This mortar and pestle is a truly unique example of Bassa figurative carving. Bassa artists predominantly produce masks used by women’s and men’s secret societies, though their talents are sometimes turned toward a small range of other carvings, including simple, geometric mortars used for tobacco, cassava, and rice. Full-bodied figures are also occasionally made for narrow roles pertaining to divination and curing rituals.The fusion of these sculptural modes in the present piece is highly unusual. It is difficult to say with certainty how exactly it was used, but judging by the small and spoon-like form of the pestle (not pictured), it appears likely that it was employed by a ritual herbalist to create small quantities of “medicines.”
The formal beauty of this carving, however, is not in doubt. This is a splendidly executed work. It features the prominent head and tightly ridged coiffure typical to Bassa figures, while a masterful softness and subtlety shown in the handling of the face and the fine, slender arms lend it an exquisite air of refinement and grace. The highly naturalistic face is shaped with gentle folds and is marvelously accentuated with blue glass trade beads set in the eyes, a detail rarely seen in Bassa art. The hard ironwood surfaces of the piece show a deep, warm brown and significant smoothing from generations of use, with traces of ritual substances found still encrusted on the pestle.
This piece was field-collected by Rene Guyot in Liberia between 1969 and 1975. Guyot was one of the foremost collectors in that region of Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, and many of his acquisitions reside today in important international collections and museums. Along with a number of other objects, this mortar and pestle was housed in a warehouse of Guyot’s and was unseen by the public from 1975 until the late 2000s.
Sold together with a one page write-up on the mortar and pestle prepared by William Siegmann, late Curator Emeritus of the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the Brooklyn Museum. Siegmann conducted extensive fieldworkin Liberia in the 1970s.
René Guyot (1927-1979), Switzerland. Guyot field-collected in Liberia from 1969-75.
Thence by descent through the family
Craig DeLora, New Jersey
BRUNEAF, Brussels Non European Art Fair XXI", 8-12 June 2011 and published in accompanying catalog