African designs, £9.99
Height: 115.600 cm
Width: 74.900 cm
Depth: 43.200 cm
Gift of P.A. Talbot
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Wooden funerary screen
Kalabari, 19th century
From Nigeria, collected in 1916
From the fifteenth century the Kalabari of the Niger delta were important middlemen in the trade between the interior of West Africa and Europe. Ivory, palm oil, pepper and slaves from Africa were traded for European goods such as brassware, alcohol, gunpowder and luxury items, all controlled by rival trading houses. By the eighteenth century one of these had risen to prominence. Amachree I, head of this trading house, became king and was the first to be commemorated by a screen of this design.
Because he was not of exclusively Kalabari descent, Amachree did not have access to traditional Kalabari symbols of power and status. New icons had to be developed. The Kalabari drew on imported goods to make new signs of identity, creating a style of screen which is most likely based on European painted or drawn portraits.
The screen shows a house-head in the masquerade outfit that he performed in life. This one is Bekinarusibi ('white man's ship on head') and celebrates the wealth that came from trade.
The screens were kept in the meeting house, the headquarters of the trading house. Offerings were made to them at least once every eight days.
N. Barley, Foreheads of the dead (Washington, Smithsonian Institution, 1988)
T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)