Ecran d'ancêtre

Ancestral Screen

The impact of African art on that of the West has been obsessively documented while the effect of
Western forms of representation on Africa has only recently become a matter of interest. The Kalabari
are a people of the Niger delta who, from the seventeenth century on, became important middlemen between Europe and the African interior. In the
course of this contact, they went from an impoverished
life as fishermen to extreme wealth and reinvented
themselves completely using objects and
rituals derived from the West. Initially involved in
the slave trade, they adopted many slaves into
Kalabari society by a process involving the shaving
of the slaves’ heads, circumcision and the giving of
a new name. If the slaves failed to master the Ijaw
language and thrive, they would be either executed
or sold on. Kalabari society was a forcing house for
entrepreneurial flair. In the course of time, men of
slave origin rose to positions of high rank and this
posed a dilemma since they could not approach the
ancestral shrines that were a source of great power.
The solution found was to adapt foreign objects for
these ‘foreign’ Kalabari.

The Pokia family that provided the pilots for
Western ships created the ancestral screen form
based on the naturalistic Western portraits and –
later – photographs that they saw on European vessels.
Typically, it incorporates a frame, seated figures
and the imported cloths worn by chiefs. [1] Such a
screen would be commissioned to commemorate a
leader – often many years after his death – and be
kept in his meetinghouse as part of a complex
shrine installation to which regular offerings would
be made and new house-members presented. [2]

The central figure wears the headdress of the
alagba masquerade that he performed in life as the
public face of the house. Flanking figures are supporters
while the heads at the top of the screen are
normally seen as house-members and that between
the legs as an opponent killed in war. [3]

[1It is created using the exclusively male technologies used in
carving and the making of fish traps.

[2It constituted the ancestral capital of the house.

[3While such screens are still important in contemporary
Kalabari life, they now pose a new dilemma since Christian
house heads increasingly find a conflict between their religion
and the making of offerings to the screens.