Dr. Herbert “Skip” M. Cole is a renowned scholar of African art history. His field research and publications have advanced African art history as a discipline. Much like the artists he has studied over his fifty-plus year career, Skip Cole is also a wood carver, making miniature versions of classic African figures and masks under the name ‘Kofi Cole’.
Cole has long had a personal interest in woodworking, and some years back he carved a miniature akua ba, a figure customarily carried by Akan women to ensure the safe delivery and welfare of their children. A timely gift for his daughter-in-law—she was expecting the birth of a child. Before long, Cole began gifting works to friends—scholars, collectors, and other patrons of African arts.
The art of miniature sculptures is one of the oldest forms of African art. In his homage to African art, Cole reduces canonical examples of historical African art to precise and refined miniature versions. No more than three to four inches long, Cole’s creations nestle comfortably in the palm of the hand. They reflect the power and inventiveness of African art in reduced volumes.
In this Artist Spotlight, we hear from Kofi Cole about his love of African art and his creations which praise the small.
An obvious question one might ask is why carve such small facsimiles. Imitation proverbially has been the highest form of flattery and for me, this remains true. I am aware of problematic issues regarding authenticity and forgery. There is praiseful imitation in copying, sometimes to the point of fakery, the two can be the same form, I guess, though the intention is different. I carve miniatures to clearly separate my work of tribute from any original works of African art.
In giving my carvings to those who contribute to the field, I not only pay homage to original works, but I also honour advocates of African art.
The wide array of artistic styles throughout Africa is astonishing, perhaps especially within like practices. My renderings of chi wara headdresses illustrated here demonstrate Bamana innovation. In these carvings are abstracted versions of segou-style chi wara forms that correspond to a specific time and place within the Bamana artistic tradition.
Masks used in performance most often do not adhere to a strict manifestation of the human face but the Dan mask pictured on the left is recognisable as a human as is the lgbo maiden mask on the right.
A great example of African appropriation and reinvention is Mami Wata, a snake-charming water spirit worshipped across the continent. According to Drewal, this European chromolithograph depicting a snake charmer began widely circulating in India and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in the nineteenth century. Devotees of Mami Wata adapted this exotic image and reinvested her with local meanings that continue to suit their own conditions and needs. Today, Mami Wata figures have been incorporated into shrines throughout Africa and the diaspora.
The Mami Wata mask I am now working on is taken from the MEDUSA book published by the Geneva Museum of Ethnography. It is among the most complex Kofi I have attempted. The Mami Wata is about 6 inches high.
More than 500 ‘Kofi Cole’ sculptures are out in the world, including a Christie’s commission, an Ngata coffin given to Willy Mestach and a pair of Senufo deble given to Laurence Homberger. I have fun making them.