It’s not unusual for designers to borrow from non-Western cultures for a seasonal trend. Past design trends have ranged from mud cloths to mandalas, and all have been used as inspiration for both international and independent brands. A burgeoning trend that has been developing into the market are replicas of Lobi pottery, specifically altar vessels covered with three-dimensional spikes. Another aspect of Lobi dress that has gone “mainstream” are lip plates, which are placed on the upper, lower, or both lips.
Although the two items are different in aesthetic and use, they both provide an example of how Western colonization and thought have shaped the popularity of distinctly West African objects.
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 Lobi pottery can range from normal life to the spiritual. This emphasis on spirituality is particularly focused with spiked altar vessels, which is a style that is present in pottery across Western Africa.
Appearing like a browned Jackfruit, Lobi altar festivals can be spiked all over and are shaped with a ladle and at times, a carved lid. 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 may have been used for non-utilitarian purposes. The spikes represent a variety of hopes in life, including protection from witchcraft and misfortune.
This concept of protection is also present in the traditional adornment of the Lobi, which was viewed as offensive by French colonial powers and resulted into few photographic representations. Christopher D. Roy states in the Burkina Faso chapter of the text, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion that the group used to wear arm and neck coverings that were made from leather and brass in order to protect from spirits in the wild. Aside from arm and neckwear, traditional Lobi dress revealed a lot of the wearer’s skin. Roy notes that men wore thin cords around the waist, which allowed the testicles to hang, and at times, front coverings. Men also wore their hair long in clay locks that framed their face. Women looked similar but wore coverings around the front and back of their lower body. Although not exclusively Lobi, body modification is also a part of the culture through coin-sized lip plates and body scarring in intricate shapes. Lip plates have gained popularity in “alternative” cultures in the West since the late 20th century and are becoming more socially accepted. Lobi dress has now changed and ranges from Western-inspired outfits or wraps that are commonly seen in Western Africa.
There has been so much effort to diminish and change cultural groups like the Lobi. 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.