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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Nupe Bronze Head Shaped Bell
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Nupe Bronze Head Shaped Bell - DB.009 (LSO)
Origin: Central Nigeria
Circa: 17 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 19" (48.3cm) high
Collection: African Art
Medium: Bronze
Condition: Extra Fine

Location: UAE
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His striking quasi-anthropomorphic bell was made by the Nupe tribe of Central Nigeria, which are technically part of the Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic state founded by the Fulani. Their art is therefore mainly non-figurative, as required under Islamic law. However, like other places in the Islamic world, this stricture has been carefully negotiated so that pieces such as this can occasionally appear. Pieces predating the conquest (around 1830) are also more likely to be figurative and less abstract than subsequent designs.

The bell is formed into a conical, straight-sided shape, without lateral flaring. The apex is decorated with four triangular eminences that provide the resemblance of hair, in turn surmounted by a suspension loop. The face, on the front of the bell, is formed from a series of raised lines with two main eminences: the mouth and the nose. The eyes are simple circles, divided by a band of hatched design denoting the bridge of the nose. The lips are full, with three small lines – identical to those found on Benin pieces – emanating from each corner of the mouth. The ground of the face is smooth, thus heightening the very extensive scarifications that are arranged vertically on the forehead to beneath the eyes, around the face at the level of the cheeks and the jowls, and in a vertical band beneath the mouth.

The origins of the Nupe seems to lie in Tsoede, although the Nupe themselves seem to believe that they were originally Egyptian. They settled in their current range in the 15th century, and were influenced by the neighbouring Oyo and Igbo peoples. They were converted in the late 1700s by one Mallam Dendo, an itinerant Muslim preacher, and their lands were forcefully taken into the Sokoto Caliphate some thirty years later. Despite this, it retained considerable cultural autonomy. It subsequently became part of the British Empire, but upon cessation they reverted to a predominantly Muslim (c.90%) agricultural economy with some traditional characteristics that are currently in danger of disappearing altogether.

The Nupe’s creative talents were both redirected and suppressed by Islamic convention. Little remains of their original artistic oeuvres, although the stylistic affinity between their works and those of the Benin groups – as well as their geographical proximity – implies that they may have shared some religious and social structures as well. However, there are no archaeological suggestions that the society was quite as courtly as that in Benin; certainly there are much fewer figurative works, and those that there are tend to be on a much smaller scale. Nonetheless, casting of metal pieces was an expensive and time- intensive process, and it was not done lightly in any of Africa’s pre-colonial populations. Styles were restrained and while designs are technically figurative – even the ample scarifications currently worn by the Nupe are rendered – they are sufficiently expressionistic to come under the co-called “principle of improbability”, a rule of aesthetic creation that seems to have been the watchword of Muslim artists for over a millennium. Their oeuvre mainly consists of wooden stools decorated with (abstract) patterns, which are used as bride-wealth, as well as pottery which is often decorated with brass plates.

This is a rare and unusual piece of African- Muslim art. - (DB.009 (LSO))


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