Zak Ové's Moko Jumbie displayed in the British Museum's Great Court (photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum)

Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie displayed in the British Museum’s Great Court (photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum) (click to enlarge)

Wander into the British Museum’s Great Court these days, and you’ll encounter two large, black and gold Moko Jumbie sculptures guarding the staircases on either side. Balancing on seven-meter high (approx. 23 feet) golden stilts, these dark figures resemble wasps with outstretched, upright eagle wings. At their feet stand two dwarf sculptures, each positioned between the stilts of the overpowering Moko Jumbie, like servants attending to their masters.

The British Museum’s Katie Morais poses with a Moko Jumbie sculpture by Zak Ové (all images courtesy Zak Ové unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

These objects — part of the museum’s Celebrating Africa exhibition — are the work of Zak Ové, a British-Trinidadian artist whose sculptures, films, and photography celebrate African spirituality. He’s the son of Horace Ové, the first Black British filmmaker to direct a feature-length film, Pressure, in 1975. But he’s also a prolific artist in his own right. Zak Ové’s works explore themes of African identity, particularly the relationship between Caribbean carnival and Africa.

Curated by the British Museum’s Chris Spring, Celebrating Africa draws upon objects in the institution’s collection in order to highlight long-standing African traditions through contemporary art. It offers a multilayered visual study of the African art landscape, juxtaposing older anthropological objects with modern and contemporary pieces; various sections explore figurative sculpture, textiles, seats and headrests, and more. The goal, Spring says, is to fill the gaps in the Western historical narrative of Africa. “These histories are important not just in the African context but for greater humanity, as it’s the first cradle of our past,” he explains. The inclusion of Ové’s installation — which, incidentally, is the first work by a Caribbean artist commissioned by the British Museum — offers an important recognition of the cultural interactions between Africa and the Caribbean since the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1500–1900).

Detail of one of Ové’s Moko Jumbie figures

Ové assembled his giant, eerie Moko Jumbie figures from various recycled materials, including aluminum for the black feathers, brass for the golden wings, and fiberglass for additional ornaments. Similarly, the dwarf sculptures are composed of brass for the gold horned crowns, beads around the necks, and limbs from old stuffed objects. Just as their physical existence is an amalgamation of found objects, the Moko Jumbie developed from a combination of African and Caribbean traditions.

The hybridity is evident even in the name. “Moko” refers to an African god, while “Jumbie” is a West Indian term for spirit, derived from the word zumbi in the Kongo language. Traditional figures similar to Moko Jumbie can be found in West Africa (Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana), where they are said to traditionally serve as mediators between the living and the dead.

Detail of one of Ové’s Moko Jumbie figures

Legend has it that Moko Jumbie is a spiritual being who traveled across the ocean from West Africa to the West Indies, surviving several vicious attacks by evil spirits along the way. Upon his arrival, Moko Jumbie became a guardian of villages in Trinidad and Tobago, protecting inhabitants from impending dangers and evil forces. In the early 1990s, Moko Jumbie gained popularity as a highlight of the Trinidad carnival. He was represented by figures on stilts, dressed in long, colorful skirts or trousers and masks covering their faces. In contrast, Ové’s has given his sculptures black wings and gold-colored metal ornaments, returning to the African origins of Moko Jumbie for inspiration.

As the newest addition to the African art collection, the Moko Jumbie installation tells a story of early globalization, the connected histories of Africa and the Caribbean, and thus the evolving continuity of the region’s cultural traditions.

“Carnival beckons us to come together,” Ové says. “It’s a chance for people to experience transformation and the art of African identity, following the migration of Africans to the West Indies, and Caribbeans to the UK. It’s important to have an awareness of who we are, especially in new places where we may be patronized as secondary citizens or immigrants.”

Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie installation in the Great Court (click to enlarge)

The Moko Jumbie installation offers a contemporary artistic representation of the cross-pollination of carnival, but the conversation about African contributions to global cultural development doesn’t end there. What about the influence of African traditionsin Australasia, South Asia, and Europe? Or the urban movements developing in many African countries today? Or the appropriation of African aesthetics by others? If we’re talking about African influences on global cultures, the conversation is just getting started.

Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie sculptures are on view in the British Museum’s Great Court (Great Russell Street, London) through September 13.

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Sharon Obuobi

Sharon Obuobi is a writer and curator with a penchant for African and Latin American art. She's particularly interested in contemporary art which addresses social themes for conversation. She can be found...