The French colony of Ivory Coast became independent in August 1960. The population of this relatively new country was far from homogeneous: the borders were drawn through the habitats of different tribes. These tribes are different from each other, among other things, because of their various art forms.

Lobi sculptures at Musée Africain, Lyon

In the nineteenth century, the great European powers divided Africa among themselves. With predominantly straight borders, lines that were literally drawn on the map of the continent, they created new countries. The Europeans did not take into account the different population groups that lived in those countries. The new borders went right through their territories. This was also the case of the Lobi. This ethnic group now still lives in adjacent areas in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

In the West African country of Ivory Coast, which is about the same size as Germany, there are about sixty ethnic groups in total. They all have their own culture, language, art, religion and traditions. They are shepherds or farmers, warriors or city dwellers. The latter are a mixture of different tribes that comprises over forty per cent of the population. The differences between the components of this group are hardly noticeable. The Lobi are one of these sixty groups and they mainly make a living from livestock farming and hunting.

Functional art?
The Lobi are known for their striking abstract sculptures. The sculptures, however, are not created as art in the ´modern´ sense of the word -or rather, in the idiom of Western art history- but are a traditional product. Non-functional art, for which European artists have become famous since the sixteenth century, did not exist at the Lobi before the declaration of independence.

Traditionally, sculptors in Ivory Coast did not serve the free market. Their clients were kings or other individuals with a high social status. They had the sculptors create status-enhancing show pieces just for them. The names of the artists usually remained unknown so we don´t know who made the figures from this period.

Priests also gave orders for the creation of statues of guardian spirits and other kinds of beings. For ritual or magical objects, sculptors played a mediating role: they did not make art using their own creativity but created it according to instructions received from a higher level. From this point of view, the actual creators are the spirits and the names of the sculptors remained unknown in these cases as well.

Lobi house altar (Wikimedia Commons, Christopher D. Roy CC BY-SA 3.0)

Divine images
The Lobi continue to make statues. When they are made of wood, the images often represent thilbia, which are spirits of female ancestors that provide protection. These guardian spirits would not be able to live in other materials such as stone or metal. The Lobi think of their thilbia as living creatures that protect them from evil spirits, sickness and other disasters.

For their personal thilbia, the Lobi make altars in or around their houses. The shape of the sculptures often indicates their specific function. For example, a raised arm protects the residents against witchcraft and two raised arms keep death outside the door. Outside the Lobi village, the inhabitants have set up a common altar for Mother Earth, where small figurines of all types of materials are sacrificed for collective needs such as a good harvest.

Both the collective and the domestic holy images may only be made by the sculptors. They therefore have a special status among the population.

Western collectors
The Chessmen Museum has a bronze chess set from Ivory Coast. We do not know who made it. In that sense it corresponds with the anonymity of the sculptors of the colonial period. During that period, traders bought images in the African villages and sold them to wealthy collectors in the West, as anonymous exotic antiques. Information about the exact origins is usually not preserved.

Ivory Coast chess game, J.M. Glotzbach Collection nr 38

This chess game eventually ended up in The Hague, where Mr Glotzbach purchased it in 1979. As part of the J.M. Glotzbach Collection, the shiny pieces have found a good spot in the Chessmen Museum.

By Marjolein Overmeer