There is a document held in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections called ‘Reflections of Cultural Artifacts and History: the case of the Shilluk pipe’ written by Kunijwok Gwado Ayoker, while he was at Wolfson College, Oxford in the 1980s.
It is a short essay about the cultural significance of pipes and smoking in Shilluk culture – touching on and Shilluk history more broadly. It contains several of Kunijok’s recollections from conversations with his father, Gwado Ayoker.
In one of part of the essay which pricked my ears, Kunijok writes that Gwado once recalled going to Bussere, a small town near Wau, where there was a school run by Italian missionaries – the Verona (Comboni) Fathers. Gwado lived in Tonga, Upper Nile, so this was a long journey to a different province – Bussere is near Wau, which was the capital of Bahr-el-Ghazal Province. This was around 1930.
One of the things that Gwado told Kunijok about Bussere was how he had been amazed by the elaborate pipes that he saw. They looked, in structure and basic design, to be identical to that of his own father’s, but their bowls were carved into beautiful figurative designs. Gwado even saw one pipe with what looked like a traditional Shilluk hairstyle (this got Gwado and Kunijok wondering about the interconnected histories of different South Sudanese communities)
When Gwado returned to Tonga in the early 1930s, still inspired by what he had seen in Bussere, he began carving small statues out of soft wood and creating decorative pipe bowls. He sold a number of these pipes to the Verona Fathers and later the Mill Hill Fathers in Tonga and Malakal. Kunijok also says that one of his father’s pipes (in the shape of a lion) is now in the British Museum. There are several in their online catalogue, but only one – below – has a picture available.
I was fascinated reading this, partly because I have recently seen pipes fitting the description of Gwado’s work, in the Africa Museum of the Verona Fathers (in Verona, Italy) . Could these be the products of Gwado Ayoker’s hand?
I was even more fascinated on a recent visit to the Museum of Archaeology in Perugia (which houses the collection of Italian explorers Orazio Antinori and Carlo Piaggia, made in the early 1860s.) The museum holds two pipes with a provenance of ‘Bongo’ in the Antinori collection and one pipe with a provenance of ‘Zande’ in the Piagga collection. We don’t know for sure where these pipes were made, but they were acquired in Bahr-el-Ghazal, and likely not too far from Bussere. Could these be examples of the tradition of pipe making that inspired Gwado Ayoker in the 1930s? (apologies for the quick and rather dark, research picture)
Its hard to say much with certainty from these brief observations, and I fear the story may be rather more complicated than implied in Kunijok’s essay! But it is an fascinating account of how art could travel – both through missionary structures in South Sudan and back to European museums.