About this artwork
Among the most elaborately adorned Baatombu vessels are large egg-shaped jars with heavily embellished surfaces that combine delicate incising with bold modeling in low or high relief. Some of these, as well as similarly shaped shea-butter-fueled lamps, are decorated with inventive sculptural forms including animals and fully realized figures. In this jar, a male and female couple takes pride of place in the arched niche that serves as the focal point. The figures’ stylized faces are expressively rendered with large, slit eyes, long noses, pursed mouths, and prominent scarifications on their cheeks. Similarly modeled figures are found on several other published examples of Baatombu pottery, and their recurrence may suggest a workshop or regional style. On the sides and back of the jar vertical registers hold rows of turtles, lizards, and snakes—probably the python—animals that transcend the boundaries of earth and water. Such animals may become associated with the protective spirit of a family or of a spirit medium. Contrasting areas of smooth burnishing and incised pattern further articulate the jar’s surface and include evenly spaced horizontal bands that unite the complex decorative program.
The Baatonu (plural, Baatombu), or Bariba, are the majority population in the ethnically diverse Borgou Province of northeastern Republic of Benin. Their origins are complex, combining a base population associated with hunting, traditional healing, and communion with spirits and ancestors, with a ruling elite called the Wasangari, refugees from the Hausa region of Nigeria who fled Islamic reform in the nineteenth century. Today the Baatombu make a living primarily as subsistence farmers. While their origins are debated, it is clear that they have absorbed many influences from their Yoruba neighbors to the south and southeast, as well as from the Gur-speaking region of Burkina Faso to the northwest and perhaps even from the distant Mande-speaking heartland of central Mali.
Well into the 1950s pottery was central to the domestic life of the Baatombu, and women made a variety of vessels for household and ritual use. By the 1980s, however, much of the pottery intended for daily use was displaced by imported enamelware and few women were choosing ceramics as a career. Today there continues to be some demand for specialized pottery in rural areas, particularly as a symbolic gift to a young woman about to marry, for ceremonial use by spirit mediums, for preparing or storing traditional medicines, and for making offerings to spirits and ancestors. Although pottery may once have been a hereditary profession that was closely aligned with iron-working in Baatonu thought and practice, today it may just as likely be learned through apprenticeship as passed from mother to daughter.
The potter forms the base of a pot using the convex mold technique. This method is also used by many potters in Burkina Faso, where the Baatonu may have originated, and by the neighboring Yoruba in the region of Oyo. After the pot is removed from the mold, coils are added to complete its form.
- Currently Off View
- Arts of Africa
- Jar (Wékéru)
- Benin (Object made in)
- 41.3 × 36.2 cm (16 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.)
- Gift of Keith Achepohl