A carver from Tabwa culture in Central Africa made these three ancestor figures (minkisi ya mipasi) of a chief in the center with his co-wives on either side. It is notable that we know more about who collected them and their journey after leaving Central Africa than we do about who actually made and used them in Tabwa society. A Belgian steamboat captain, who was traveling along Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa in the 1920s, collected these three figures. After leaving Tabwa society, the figures ended up in the hands of art collectors and dealers – including Marc Leo Felix, a prominent arts dealer in Brussels. At some point during these exchanges, those involved did not record the artist’s individual name. In the 19th century, Europeans traveling and living in Africa–traders, explorers, missionaries, and foreigner leaders–brought back more African objects to Europe in previously unseen quantities. These works shaped the early formation of African art collections. Notably absent in their records were artist names.
Artists working across Africa were certainly individuals known by name. Yet the status of artists in Africa varied between cultures, as did the importance of attributing an artist’s name. In contrast, the artist’s name was a valued trait of important European artworks. For European collectors to not record artist names in Africa reveals distinctions in how Europeans perceived Africans without agency and their collected objects as artifacts rather than artworks.
Over time, art dealers, ethnographic museums, and art museums acquired these collected objects. In lieu of recorded names, “unknown” and “anonymous” became the names of artists from Africa. Other markers of identity also became attached to these objects, especially the names of related cultural groups such as the Tabwa. Consequently, the complexity and heterogeneity of African art became reduced to sweeping cultural styles and collective identities of entire societies and regions through common visual features.
The scarification on the figures illuminates the value of recording information, as the graphic markings each carry specific meanings and messages to recall the past in the future. In Tabwa society, the verb kulemba describes both the acts of scarification and writing. The photograph depicts a scarification pattern from a woman's back that resembles one included in the carved figures. This photographic evidence thus reveals how the carver depicted some scarification patterns in practice by the early 20th century in Tabwa society.