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DARK MATTER Vodun and Other West African Power Art from the William Harper Collection


The divine lawcourt of Be. The fetish priests sit in front of the altar, presided over by the voodoo fetishes. (Photo: G. Chesi, Voodoo: Africa’s Secret Power, 1979)


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DARK MATTER Vodun and Other West African Power Art from the William Harper Collection

I always remember my father being a collector—in that ultimate, driven sense of the word—of curious and beautiful things. Even in his own work, the predominant aesthetic is one of assemblage. I had grown up around both African and contemporary Western art, but one day a new type of strange object started appearing in the house. They were Fon bocio figures, and over time they grew, along with related West African power works, into a small village of golem-like yet benevolent creatures that resided alongside us. For many years the nail fetish figures of the Songye and Kongo had been Bill’s unattainable longing. But in the early 1990s at the old Museum of African Art in New York, Bill saw for the first time three Fon figures from the collection of Don Nelson, and thus began a new obsession. As Bill describes it, these works appealed to him because they possess an assemblage and fetish-like quality that resonated with a similar aesthetic in his own work. Bill ascribes passionately to the view that art does not have to be pretty and refined to be profound and beautiful—event though much of


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the so-called “Primitive” art which is highly valued by Western eyes falls into more elegant and refined tropes of beauty. He is drawn to a dualism in the work and the fact that, while they may appear brutal or aggressive, they were almost always meant for benevolent purposes. At that time it was almost impossible to learn much about Fon culture or art, particularly in the United States—there were very few books, and the works were found almost exclusively in very specialized European collections. Over the course of almost twenty years, and with the help and guidance of ethnologist, collector and dealer Jacques Hautelet, he diligently put together a collection of over forty-five superb and often very rare and complex examples of “power objects” from the Fon (and related sub-groups), Senufo, Bamana and Yoruba tribes. As a brief introduction, all of the West African objects in the collection have in common a “fetish” quality—that is to say, they are powerful protective talismans used by individuals, families, associations or whole communities. They were created by diviners or holy persons, and they gained power and were effective because people believed in them. Their artistic integrity derives from their sublime combination of artfully realized, often brutal forms, functioning in conjunction with a complex belief system, and the fact that a great deal of use and belief was bestowed upon them, often as evidenced by their heavily encrusted patinas. The Komo association headdress, from the Bamana tribe of Mali, is among the most complex and “charged” examples of this type of mask that have been documented. It can take de-

cades of active use by this secretive tribal society to ultimately produce a Komo mask that has become so dense with accumulation of spiritually powerful materials that it achieves an elevated fetish status. The result is a highly tribally-significant object that is terrifying in its mystery, its grotesqueness, and in the awesome power that it would immediately convey to those participating in its use. A similar sense of mystery surrounds Senufo kafigueledio figures—figures of judgment and divination in the tribal courts of the Senufo of the Ivory Coast—in which the form of the underlying carved figure is blurred through the addition of animal and vegetal sacrificial materials and a coarse, encrusted fabric wrapping. A very rare and highly sexualized Yoruba body mask transforms the fertile female body into a stylized form of strong angles and voluptuous curves, meant to seduce viewers of the Gelede masquerade into reverence for the power held by the living women of the tribe as well as their female ancestors. Moving further south, to the coastal regions of the Republic of Benin and Togo, the bocio figures of the Fon and related tribes come out of Vodun religious practices. An animistic tradition with ties back to this area of Africa’s violent history as the “Slave Coast,” Vodun is an integral part of daily life among the Fon, and reflects their underlying belief in chaos as the primary driving dynamic in the world. Vodun are the forces which shape the universe, and can be deities, distinctive ancestors, forces of nature, or even human physiological anomalies. The name bocio comes from a combination of the Fon words for bo = “empowering form” and cio = “cadaver”.


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Through a complex process of object creation and ritual, bocio act as mediators for their users between their world and that of the Vodun, mitigating fears of the world as experienced and fears of the unknown. Vodun practices are primarily protective in nature, providing defensive rather than offensive power. The bocio sculptures all have been used in complex rituals that seek to harness Vodun powers to specific ends. Even to uninitiated Western eyes, their forms are immediately engaging; yet when one looks closer, the complex layering of sacrificial and symbolic materials elevates them to realms of deep mystery and understandable power. Animal skulls, bones, shells, vegetal material, culturally-significant man-made objects such as jars and locks, and torn clothing, combine with piercings and bindings, and are activated with layer upon layer of sacrificial materials such as animal blood, grease and alcohol, to create objects at once frightening, awesome, grotesque, beautiful, and powerful. While their elements may have common features, these features can have a multiplicity of metaphoric meanings, and so the function of each bocio is unique and known exclusively to the maker and the user. A piercing of the mouth or head may signify the need for one’s actions to go unheard. Binding and other metaphors for imprisonment are particularly prevalent, and look back to the area’s history of slavery, but can also refer to such positive situations as pregnancy and maternity. Duck blood is thought to contain elements which make it an apotropaic poison and therefore can confer similarly protective properties to humans; the duck bill, on the other hand, due to the relative silent nature of the bird,

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is believed to instill silence in one’s enemies, and the animal‘s association with water identifies it with the god of springs and rivers. Alchemical ideas of transformation and transmutation, as well as the cyclical nature of life and death, play primary roles in bocio empowerment. Sacrificial blood offerings play a crucial part in the fetish activation, although some bocio “prefer” alcohol, or even soda, and often some combination of all. Individual elements may provide clues to the bocios’ purposes, but the intimate workings are ultimately unknowable to the outside. What is clear in the most wonderful and wondrous of these objects, is the enormous amount of energy, thought, belief and artistry which go into creating their complex visual and symbolic power. They exude a darkly primitive, yet very humanizing presence, a window onto the rawest of human fear and desire. As Suzanne Preston Blier has noted, “These bocio arts often look raw and brutal in part because they speak to the deep and difficult emotions that continue to challenge us in living life to its fullest.” (“Brutal Arts: Potent Aesthetics of Bocio Vodun Arts in Coastal Benin and Togo”, exh. cat., Vodun: African Voodoo, Paris, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2011, p. ). Having had the privilege of living with and coming to know these works over many years, I can attest to their awe-inspiring presence. When they have, on occasion, released noxious smells or moved inexplicably, we would say to each other, only half-jokingly, that they were trying to tell us something. —Meredith Harper


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BAMANA


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bamana komo association headdress (warakun) mali 28 inches (68 cm) long wch11 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris Literature: J.-P. Colleyn, Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali, exh. cat., Museum of African Art, New York, 2001, no. 165 (illustrated in color, p. 181).

The Bamana live southeast of the Dogon in Mali. They are essentially farmers and produce millet and sorghum. The cult of ancestors is much alive in their culture and their initiation societies are structured by age group. In these classes, they are taught everything regarding nature, human beings and the destiny that God has planned for each of them in the universe. This mask belonged to the Komo association, one of the most widespread and revered power associations across West Africa. Its primary function is the maintenance of social order. Its mysterious form and surface, when danced by the blacksmith head of the association, Komo-Tigi, during sanctified occasions, is the embodiment of secret and power. Uninitiated men and women are never allowed to see the mask. Komo members stand as a police force capable of threatening, physically punishing and appropriating the property of anyone veering from the norm (P. R. McNaughton, Secret Sculptures of Komo: Art and Power in Bamana Initiation Associations, Philadelphia, 1979).

A group of Komo dancers, Komo Association, Guinea. (Photo: Barbier-Mueller archives)


bamana komo association headdress

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Bamana Komo Helmet Mask (Komokun) Mali The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller

Bamana Komo Helmet Mask (Komokun) Mali New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of Kent and Charles Davis


bamana komo association headdress

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bamana komo association boli power figure mali 18 x 20 x 8 inches (45.7 x 50.8 x 20.3 cm) wch46 Provenance: Private collection, France; sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 19 May 2003, lot 25

This object, called a boli (pl. boliw), plays an essential role within Bamana spiritual life. Boli figures have attracted much attention from Western observers due to their amorphous forms and unusual materials. The bulbous shape is rather idiosyncratic within the repertoire of Bamana art. Boliw are composed of a wooden armature “core” wrapped in white cotton cloth, around which clay and sacrificial materials are encrusted. This boli has four short “legs” upon which it sits, as well as a single hump rising from the top. The creature that a boli represents is unidentifiable, but many take on the loose zoomorphic form suggested by this work, while others may be anthropomorphic. The primary function of a boli is to accumulate and control the naturally occurring life force called nyama for the spiritual benefit of the community. The composition of the encrusted patina varies, but all the ingredients possess this inherent and important spiritual energy. The encrustation may include the blood of chickens or goats, chewed and expectorated kola nuts, alcoholic beverages, honey, metal, animal bones, vegetable matter, and sometimes millet. Sometimes this added matter is so extensive that it obscures the original wooden form and takes on a shape all its own. As the encrustation cracks and hardens throughout the years, it gives the impression that these ingredients are tightly packed within the boli. As the sacrificial materials accumulate over time, each added layer affords the structure greater spiritual power.

Boliw and their numerous ingredients have been interpreted in a number of different ways. It has been suggested that the disparate elements of which boliw are composed symbolize the various parts of the universe, so that the whole can be read as a model of Bamana cosmological belief. Such power objects are owned by male associations whose members progress through induction processes that span decades. Over time, they attain an esoteric knowledge of the natural and spiritual world. Opaque and mysterious to the uninitiated eye, boliw are safely handled only by those association members equipped with the most rarified expertise and knowledge.

Bamana Boli Power Figure Mali 14-1/4 inches (36.2 cm) high The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller


bamana komo association boli figure

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SENUFO


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senufo kafigueledio oracle figure ivory coast 29 7/8 inches (76 cm) high wch7 Provenance: Ambassador Jean Le Cannellier collection (acquired circa 1962) Philippe Dodier, Avranches (acquired from the above)

Kafigueledio are roughly sculpted, highly powerful statues, covered from head to foot in a dark cloth. Their primary function is associated with black magic. The arms are moveable and hold either wooden or metal weapons. The head is covered with feathers or porcupine quills. The figure can be manipulated by pointing its arm (with the club in it), in the direction of the person targeted, to debunk false testimonies in a tribunal and at any accomplices. A hybrid creation that lies outside the realm of anything recognizable in nature, this oracle figure deliberately provokes anxiety through its shrouded anonymity and the sense of suffocation and entrapment it suggests. These works and the ritual practice in which they are used are both known as kafigueledio (“he who speaks the truth”). The figures give visual representation to invisible bush spirits and function as divination devices. Kafigueledio divination is used to uncover misdeeds, false testimony, and culpability. The kafigueledio figure is concealed within a small hut, and although it has the potential to affect all members of a Senufo community, access to this oracle is restricted to the most enlightened senior male and, occasionally, female members. These elders occupy positions of leadership, as initiates into the highest level of esoteric knowledge. Kafigueledio is thus a formidable force wielded by Kulebele leaders to distinguish their heritage and preserve the special interests of their constituents. In order to harness its power and operate it successfully, these leaders establish their commitment through ritual sacrifices, which unevenly cover the oracle figure’s surface with crusty matter. The details regarding usage of kafigueledio figures are shrouded in secrecy. (Excerpts from the above taken from Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000.)

Senufo Kafigueledio oracle figure Ivory Coast 32 1/2 inches (82.6 cm) high The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Wielgus


senufo kafigueledio oracle figure

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senufo kafigueledio oracle figure ivory coast 26 inches (66 cm) high wch34 Provenance: Private collection; sale, Sothebys, New York, November 15, 2002, lot 6

Senufo Kafigueledio oracle figure (unmasked) Ivory Coast 28 3/4 inches (73 cm) high MusĂŠe Barbier-MĂźller, Geneva


senufo kafigueledio oracle figure

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YORUBA


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yoruba fon igi aya ritual body mask benin or nigeria 32 inches (81 cm) high wch45 Provenance: Baudouin de Grunne, Brussels; his sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 19 May 2000, lot 25.

This Yoruba Fon body mask was created for the Gelede masquerade. The Gelede society is found primarily among the western Yoruba living on either side of the Nigeria-Benin border. The society teaches Yoruba social values through Gelede costumes, songs and dances. The patrilineal Yoruba believe that women, especially elderly females, female ancestors, and female deities, possess extraordinary spiritual powers (asho) that can be used for the benefit or destruction of the community. The Gelede society, whose membership is primarily male, appeals to these women to use their powers constructively. Such appeals are made at an annual public masquerade held in honor of “the mothers,” as well as at the funerals of prominent members, before the harvest, and during crises. (Africa: The Art of A Continent, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996, p. 148). This body mask is notable for its particularly prominent vulva which, along with the full breasts and rounded belly, emphasize female fertility points. The Comte Baudouin de Grunne collection, assembled primarily between 1965 and 1980, when sculptures from some of the major African cultures were first appearing on the art market in Europe, was one of the world’s finest private collections of West African art. De Grunne’s philosophy was to acquired the highest quality of a series of sculptures from each tribe.

Yoruba Igi Aya body mask Nigeria Collection Fritz Koenig, Munich


yoruba fon igi aya ritual body mask

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Yoruba Igi Aya body mask Nigeria Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren


yoruba fon igi aya ritual body mask

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28priest from the cult society of Debego. A He has withdrawn into the fetish chamber in order to make a sacrifice to the voodoos. The fetishes in the background are considered powerful protectors of house, farm, and family. (Photo: G. Chesi, Voodoo: Africa’s Secret Power, 1979)


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FON, EWE, ADJA, AND OUATCHI


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Map of West Africa showing the location of cultures in the area. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


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fon deity legba benin 29-1/8 inches (74 cm) high wch26 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This very strong figure represents the deity Legba, the trickster and messenger god. Legba knows the secret language of all of the fetishes; he guards the gates between the worlds of the gods and men (one might say he personifies the gate between the gods and men) and when properly appeased allows men to speak with the gods and, hopefully, for them to communicate back with men. Although a trickster, he is mischievous rather than malicious. In Fon lore he constantly pushes boundaries, which serves as a method of creative power. Legba both causes and solves problems, and is the promoter of life’s benefits as well as life’s stresses. This Legba figure is identified by its much enlarged and erect phallus, as well as a smaller one in iron. Yet Legba is not an exclusively male deity; he can empower and be used by both men and women. As Blier notes, “Like the vagina, the penis has a range of important associations in this case, not only with human creation, communication, and sexuality but also with the road that each person travels through life” (African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995, p. 150). The enlarged phallus can refer to the trickery, deception and danger that life holds, but also with creation and the joining of opposites (male/ female, earth/cosmos). Legba is found at important places—at crossroads on the edge of the village, or in front of homes, waiting to be fed on time and with the right food. He is a glutton by nature and once even devoured his own mother. He has a decisive role—he determines what people receive from the gods, and vice versa. It is rare to see Legba as a wooden figure.

Children of Atinwulise, Sagbadju with bocio. Artist: Benoit Houndo. Abomey, Benin. July 2, 1986. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon deity legba

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fon janus bocio benin 21 inches (55 cm) high wch22 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This Janus figure represents the simultaneously dueling and joined opposition of the male and the female. It has the irons of the god Gu and the sign of the thunder god Hevioso in the form of ram horns. The cowries reinforce the power of the fetish. There are also two locks attached to it. The lower part of the figure is surrounded by kaolin. It has a strong smell due to the presence of animal materials and sacrifices made with goat blood. The presence of two sets of eyes and ears powerfully conveys its heightened vigilance and acute sensory awareness. Such bocio featuring Janus imagery are especially prevalent. Numerous different meanings have been associated with this genre and its characterizations. In Fon culture, sorcerers are believed to have “double vision,” and those empowered to combat them must be similarly endowed. The double-faced image is also the preeminent sign of omniscience, and thus evocative of the deity of geomancy, Fa, who often empowers such works. In addition, two heads and four eyes are attributes of the almighty solar god, Mawu, the ultimate arbiter of divine sanction and retribution. (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, 2000, p. 64).

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


fon janus bocio

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fon janus bocio

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fon one-legged bocio benin 22 inches (56 cm) high wch33 Provenance: Henri Kamer, Paris and New York (by 1971) James Willis Tribal Art, San Francisco Exhibited: New York, Henri A. Kamer Gallery, Magic African Art, November 1971. Literature: Henri A. Kamer Gallery, Magic African Art, New York, 1971, no. 30 (illustrated).

Sculptures with deformities form a distinct genre of bocio, and are known as bocio-bigble—bigble meaning “completely malformed”. They feature either the multiplication or deprivation of key body parts; often they are missing an arm or a leg, or perhaps feature multiple heads/faces/pairs of eyes/torsos. They include Janus figures (see the previous work) as well as one-legged bocio such as the present work. The deformities in these bocio do not usually, however, represent a handicap or lack of power, as our Western eyes might incline us to view them, but quite the opposite: they convey an extra strength or power embodied by the bocio, and are often used in the most powerful of deity figures. This figure is also empowered by the cowrie shells enclosing his neck and waist in the form of the skirt of a Vodun devotee. The small bells are attributes of Age, the Vodun of hunting.

Ouatchi? sculptures, Togo. Both male and female figures carved with an amputated left leg. Collection Art Sherin and Sue Horsey. (Photo: Jack Sherin, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon one-legged bocio

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fon fa bocio benin 20 1/2 inches (52 cm) high wch31 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This important bocio is typical for the region of Abomey. It is a Fa (divination) bocio. The Fa bocio is used in the most diverse situations and is always made after consulting the Fa oracle. The diviner sees the oracle in the mirrors—the placement of which evokes the powerful Bakongo Nikisi figures—and as such would seek to read the past, present or future for his client. In the calabash with a long neck (one in the front, one in the back), there are medicinal powders. The wooden sticks call the powers of the ancestors. The head is surrounded with six irons of the god Hevioso. The whole piece is covered with a very old layer of blood. The headdress is made of cowries, which further invokes the power of the sacrifice and, given its placement over the eye, may be an invocation to empowering vision, either literal or symbolic.

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


fon fa bocio

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fon fa bocio

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fon fa bocio ensemble benin 17 inches (43 cm) high wch44 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This particularly complex ensemble is a Fa (divination) bocio from the Abomey region. The fetish was used to solve problems in a couple. The healer sees the oracle in the mirror, and offerings could be made into the bottles and receptacles. The god Hevioso is represented by the two axes.

Ewe figural power object, Togo. Collection MusÊe de l’Homme, Paris. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon fa bocio ensemble

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fon fa bocio ensemble

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fon maternity bocio benin 21-5/8 inches (55 cm) high wch27 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

This bocio represents a mother and child. It is a strong figure surrounded by a powerful accumulation of secret objects, each of which has a particular meaning in the Vodun cult and to the user of the fetish. The ram-shapped iron emerging from the top of the head represents Hevioso, the lightning god. It is completely covered with a crusty patina due to numerous sacrifices.

Ouatchi? figure, Togo. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wally Zollman. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon maternity bocio

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fon maternity bocio


fon maternity bocio

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fon kpodohonme (pierced) bocio with skulls benin 26 inches (66 cm) high wch38 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

Bocio which incorporate features of piercing or pegging constitute an important sculptural genre. Called generally kpodohonme, sculptures of this genre are characterized by the cutting or piercing of holes in the figure’s surface into which pegs, pins, or other objects of closure are inserted. Kpodohonme bocio are intended to represent ideas of confinement, imprisonment, internalization and penetration. This particularly adorned and powerful figure has a plug in its mouth in the form of a human head, a very rarely seen motif. This will prevent someone from talking. The monkey skulls are used to prevent the enemy from controlling his movements. The figure is also adorned with padlocks, cowries and a chain, similar to a Bakongo-like nail fetish.


fon kpodohonme (pierced) bocio with skulls

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fon kpodohonme (pierced) bocio with skulls

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fon kpodohonme bocio benin 17-3/4 inches (45cm) high wch18 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This figure represents a woman with a wooden pin piercing the belly, a reservoir of emotions but also associated with witchcraft. The figure is surrounded by a chain/trap (incarceration) and carries in the the back the sign of Hevioso (ram) that kills those wherever they are if they do not follow the rules. This old piece is covered with sacrificial substances that have turned into a encrusted patina. Of particular note are the scarifications and hairstyle. Based on the style and face marks, Suzanne Blier has suggested that these types of pieces are typical of the Oueme River area.

Agonli-style bocio, Benin, female figure. Former collection of Ben Heller, current collection of Don H. Nelson. (Photo: Jerry Thompson, courtesy of the Museum for African Art, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon kpodohonme bocio

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58 fon kpodohonme bocio


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fon kpodohonme bocio benin 24-1/2 inches (62cm) high wch9 Provenance: Alban Bronsin, Brussels

This male bocio stands with his arms at his sides, knees slightly flexed. The base of an iron symbol of Hevioso, god of lightning, projects from the mouth, with the curving horns rusted away. Similar smaller symbols of Hevioso project from the shoulders and back. The surface is covered with the remains of sacrifices, and the figure stands on a base with an iron spike that allowed it to be driven into the ground. Such figures were placed outdoors, at the entrance to the community, with the iron spike struck into the ground. They are positive magic protecting the inhabitants of the town from evil spirits. Others can change the weather or locate thieves. They are carved and given power in the greatest secrecy, and only the maker knows what materials and prayers have been used in their making.

Back view


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fon kpodohonme bocio benin 16 inches (41cm) high wch6 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


fon kpodohonme bociow

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fon kpodohonme bocio benin 15 inches (38cm) high wch2 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

Fon kpodohonme bocio, Benin. Former collection of Ben Heller. (From S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


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fon kpodohonme/wutuji bocio benin 12-5/8 inches (32 cm) high wch29 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

Swollen or pregnancy works—Wutuji—comprise another important genre of bocio sculptures. These figures are characterized by their inclusion of variant bulges, humps, or mounds of empowering materials secured to diverse parts of the body. According to Blier, works of this genre, while alluding to childbearing, are additionally rich in psychological meaning. Body swellings are identified not only with infections, disease, and death, but also with emotional stress. In front, there are the irons of the god Gu as well as a miniature iron ancestor altar called asen. On the back, there is the sign of the thunder god Hevioso in the form of ram horns. The cowries reinforce the power of the fetish.The peg inserted in the left ear is intended to prevent another from hearing of one’s acts. The figure is covered with a crusty patina from the blood of sacrificed goats or chickens.

Back view


fon kpodohonme/wutuji bocio

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fon wutuji bocio benin 15 inches (38 cm) high wch15 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

In this Wutuji bocio, water or alcohol was offered in the two receptacles, and the figure placed on an ancestor altar. As with other bocios of this genre, it was closely associated with illness, death or emotional burdens, and was created as a way to protect from these afflictions.

Detail


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fon bocio benin 17-1/4 inches (44cm) high wch40 Provenance: Nicole and John Dintenfass, New York

This strikingly formed bocio may be of the Wutuji type. It is wrapped with a jar-like receptacle, which was likely used to receive liquid offerings such as water, soda, or alcohol.


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fon bla bocio benin 15 inches (38cm) high wch14 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This bocio is a Bla or “bound” bocio, because it is wrapped in clothes. They are used to deal with all kinds of “imprisonment” (i.e. illness, inability act, impotence, etc.). This is an important ensemble, with a central figure representing a chief healer. He is surrounded by his followers who are bound to him, meaning that they cannot do anything without him knowing it. This type of bocio is in control of different situations such as sickness, stealing, etc. In addition to the four people around the central figure there is a bone, which gives the main figure the power that belonged to the animal it came from. The mirror is used to expose the people responsible for making someone sick, for stealing, or for practicing magic. The is also a spear representing Gu, god of iron and war. This bocio is covered with a particularly thick and crusty patina of sacrificial substances.

Back view


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fon maternity bocio benin 14-1/8 inches (36cm) high wch28 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This complex and powerful bocio is a protective fetish for a mother and her three children. There is a Fon saying “One will not attack a mother with three children.” There are two nails planted, which represent Gu, the god of war, and which reinforce the protective power of the fetish. The padlock in the front serves to “lock up” evil forces. The cowry shells at the bottom of the skirt symbolize power. Animals are offered to the fetishes during rituals, their blood creating the sacrificial patina on the piece.

Fon bocio, Benin. Former collection of Ben Heller.


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fon maternity bocio

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fon maternity bocio benin 15 1/2 inches (39 cm) high wch47 Provenance: Nicole and John Dintenfass, New York

Detail


fon maternity bocio

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fon bla bocio benin 13 3/8 inches (34cm) high wch5 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


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fon bla bocio

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fon bocio couple benin 9-7/8 inches (25cm) high wch16 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This powerful bocio was used when a couple was facing problems, or when one wanted to conquer someone. The couple is bound together, and covered with an encrusted sacrificial patina.

Opposite view


fon bocio couple

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fon bocio power group benin 13-3/8 x 9-1/2 inches (34 x 24 cm) wch17 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This important and complex piece is comprised of a healer and his three bodyguards on a chariot-like structure. It is the healer who receives the divine word and communicates it to others. He can send his bodyguards with the god Hevioso’s help to resolve a problem. The chief-healer would consult with the fetish early in the morning only. Before sending the bodyguards, he spits on the piece and in the four directions. Sacrificial animal blood creates the patina on the object. The kaolin (white color) is applied to calm and the blue activates the fetish.

Detail


fon bocio power group

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fon bocio benin 13 3/8 inches (34 cm) high wch13 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

Fon bocio, Benin. Former collection of Ben Heller, current collection of Don H. Nelson. (Photo: Jerry Thompson, courtesy of the Museum for African Art, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon bocio

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fon bocio benin 14 7/8 inches (38cm) high wch4 Provenance: Galerie Afrique - Alain Dufour, Paris

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


fon bocio

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fon bocio benin 14 1/4 inches (36 cm) high wch1 Provenance: Nicole and John Dintenfass, New York

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


fon bocio

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ewe bocio togo 16 1/2 inches (42 cm) high wch12 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This male figure is covered with a encrusted patina of dried blood sacrifices. It wears a cape and, in the back, a duck skull is attached. The duck has powerful connotations when its various aspects are incorporated within bocio sculpture. As Suzanne Preston Blier has explained, “In the animal world the previleging of particular parts or features also finds numerous examples. The duck is expecially interesting in this regard and the blood and bill are frequently included in bo and bocio. Duck blood is thought to contain elements which make it an apotropaic poison. As Hazoumé notes (1956:98), “The blood of ducks is poisonous. This protects them from both birds of prey and serpents.” In its alchemical use in bocio, duck blood is purported to bring to humans analogous protective results. The relative silence of ducks in turn is a primary factor in the recurrent inclusion of duck bills in bocio and bo sculptures. A well-known Fon proverb explains that “the duck cannot flap its wings and say cock-a-doodle-do” (Akpakun 2.18.86). Accordingly, duck bills as additive surface matter are used to assure a person’s silence. Akpakun explains similarly that with the duck bill, “The person who thinks badly of you cannot look you in the face and talk.” Moreover, because of the duck’s association with water, it is identified closely with Tohosu, the gods of the springs and rivers. When duck features are incorporated into sculptures, therefore, they usually connote empowerment as derived from this source (Savary 1971:4).” (Blier, p. 217) Ouatchi? figure, Togo. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wally Zollman.


ewe bocio

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ewe bocio

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fon bocio benin 13 inches (33cm) high wch32 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp


fon bocio

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fon scepter benin 37 1/2 inches (95 cm) high wch21 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This staff belonged to the same healer that owned the “healer and three body-guards” fetish (WCH 17, p. 84). It is covered with cowries, beads, bells, locks, whistles and a duck skull. There are also four figures. Bells and whistles are attributes of Age, Vodun of hunting. The colors of the beads represent various gods; the duck skull, death. The name of the staff is Setondji, which means “you will have what you asked for.” The healer considered this staff his “third leg.” Each morning he touched it three times with his tongue, asking to be helped in his business of the day.

Detail


fon scepter

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fon scepter

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fon kudio bocio protective post benin 36-3/4 inches (93cm) high wch23 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This is the upper part of a protective post usually planted near the entrance of a dwelling. It is a guardian figure called a kudio (“death-exchanging”) bocio, and fear of death is the predominating psychological concern addressed within this genre. It functions as a sort of “lightning conductor.” It is meant to be a substitute for the living person, and must divert attention so that evil spirits and powers focus on it and not on the living. The figures are always carved on a long post. Once the lower part is eroded, it is planted again. “Kudio bocio generally are thin, pole-like forms with often only minimal indication of body features. Explaining the frequent lack of concern for sculptural detail in kudio bocio, Ayido notes, ‘This is not something one will go and buy at the market [from a professional artist]. It is we diviners who do it and we generally make only signs for the eyes, nose, and mouth.’ While such objects usually also include indications of sexual anatomy, other distinguishing human feature generally are lacking. Other than a small piece of cloth tied around the figure’s neck or waist, these sculptures incorporate few if any of the diverse additive materials applied to the surfaces of most other bocio. Weathered surfaces, the result of long-term positioning out-of-doors, distinguish many works of this genre as well. “Kudio bocio are used to help individuals avert various traumas or difficulties in life, principally by tricking malevolent forces into attacking the figural representative instead of the living person. ... All kudio bocio are commissioned in conjunction with Fa divination consultations. ... In these death-exchanging bocio, other personalizing elements such as height, divination sign, dress, and odor are emphasized. The size of kudio sculptures often varies vis-a vis the age and relative stature of the person represented. Death-exchanging bocio, for this reason, are among the most varied in size. ... Yet another unique, personal reference critical to the sculpture’s role in psychological projection is the small piece of cloth acquired from the individual for whom the work has been commissioned.

“The location of the sculpture also is important. In some communities carvings of this type are positioned in front of the homestead to represent the family head and other key family members. Often such works are aligned with the entry. In other cases, the figures are places at the sides of a door of a hut (the male to the right, the female to the left) to prevent thefts or the interference of malevolent human agents in the affairs of their kin. Age is significant to their position as, well, with the one who is the elder in front, and the new family head is behind.” (Blier, African Vodun, Art, Psychology and Power, 1995, pp. 273, 276-278).

Fon female kudio bocio, Benin. Collected by Christian Merlo in 1928. Collection Musée de l’Homme, Paris. (Photo: Christian Merlo, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


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fon kudio protective post

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fon kudio bocio protective post benin 12 inches (30 cm) high wch24 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

Gedevi-Fon kudio bocio, Bohicon area, Benin. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, May 19, 1986, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon kudio bocio protective post

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fon kudio bocio protective post benin 30-3/8 inches (77cm) high wch30 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This majestic guardian figure may be another kudio bocio, the upper part of a protective post planted in a family compound or in the neighborhood of a village. It is wearing a throne on its head, alluding to the coronation of a king. It was reserved for the descendant of the royal family of Abomey, which may also explain its more elaborate adornment. The bocio is covered with blood and kaolin following the sacrifices made in its honor.


fon kudio bocio protective post

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fon kudio bocio protective post

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ouatchi figure benin 28-3/8 inches (72 cm) wch42 Provenance: Galerie Ambre Congo - Pierre Loos, Brussels

This very strong and powerful figure is from the Ouatchi in Benin. The mouth is covered with a red cloth, indicating secrecy. It is wrapped in a large bundle of cowries, symbolizing the activation of its powers.

Fon bocio, empowered by Hevioso, the god of lightning. Artist: Mikpanhye, Abomey, Benin. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


ouatchi figure

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ouatchi figure

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ewe female power figure togo or benin 30 inches (76 cm) high wch8 Provenance: Gert Chesi, Schwaz (collected in 1978) Haus der Völker, Schwaz (aquired from the above) Bert Garrebeck (Galerie Caravan), Brussels (acquired from the above, circa 1994)

This figure is an ancestor figure used, according to the West African ethnographer Gert Chesi, in Vodun ceremonies involving Egun. The Egun are ancestor spirits, venerated by the Fon, Fon-related and Yoruba tribes, who intervene on behalf of their living relatives. They bless, protect, warn, and punish, depending on how their relatives neglect or remember them. The figures aren’t simply representations of the ancestors, but are believe to actually be the deceased, their spirits embodied in such receptacles.

Dassa power figure, called ope, Dassa Zoume, Benin. Planted in front of the house and said to represent a chief. Collected by Christian Merlo in 1928. Collection Musée de l’Homme, Paris. (Photo: Christian Merlo, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


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Fon kennesi shrine with associated sorcery bocio. Abomey area, Benin. (Photo: S. Preston Blier, January 26, 1986, from S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


ewe female power figure

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fon ancestor bocio benin 35 inches (89 cm) high wch19 Provenance: Kevin Conru Gallery, Brussels

Gen figure from Togo. Collected by A. Leiz, 1908. Linwden Museum, Stuttgart (Photo: From S. Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, 1995)


fon ancestor bocio

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ouatchi ancestor couple benin 33 inches (84 cm) and 35 1/2 inches (90 cm) high wch25 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This imposing pair of terra cotta figures are Vodun ancestor figures; they are particularly notable and rare among works in this medium for their elegance, size and elaborate detail. The figures were likely placed upon an ancestor altar and, from the soiling demarcations around their legs, may have been partially buried in the ground. Sacrificial offerings of grease, kaolin, and other substances were poured over the figures, giving them their darkened, encrusted patina.


ouatchi ancestor couple

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Ouatchi/Fon Terracotta Figures, Togo or Benin. Collection Jan Cocle.

Ouatchi/Fon Terracotta Figures, Togo or Benin. Collection Jan Cocle.


ouatchi ancestor couple

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ouatchi kpodohonme bocio benin 35-7/8 inches (91 cm) high wch43 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

The Ouatchi are the descendants of emigrants coming from Nuadja in Togo. They live in small rural communities on the plateau of Lome. This figure is considered a Kpodohonme bocio and, with the aid of wooden pins or padlocks, embodies ideas of “confinement” and “imprisonment.” The field photograph shows the figure partially buried and wearing on its back a red cloth, the color of secrecy. The chest is covered with a bundle of padlocks and a chain ending with a whistle, which was used in the beginning of the ceremony to call the bocio. There is also a very heavy chain around the neck hanging onto the floor. This bocio, named Lanson by its creator, was collected in the village Honhoue (near Possotome, Benin). According to the owner, it served to lock up evil.

Fon bocio, Benin. Collection Anne and Jacques Kerchache. From Vodun: African Voodoo, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2011.


ouatchi kpodohonme bocio

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The present work in the divination shrine, with offerings being made to it. (Photo courtesy Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw)


ouatchi kpodohonme bocio

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adja bocio power figure togo 15 inches (38 cm) high wch39 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This fetish is dedicated to the deity Gambada, the serpent god—one of the most feared Vodun deities. Fierce, yet merciful, he is also powerful and generous, and nourishes all of the vodun, all of whom draw on a portion of his power. Gambada uses his strength to attack the enemy by creating uncontrollable movements and actions, often forcing him powerless to the ground. The figure was named Ekpole Honmi (Ekpole = wood; Honmi = door), which means: the wood of the door is an obstacle and is a defense against evil forces. It is covered with padlocks and a heavily encrusted sacrificial patina. The metal objects invoke Gu, the god of iron and war. Padlocks enable the priest to “lock up” evil forces or shut them up in an iron ring. The figures also has an iron staff ending in the form of ram horns, representing Hevioso, the god of thunder and lightning. The belly and back are surrounded by strings holding vegetal matter. Figures such as this are protectors, and are likely a corollary, both visually and functionally, to Bakongo nail fetishes.

Fon healer in the divination shrine, holding the present work. (Photo courtesy Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw)


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The present work in the divination shrine. (Photo courtesy Luc Huysveld and Ann De Pauw)


adja bocio bocio power figure

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ouatchi/fon bocio post with locks benin 23 5/8 inches (60 cm) high wch20 Provenance: Luc Huysveld and Ann de Pauw collection, Antwerp

This Ouatchi bocio functioned as a part of daily life, and would have been consulted with the help of a healer about all of the problems—work, relationships, fights, trips, judgments, rituals, etc—that one encounters on a daily basis. It has been explained that to make such a fetish, the healer would use a piece of clothing from someone whose spirit can activate the figure for the Vodun—that is, someone who perhaps drowned, was burned, or was killed in an accident—and combine that with very specifically determined types of vegetal and animal components. The person who wishes to consult the fetish must bring his own lock, which will be attached to the bocio by the healer. The lock is opened during the ritual and will stay so until the problem is resolved, at which time it will be closed. The patient can then choose either to take it with him or to leave it with the healer, who will keep it on the bocio.


ouatchi/fon bocio post with locks

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ouatchi/fon bocio post with locks

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ewe snake benin 50 3/8 inches (128 cm) long wch10 Provenance: La Grande Île — Roger Lefevre, Brussels

Dan is the serpent-resembling god of wind and motion, a “universal” deity (like Legba or Gu) whose power affects the lives of all individuals. Dan plays the central role of providing all humans with mobility. “Materially [Dan’s] role in the world is to assure the regularization of the forces producing movement. ...Life is one of the mysterious movements ... that Dan has a mission to maintain ... Charged with conducting [the souls] from the sky to their residences on earth ... the umbilical cord brings in effect the child all the way to the earth where the mother gives birth.” (B. Maupoil, La géomancie à l’ancienne Côte des Esclaves, Paris, 1981, p.74, quoted in Blier, ibid., p. 201). Dan is associated with the umbilical cord, as well as with cord-related anatomical features such as the navel, veins, and ligaments. The multiplicity of Dan’s various attributes—of the serpent, the umbilical cord, movement, and especially movement between the heavens and earth—is succinctly conveyed in the elegantly minimal form of the present bocio. Bones and other materials are wrapped in the charge, activating the fetish.


ewe snake

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ewe snake

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ouatchi ancestor couple

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The fetish market of Lome is a last relic dating from animistic days. Here medicine men and priests buy the ingredients for ceremonies and sacrifices. Animal cadavers, ranging from dogs’ skulls to whole crocodiles are part of the rich selection. (Photo: G. Chesi, Voodoo: Africa’s Secret Power, 1979)


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