Ronald Reagan’s Dan figure to be sold by Christie’s

Ronald Reagan Christie's African art catalogue

On 21 and 22 September 2016, Christie’s will be selling the private collection of president Ronald Reagan in New York. To my surprise the collection includes an African object! This Dan statue (illustrated below) was once in the family residence of the Reagans in the White House, Washington D.C. Surely there must be a photo somewhere showing the statue there. Unfortunately the provenance of the statue remains undocumented, but I would guess it was a diplomatic gift – Reagan did meet Liberian president Samuel K. Doe in 1982, celebrating 120 years of diplomatic relations.

Image courtesy of Click Christie's.

Dan figure (Liberia). Wood. Height: 20 in. (51 cm). Est. $ 8,000-12,000. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

This female statue can be attributed to the workshop of the artist Zlan (or Sran) of Belewale (Liberia), without doubt one of the most famous Dan-Wè artists of the first half of the 20th century. The influence of his unique style was felt in Dan, Mano and Wè towns in Liberia and Ivory Coast. Zlan’s career is well documented by Hans Himmelheber: he carved for many wealthy men and chiefs, teaching many pupils from both the Dan and Wè peoples. This large number of apprentices, copying the work of their master meticulously makes it hard to identify the hand of Zlan with absolute certainty. Unique among the Dan, one of the wives of Zlan is also know to have carved spoons and other objects in his style as well. Eberhard Fisher wrote extensively about Zlan in “Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire” (Paris, 2015: pp. 128-138).

ps You can browse the complete catalogue of the Reagan sale here. There are some other amazing objects in the collection, for example “an evocative relic symbolizing one of president Reagan’s greatest foreign policy achievements: a signed fragment of the Berlin wall” 🙂  More than 700 pieces of historic and personal memorabilia will go up for sale!

Stamp of the day

Stamp timbre Lucas Ratton Parcours des Mondes 2016

I’m surely not the only collector who long ago started with postage stamps. So whenever I get mail, I still pay attention to the stamp. The above example with a nice Fang figure graced Lucas Ratton’s invitation for Parcours des Mondes. Kudos to him for coming up with this great idea. Last year, Ratton already had made a Kota stamp – which was also very clever, see below.

Stamp timbre Lucas Ratton 2015

Parcours des Mondes 2016

Parcours 2016

From Tuesday 6 to Sunday 11th September, the charming Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter in Paris again welcomes the crème de la crème of the international tribal art scene for the fifteenth edition of Parcours des Mondes. You can browse the catalogue here. To get in the mood, you can reread my review of last year’s edition here.

Under the banner Espace Tribal there is also a wide variety of side activities. There’s a retrospective exhibition with a small selection of objects and images tracing some of the key moments in the evolution of the event at 22 Rue Visconti. Furthermore, there are several opportunities to meet authors and experts. I’ll be participating in a roundtable discussion in conjunction with the opening of Parcours together with its director Pierre Moos and this year’s honorary president, Inti Ligabue, Tuesday from 5 to 6 pm. At Christie’s, we will be presenting several highlights from our December sales (shown in juxtaposition with Old Master Paintings!) from Thursday 8 to Wednesday the 14th. Hope to see you there !

Parcours des Mondes 2016 & Espace Tribal

GBEKRE – an excerpt of ‘Baule Monkeys’ (Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis, 2016)

Baule mouse oracle. Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).

Baule mouse oracle (gbekre-sè). Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).

The term “gbekre” has long been used to designate the monkey figures of the Baule. In my book Baule Monkeys I tracked down the origin of this unfortunate appellation.

The word gbèkrè first appeared in a now little-known article written by Maurice Delafosse in 1897 for the Museum of Natural History in Paris[1]. Describing the animals indigenous to the Baule region, he noted that the baboon, Cynocephalus sphinx, was widely found throughout the area and was known as Gbèkrè or Wotoumo.

Under the heading of ‘religion and superstition’, Delafosse mentions the existence of two types of ‘idols’ in his Baule dictionary of 1900: waka akatya – in the form of a chimpanzee, and waka gbèkrè – in the form of a baboon[2]; in both cases waka may be translated as ‘wood’[3]. Akatya is not mentioned later and seems to have been forgotten, perhaps because the heads of so many such figures were indeed more reminiscent of a baboon[4]. The same dictionary mentions two other uses of the word gbekre, namely the differently pronounced gbékré (mouse) and gbekre-sè (mouse box).

However, a better-known publication by Delafosse is at the root of the misunderstanding that has persisted to the present. In his article on the art of the Baule published in 1900, he identified gbèkrè as the ‘baboon god’ in the subsection entitled ‘Génies’[5]. Consequently, every apelike Baule figure would be referred as gbekre (without diacritics) in the literature. As early as 1956, Holas wrote in the introduction to his article on Baule bowl-bearing figures that, owing to Delafosse’s 1900 article, such figures were wrongly described as gbèkré [6] (note, however, that Holas was also imprecise in his use of diacritics). Despite its having been long known to be erroneous, this term is still prevalent in 2016.

With or without diacritics, gbekre always means ‘mouse’ and should be avoided when referencing Baule bowl-bearing monkey figures. If you want to discover how we should call these statues, you’ll have to read the book 🙂 You can order it here.

 

[1] Delafosse, 1897: pp. 193–197.

[2] Delafosse, 1900b: p. 31. There was little room in that dictionary for discussing the use of these figures.

[3] Waka sona or waka sran is Baule for ‘statue’.

[4] According to Boyer, akatya (or kakatiwa) is the name of a bush spirit (personal communication, 8 December 2014). Interestingly, Kakatika was a common name for bush spirits in the Akwe area (personal communication with Susan M. Vogel, 3 August 2015).

[5] Delafosse, 1900a: p. 556

[6] Holas, 1956: p. 408.

Theaster Gates’ Boli at the Fondazione Prada, Milan (2015)

Theaster Gates, "Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven", 2014.

Theaster Gates, “Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven”, 2014.

Last year, I wrote how Theaster Gates won the Artes Mundi 2014 prize (info) with a work incorporating a Bamana boli figure. For his current exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, Gates has again used the image of a Bamana boli figure in an installation. Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven shows a group of Mumuye-like standing figure surrounding a magnificent boli figure on a large black pedestal – a very remarkable view. Gates first exhibition in Milan (info) runs until 25 September 2016. Let me know if you find out the meaning of this installation.

A reader reacts..

If you feel that any religion or belief system “works” just as well as any other, as long as its’ followers believe in it, then this installation illustrates that quite well. The artist could have made up a God and his followers, and for the average viewer the Boli and Mumuyes might seem to be just that, but for those of us in the African art world the tribal images add another layer to the art work while preserving the enigma for everyone due to the “otherness” of the objects.

 

Theaster Gates Boli Fondazione Prada é

Apologies – save the date – happy holidays !

Dear friends,

my apologies for the lack of post these last few months.. with a new book, two sales, two kids and a lovely wife, life has been rather hectic these past few months. While still on my mind, my heart and soul had other priorities than this blog. I do hope to spend some more time on it this summer! As always, there are plenty of exciting things going on in the African art scene.

In the meantime, we’re already working hard on our December sales – yes, plural, as we’ll have two again! On Tuesday 13 December, we’ll have our Various Owners sale – which will be presented in an exciting new catalogue format. And on Thursday 15 December, we have a very very exciting Single Owner sale. Highlights of both sales will be presented during Parcours des Mondes at Christie’s HQ in Paris from 8 to 13 September. There’s some more important news coming after the holidays. Don’t hesitate to get in touch, if you would like to consign objects for our December auction.

But for now, let me just wish you a great summer, full of joy, good company and great art.

Very best,

Bruno

ps some more African art in pop culture: the below screenshot comes from the trailer of the new Tarzan movie. Spot the Mongo wickerwork shields and Kuba daggers (and what look to be Pende axes) – I believe some parts of the movie plays in Congo. Funny they mixed the weapons of several cultures.

Tarzan African art mongo shield kuba daggers Bruno Claessens blog

Come say hi in Paris !

Bruno Claessens Luba-Shankadi statue figure Congo Mwanza Christies 23 June 2016

My apologies for the radio silence on the blog these last weeks; I was totally occupied with my first two sales at Christie’s Paris. If you are in the neighborhood, please do come say hello to me and my beautiful cover girl. There are only four days left to admire our wonderful selection of African, Oceanic and North-American art:

Monday June 20, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Tuesday June 21, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Wednesday June 22, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Thursday June 23, 10:00am – 12:00pm

The sale of the Jacqueline Loudmer collection (info) is on Thursday 23 June and starts at 3PM, it is immediately followed by our various owners sale. As there are no reserves for the Loudmer collection (everything must go!), it will in all likelihood take a bit longer than on average, so our second sale is expected to start around 7PM. Don’t hesitate to reserve a telephone line, leave an absentee bid, bid online or just be there. You know where to find me if I can be of any assistance.

A newly discovered Mangbetu masterpiece

Image courtesy of Salle de Ventes du Beguinage.

Image courtesy of Salle de Ventes du Beguinage.

One often hears the claim that all major African works of art are known by now. But we Belgians (and the French too of course) know better. Every now and then something major pops out of nowhere, and today was such a day again. The small Brussels auction house Beguinage sold a previously unknown Mangbetu harp with an anthropomorphic column for a small fortune: it was hammered down for € 300,000 (so ca. € 360,000 with costs), selling to a French dealer (a Belgian colleague being the underbidder). Once again a clear prove that it doesn’t matter how small or obscure the sale is, if it’s good it gets noticed. Note that is has been a while since I posted about sleepers at auction..

Coming back to this harp, Georg August Schweinfurth gave a beautiful description about the importance of music in the local daily life when he visited the Zande and Mangbetu region between 1867 and 1871:

‘Apart from the special characteristics that distinguish them, more or less pronounced marks of race that pick out the different groups of the human family, the Niam-Niams are men of the same nature as others; they have the same passions, the same joys, the same pains as us. I have exchanged any number of jokes with them, I have taken part in their childish games, accompanied by the sound of their drums or mandolins, and I have found in them the same gaiety and verve found elsewhere.’ (“Au Coeur de l’Afrique. Trois ans de voyages et d’aventures dans les régions inexplorées de L’Afrique Centrale (1868-1871)”, Le Tour Du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages, Vol. 28, 1874: p. 210)

‘But the Niam-Niamshave other pleasures; they have an instinctive love of art, and owe to it more elevated pleasures. Passionate about music, they extract from their mandolins sounds which resonate in the deepest fibers of their being and which thrown them into genuine intoxication. The concerts they offer themselves are of unimaginable lengths. Piaggia has said that a Niam- Niam would play his instrument for twenty-four hours without leaving it for a second, forgetting to eat or drink; and even though I know well this people’s appetite, I believe Piaggia was right. Their favorite instrument is related at once to the harp and mandolin. It resembles the former by the disposition of its strings and the latter by the form of the body. Built precisely according to the laws of acoustics, the soundboard has two openings. The strings, solidly held by pegs, are sometimes made of vegetable fibers, sometimes of giraffe tail-hair. As for the music played on these mandolins, it is highly monotonous; it would be difficult to discern in it the slightest semblance of melody. It is never more than an accompaniment to a recitation, sung in a plaintive (even whining) tone, and of a decidedly nasal timbre. I have many times seen friends going arm in arm playing this way, beating time with their heads, and plunging each other into a profound ecstasy.’ (op. cit., 1874: pp. 222-223)

Unfortunately there don’t exist recordings of Mangbetu harp music.

UPDATE: Amyas Naegele was kind enough to share this short vintage recording of this type of harp:

OUT NOW: “Baule Monkeys” (by Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis – Fonds Mercator, 2016)

Baule Monkeys Bruno Claessens Jean-Louis Danis Mercator Fonds Ivory Coast

It’s time to go bananas! After 2,5 years of hard work, I’m proud to finally announce the launch of my second book: “Baule Monkeys”. My new, beautiful baby has 118 illustrations and counts 192 pages (with 25 chapters divided into four sections and 408 must-read footnotes); there’s also a French version. The seeds for this book go back a long time: about ten years ago, I encountered a Baule monkey figure from Ivory Coast for the first time during a visit to Bruneaf in Brussels’ Sablon quarter. I was utterly amazed by this bowl-bearing figure and the encounter with this statue was one of the very first times that an African art object really grasped the novice I then was. The opportunity to explore these enigmatic figures would come only years later. The Africarium Collection (which I at that time had been co-curating for a while) in June 2013 acquired the incredible cross-legged bowl-bearer illustrated on the front cover. This purchase would turn out to the catalyst to this book. The Africarium had already assembled an important group of monkey figures at the time, and this acquisition justified to dedicate these figures to the first monograph on the subject. Sharing my passion for them, Jean-Louis Danis, Africarium’s founder, agreed, and so we came to write this book.

“Baule Monkeys” wishes to explores the many aspects of these fear-inducing sculptures far from the traditional art canon of the well-known delicate Baule masks and figures. The book explores the creation, usage and morphology of the bowlbearers, and sheds light on the cultural and ritual context in which they operated. There’s also a general chapter on monkeys in African art. Through extensive research, “Baule Monkeys” combines new and fascinating discoveries with all earlier research on the subject. It as well includes several unpublished field-photos from Susan M. Vogel (who also wrote the foreword). The book focuses on fifteen examples from the Africarium Collection and a further forty monkey figures from public and private collections all presented in beautifully detailed full page spreads.

“Baule Monkeys” (and its French version “Singes Baule”) are published by Mercator Fonds – you can order it on their website here – and if you scroll down you can also find a small preview of the inside.

This Thursday (9 June), I’ll be signing the book at Vasco Books in Brussels (who also have the book in stock) from 3 to 5PM – I hope to see you there!

ps there’s also a private event in Brussels on Friday (contact me to get on the guest list).