It’s not unusual for designers to borrow from non-Western cultures for a seasonal trend. Past design fads have ranged from Malian bogolan (mud cloth) to mandalas, a Hindu and Buddhist spiritual symbol. A burgeoning trend on the market are replicas of Lobi pottery, specifically altar vessels covered with three-dimensional spikes. Another aspect of Lobi decorative culture, lip plates, have also gone mainstream. These forms of body modification are worn on the upper, lower, or both lips.
Although these two items are different in aesthetic and use, they both provide examples of how the West can reshape the purpose and significance of distinctly West African objects without proper acknowledgement. By doing so, the origin of the decorative item’s is lost and replaced with Western capitalist ideals.
The Lobi are a cultural group that lives in Burkina Faso and parts of Ivory Coast. They are traditionally associated with rural life and live in an informal clan system. During French colonization in Burkina Faso (1896-1960), the Lobi were able to maintain their independence longer than nearby groups, which was due to their open resistance against foreign influence.
The inspiration behind a Lobi pottery piece can range from regular life events to the spiritual. Spirituality is particularly shown with spiked altar vessels, which is a style that is present in pottery across Western Africa.
Appearing like a browned jackfruit, Lobi altar vessels can be spiked all over with a ladle and a carved lid. The spikes represent a variety of hopes in life, including protection from witchcraft and misfortune. The Art Institute of Chicago notes in a description of an early to mid 20th-century vessel that the lid, “protects the contents from natural and supernatural contamination.” This suggests that the item was meant for pouring and only used for special events. With such cultural significance, it’s odd that replicas are being sold as living room décor.
This concept of protection is also present in the traditional body adornment of the Lobi. Christopher D. Roy states in the Burkina Faso chapter of the text, “Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion“ that the group wore leather and brass arm and neck coverings to protect themselves from spirits in the wild. Aside from arm and neckwear, Roy notes that men wore thin cords around the waist, and at times, front coverings. Men also wore their hair in long, face-framing clay locks. Women looked similar but wore coverings around the front and back of their lower body. Today, Lobi dress has now changed and ranges from Western-inspired outfits or wraps that are commonly seen in Western Africa.
Although not exclusive to the culture, the Lobi wears coin-sized lip plates. This form of decorative body modification can represent wealth or social importance. Since the late 20th-century, lip plates have become popular in ‘alternative‘ cultures in the West. Despite this surge, there’s barely any acknowledgment of where and who originated this ‘trend.’
As Lobi altar vessels become an accent in homes and mouth plates fill lips, an appreciation and acknowledgment of where these items originate are necessary. For more on the material culture of this group, check out the Art Institute of Chicago’s Lobi collection.