About This Artwork

Gur-speaking peoples, possibly Lobi
Burkina Faso

Altar Vessel, Early/mid–20th century

Terracotta and sacrificial material
33 x 26.7 cm (13 x 10 1/2 in.)

Gift of Keith Achepohl, 2005.235

Across the Gur-speaking region, individuals and families establish altars to honor and commune with influential spirits. Making altar vessels is the work of highly accomplished potters. The spikes on these vessels reflect a practice that is found across West Africa. Among the Lobi, such spikes symbolize fertility, fecundity, and protection. On this vessel, a small ladle sits atop the lid, presumably for pouring substances in or out of the vessel. [See also 1998.520].

— Permanent colleciton label

Altar vessels are usually round bottomed and short necked, and inevitably have a lid that protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination. Unlike pots made for domestic use, which are ornamented with impressed patterns, ritual containers are painstakingly embellished in high and low relief. Spiky knobs commonly wrap the pot in one, two, or multiple rows, and abstract forms of animals and humans may be applied to the sides or the top. The spikes that engulf this pot are used to decorate pots holding powerful substances and reflect a practice found across west Africa from Mali to Cameroon and even as far east as Tanzania. Among the Lobi such spikes may symbolize protection against witchcraft, misfortune, and illness; fecundity and fertility; or supernatural protection during initiation. Among the neighboring Senufo they represent the physical manifestations of disease. The spikes are applied here in an organic manner that is enhanced by the kaolin and yellow ocher—possibly associated with warding off illness—that coat its surface. The vessel’s iconography is complex and includes a snake, turtles, and male and female figures. [See also 1998.520].

—Revised from Kathleen Bickford Berzock, For Hearth and Altar, African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection (2005), pp. 73-74.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Art Institute of Chicago, For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection, Dec. 3, 2005–Feb. 20, 2006, cat. 31.

Publication History

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection (The Art Institute and Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 73-74.

Ownership History

Unnamed owner, United States, 1993; sold to Douglas Dawson Gallery, Chicago, Ill., 1993; sold to Keith Achepohl, Iowa City, Iowa, 1993; given to the Art Institute, 2005.

Interpretive Resources

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