The African art that inspired the new African American History Museum’s building

The African American History Museum cost $540 million to construct and took a little more than four years to complete. Sixty percent of the building is underground with four concourses below ground and four floors above the first level main entrance. The structure has exhibition galleries, an education center, theater, auditorium, café, store and offices. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

The African American History Museum. Image courtesy of Alan Karchmer.

Here’s a fun fact about the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C.: the specific pagoda-like form was inspired by the top element of a Yoruba veranda post ! The building’s architect, David Adjaye, spotted the post (made by the famous sculptor Olowe of Ise) in an overlooked corner of the Museum Five Continents in Munich when designing the museum.

the-african-art-that-inspired-the-new-african-american-history-museum-building-bruno-claessens-yoruba

In fact, the Munich museum owns two posts by Olowe, one now is on long term loan to the African American History Museum, while the other remains on display in Munich. Both were carved circa 1930 and formerly in the residence of the Ojomu of Obaji in Akoko – before being collected by Gerd Stoll (from whose collection the museum acquired them).

A 1930s wooden sculpture by Nigerian artist Olowe of Ise wears a crown, on which the museum’s design is based, in the culture galleries. Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

Image courtesy of Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post.

olowe-of-ise-housepost-yoruba-munich-museum-gerd-stoll-bruno-claessens

In this article in the Washington Post, David Adjaye, the sought-after British architect and son of Ghanaian diplomats, said he wanted to provide a “punch” at the end of the “row of palaces,” as he referred to the other museums at Washington DC’s National Mall. And the architecture needed to “speak the story of the museum, the origins in Africa,” he said, and not be another “stone box with things in it.” Adjaye recalls coming across a wooden sculpture of a man wearing a crown by the early-20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise. Adjaye had seen similar forms in Benin, in fragments of doors and posts and pillars. But the connection to the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, was more meaningful. A 2015 Oxford University study found the majority of African Americans and modern-day Yoruba people in West Africa have a similar ancestry, confirming that the region was a major source of African slaves. He sent an image of the sculpture to his collaborators. No other ideas were considered. “I think all of us were captured by it,” said Hal Davis of SmithGroupJJR. Surely it must be the only building in the world that is inspired by African art !

ps in several online articles this segment erroneously is described as a ‘crown’, surely it was merely a structural element to connect the figure with the veranda’s roof – as you can see on the field-photo below. However, I do recall the number ‘3’ has some symbolic meaning among the Yoruba, but I don’t have the time to dive into my books right now.

In situ photo of a Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise - published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), "Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings", National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.

In situ photo of the Munich Yoruba veranda post by Olowe of Ise – published in Walker (Roslyn Adele), “Olówè of Isè. A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings”, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1998.

Dutch museum admits one of its ‘masterpieces’ in fact is a 20th century fake

fake-mixtec-skull-museum-volkenkunde-leiden

This is not a blog about pre-Columbian art, but the story was too interesting not to share. Last week, Michel Berger, of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (The Netherlands), revealed that the 800-year-old Mexican skull decorated with turquoise mosaic, for decades believed to have been a masterpiece of Mixtec art in fact is a forgery. The museum bought the piece in 1963 for the equivalent of around $20,000 and was seen as a striking example of ancient Mesoamerican art. An intensive four-year study on the skull, one of only around 20 in existence world-wide, however showed a 20th-century glue was used to mount the mosaic on the skull – although radiometric dating had shown both the skull and the turquoise were from the correct time period and origin and ‘authentic’. The teeth, on the other hand, were much younger as they were too well preserved for a skull that lay underground for centuries.

An investigation into possible skull-duggery was launched after the museum’s conservator Martin Berger received a telephone call back in 2010 from a French colleague in Marseille. The colleague told Berger they received a similar skull from a private collection and that person who donated the object had doubts about its authenticity. Berger told a Dutch newspaper he suspects the fake was mounted by a Mexican dentist back in the 1940s or 1950s, when Mexican archeological sites were subjected to large-scale plunder and dealing in artworks like those of the Mixtecs was a lucrative business. Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No. In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board. In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”. “The skull as well as the turquoise are unique archaeological material. Only, the Mixtecs themselves didn’t do the glueing,” he said.

All findings of the investigations are currently presented at the museum’s current exhibition, Masterpieces under the microscope, which runs until November 2017 (info). The case got a lot of media attention in The Netherlands and surely will be able to draw new visitors to the museum, so it’s not all bad news in the end.

fake-mixtec-skull-museum-volkenkunde-leiden-schedel

Catalogue Madeleine Meunier Collection Online

aristide-courtois-charles-ratton-at-the-heart-of-the-madeleine-meunier-collection-christies-bruno-claessens

I’m very proud to announce that our new catalogue is ready; you can find it online on this page. Now you know why it had been so silent on these pages these last few weeks 🙂 It has been an honor to work on this historical collection; one truly felt the spirit of Charles Ratton holding the objects he once cherished. In 2014, when I wrote about the Master of the Cascade Coiffure on this blog (here), I could not imagine I would once be so closely involved in the sale of a long lost work of this master carver myself. Besides the obvious masterpieces, even the ‘smaller’ works of this sale are able to fascinate – I highlighted some in an interview with Aurore Krier-Mariani on the Imo Dara blog here – and it is our hope that all types of collectors (with all kinds of budgets) will be able to participate in the dissemination of this important collection.

Note that at the specific wish of Madeleine Meunier the sale will take place at Drouot in Paris. From 9 to 13 December, everything will be on view at the Christie’s headquarters in Paris, before moving to Drouot, where there’s an additional viewing on 14 and 15 December. The sale is on 15 December at 6:30pm. I hope to see you in Paris – do let me know if I can be of any assistance.

“Masterpieces From Africa” at the Dapper Museum prolonged until 2017

musee-dapper-masterpieces-leveau-extended-paris-african-art

 

Good news reached us from from the Musée Dapper in Paris. Their current exhibition, Masterpieces From Africa (and that’s just what it is!) is being extended until June 17, 2017. This tribute to the museum’s founder, Michel Leveau (who passed away in 2012), shows 130 exceptional objects from its holdings. It’s a must see – who knows when these objects will be on view again..

What’s unique, is that now both the famous Bangwa queen and king figures are on view in Paris at the same time, although at different museums (respectively the Musée Dapper and the Musée du quai Branly) – Paris truly is the capital of African art these days. To get a teaser of the Dapper exhibition show, see the Youtube clip below (in French, and including an interview with Christiane Falgarayettes-Leveau, the museums’ director and curator of the exhibition).

 

‘Baule Monkeys’ selected for the International Tribal Art Book Prize 2016: VOTE NOW

pilat-2016-baule-monkeys-bruno-claessens-international-tribal-art-book-prize

It’s the time of the year to vote! Not only on your president (if you’re American), but also on your favorite English and French tribal art book. I’m very proud to announce that my book ‘Baule Monkeys’, co-authored with Jean-Louis Danis, made it on the shortlist for the Tribal Art Book Prize (PILAT) 2016. Its one of the three preselected titles in English (the language the book was written in). An independent jury will select the winner early December and takes into account the readers’ vote. So if you could help my monkeys to get as many votes as possible, they surely will not be able to ignore them – you know how monkeys are. So, please do vote for my book Baule Monkeys HERE ! Quit monkeying around, vote now! Thanks.

New appointments at US museums

Kevin Dumouchelle with an untitled 2009 work by El Anatsui at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

Kevin Dumouchelle with an untitled 2009 work by El Anatsui at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

To use a soccer term, the news of two ‘top transfers’ recently reached us: after almost a decade at the Brooklyn Museum, Kevin Dumouchelle has joined the Smithsonian Institution as Curator at the National Museum of African Art. Constantine Petridis in his turn, after 15 years at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has just been appointed chair and curator of African art and Indian art of the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago. We wish them both much success in their new professional endeavors.

Across the pond the sad tidings reached us that Herman Burssens, professor emeritus at Ghent University, passed away at the age of 89. Burssens is best know for his excellent work on the sculpture of the Zande (Yanda-beelden en Mani-sekte bij de Azande (Centraal-Afrika), 1962).

Herman Burssens in 2013

Herman Burssens in 2013.

Upcoming exhibitions at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris)

musee-du-quai-branly-jacques-chirac-picasso-primitif-eclectic-jordan-river-volper-lacharriere

The Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac surely is celebrating its tenth birthday properly. The end of this month sees the opening of two now exciting exhibitions. The first, “Eclectic“, from 23 November 2016 until 2 April 2017 and curated by Hélène Joubert, will show around forty key works, mostly African, from the private collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. He’s the 23rd richest man of France (source) so you can expect some stunning works for sure. Opening at the same time is “From the Jordan River to the Congo River. Art And Christianity in Central Africa” (info), curated by Julien Volper and showing about one hundred African works of Christian inspiration (crucifixes, sculptures, pendants, engravings and drawings) drawn from various private and public collections in Europe. This type of objects always gives me mixed feelings, as it were these same Christians that were responsible for the destruction of so many African cultures, but the syncretic objects that survived surely are interesting.

Perhaps the most anticipated upcoming exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly is Picasso PrimitifCurated by Yves Le Fur, a first segment of the exhibition will chronologically document Picasso’s interest in non-Western art, while a second part will be more conceptual and confront works of the artist with those of non-Western artists (as was done during Primitivism in 20th Century Art). Hopefully the exhibition will draw as much new attention to African art as the latter once did. It was about time someone organized an exhibition on this subject. However, personally, I do regret the use of the word ‘Primitif’ in the exhibition’s title; I thought we had moved past the use of the P-word by now. Picasso Primitif runs from 28 March until 23 July 2017 and will be followed by what surely will be an epic exhibition on the art of the Fang. I don’t see many other museums with such an impressive agenda, so kudos to the Musée du quai Branly !

ps I once mentioned that Fang figure on the exhibition’s poster on my blog, see Investing in African art and ‘the rule of 72’.

ps2 Picasso’s nimba figure is currently on view in Brussels at the Bozar where it presented with a huge Female head by the master in an exhibition on his sculpture.

African art on Instagram

bruno-claessens-instagram-baule-african-art-christies-ratton

 

As I unfortunately do not have as much time to blog as before, I was happy to recently discover a new outlet to document my adventures in the wonderful world of African and Oceanic art by creating an Instagram account. You can find it here (username: brunoclaessens). Instagram is a free photo-sharing app that you can install on your smartphone. It lets you share pictures (which you can easily manipulate to make them look better) with the world and allows you to follow or discover people with the same interests as you. The African art community on Instagram has been growing steadily these last few years – you would be surprised who has an account – but I’ll let you discover them yourself. Personally, I try to post daily and it can be anything, from the ex libris of Jacques Kerchache to sneak previews of objects in forthcoming sales. Most pics are geotagged, so you can see where they were taken – which can be also be an excellent way to discover more photos from a specific location (for example, at the Rietberg Museum). Users can also add hashtags (a type of label preceded with a #) to facilitate the traceability of their pictures. For example, I didn’t had the time to go to Frieze Masters this year, but searching on #FriezeMasters2016 I still got to discover what was on view (at least if it was photographed, properly labeled and shared) – but as the (new) saying goes, if it’s not on Instagram, it did not happen 🙂

instagram-bruno-claessens-baga-snake-rietberg

As you can see, with the proper effects it’s easy to create some wonderful shots. Below some more of my recent posts..

bruno-claessens-african-art-on-instamgram-christies

Seward Kennedy’s Cabinet of Curiosities to be sold by Christie’s London

seward-kennedy-collection-of-curiosities-christies-london-cover

On 22 November 2016, Christie’s London will be selling Seward Kennedy’s Cabinet of Curiosities info). This eclectic collection includes a group of African and Oceanic ‘curiosities’ as well; starting with lot 144, a very nice Zande shield from D.R. Congo. You can browse the catalogue here. Below a nice portrait of the man (click to zoom).

seward-kennedy-collection-of-curiosities-christies-london

Victor Teodorescu joins the African and Oceanic Art Department of Christie’s

victor-teodorescu-joins-christies-african-and-oceanic-art-department

I’m very happy to announce that Victor Teodorescu has joined the African & Oceanic department of Christie’s Paris. You might heard the name, as he worked for the African and Oceanic art department of the German auction house Lempertz for the last 5,5 years; since 2012 becoming the co-head of their annual sales in Brussels together with Tim Teuten. In fact, Victor, who has a master’s degree in both philosophy and art history, started his professional career in 2009 at Christie’s Belgium – so he’s back where it all began. Victor will reinforce our growing department, with me continuing to share my time between France and Belgium, Susan Kloman, our International director based in New York, and Pierre Amrouche, consultant. Victor is a welcome addition to our strengthening team, and I look forward to his contributions to our department’s continued success.