32 x 24″ (81 x 61 cm)
Traditionally in Africa many small, often ambulatory businesses have used hand-painted, hand-constructed signs to advertise their business. The business person may have an actual store front but more often just sets up shop along any street and moves around town from day to day as the business prospects appear better in different parts of town. In the case of people who sell medical products this is a very common option in all parts of Africa. To support those people in business there are very accomplished artists who make their living as commercial artists, painting signs for any business, itinerant or in a fixed location. This sign was painted by hand by a commercial artist for a person who sells such medical products. We have not investigated the precise nature of the medicine or medicines that this person (more likely a man, but could be a woman) is advertising. It could be more than one product but we do know that it is often a single bottle of a liquid purporting to treat all the ailments depicted on the painted sign or series of signs in the same location. For people who have little access, primarily due to financial restrictions, to any other part of the modern medical care system, the man selling these products are de facto doctors. To my mind this is comparable to what used to be called in America “snake oil” or “snake oil liniment”. The entire phenomenon of the sale of this product and its advertising campaign as represented by this sign is reminiscent of the people in America who used to travel around selling a bottle of what was sold as a cure all for a range of diseases or abnormal physiological conditions. It was 100 years ago, in 1917, that the US Government sued such a seller for misrepresentation and misbranding the substance, thereby eliminating this incarnation of fraudulent health products. So far, to my knowledge, African governments have yet to take this step.
This sign features 3 images of people suffering from 3 different forms of hemorrhoids. This sign was part of a series of 6 separate signs, all painted by the same person, in the same light blue color scheme. Their owner used them as some similar sellers of medicinal products use single signs with a variety of images each of which illustrates an abnormal condition ostensibly treatable with the medicine being sold. The background of the sign is light blue; the frame around it is royal blue. As this sign was painted by a French-speaking artist in Togo, where French is the official language, the captions on the sign are written in French. The image furthest to the left is entitled on the sign “hemorroide interne”, above the image, which means “internal hemorrhoid” in English. The image is just a light-skinned man’s head and his two outstretched arms at the top of the image and his feet at the bottom with a representation of the man’s internal organs connected by what appears to be a series of red veins and what may be his heart. It seems to be the artist’s way of emphasizing the “internal” nature of the this variation of hemorrhoids. The center image is larger, a light-skinned man with his yellow, belted short pants pulled down for him to squat and defecate. There is a small red protuberance coming from his bottom, presumably a hemorrhoid since this image is entitled, above it, “hemorrhoid externe” meaning “external hemorrhoid” in English. The image on the right is a similar-looking man with brick red belted shorts squatting to defecate but with a stream of stools, with what looks like blood in it. The caption, above the image, reads “hemorragie hemorroidaire” which means “hemorrhagic hemorrhoids”. All three of these men are barefooted, squatting on the grassy ground.
The sign is painted on a thin piece of wood framed by a heavier wood border. As these salespeople are itinerant and display their wares anywhere they think they will get sales traffic the sign often ends up resting on the ground when it was in use. All around the surface of the frame there is wear, evidence of long use. This form of African art is contemporary; these signs continue to be made although currently the trend seems to be to more professionally printed signs on paper which is now cheaper than hiring an artist. This, therefore, is one of the last of a dying art. This sign was well used for some time but not so old as to have been worn as much as some of older signs. Except for the modest amount of wear on the frame this sign is in excellent condition.