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“The old ones tell a story under your thumb,” says Brian Thorn, a keen collector of ekipas – decorative buttons made of ivory. The piece of carved ivory in his hand is timeworn and looks like a small tortoise, splintered and yellowed with age.
Ekipas were once the jewels of the Owambo aristocracy. Today they are sought-after articles for African tribal art collectors and are featured in exquisite jewellery made by some of Namibia’s leading jewellers.
Whatever Thorn hears regarding his collection of ekipas, it is not the answers to the questions that haunt him as a collector of these antique Namibian artefacts. He is concerned about the scarcity of information available on them, and time is running out to collect such information, as producing ekipas has become a bygone art form. Most of them date from before the 19th century.
It is questions such as their origin that intrigue him most. He is not entirely convinced that only the Owambo people carved them. He speculates that the art of the ekipa was brought from Central Africa when the Owambo group migrated south some centuries ago, and points out that the craftsmanship and sophisticated design variations seen on the ivory pieces are not apparent on other ornaments and artefacts made today. “I find it strange that there is no direct link with this quality of craftsmanship in other handicrafts. There seems to be no continuation of this level of workmanship.”
Bernhard Schurz, Curator of the Anthropology Department of the National Museum of Namibia (NMN), agrees that as with other antique cultural art objects of Namibia, there are many gaps in information on the ekipa. “For example, who made the buttons? Were they crafted by specially selected artists attached to the royal courts?” There is also very little information on why the Owambo people chose ivory as a symbol of wealth.
According to Schurz, when an Owambo king hunted an elephant at the opening of a hunting season, the royal family had the right to the ivory. A woman wore the ekipa as a sign of esteem and royalty. The number of ekipas displayed conveyed her status in the community and gave an indication of the wealth of her family. The artefacts were worn on special occasions such as fertility feasts, weddings and funerals. There is also evidence the ekipa was used as money.
It is possible that the ekipa’s traditional appeal as jewellery disappeared after the 1920s, following the arrival in northern Namibia of missionaries who introduced a more modest style of dressing. The ekipa came to commercial and public attention only in the 1980s, according to Thorn, who used to own an antique shop in Windhoek. They typically found their way into shops through individual sellers who came in from the bush to sell them in the city.
Today ekipas are still being offered to shop owners, but it seems they are in short supply. According to some of the jewellers and curio-shop owners in Windhoek, it is evident that they are becoming scarce. Windhoek jeweller Horst Knop says that ten years ago traders would have visited his shop once a week or every fortnight offering at least 30 ekipas for sale. “Today you are lucky if people offer you 30 a year.”
Rolf Adrian, master goldsmith of Adrian & Meyer, is also concerned that in a couple of years there will be no ekipas left. “They are becoming increasingly hard to come by. An interesting aspect is that in the last few years young women from the north are bringing us ekipas they have inherited from their grandmothers or mothers to be set in modern jewellery.” Horst Knop says in this regard, “It is almost a cycle that has been completed. From jewels to jewellery once again. This is a new appreciation for heritage that is manifesting itself.”
While conservation officials and the Namibian Police are concerned that the genuine antique ekipa is becoming scarce, at the same time they are uneasy about the imitations of ekipas that are spilling into the market. According to Dr Pauline Lindeque, Director of Scientific Services in the MET, officials of the Protected Resources Unit (PRU) of the Police are finding increasing numbers of imitations made from new ivory. “It is not only antique ekipas that are being sold,” she says.
Illegal carvers have found a way to make the ivory look old, making it difficult to distinguish between old and new. Some of the ivory is treated with regular shoe polish to make it look older. There is greater concern, however, regarding the genuine pieces that are leaving the country in the hands of collectors and tourists.
While the demand has been steady for jewellery made with ekipas in the 12 years since independence, collectors say the scarcer the ekipa becomes, the more it gains in popularity. Prices went up as the demand from collectors of ekipas increased.
Some of the best ekipas (worth as much as DM1 000 apiece) are in private collections. Ekipas are even listed in the catalogues of the Tribal Art Auction of the world-renowned auction house, Christie’s.
Dr Lindeque says it can be argued that ekipas should not be sold in the first place. “The concern is that if we sell the genuine ones, we are allowing our national heritage to leave the country. They are historical items and tourists are carrying them away. A decision needs to be taken on what to do about this, as the practice can be perceived as selling our cultural heritage.”
Concern about the ekipa, however, is part of a much larger problem says Annaleen Eins, Director of the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN). There are also many other items in danger of being lost forever to the Namibian heritage. “Cultural art pieces are leaving the country at a rate of thousands at a time. There is no legislation to control this. The ekipa is just one example of a Namibian artefact that has never been protected.”
Although there are international laws in place that can help stop trade in some of these objects, a country should first have domestic laws in place to declare them as protected objects. This is currently the aim of a National Heritage Council Bill which NMN, NAGN and the Monument’s Council within the Ministry of Basic Education and Culture is drafting to offer better protection to threatened artefacts. However, legislation will not necessarily stop people from trading.
Cultural objects that were owned by families for generations became part of the trade cycle because people were struggling to survive. Traders used to go into remote regions in times of drought to buy them at low prices from people and sell them again as cultural artefacts of high value. Once in the hands of traders, they are certain to leave the country.
Institutions such as NAGN and NMN should be given a “first choice” of buying such artefacts before they are offered for sale to foreign buyers and collectors, says Annaleen Eins. “At the moment the best pieces are freely leaving the country. Such regulations would be the only way to safeguard that our cultural heritage stays in Namibia.”
However, the institutions mostly do not have the money to buy such objects. This will hopefully be rectified in future if the bill makes provision for a heritage fund. While the lawmakers and museum officials are trying to gain the attention of politicians on the matter, the draft bill has been in circulation for many years. So there may still be some hope for the ekipa.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.