Vessel (itinate)

CULTURE:
Cham or Mwona peoples
DATE:
early 20th century
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General Description

This vessel depicts a highly stylized female with an elaborate hairstyle or headdress tapering into a hornlike projection, a pronounced brow, ball-shaped eyes, and a snoutlike mouth with notched lips. The surface of the upper portion of vessels from this region usually exhibits a rough, often jagged, texture. Embellished vessels like this one were traditionally used in divination and healing rituals among diverse people in the Lower Gongola River Valley of northeast Nigeria. Those of the Cham and Mwona peoples are distinguished by a bulbous base surmounted by a highly stylized human or nonrepresentational form. In these societies, individuals commissioned the healer-vessels from male potters.

Individuals concerned about infertility or giving birth to a healthy baby, tending to a sick animal, or threatened by forces beyond their control conferred with the village diviner, a man of great authority. The diviner consulted either a male or female terracotta figure, according to the patient's gender, for advice. Upon receiving an answer, the diviner sent the patient to a male potter to commission a specific vessel. The potter had to be highly skilled and familiar with the different kinds of vessels in order to ensure the prescription would work. Before a vessel could be used, the diviner activated it with incantations, pouring a libation, and in some cases, filling the vessel with water from a particular pool that was believed to have magical powers. The patient then took the vessel home where it was kept until his or her malady was cured. After the vessel had served its purpose, the owner discarded it at a safe distance from the village. The precise function of this vessel is not known.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 148-149.
  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

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