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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Tobacco mortar

Photo: Paul Macapia

Tobacco mortar

The gesture of balancing-which is talking about moving with confidence with an object balanced on your head-is again one of the accomplished gestures of traditional African sculpture. Sylvia Boone, my late and great colleague, once wrote that pride resides in having a load rest heavily on the head with an insouciant countenance that reveals no sign of pressure, no sign of strain while walking smoothly with the arms swinging free: that nonchalance which is the essence of cool.

Here you have a woman among the Chokwe, a woman who is carrying a heavy cylinder on her head. Her lips are pursed. She feels no pain. She moves with almost a haughty, surly quality, daring us to sense that in any way could she feel any pain, because she is above it. She is moving for us, in fact, she is almost dancing for us: her knees are deeply bent in the choreographic seal. Her shoulder blades are curved around her neck in demonstration of what French scholars of the black dance call les tresseurs de la souplesse, the treasured suppleness of the black body in dance. She's got many brass wristlets on, which indicate her nobility. But most of all, she's meditating for us, she's carrying weights for us, for some higher purpose. We know this because her eyes are closed, she is seeing into the other world.

Wood, brass, beads, and string
8 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 2 in. (21.6 x 6.4 x 5.1 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: Collection of Beatrice Renolds (location unknown) {possibly via George W. Bierce, Cleveland, Ohio}; sold to Katherine White (1929-1980), Seattle, Washington, 1965; bequeathed to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistoryLos Angeles, California, Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, Jan. 20 - Mar. 17, 1974 (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, May 5 - Sept. 22, 1974). Text by Robert Farris Thompson. No cat. no., pp. 101-2, reproduced pl. 138 (as snuff mortar).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, Feb. 7 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 2, 2004 - Jan. 2, 2005; Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum, Feb. 12 - June 19, 2005; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 8, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006; Nashville, Tennessee, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jan. 27 - Apr. 30, 2006 [as African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back]). Text by Pamela McClusky. No cat. no., pp. 56-57, reproduced pl. 33.

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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