This striking anthropomorphic figure mounted onto a board which is decorated with two additional heads was made by a master sculptor of the Lobi group. Insofar as we are aware, it is a unique piece. It is centred around a female figure with standard Lobi proportions, with long limbs and torso, geometrically-precise breasts and a prominent umbilicus. Her face is serene, her eyes closed. The heads are of unidentified sex and are basically identical to the central figure. The rear board is carved in a series of curvilinear forms. It has a dark, glossy patina. The significance of this piece is uncertain, although it might represent a sleeping person upon an ornate bed. It is very large, and may have had been the centre of central social focus rather than being a domestic piece.
The Lobi were founded during the 18th century, when they moved to their current territory of Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso. The term “Lobi” literally means “children [lou] of the forest [bi]” in Lobiri,and covers various clans that can be differentiated, but which are usually identified as a unit by academics on the basis of their similar architecture, social/religious beliefs and thus artistic production. They are an exceptionally martial group, and have a long history of struggles and sanguineous battles with long-serving enemies including the Guiriko and Kenedougou empires. They eschewed – and, indeed still eschew – imported European religions. Possibly for this reason, the artefacts associated with traditional belief systems display a healthy range of diversity that is often absent in older pieces from areas where the formidable power of forced Christianity was successfully brought to bear upon native populations.
Lobi figures of ancestors and fetishes are known as “bateba”, and are used to appeal to “thila” (thil) spirits, intermediaries between this world and deities such as the creator god (Thagba). Bateba serve apotropaic functions and act as personifications of thila whose personal qualities are especially desirable (as indicated by body position). Figures with one arm upstretched indicate a dangerous thil spirit, while erotic thil duos (and “maternity” figures) are designed to guarantee fertility to the females in whatever house it is displayed. The distinctive subset of bateba with miserable expressions are known as “bateba yadawora” – literally “unhappy bateba” – which are believed to take away such sentiments from their owners. Bateba are usually kept on domestic shrines inside or even on top of homes, and are revered alongside a number of other objects including iron statues and ceramic vessels that are often appeased and appealed to by the sacrifice of food, drink and miscellaneous substances, and many bateba still retain some encrusted offerings.
This is an attractive and unusual piece of Lobi artistry.