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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Lobi : Lobi Wooden Mancala Game Board
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Lobi Wooden Mancala Game Board - PF.4871 (LSO)
Origin: Burkina Faso/Ivory Coast/Ghana
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 28.5" (72.4cm) high x 10.5" (26.7cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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This intriguing and well-carved object is a Mancala board, made by the Lobi tribal group. It is a rectangular board bearing a grid of 24 depressions, arranged in four lines of 6. There is an elongated handle at one end, with a human head finial. The head is extremely refined, with multi-crested hair, a high brow, a sharply-defined jaw, coffee-bean eyes – a Lobi standard – and a small, pursed mouth. The raised sections of the wood are polished with usage, as are the bases of the depressions, which once held the gaming pieces. Mancala is a game which is played worldwide in various incarnations, and has been around for at least 1500 years. The essentials, however, are unchanged. The game consists of placing a series of objects (usually nuts, tokens, stones or small shells) into a series of holes arranged in two or four long lines. The boards vary even as variations of a given game; for example Endodoi is played on boards from 2 × 6 to 2 × 10. The game is played by two players, each of whom controls their side of the board. The object is to capture more tokens than the other player, which is achieved by “sowing” a series of tokens around the board into subsequent holes in a motion wrapping around the board. The player “captures” stones according to the position of the last hole played, and what is in it. Another common method of capturing is to land upon holes that reach a certain number of tokens.

The Lobi were founded sometime in the 18th century, when they moved to their current territory of Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso. The term “Lobi” – whose name literally means “children [lou] of the forest [bi]” in Lobiri – covers various subclans (including the Lobi, Birifor, Dagara, Dorossy, Dyan, Gan and Teguessy) which can be differentiated, but which are usually identified as a homogenous unit by academics as they share common traits in terms of architecture and village structure, social/religious beliefs and thus artistic production. The country is intimately tied up in their beliefs. For example, the main river along which they settled – the Mounhoun – is believed to symbolise the division between this world and there hereafter, and must be crossed upon death; for this reason many Lobi initiation rites take place on its banks, and the animals which frequent it and its surrounds are considered sacred. 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. The French, unsurprisingly, had problems with colonial administration in the area, and embarked upon a bloodbath of oppression in order to bring them under control. This powerful resistance also extended to Christianity, which the Lobi have eschewed for decades. Christian missionaries working in southern Burkina Faso reported that an elderly man in a Lobi village renounced the spirits in favour of Christianity by discarding his fetishes in a nearby lake. As he turned his back on the traditions, the fetishes leapt out of the lake onto his back again to reclaim him. Possibly for this reason, the artefacts associated with traditional belief systems are comparatively common, and 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 the native populations.

Lobi artistic production is intimately tied up with their beliefs. While much of their artistic repertoire is associated with devotional items – figures known as “bateba” which serve either an apotropaic function (Bateba Duntundora) or act as personifications of thila spirits whose personal qualities are especially desirable – they are also known for their decoration of utilitarian and secular objects. Prominent examples include vessels, catapults and – in the current case – game boards. This is a beautifully-rendered, well-preserved – and even usable – piece of African art.

- (PF.4871 (LSO))


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