Welcome to the Temple of Africa, the Mother of Humanity and the archaic home of Tantra tradition. Tantric practices are found in most ancient spiritual belief systems. Unfortunately, with the advent of Christian missionary activity, many of the places where archaic forms of Tantra were once practiced, now have only traces of this knowledge. Africa is the best example of this phenomena. Africa, the "home" of humanity, the original motherland. Look closely at traditional African spiritual cultures, such as the Dogon of Mali, the Fang and Kota of Gabon and the Yoruba of Nigeria, and traces of Tantra become apparent. Belief in reincarnation, in the immortality of the human spirit, the spiritual law of "cause and effect," divination, spirit possession, meditation, mystic power phrases, spells and amulets, the power of sacrifice and the sacraments of sex are but some of the tenets common to both the African and Asian archaic spiritual traditions.
The Dogon of Mali and the Fang of Gabon are African tribes that have preserved archaic Tantric concepts to the present time, especially in sculptured objects of wood. This is an aspect of art history that has been much neglected. For this reason we share important items of Dogon and Fang sacred sculpture by placing them in the Temple of Africa on this World Wide Web site.
In the catalog to "Africa: The Art of a Continent," an important exhibit held recently at London's Royal Academy of Art and at New York's Guggenheim Museum, Daniel Biebuyck writes:
"Among the religious beliefs and practices that require the use of sculpture are the care and veneration of the dead, concerns about the destiny of the soul and life principles, ancestral cults, worship of nature spirits, divination and detection of evil-doers and witches, healing techniques, methods of inflicting and neutralizing evil and sickness, consolidation of friendship and blood-pacts, taking of oaths, personal and group protection and the enhancement of fertility."
The Dogon of Mali number about 250,000 people today. Their home is the Bandiagara Escarpment, a row of steep cliffs some almost 2,000 feet high, stretching 125 miles from Southwest to Northeast, parallel to the Niger River. The region inhabited by the Dogon is one of the few areas in Africa that had no contact with the West until the end of the 19th century. Dogon statuary is among the most discussed and least understood in Africa. It is largely expressive of cosmology, myth and spiritual rites.
Dogon wood sculptures are among the oldest known spiritual art objects from Africa. Radiocarbon tests done on a number of Dogon wood sculptures have produced some astonishing results, the most archaic thus far being a statue 1850 years old (plus or minus 200 years). A few test results are in the 1000 to 1300 year age-range, several in the 400-600 year age-range and many are 200-300 years old.
A Dogon myth tells how, after the world's creation, 'Amma' sacrificed one of the 'Nommo' ancestors to the sky and two trees were born from the blood. Parts of the body were thrown to the four cardinal directions, and to the earth and sky, each part becoming trees. According to a study by Dieterlen:
"Trees belonged to 22 families, each corresponding to a part of the human body and to a moment of the (primordial) myth."
"Pelu" (khaya senegalensis) was the most commonly used hardwood for Dogon statues, even though it is very fibrous and extremely difficult to carve.
One of the most important Dogon sculptures that have survived is a large seated "hermaphrodite" figure carved from a very hard and heavy fibrous wood. It is shown here in public for the first time. This is much larger, finer and earlier than any previously recorded examples, the best of which are generally attributed to the 17th/18th century.
This large and impressive Dogon hermaphrodite figure is in excellent condition, with a simple (rejoined) break at the ladle. The wood surface has an exquisite natural encrusted patina, including remains of sacrificial offerings.
This hermaphrodite figure is carved in a stylized "abstracted" manner, in the style known as "Bombu-Toro" after an area where sculptures in this style have been found. The long columnar body has an elongated neck and arms, prominent breasts and foreshortened legs. The figure is naked except for armlets and bracelets, and has a large helmet-like head with a crested plaited hair ridge and side coifs ornamented with engraved cross-hatch motifs. The eyes are diamond-shaped, the nose long, mouth open and diamond-shaped, with tab-beard or lip-plug below. The sides of the mouth are linked to the side hair-coifs, representing a mustache. Zig-zag shaped cross-hatched markings are on the sides of the face.
The figure holds a large ladle with both hands and has a quiver attached to the back. In Dogon iconography, the calabash ladle (kozu) or "ceremonial spoon" signifies "a matriarch or woman of importance"; the quiver is the symbol of "an illustrious man."
According to Hélène Leloup, writing in her definitive work "Dogon Statuary":
"Mythical beings symbolize the human ideal (warrior attributes for men; procreation for women)...The calabash with the long handle is the women's insignia (kozu) used to accompany the songs in rituals such as the one for lifting the period of mourning for important people."
The figure sits in a formal frontal posture with legs apart, "above" a stool formed by two irregular disc-like sections supported by small standing "caryatid" figures. Leloup explains the symbolism:
"Among the most spectacular sculptures we find the mysterious hermaphrodites. To understand these statues, one must clarify the Dogon concept of perfection deriving from the re-union of what was separated. For young initiates, these statues explained the necessity of the dualism existing in nature, the social differentiation between men and women, the distinction between the sexes - dualism one had to transgress in order to attain perfection and continuity in life. We have here the illustration of a typical Dogon concept: the male contains the female who also contains the male....
These atypical beings are said to represent the 'eight primordial ancestors, born of the couple fashioned by God (who) could inseminate themselves, each being double and of both sexes' (Griaule, 1948)."
"These monoxyle statues are seated in a chiefly position on a stool carved in the image of the world. The two discs are connected by a central axis surrounded by caryatids. The bottom disc represents the earth and the top represents the sky. The disc representing the sky cannot seat any man, no matter how powerful. Note that the sculptor marks the separation between human beings and the stool by attaching the figure to the central axis; the thighs and buttocks do not actually touch the stool."
In her major work, Leloup illustrates four similar hermaphrodite figures, between 69 and 80.5 cms in height, including the best known and most similar but smaller "Bombu-Toro" hermaphrodite figure (height 69 cms) formerly owned by the sculptor Jacob Epstein. She also refers to other similar sculptures:
"Which represent a seated woman on a stool with caryatids; she is holding a spoon and carries a child on her back instead of a quiver. These statues have protuberant breasts, the female sex is not always indicated, and the chin is decorated with a lip plug. It was called yomasaye and supposedly represented the big, all-powerful sister, healer and witch, holding the spoon of the ya-sigine....."
As with many other ancient African cultures, Dogon sculpture, masks and metalwork are made by blacksmiths. The sculptures are carved in green wood. Leloup gives the following fascinating account of the process of wood selection, acquisition and carving:
"The blacksmith carefully selects a tree, which must be located east of the new moon's first crescent. On the new moon's first day, he sacrifices a chicken whose blood is poured on the tree mixed with kola, in order to placate the tree's nyama. The branch is then chopped off, covered in sa to prevent drying, then in the leftover blood, and it is left in situ for a week. At the end of the week (on a Monday or Thursday), the sculptor starts roughing down the log......"
Such traditions of wood selection and carving from green wood are common to both African and Indian archaic traditions.
Fang sculpture from Gabon, especially the "reliquary" heads and figures, are associated with an ancestor cult referred to as "byeri." The term byeri refers to both the solo heads or figures which guard the funerary relics - craniums and bones - of important ancestors. Byeri sculptures were mounted on the top of bark boxes, baskets or bundles containing human relics. They were consulted before undertaking any important action, such as an important journey, a battle, the placement of a village or house, finding a wife, choice of ground for agriculture, curing of sickness and before starting a hunt.
The most thorough study of Fang art and culture was done by the French scholar Louis Perrois. Between 1965 and 1975 he lived in Gabon, researching and publishing on the Fang and related tribes. His thesis "La Statuaire Fang, Gabon" (Paris, 1972) is the definitive work on the subject. In 1992 he curated the definitive exhibition of Fang sculpture at the Marseille Museum, bringing together some 60 fine examples.
Perrois estimates between 500 and 600 genuine traditional Fang sculptures exist in collections and museums throughout the world. In his thesis he documents 272 of them, of which about 40 are solo heads. Writing in the Fang section in the catalog of the major exhibition "Africa: The Art of a Continent", which opened at London's Royal Academy of Arts in October 1995 and at New York's Guggenheim Museum in June 1996, Perrois speculates that Fang carvings are perhaps the culmination of a long tradition:
"The delicacy of these carvings continues to surprise; they were produced in a village environment by people who had been constantly on the move since the beginning of the 19th century. This makes one wonder if the Fang statuary first discovered at the end of the 19th century is not the culmination of a long tradition, dating back to before the last migration of groups from the Eastern savannas of Cameroon and Central Africa."
Fang wood sculptors commonly also worked with metal and came from long established lineage's of sacred object makers. Wood used for carving Fang reliquary statues was carefully selected and worked only by artisans who were ceremonially "purified," who followed certain ritual procedures and who abstained from sex during the period of fabrication.
Following the completion of the sculptural process, a Fang byeri image was darkened and immersed in various medicinal or "magical" oils for several weeks, which "nourished" and "empowered" it. Palm oil, copal resins, black coloration (mevina) and other substances created the unique patina of Fang sculpture, which was further enhanced by sacrificial oblations.
Byeri were generally consulted after the use of narcotic plant products. "Alan," also known as "malan," is the main drug used by initiates into the byeri cult. According to J. Fernandez, "the root of the alan bush is ground up, powdered, dried and consumed while sitting exposed to the morning and midday sun." Fernandez says the purpose of this drug's use is to "break open the head (akwia nlo)," so as to connect with the spiritual realms. Alan reputedly has hallucinogenic, stimulating and aphrodisiac properties. Fernandez did an extensive study of drug use among the Fang and related tribes. He documents the use of four types of narcotics that "enter into their cult rituals." These are "alan" - Alchornea floribunda; "eboka" - Tabernanthe iboga, which has ibogaine as its main alkaloid; "ayan beyem" - Elaeophorbia drupifera; and "beyama" - Cannabis .
Fernandez writes that "the latex of ayan beyem was employed in the ancestral cult among the Fang when the ingestion of malan was slow in showing effect. A parrot's red tail feather dipped in the mixture was brushed across the eyeballs. The latex appears to affect the optical nerves, producing bizarre visual states." He also writes that cults in Southern Gabon mix malan with eboka. Fernandez gives a lot of data on the connected bwiti cult which primarily uses the drug eboka. Followed mainly by the interrelated Tsogo or "Mitsogho" tribe of Gabon, according to him this is "a night cult of the female principle of the universe."
Fang Byeri: Reliquary Guardian Head mounted on the top of a Reliquary Basket, intact with Fetish Bundles including a central monkey skull, shells and animal horns.
Carved from wood, with surface blackish in color, this "nlo byeri" head has a heart-shaped face, parallel scarification or tattoo marks from crown to tip of the nose, and eyes done with brass pins. Orange colored raffia "hair" is attached to the top of the head.
A fine original patina from ceremonial offerings covers the surface of the head and the basketry. Several documented Fang heads show similar double-line facial markings. This is the only known example recovered intact, on a basket-top together with relics.
The eyes of each face are minute ceramic beads inset below the brows. Shoulders, front and back, are modeled in a stylized way. The carving is extremely fine and the patination layered and rich.
Height: 13 inches (33 cms).
This exquisite Fang byeri sculpture is of a male, legs bent in the normal posture, both hands brought together above a disc-shaped navel. What is most unusual is that this figure has four heads, each with chiseled nose and mouth slit-like, slightly open. The faces are classical Fang, ovoid in shape and with a single central "crest-knob". Perrois refers to only three multi-headed Fang sculptures in his major publications. In his thesis he illustrates and describes two and in his more recent art publication, "Byeri Fang: Sculptures d'Ancetres en Afrique" (1992), he illustrates and describes another fine multi-headed Fang sculpture, a byeri torso with three faces, from Northern Gabon.