This imposing sculpture is a bateba thil figure from the Lobi tribal group. It is a columnar female figure with attenuated limbs and an outsize head, her arms by her sides and her legs extended. Detailing is nugatory below the neck, with pointed breasts and a slightly-marked pudendum. The head is large and oval, with a domed apex, excised cheeks, a thick nose and protuberant eyes and a thin mouth. The angle of the jaw, the ears and the chin are all marked in very sharply. The wood has an uneven burnished patina from handling and the application of libations.
The Lobi – whose name literally means “children [lou] of the forest [bi]” in Lobiri – are a large group living across Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso. The term “Lobi” 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 from outside. They share common traits in terms of architecture and village structure, and – for our purposes – similar social/religious beliefs and thus artistic production.
The Lobi were founded sometime in the 18th century, when they moved to their current territory. 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 favor 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 brought to bear upon the native populations.
Lobi artistic production is intimately tied up with their beliefs. They are governed by a set of social conduct rules that are known as “zosar” Ancestors and fetishes of various sorts are commonplace, both domestically and on a wider social scale. They appeal to “thila” (or thil) spirits, who act as intermediaries between this world and high-power deities such as the creator god (Thagba). There are also various bush spirits, although tehse are not aspoweful as the thila. Access to the thila is controlled by the thildar, or diviner. The Lobi commission – with the help of the village sorcerer – figures known as “bateba”. These serve either an apotropaic function (Bateba Duntundora) or act as personifications of thila whose personal qualities are especially desirable. In the latter category, the specific sentiments are expressed by body position. The figures with one arm upstretched, for example, indicate a dangerous thil spirit, while erotic thil duos are designed to guarantee fertility to the females in whatever house it is displayed. It is likely that many of the variants reflect personal characteristics of thila, with corpulent, jolly or dejected individuals all known from older collections. However, there is a distinctive subset of bateba known as “bateba yadawora” – literally “unhappy bateba” – whose expressions and stances are believed to reflect sadness and mournfulness, and thus take any such sentiments away 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 a striking and powerful example of a bateba statue, and a worthy addition to any collection of the genre.