What is your background in carving and when and
why did you begin carving African miniatures?

    I’ve been whittling for thirty years, mostly fish and the
hulls of sailboats – the shapes of which I like. 20+ years ago I
carved a Mamy Wata image for my boat – she was called
Mamy Wata. When my daughter-in-law, Linda, was pregnant
about seven years ago, I decided to make her an akua ba
and right away I knew it was going to be small. It came out
about two inches tall, and with very thin wire I attached
the tiniest beads imaginable (got in Ghana in the 70s) for
earrings and at the waist. It came out pretty well, and my
wife Shelley, who had made doll house miniatures for a long
time, saw it and said she wanted one too, so I made
another. A month or so later Elisabeth Cameron did me a
favor and in thanks I made a third for her; she had not long
before done the “doll” book for the Fowler Museum (UCLA).
By then I was off and running, and I carved a series of tiny
“child” images: Fante, Tabwa, Namji, and others that I gave
to Linda and Tom’s child. I carved a few spoons and began
making miniature masks, and the rest, as they say, is history.
    The house began to fill up with my carvings so I started
giving them away to friends. Their responses were
gratifying, the carving itself was enjoyable and meditative,
and so far I have given away more than 150 images, nearly all
miniatures.


Why Miniatures

    Because they can be started and finished fairly rapidly,
sometimes in an hour but more often in two, three or more.
Each one is new, each a set of challenges. I am after all not
making something, say a mask, which will be worn; the
things I carve are only to look at. And the satisfaction of
seeing a completed work comes fairly fast, unlike the
protracted or absent gratification one gets in writing for
publication or classroom teaching. I also have no desire
whatsoever to make things full size – which would take
much more time, a few days or even a week or more, than a
mini --  just as I have no interest (or very little) in making
true-sized replicas which could be called fakes if they were
to be antiqued (see below for an exception or two….).
There is no room in the house for life-sized masks or figures,
and in fact the minis are beginning to crowd us out, which
stimulated me to try to sell some. There is also a challenge
to make something very small, say a Senufo “firespitter”
type mask about 4 or 5 inches long when the original is
three feet long. Original detailing usually can’t be
replicated, so I have to decide what to include, exclude or
simplify to give the mask a “life-like” appearance. Then too
a group of miniatures can be displayed in a fairly small space,
and there is something charming, even fascinating about
miniatures that is hard to define, but which helps to
account for many dollhouses made or enjoyed by children of
all ages, including me.


Which African peoples or object types did you
start with?

    Apart from akua ma, which I have experienced in Ghana
and photographed in shrines, I carved several Igbo masks, a
few of which I have in the house as models. I work mostly
from photo-graphs, but of course using real things is much
better, because seldom are masks or figures photographed
or published in the round – in fact a good way of spotting
fakes, so often made from photographs, is seeing
how parts of an image not often shown in
illustrations are poorly done or wrong in the fakes.
I also began a series of “composite, three-part
horizontal masks” a very widespread ur-type of
mask with the same head, snout and horns (the
3 parts) and animal combinations (antelope,
warthog, croc, buffalo, etc) but interpreted
differently among more than 40 African peoples
from Senegal to Cameroon. This mask type has
fascinated me since grad school in the 60s, when
Douglas Fraser identified the genre, which Monni Adams
wrote on for her M.A. Later Patrick McNaughton pursued it
(2 Articles in African Arts XXIV, 2, 1991,  and XXV, 2, 1992).
One remarkable feature is that many of these masks are
used locally in rooting evil influences, such as witches, out
of village life. These ritually used masks must have a vital
and deep history for their forms and functions to have
spread and survived for many centuries. I’ve carved about
thirty of them so far. Some – like the complex openwork of
Baga Banda masks -- are a terrific challenge, and others,
such as Bamana Komo with real horns feathers and all sorts
of added materials, ask for creative solutions; for half-inch
horns, for example, I have used barrel cactus thorns. I have
two shelves of these masks at home, a kind of changing
display as I add to and subtract from the corpus.
    I sometimes begin to work on a genre as a challenge to
my craft, as Bamana chi wara are with their delicate
openwork forms. I avoided these for two or three years,
then took the plunge. I had some breakage for a while,
usually glueable, but more recently there have been fewer
problems, and I have even done a few at the 1:12 dollhouse
scale, meaning that the male antelope with his openwork
mane is about three inches or less tall. This is precise,
meticulous carving, yet overcoming the difficulties is fun,
and has given me renewed respect for Japanese carvers of
Netsuke, those incredibly detailed, tiny and skillfully made
miniatures. It is a marvel that artists can even see some of
the detail, much less execute it. I say this as my own
eyesight deteriorates.
    Lately I have tried a few Kuba masks, such as the Ngaddy
aMwaash that is on the top left of the homepage. Both the
fine geometric painting and the beadwork on that one were
new obstacles, and both took a lot of patience and time.
Earlier I started playing with the delicate forms of Baule
masks just to see if I could do them. Play, by the way, is an
important dimension of my interest in this sort of carving,
playing with form, detail, color, texture, planes, and it has
led me into creating my own “African” style, which I call the
“BaCóle”. This began when I tried to replicate the famous
Mestach Boa mask (Evan M. Maurer, The Intelligence of
Form: An Artist Collects African Art, Minneapolis, 1991, p.
113). Its planes and subtlety intrigued me, so I made a
variation on it, with different planes and shapes, then
another; I’ve made ten or fifteen by now. I long ago gave
that mask away, and several others in the series, but I
continue to play with it.









Have you set out to make a piece that you hope
will deceive its viewers?
    Well, yes, I have to admit I have, but I have not been
very successful at it.
(More to come on this topic at a later date)
More...
Kofi Cole in workshop.
Why the name Kofi?

    An amusing story, really. Shortly after arriving in Accra, for
my second and longest (7 mo.) visit to Ghana, we went to a
long yet beautifully sung church service. On emerging after 2
½ hours, we were greeted heartily – the only white folks
present. After several minutes of engaged conversation, one
older gent asked me my birthday; I replied April 15. No, he
said, your BIRTHday. April 15, 1935. No, No, your birthDAY,
and I finally got it: “Friday,” I told him (guessing). Ah HA,
welcome to Accra, Kofi, welcome to
Ghana. So, like Kofi
Annan and about 1/7th of the population, I am Friday born.
That trip and three subsequent ones resulted in the 1977 Arts
of Ghana exhibition and book, written with Doran Ross,
(UCLA, Museum of Cultural History)
    That trip cemented my long interest in the arts of personal
decoration, and of course in the splendid royal arts of Ghana,
featuring sumptuous gold and rich locally-woven textiles, as
well as the more democratic but equally colorful arts of Fante
Asafo military companies. In the summer of ’74 I was
enstooled as an asafohene or military captain by Co Number 1
at Gomoa Degu. At the annual PathClearing Festival, during
the processional marches of Co # 1, the red, white and blue-
dressed subgroup in the picture rushed me (unforewarned)
and lifted me into the air. Oh oh, I thought for an instant, I’m
headed for the missionary pot (of fable), but in fact they were
honoring me, taking me aside for my rites of passage, and I
later marched with other member of my company. After
prayers were intoned and I was doused with lots of cheap
perfume, part of the installation (enstooling) ritual was
drinking a tumbler of locally made gin with two or three
tablespoons of gunpowder stirred in, to “insure my strength
and invincibility.”
    I returned to the same community for the next year’s
festival with a few of the many gifts I was asked to bring back
for Co No.1, and I marched with them again.


Repetition and Copying; Replication vs. Innovation?

    These are age-old tensions in the art/craft process.
Apprentices in Africa normally begin with repeating the same
forms as their master, basically copying him, sometimes for
years. Most learning of whatever sort of course involves
copying, imitation, repeating oneself over and over again until
something is learned, becomes a part of the self – embodied --
that is virtually impossible to UN-learn. I have carved enough
mini Dan masks by now, perhaps 30 or more, that I can “get it
right” more or less without looking at a photograph. At the
same time, especially now, I feel the urge to depart from the
model, to make something new or never before seen. So I am
making little Dan masks that are variations on the theme,
never seen before but still solidly in that style.
    In fact the Dan series is itself interesting; possibly it
provides some insight into the sort of inventiveness we see in
any series of masks from one region in Africa. If I start with a
picture of a mask in front of me, but as I shape the new
carving I make a mistake, the shape coming out a bit different
from the model, I will proceed anyway. In the end I have made
a “Dan” mask that never existed before, but that conforms to
type, still looks authentic. (Naturally there is nothing
authentic about my pieces apart from the fact that they are
my carvings based, sometimes loosely, on African prototypes.)
Especially when carvers have worked for years within one
genre, I can sense them wanting to vary the theme (as I do),
make smaller or larger departures, and thus new masks. There
is no fun or challenge in making the exact same thing over and
over again. By this time, then,  I have internalized Dan style
well enough to make “new” ones without starting out to copy
one, although I marvel at the almost endless variations the
Dan corpus includes
.
    Then too there is praiseful imitation and copying,
sometimes to the point of fakery; the two can be the same
form, I guess, though the intention is different. I have done
few fakes because I am not really interested in deceiving
people, at least not often. I have pretty much stuck to
miniatures.
    The best fakers, of course, are the ones still undetected,
those whose works reside in museum cases and on the shelves
of wealthy and “discerning” collectors, and I chuckle at the no
doubt successful deceptions that are out there fooling all the
“experts,” myself included. Yet I was not fond of having been
duped with the Asante mother and child I bought in Accra in
1985, thinking that it was not really old but that it had been
made for Asante use, probably in an Asante shrine. (Of course
I displayed that piece in the “Arts of Ghana” show, along with
four or five other things from the same Kumasi workshop). I
learned about its recent manufacture only a few years later,
when Doran Ross discovered the workshop in which these
figures, combs, and fans were made, within months of their
being purchased by us.
    The difference between artful, creative fakery – which is
often NOT actually copying, but the invention of a plausible
NEW form that accords with analogous known works in the
same style – and slavish copying is in some real measure the
intent to deceive, to gain financially from a fraudulent series
of actions: from carving (or casting) to working over the
surface to achieve the deceptive patina of “apparent age”
which collectors and museums so much prefer over fresh
surfaces. (a big question is, why?) And on to the stories told
as the fakes are passed from hand to hand. I have lately
become interested in connoisseurship, in part because so few
younger people in the field seem to be. (See the First Word,
“A Crisis in Connoisseurship?” in African Arts, XXXVI, 1,

spring 2003.
    I am just now documenting a lively Igbo faking workshop
that has been responsible over the years for numerous
crested masks and a series of pipe-smoking titled women
sitting on stools. One irony is that I actually bought a mask
from the master faker of that shop, now dead, when I visited
his compound in 1983, a double irony I guess in that the mask I
bought from him was of a pink-faced white man! It was
published in the Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos (UCLA
Museum of Cultural History, 1984) book and shown in that
traveling exhibition
A grouping of Kofi three-part masks;
Click photo to enlarge.
About Kofi Cole
A Crisis in Coinnoisseurship
First printed as First Word
in African Arts Spring 2003

Publications




More to come