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Lobi Terracotta Lidded Altar Vessel

Lobi Terracotta Lidded Altar Vessel

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Lobi people, early to mid. 20th century, Burkina Faso, West Africa

Mesmerizing, finely decorated and hand built lidded jar is an superb example of the ceremonial pottery made by Lobi women artist. Sitting upon a rounded base, the aged vessel presents a globular body, a corseted neck and flaring rim, with a small sturdy lid. Impressed across the outer surface with delicate patterns of arcs, triangles, and bands. Vessels such as this example were placed on family altars dedicated to a protective spirit (thil), and they contained water or powerful medicines that protect against misfortune, illness, and witchcraft. The lid (utilitarian vessels do not have lids) not only provides protection from impurities, but also prevents the souls of the dead from contaminating the water, which would make it a dangerous substance for the living.

The Lobi vessels, like all traditional African pottery, are hand built. The Lobi use a combination of shoving out a mass of clay to start the vessel and then adding rolls of clay that are smoothed out to make the walls. The dried vessels are then fired in an open firing without a pit, using firewood as fuel. Only potters who have reached menopause make altar vessels, for it is believed that a woman who does so during her childbearing years risks becoming barren The Lobi people live mainly in Burkina Faso, with smaller groups residing in Côte d’ivoire and Ghana. Lobi is a blanket term that refers to several closely related ethnic groups. The name Lobi originates from two Lobiri (the language spoken by Lobi people) words: ”lou” (forest) and ”bi” (children), meaning literally, ”children of the forest”. The Lobi are well documented for their animist beliefs. They believe that universe was created by a central almighty god (tangba or thangba yu), under which sit a number of deities (thila, singular thil). Under these thila are the other nature spirits, spirits of the bush (kontuossi or kontuorsi), after which human beings follow. Villagers pray to thila to gain wealth, cure illnesses but more importantly, to protect themselves from witchcraft and harm. However villagers cannot directly communicate with the thila. A village diviner (thildaar), interprets the will of the spirit for the community. Interaction with these spirits commonly takes place in a domestic shrine room (thilduu), village shrine (dithil), and other places in nature inhabited by spirits.

Good condition. Expected chips, nicks, stable fissure, abrasions, and softening of detail, all commensurate with age and use. Lovely patina. Size approx. 19,5cm x 15,5cm x 15,5cm.

Provenance: Dutch private collection.

For a similar example see:

Globular Vessel, The Brooklyn Museum, Accession Number: 1994.181.2 (

References and further reading:

Ceramics and Brass of the Lobi in Burkina Faso, Klaus Schneider, In Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler, Earth and Ore: 2500 Years of African Art in Terracotta and Metal, 11–115. Munich: Panterra, 1990.

Occult Conversations, or How the Thila Make the Law for the Lobi, Claude-Henri Pirat, Arts d'Afrique,Voir l'Invisible, Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, Hazan, Paris, 2011, p. 85-91. and p. 217-220.

For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2005.

Lobi Traditional Art/L'art Traditionnel Lobi, Giovanni Franco Scanzi, Published by Abidjan, 1993.

Lobi, 101 Last Tribes. (

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