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Illuminating Objects: West African carved wooden pulley on view at the Courtauld Gallery
Carved Loom Pulley. Late 19th or early 20th century, Guro people, Central Côte D’Ivoire. Wood with carved nut reel; height: 20 cm. Samuel Courtauld Trust: The Courtauld Gallery, London. Roger Fry Bequest, 1935.

LONDON.- The next work to be displayed in the Illuminating Objects series at The Courtauld Gallery is a delicately carved wooden loom pulley – a tool for the weaving of textiles made by the Mande-speaking Guro people of central Côte D’Ivoire , West Africa , and dated to the late 19th or early 20th century. The object will be on view from 4 June to 8 October 2014 in the 20th century rooms, near Amedeo Modigliani’s Female Nude of 1916, which was inspired by West African masks of the neighbouring Baule people of Côte D’Ivoire .

This carved loom pulley, showing a chameleon on top of a woman’s head, would have been an essential tool for the Guro weaver. As across most of West Africa , weaving was – and still is – a male-dominated practice. This sensitive piece of carving would have hung in front of the craftsman as he worked. Combining practical and aesthetic functions, it shows particular sensitivity in the carving of the female figure’s face and hair. Her elaborate coiffure, scarifications and delicate profile reflect Guro ideals of feminine beauty, as do her narrow face and her downcast, almond-shaped eyes. The chameleon forms the hook from which the pulley would be hung in the loom, and is therefore less elaborate.

This combination of a finely detailed human face and a simpler animal representation links the loom pulley (more specifically called a heddle pulley) to Guro mask carving. Although one rarely sees such carved tools being used by weavers in West Africa today, they were still in use in the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, the combination of woman's head and chameleon was still being carved for the sauli masquerade, an entertainment performed to commemorate the life of a beautiful woman.

Migration and cross-cultural exchanges have been crucial in shaping Guro arts and craft traditions, as reflected in the narrow-strip weaving practices that stretch across all of West Africa, and in the finely carved heddle pulleys which are found amongst the Dogon people in Mali to the north, the Baule Akan-speaking people of Côte D’Ivoire, and the Asante, their Ghanaian neighbours to the east.

In the early 20th century, African sculpture was greatly admired by Picasso, Matisse and the School of Paris artists and their circle of avant-garde collectors and art dealers. This pulley was acquired by the art critic, painter and curator Roger Fry, who introduced Parisian avant-garde ideas to England in the early 1900s. In his writings, Fry argued that African art – notably carving and weaving – was more authentic and energetic than the waning European traditions. Fry had a very small collection of African objects, which he left to the newly-established Courtauld after his death in 1934, along with his collection of Bloomsbury paintings and decorative arts and contemporary paintings.

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