Set of ceremonial Knives Basakpwa
Yakoma people, Ubangi region of the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic.
19th to early 20thCentury
As much as I love Yakoma knives from a sculptural point of view and dreamed of making a diverse and aesthetically pleasing group, African weapons are an area of expertise in itself. To make this set, I got introduced to the very closed and discreet circle of top African weapons' specialists. We are fortunate to have at least two of them in France, including Mr Luc Lefebvre (see publication references below). I also worked with Mr Ethan Rider in the US and a few other specialists.
According to Lefebvre, in his excellent 2017 "Yakoma Ngbandi" book (long extrats below, with many thanks), the term "Yakoma" has many meanings. It can refer to a territory, a town, a language, or an ethnic group. It seems to mean “those who live above (the river)", but was also the name of a local chief, a name given by the Belgians to their outpost, and the name of a French settlement on the other side of the river on the Central African Republic side. Located in northern D.R. Congo, in the Nord-Ubangi Province (formerly the Équateur Province), it is populated mainly by the Ngbandi.
The Yakoma language belongs to the Ubangian subgroup, in the Adamawa-Ubangi branch of the Niger-Congo language family.
The Yakoma people (also called Gbodo) are a subgroup of the Ngbandi, who originally came from central Sudan (the Darfur and Kordofan regions). Because of the islamization and raids perpetrated by slave-trading Arabs, these animistic tribes fled south to the Mbari-Shinko area and embraced the “ngbandi” culture and identity. They then migrated to the banks of the Ubangi River. These migrations took place between the 16th and 18th centuries. This long period of migration and expansion was the result of numerous conflicts with neighboring populations and tribes, such as with the Ngombe from the Yakoma region. Since the 17th century, the neighboring Zande and Nsakara tribes have strongly influenced the Ngbandi culture via cultural proximity, inter-ethnic procreation, and closely related socio-political systems founded on the superiority of certain clans that was determined by their armed victories or alliances with other clans.
The Ngbandi controlled this area unchallenged until the end of the 19th century when the Europeans arrived in Northern D.R. Congo. Because of the proximity of the river and because the Ngbandi were gifted paddlers, Westerners recruited them as early as 1890 for exploratory missions and also utilized them for French and Belgian public services. They were already established as expert traders before the arrival of Westerners, trading regularly with neighboring tribes such as the Bougbou. Bartering with Europeans allowed them to acquire more refined metals (copper wire, in particular), which they used to embellish weapon handles, amongst other things. In fact, they called copper “Ubangi gold".
The most famous Ngbandi blacksmiths lived along the Uele River (Bira chiefdom), not far from the city of Yakoma, and they traded with their neighbors. In addition to the tools and weapons, the blacksmith also made the currency, which made him the most important man in the village. Blacksmiths were initiated into the hammer corporation. The hammer - received at initiation - had magical powers: it casted out evil spirits and identified thieves.
Still according to Lefebvre, the blacksmith was not a simple craftsman - his expertise in magic was intrinsically linked to the hidden forces of nature and affected by prohibitions and rituals.
This type of short sword is called "Basakpwa". It was "danced during initiations and carried in parades (See photograph taken from "Ubangi: Art and cultures from the African Heartland" by Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, 2007), worn by the old and the rich" (Rider)
Yakoma blacksmiths produced a great deal of material for their neighbors. They added their “signatures” to the weapons they made, such as rounded or slotted holes, oblique carvings, copper rivets, and dotted lines. But the most significant attribute was the high quality of their forging and workmanship (Lefebvre).
The knife on the left on the group photo comes from the collection of the late Rudolf Schwarz, Germany. It dates from 1910-1930 and is 35,5 cm (14 inches). Forged copper, wood, copper, iron nail. 33,5 cm (13 1/4 inches) Custom made base by Romain Laforêt. Price: 1200 Euros enquiry
The knife in the middle on the group photo comes from a French collection, Ethan Rider, USA (some photos with permission). It is published in "Yakoma-Ngbandi " by Luc Lefebvre (2017) plate 133. Forged iron, wood copper, brass tacks. It dates from 1880-1920. Custom made base. Price: 1400 Euros enquiry
The knife on the right on the group photo was collected by colonial administrator Armand Marcel Fontaine in Oubangi-Chari between 1923 and 1950, Cornette de St Cyr, France, 2016, Tyler Delange collection, USA, Ethan Rider, USA (some photos with permission). It is published in "Yakoma-Ngbandi " by Luc Lefebvre (2017) plate 114. and is 37, 5 cm (14 3/4 inches). Forged iron, wood copper. It dates from 1880-1920. Custom made base. Price: 1200 Euros enquiry