5 August 2022
by Eben van Tonder
The pig is one of the most iconic domesticated animals with a rich history. I have a special interest in heritage breeds. Such a breed was powerfully introduced to me today when I visited the African indigenous art dealer, Tribal Trends in the city bowl in Cape Town with the prolific entrepreneur from Nigeria, Haresh Keswani where we were hosted by the owner, Eugene Kramer and his wife, Miriam.
Tribal Trends, Winchester House, 72-74 Long St, Cape Town City Centre, Cape Town
While Haresh was looking for inspiration for one of his ventures, I was struck by a beautiful mask of a pig on the second story of one of their showrooms.
I am familiar with African masks featuring birds and other animals, but never a pig. How widely and from how early were pigs indigenous to Africa? Of course, the warthog and its related family are found across the continent, but a pig that resembles the Chinese pig was unusual. Eugene identified the mask as Ghanaian and while Haresh and he browsed through the multiple floors of exquisite artwork, I was on my phone googling indigenous pigs from Ghana.
(Giant) Forest Hog
My first suspect was the Giant Forst Hog. Was this the animal depicted in the mask?
The image was downloaded from Pinterest where the animal is described as “mostly nocturnal, & prefer the cover of the dense Congo rainforest to open savannah.” (Pinterest)
The giant forest hog, the only member of its genus, is native to wooded habitats in Africa and is generally considered the largest wild member of the pig family, Suidae; however, a few subspecies of the wild boar can reach an even larger size. Despite its large size and relatively wide distribution, it was first described only in 1904. (trek.zone)
The first photo I saw of the animal did not show the tusks and warts and the hair, prominently featured in the mask, made me wonder if what the artist tried to replicate in the mask was not the long hair. A closer examination showed that this is definitely not the animal represented in the mask.
Local West African Pigs – West African Dwarf pig (Nigeria) and Ashanti pig (Ghana)
A Review in the Journal of Advanced Veterinary Research (Volume 10, Issue 1, 2020), elucidated the animal celebrated by the mask as the local West African pig.
Local West African pig boar.
Evaluating the long snout and the ears makes the identity unmistakable!
These pigs are found in West Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria (Meyer, 2019) “This breed origin is controversial, but recent work on molecular genetic characterization has admitted that local pigs’ breeds could come from the Middle East through Egypt and from the Far-East through trades across the Indian Ocean, this because alleles and genes of breeds from these areas are found in local breeds (Ramírez et al., 2009; Amills et al., 2013; Lesur-Gebremariam, 2014; Agbokounou et al., 2016; Osei-Amponsah et al., 2017). (Dotche, 2020)
Several terminologies are used to name this animal according to country. For example, it is called West African Dwarf pig (Nigeria) and Ashanti pig (Ghana) (Meyer, 2019). This breed has almost the same phenotypic characteristics in all African countries where it exists. It is a small animal that has a uniform black or white colour, sometimes piebald, and with long or short dense hairs (Alenyorege et al., 2015; Youssao et al., 2018). Its body is 49 to 52 cm long and ends with a long head (25 cm) (Okoro et al., 2015; Youssao et al., 2018). Found in most African countries, it tolerates food irregularities and is heat-resistant, and for that is more bred in traditional livestock farms, especially in rural areas (Agbokounou et al., 2016; Dotché et al., 2018). (Dotche, 2020)
In this system, the breeder gives little importance to his feeding and to health monitoring. The feeding consists of the distribution of cereal and fruit residues, leguminous plants and food leftovers (Ossebi et al., 2018). It is appreciated by breeders for its disease resistance and by consumers for its meat quality (Agbokounou et al., 2016). Unfortunately, these performances are low and are improved by exotic pigs in farms. The weight at 180 days old is 19.2 kg (Darfour-Oduro et al., 2009) and when the animal is 365 days old (1 year) (Abdul-Rahman et al., 2016), its weight is 51 kg. Beyond one year, the weight reaches 62 kg (Karnuah et al., 2018). (Dotche, 2020)
They are reared mostly by small rural farmers in a traditional system. Their meat is highly valued by consumers compared to exotic pork because it is marbled (Deka, 2008).” It is preferred over exotic breeds such as the Large White, Landrace, Pietrain, or the Meishan. (Dotche, 2020)
Masks and Africa
We identified the pig represented in the mask, but what is the significance of maskes in Africa? Afomia Tesfaye writes that “African masks are greatly appreciated for their artistic value. They adorn the walls of some of the most recognized museums and galleries across the world. Many of us incorporate masks into our homes to add an exotic flair to our décor, but it is important to recognize that beneath their surface beauty, these mysterious faces possess a deeper significance. Understanding their history is an essential part of appreciating their cultural, symbolic, and aesthetic value.” (Tesfaye)
“The existence of African masks can be traced as far back as the Stone Age. For thousands of years, African people have incorporated tribal masks into their cultural ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations. Each of these creations is designed according to the particular traditions of their region. Designs vary from modest and plain to highly elaborate in appearance.” (Tesfaye)
“African villagers hold deep and complex beliefs around masking ceremonies. It is thought that when a person (often a man) wears a mask, he becomes a sort of medium, capable of communicating with spirits and ancestors on behalf of the community. This is an effort to control the forces of good and evil by calling on the intervention and blessings of spirits to support and guide the community through such crucial life events as war preparation, crop harvesting, marriage, fertility, and burials.” (Tesfaye)
“Since masks function as a vessel for contact with various spirit powers, the creator of the mask must possess both the technical skill and spiritual knowledge required to make them. These talented artisans. . . sculpt faces in the shape of perfectly symmetrical human or animal forms using such varied materials as pottery, textiles, copper, and aluminium. It is believed that these artisans are able to sense the “spirit power” that dwells in the materials they use to create their pieces. The energy of the spirit is thought to inhabit the artists’ instruments, so their tools must be handled with extreme caution. As the mask gradually begins to take shape, the object is believed to acquire more supernatural abilities. In some cultures, it is thought that this intimate relationship between the maker and his creation enables the artist himself to absorb some of its magic power. or bronze. They finalize their creations by embellishing them with such varied materials as clay, ivory, horn, stone, feathers, and straw. Sometimes masks are made in the image of a female face which would be typically based on a particular culture’s ideal of feminine beauty.” (Tesfaye)
“Mask-wearing has always been a vital part of African life. Masks are worn to disguise the face, sometimes in conjunction with a costume that covers the entire body. Their purpose is to enable the wearer to transform himself into the entity depicted by the mask. In essence, the wearer works in tandem with the mask during a ceremony to release its hidden power.” (Tesfaye)
“While spectators from the community observe, the wearer (again, often a man,) engages in a highly animated performance in which he goes into a deep trance until the spirit completely inhabits and possesses his body. Music (primarily drums,) dance, song, and prayer are used to induce a state of trance by which this transformation can occur. This sets the stage for a supernatural exchange between the dancer and spirits, ancestors and other entities.” (Tesfaye)
“In contemporary Africa, masks are no longer as commonly used for tribal ceremonies though they still represent one of the continent’s most vibrant contributions to the arts. The rich and vast offering of masks on the NOVICA site celebrates and honours the heritage of African masks and the talented artisans that create them.” (Tesfaye)
It is of significance that it is the local West African pig that is celebrated in the mask exhibited by Tribal Trends in Cape Town, reflecting on a tradition we know existed at least in Ghana which celebrates these remarkable animals. What was it that the artist saw in these pigs that inspired him to create the mask? Certainly, the tradition of using these animals for inspiration must be ancient! Haresh said it well today that art is not mind. Art is spirit! The mesmerising influence of these remarkable animals on me can not be explained by rational thought and like art itself, the connection is spirit and soul!
Ignace O. Dotche, Gabriel A. Bonou, Mahamadou Dahouda, Nicolas Antoine-Moussiaux, Jean-Paul Dehoux, Guy Apollinaire Mensah, Souaïbou Farougou, Pierre Thilmant, Issaka Youssao Abdou Karim, Benoît G. Koutinhouin.(2020) Reproductive Performances of Local Pigs in West African Countries: A Review. Journal of Advanced Veterinary Research, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2020, Pages: 49-55, (ISSN: 2090-6277/2090-6269/ © 2011-2020 JAVR), http://www.advetresearch.com
All other references are linked in the text to the source.