This case study examines a delicately carved object from The Courtauld’s small collection of African sculpture. The wooden loom pulley, used in textile weaving, was made by the Guro people of Côte D’Ivoire in West Africa in the late 19th or early 20th century.
The display was researched and prepared by Niamh Collard, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her doctoral research is concerned with the educational and working lives of narrow-strip weavers in eastern Ghana, having spent a year in the field during which she apprenticed as a weaver.
This carved object called a heddle pulley, would have been an essential tool in the loom of a Guro weaver. A pair of heddles, which are opened and closed during the process of weaving, would have been suspended from this pulley. Amongst the Guro, as in most of West Africa, weaving has historically been and largely remains a gendered form of work. Undertaken by the men in a family, boys learn from their fathers, uncles or older brothers and women are prohibited from practicing the craft. Having mastered the necessary techniques, a young man would in turn pass these skills onto his own sons, nephews or younger brothers. Depicting an idealised female face, the pulley would have hung very near the craftsman’s gaze, allowing him to reflect on something beautiful while he worked.
In the past Guro textiles would have been principally used as clothing, with everyday clothes made from plain textiles and intricately woven prestige pieces kept for festivals or other special occasions.
Today their use during special occasions predominates. Woven textiles also form part of a woman’s dowry and are used in funerary rites to wrap the body, place in the tomb and as gifts to the family of the deceased. Masquerade costumes are often made from woven textiles. Textiles also play a role in dispute resolution, when gifts of cloth may be presented as a gesture of reconciliation from one party to another.
Despite changes in the status of weavers throughout the 20th century Guro textiles have retained their value as an item of local and long distance trade.
Loom pulleys also called heddle pulleys, would have been used to weave narrow strips of cloth, typically between 8 and 15cm in width. These were then stitched together to produce larger pieces for use as clothing. Each individual strip often features a number of patterns that are either geometric or figurative. Thoughtfully arranged and sewn together, these narrow strip textiles offer an extraordinary range of possible visual effects. Designs show innumerable regional and stylistic variations, as well as reflecting the personal taste of the individual weaver and patron.
Until the middle of the 20th century Guro textiles, such as this example, would have been made from locally produced and dyed cotton in white, indigo, red and brown. The increasing availability of synthetic dyes and commercially produced cotton and acrylic yarns since the middle of the 20th century have allowed for a much wider spectrum of colours to be incorporated.
The Courtauld’s loom pulley most likely depicts a specific type of entertainment mask in miniature form. Looking at the loom pulley from and anthropological perspective can inform us about Guro masquerade traditions.
This object is clearly linked to several interesting processes of material, spiritual, and physical transformation. As across much of West Africa, Guro wood carving is a male dominated and specialised form of craftwork.
Today Guro master carvers mainly make the wooden head masks used in performance. In the past they also used their skills to carve decorative loom pulleys and spoons.
Carving is distinct from everyday occupations of farming and hunting. Guro carvers work away from their village homes at secluded, sacred spots in the nearby bush where they won’t be disturbed by women or children.
Working in the forest, the carvers harness the power of the bush to transform the material into intricately carved masks. Craftsmen fell the trees they need for carving. The process of carving, staining and painting objects is often several days’ work and imbues carvings with the power of the forest.
Such is the power that, outside of performances, women and children are not allowed to touch or see masks.
Masks are exclusively worn by men to dance a range of different types of masquerades – some are purely for entertainment, while others are religious.
Guro head masks are combined with hand woven cloths to create colourful costumes that cover and disguise performers. When worn by a skilled dancer these costumes are part of the spiritual and corporeal transformation of the performer. Upon donning the costume a performer’s everyday identity is eclipsed and he comes to embody the spirit of hte masquerade.
This vitality is reflected in the Guro language which defines a masquerade as a complere living entity comprised of spirit, costume and performance. Religious masquerades are believed to be particularly powerful and pose a danger to women who are forbidden from attending these performances. Women can however watch entertainment masquerades, such as the Sauli masquerade upon which The Courtauld’s loom pulley is based.
From the carver’s sacred grove to the masquerader’s performance, Guro carving and masking are male domains where gendered power is involved in a series of intimate transformations. These processes of transformation are both material and spiritual, hewing beautiful objects from wood and metamorphosing men into powerful masqueraders.
Female heads are a common subject of carved loom pulleys. The Courtauld’s example has the elaborate hairstyle, scarifications, downcast eyes and open mouth typical of Guro ideals of feminine beauty. At the turn of the 20th century West African sculpture became popular with European avant garde artists, collectors and critics. The Courtauld’s very small collection of African objects was bequeathed by modern art critic Roger Fry. Valued for their sophisticated and abstracted interpretation of the human form, West African objects had significant influence on the development of modern art. Modigliani, whose painting, Female Nude,of 1916 is on display nearby, was directly inspired by the aesthetics of the Baule people of Côte D’Ivoire, neighbours of the Guro.
Guro-speaking people hail from the central belt of Côte D’Ivoire, their land stretching along the western shores of Lac de Kossou. Historically the Guro were seasonal farmers and hunters. Men would take up the work of weaving and carving during the dry season, which runs from December through to April. The Guro language is of Mande origin, a large group of languages spoken across the western part of West Africa.
The Guro people migrated from Mali and settled in the central belt of Côte D’Ivoire between the 13th and 16th centuries, inhabiting something of a crossroads in West Africa. They are bordered by the forested equatorial coast to the south, with its long history of maritime trade. To the north is the Sahel and the Saharan desert with its own history of Islamic trade routes.
Extensive interaction with neighbours to the east has also been important, placing the Guro people at the heart of a complex history of migration, trade and war which has shaped not only their artistic traditions, but also those of their neighbours and that of the region more widely.
Moving southwards from Mali, the Guro brought with them their language, which belongs to the much larger family of Mande languages widely spoken across the western part of West Africa. The link with the north was maintained by constant interaction with another people, the nomadic Dioula, who were well known as traders and weavers.
The Dioula traded in cloth, metal and salt, and it is likely that some weavers settled in Guro areas. This interaction with the Dioula formed an important connection with the northern hinterland which is the heartland of the Mande–speaking people.
With Dioula weavers moving village to village, it is possible that they may have introduced the craft to this part of West Africa. The 20th century Dioula cloth shown here features indigo and white geometric patterning that bear a resemblance to Guro weaving of the same period.
Today the Guro’s neighbours to the east are the Baule and the Asante, who both speak languages of Akan origin. The militarised expansion of Akan-speaking people from what is now Ghana in the 17th century halted the movement of the Guro eastwards.
These Akan migrants settled along the eastern shores of Lac de Kossou, assimilating to form the Baule. A subsequent history of trade in the cloth between Guro people and their Baule neighbours has resulted in not only ethnic but also cultural ties linking both groups.
Although Baule weaving is more renowned than Guro weaving today, it is thought that the Guro taught their neighbours, the Baule, to weave.
Historically, both groups have also produced decorated loom pulleys featuring human and animal figures, with Asante people who neighbour the Baule to the east in Ghana also having a vibrant history of loom carving and weaving.
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