African objects of daily use have, until recently, not been considered fine art by the so-called ‘tribal’ art world. Over time, and especially in recent years, this perception has changed as we become more aware of the artistic qualities of these objects—objects such as neck rests, ladders, combs, and terracotta pots. Kuba textiles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have had a huge impact on designers and artists with Matisse famously saying, “I never tire of looking at them… and waiting for something to come to me from the mystery of their geometry.”
The fans presented here represent the artistic expression of half of the population of the Calabar coast that is otherwise unrepresented in the larger corpus of African art. What makes wooden fans even more intriguing is the fact that they were an art form created by women, an artistic medium through which they were able to express themselves, unlike much of African art, traditionally created by men.
Among the Ibibio, Igbo and the Efik ethnic groups of Nigeria, we find beautifully decorated fans, several of which exist in private collections and in museums. These fans are made out of a light, yellowish softwood, and are decorated with floral and geometric designs via pyro-engraving. Museum records show them dating from between 1869 – 1914.
The first appearance in literature of an Ibibio fan can be found in Margaret Trowells’ 1960 book ‘African Design‘. In the book, Margaret writes that these fans were made with a “scorched pattern on wood… in a technique which combines the scorching of large areas with [engraved lines],” made with a hot metal point and blackened with a small metal tool. “The Ibibio of Eastern Nigeria decorate their calabashes with gracefully flowing curvilinear designs said to be derived from the patterns painted on the skins of these people.” Further, she states that “the flowing leaf-like forms are typical of the work of Eastern Nigeria.“
Examples of Ibibio fans are found in the British Museum (Af1934,0307.481 and Af1934,0307.480) and were donated in 1934 by Charles A Beving. According to the British Museum, there were two generations of Charles Beving:
“Charles Beving senior was a West Africa trader born in Baden (he was Christened Karl), born in 1858. He worked from Manchester in the cotton business, first as a trader, trading in Africa for all but a few months every two years. He became partner in a cotton printing company Blakeley & Beving, and later owned his own company Beving & Co, apparently at a late stage in his career. He is listed in the 1891 Manchester census as ‘Africa Merchant’ and in 1901 as ‘merchant and calico printer’. He died in 1913. He formed for his company a large collection of items, largely textiles, from West Africa and Indonesia, as specimens on which his firm might model its productions for the African market.
“This collection was donated to the Museum in 1934 by his eldest son, Charles Adolphus Beving, on behalf of Messrs Beving & Co of Manchester, with the request that it be known as the ‘Charles Beving collection’ in his father’s memory. Braunholtz states that the collection was formed by Beving senior, and there is no reason to think that the son ever made additions to the collection. All items in it, therefore, have a secure dating before 1913.“
In addition, we find several other examples in the database of the British Museum. Under Af1954,+23.2987, is an Igbo/Ibibio fan with the label, “Ibo/Ibibio craft work for missionaries“, the fan was donated to the British Museum in 1954 by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. Unfortunately, records do not show when the Institute received the piece or when or from where it was collected.
Another wooden fan (Af1952,20.87) with quatrefoil pattern on one side and a square pattern on the other, decorated using a knife and poker, was donated in 1952 by Lady Menendez. She inherited the piece from Sir Manuel Raymond Menendez, who worked as a Puisne Judge in Southern Nigeria between 1899 – 1904 and as Chief Justice of Northern Nigeria from 1904 – 1908. Additional Ibibio fans were collected by Menendez, (Af1952,20.141 and Af1952,20.142). The register from 1952 describes them as “two wooden fans with pokerwork decoration, one  trilobed, the other  bilobed“. The acquisition statement mentions that the objects were collected before 1908.
Under (Af.3969) we find a wooden Igbo/Ibibio fan that was collected by the academic Henry Christy and was acquired by the museum sometime between 1860 – 1869. This is the earliest known collection date thus far.
Another Efik/Ekoi wooden fan is at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (III C 33128). Jonathan Fine, the African art curator, shared that the piece was acquired in 1921 from collector and dealer Julius Konietzko (1886 – 1952) who sold a group of artefacts from the ‘Bezirk Ossidinge’, the district of Ossidinge in Northern Cameroon, to the museum. This fan is the only one that remains in the museum’s database from the Konietzko collection.
In the catalogue from an exhibition at the Bomann Museum Celle, the Ethnologisches Museum fan on loan is described in German as:
“Holzfächer: Das Mädchen trägt während der Beschneidung folgenden 3 bis 5 Tage kein Lendentuch, sondern verdeckt die Scham mit diesem Fächer“;
“Wooden Fan: During circumcision, a girl does not wear a loincloth for the following 3 to 5 days, instead she hides her vulva with the fan.”
The fan is said to be used by Monekim (initiated girls) to protect themselves post-circumcision.
Ute Röschenthaler describes the following about the usage of these fans: “Monekim get the so-called efriji fans that are engraved with nsibiri symbols”. Such fans are also said to be used during nkanda performances of the ngbe leopard society. With this fan in her hand, the monekim performs a final dance as she tries to imitate the nkanda dance. Röschenthaler further describes that after the dance, seclusion starts.
Another wooden example (AF4328), with an atypical handle, can be found in the collection of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. It was acquired in 1912 from the British dealer and collector William Ockelford Oldman (1879 – 1949). It has the same design as Af.3969 at the British Museum. We can, therefore, assume a possible Igbo origin and that the wooden ones were used by women (leather ones are regalia reserved for male chiefs).
The Museum of Ethnology Dresden (State Ethnographic Collections Saxony – SES) owns a ‘double dance fan’ that was collected by Alfred Mansfeld depicting dancers and Ngbe symbols.
There are also several Ibibio raffia fans in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Världskulturmuseet, and the National Museum of American History, that provide us with a link to the textile tradition of Ibibio patterns.
There are six wooden fans are in private collections that have no collection data, but were all bought on the British antique market. Unfortunately, most examples went through the hands of dealers over the last 20 years, none of whom could provide us with any provenance. In the absence of provenance, let’s analyse the objects and see what we can learn from them.
In total, I found a group of 12 Ibibio, two Igbo/Ibibio, and two Efik/Ekoi fans during my research. Every object in African art is always an expression of a society at a certain moment in time.
The corpus of 12 wooden Ibibio fans gives us a glimpse into the iconography and representations of a female culture. The patterns depicted on the fans are floral and geometric. Is floral art known in Africa? The key to interpreting the patterns lies in the old tradition of uli paintings and nsibidi patterns of Ibibio women. We find several bowls, lamellophones and other objects of daily use (combs, mirror boxes, ladles etc.) decorated with floral patterns and Ngbe society symbols. All these objects belong to the sphere of women. These objects are decorated by women for women—objects decorated for their representation and to document their status.
We know very little about how these objects were employed. Were they all made for a Western art market? There is little patina on all of these objects and the darker patination appears as a known technique of the art market. Were these fans valuable souvenirs in Victorian Britain? Were they just nicely decorated for a foreign clientele as John Picton suggests? We know that a lot of early Ibibio art was commissioned by British missionaries for a British audience.
Let’s consider something for a moment, was there an exchange of pattern or an integration of English-Indian paisley patterns into uli designs? I could imagine so because women’s art is known to incorporate new additions each go round. Female art does not shy away from experimentation. Let us return here to Charles Beving. He was aware of what kind of cloth the peoples of West Africa liked and he found common language through the medium of floral patterns. We must note here that floral art is, in general, very rare in sub-Saharan African art.
Regardless of if these fans were ever used, they are the only ones of their kind. There are two different models of Ibibio fans known—one with a round shape and the other U-shaped. All types have an elegant handle.
All Ibibio fans we analysed, except for the example in the Penn Museum, are made using the same technique—a plain wooden fan with incised patterns made by pyro-engraving. The fan at the Penn Museum has a high relief and the details are carefully carved out—the Efik example in the Berlin Museum also uses a similar technique.
We don’t often find fans as paraphernalia or dance ornaments in the corpus of African art in the Calabar coast. Why were these fans no longer collected after 1920? Perhaps fashions changed. No one knows. But these fans are reminders of the rich creativity of female art among the Ibibio.
Want to learn more about the Ibibio and their wooden fans? The following books and resources should get you going.
Dr. David Zemanek is a German ethnologist, expert of African and Oceanic art and a public sworn auctioneer for non-European art (Auction House Zemanek-Münster, Würzburg). He is author of several articles and publications about African art.