = on

Response from someone in Paris, France
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically pleasing to you in any way?
> Not aesthetic but very expressive - which is, in my eyes, much better.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?
> It has a powerful expression : it is "saying" something to the person who looks at it - so that the person, as addressed, should not remain
indifferent.

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been?
> It seems to be saying : "Beware : I'm here to protect this place and its people"

Is this object ugly to you? > No.

Does this object move you one way or another?
> Yes, I find it moving (an old need for protection ?!)
Collection YES = on
Authentic - don't know = on

Response from someone in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
No, it looks like if the carver didn't have the ability to get the aesthetics matching his inspiration. I am not making reference to the general
roughness of the work but to it's lack of focus and balance.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?
No, I think its expression lacks concentration and focus.
An example: If you look at its legs, they don't look like giving the figure support and grasp. They don't fit the figure. There is a lack of
coherence and balance.

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been?
I guess it could have been a community protection idol.

Is this object ugly to you?
It's not ugly. It's crude.

Does this object move you one way or another?
I don't like it. It might be authentic but I am not considering it art.
Collection NO = on
Authentic NO = on


Response from someone in New Mexico, US
Aesthetics: = Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
Very interesting aesthetically.  Simple, but very expressive.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  
I think it has its own brand of power, especially because of the angle of the body when viewed from the side.  
It looks as though it is trying to frighten away something that is threatening.


What do you think it's intended purpose may have been?
Spiritual object - protection.

Is this object ugly to you?
Not any more.  At first glance, it didn't appeal to me, but when I considered  its possible purpose,or meaning, its origin, and who created, it
becomes beautiful in its own way.

Does this object move you one way or another?
I think I probably described what I felt above about it above.  Yes, it invokes a lot of feeling the more I looked at it.


Response from someone in Rancho Cucamonga, California
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
= Response:yes - but the beauty to me comes from it's source - that it is a tribal creation -not in the form.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  =
Response:what is power? do objects hold power? Power to me comes from an objects ability to touch something deep in the psyche whether
concious or unconcious  - I think that objects only have power to the degree it is given to them. This can be by personal resonance or a
collective assent. Personally I do not percieve this object as powerful but that does not mean it wouldn't be to a tribal member who understood
what it represented and the ties it may have to ceremony, stories etc...

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? =
Response: I prefer to not be so daring as to even try to impose an explanation from a western paradigm onto the tribal purpose of this object.

Is this object ugly to you? =
Response: No ... I like it's rather animated stance and find it an interesting piece as most Tanzanian pieces I've seen. Unusual and refreshing
in it's 'left field'ness.

Does this object move you one way or another? =
Response: well ... it moves me out of my usual aesthetic as to what beauty is .. but what it loses in the normal sense of what is aesthetically
pleasing - it makes up for in it's uniqueness - it's almost as if it is just the other side of the same coin.
Authentic - don't know = on

Response from someone in Brick, New Jersey
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way? = Response: no

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  = Response: yes  

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? =
Response: possibly used for protection purposes

Is this object ugly to you? = Response: unappealing

Does this object move you one way or another? = Response: negatively
Collection NO = on
Authentic NO = on

Response from someone in Tucson, Arizona
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
= Response: I think and find this carving interesting and a bit appealing ... yes.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  =
Response: I perceive it's purpose to be much more spiritually invoking than physically.

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? =
Response:  Perhaps, it was used for ancestor or family member worship or healing.

Is this object ugly to you? =
Response:  I do not see this as an ugly object ... no.  I is somewhat complex.

Does this object move you one way or another? =
Response: This particular object does not "move" me, however, it is an
object of curiosity for me.
Collection NO = on
Authentic YES = on

Response from someone in New York, New York
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
= Response:no

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  = yes

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? =
Response:power figure, protector

Is this object ugly to you? = Response:no

Does this object move you one way or another? =
Response:I am only curious about it's purpose

Collection NO = on
Authentic YES = on


Response from someone in Laurel, Maryland
Is this object aesthetically interesting to you in any way?
= Response: Aesthetically not really.

Is this object powerful to you or do you perceive this object as powerful?  =
Response: It is powerful.  I believe the object could be showing how a body ascends to heaven (or to whatever spiritual level after death).

What do you think it's intended purpose may have been? =
Response: Respect or hope that a loved one's spirit and body rose to the next level.

Is this object ugly to you? =
Response: It's art, not ugly.  However, it may be considered "scary."

Does this object move you one way or another? =
Response: I would think of it as a religious object.
Collection NO = on
Authentic YES = on

I hope this was an enjoyable exercise for you. I enjoyed it very much!
Cheers!
RAND
Rand African Art
home page

Sukuma figures main page

Tanzanian figures main page

Sukuma figures, boundaries, and the arousal of spectacle
African Arts,  Spring, 2005  by Aimee Bessire
Click on the link above to go to the article in Look Smart

Sukuma dance figures at the Hamill Gallery
Custom mount by Ken with Display Africa