A book which I have been enjoying very much recently is Broad sunlight: Early West African photography by Michael Graham-Stewart and Francis McWhannell. You can download an extract of it here. This labor of love is the result of a decade of collecting pre-1920 photographs taken in West Africa. The book is full of previously unpublished images and contains a most useful register with all photographers Graham-Stewart and McWhannell were able to track down. The captions to the photos and biographies of the photographers are a true treasure trove of information. Among others they put me on track of Herzekiah Andrew Shanu – of which you can see a portrait above.
Shanu (1858-1905) was among the pioneers photographing in West Africa, and his exceptional life story is worth remembering. Shanu was born in Lagos in 1858 and for a few years was a teacher at the Lagos Primary School. In 1884, he travelled to the Congo Free State’s capital Boma entering the service of the regime of Leopold II of Belgium as a clerk and translator. He helped recruit soldiers from English-speaking areas for the Force Publique, eventually rising to the position of assistant commissioner of the district of Boma. His photographs – depictions of Africans in and around Boma – were published in the Belgian colonial magazine Congo illustré from 1892 on.
In 1893, Shanu left the administration to devote himself to his business which quickly prospered thanks to various activities such as the hotel industry, photography, the sale of food products, ready-to-wear clothing and even laundry services. Shanu travelled through Europe and visited Belgium, France, Germany and England, a rare feat for an African at that time. In 1894 he apparently visited the Universal Exhibition in Antwerp. He was invited by the Belgian Association for Colonial Studies and gave several lectures, mainly in Brussels to the Royal African Circle and in Tirlemont.
In 1900, the colonial administration employed him to help to quell unrest among West African personnel in the Force Publique. In 1903, Shanu supplied the British Consul Roger Casement with information concerning the abuse of West African workers in the Congo, who in turn referred him to Edmund Morel and the Congo Reform Association, working to end slavery and other humanitarian abuses in the Congo Free State. Morel and Shanu corresponded for several years; Shanu forwarding, among other things, transcripts of trials against low-ranking Congo Free State officials which proved to be most revealing. While trying to acquire information from the police chief of Boma, Shanu was found out and as a consequence beleaguered by state officials. After it was discovered that Shanu had provided the Congo Reform Association with evidence of atrocities in the Congo, government employees were officially ordered to boycott his businesses. His business ruined, and himself reduced to despair, Shanu committed suicide in July 1905.
Some sixty of his negatives and prints are held by the Royal Museum for Central Africa; you can explore them here. “Broad sunlight” is full of exceptional personalities you have never heard from before. The cover image below, for example, is a self-portrait by W.J. Sawyer, who would also take some haunting photographs of Ovenramwen, the exiled Oba of Benin. Another self-made photographer worth getting to know.
Slightly deviating from the ongoing series about African art featured in advertisements, check out this cool vintage poster from the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation urging the public to do ‘the right thing’ and register to vote. The poster probably dates from around 1980 and was part of ‘Operation Big Vote’ – on which you can read more here. This nationwide effort by 70 black organisations hoped to stem the tide of black voter apathy. How a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon could inspire people to go vote is unclear to me, but it surely made a very graphic poster! Thanks to Ciprian Ilie for the tip.
ps yes, you assume right if you were wondering if I tried to find the Kota that inspired this poster – but I unfortunately was unsuccessful. It is a pretty common type of course.
I would like to bring your attention to a new book by David Zemanek, “Transitional Art of the Tikar from Cameroon”. This monograph studies a single type of statuary made by the Tikar as a response to Western demand. This publication must be one of the very first ever to focus on the production of art works solely made with the reason to be sold to early tourists and colonial administrators. While the response of African artists to the emergence of a new clientele has been widely documented, the art itself has rarely been the subject of much research (with the exception of the so-called “colons”). Through his work as an expert for his family’s auction house David Zemanek often came across these Tikar statues and was intrigued about their origin. Examples could already be found in German collections before 1914. Western modernist artists might have been influenced by African art, but as this book shows the inverse was also true, with Tikar sculptors being influenced by Western ideas. The Tikar figures under discussion are a good example to show how local sculptors responded to the increased demand for their art by freely combining traditional elements and adding new stylistic features and thus developing a transitional type of art. Artists were able to break free of the traditional patronage system and create a new type of sculpture. This newly acquired stylistic freedom is easily distinguishable in the variety of the 25 presented statues.
The book also documents the shifting perception of these figures; while mid-century experts in their ignorance might still have considered them authentic, or dealers unscrupulous presented them as such, through time it became very evident they lacked any traditional use and were merely made to be sold. The typical African art collector hence will not waste his time on them, yet they do play a role in African art history in the proces of emancipation of African artists. While these statues still are anonymous works, and lack a signature, they did buy individual and financial freedom for their makers by creating a new form of livelihood.
In the tense current debates about restitution the agency of African artists and dealers remains a neglected topic. In that sense I find it very praiseworthy for Zemanek to add a new layer to the ongoing discussions. These Tikar statues were clearly manufactured as commercial goods, and never looted or stolen – should they also be returned?
You can order the book here, or read more about it on Imo Dara here.
Among the first works El Anatsui created after moving from Ghana to Nsukka, Nigeria, was the above “Chambers of Memory” (1977). Aficionados of traditional African terracotta works of art surely immediately recognise a strong influence from the famed Nok heads. Indeed, with the typical facial features and its large bald forehead, El Anatsui fashioned this sculpture to resemble a terra-cotta head from Nigeria’s Nok culture. Arriving in Nigeria in 1975 to teach at the University of Nsukka, he had started to immerse himself in local styles and became fascinated by Nigeria’s national museums and archeological sites. The art of the so-called Nok, the only remnant of the civilisation that created these works, became a strong influence on his early work. The genius of the artist came into play with the creation of the empty chambers on the inside of the head, visible at the back (see below). The interior divisions he created allude to the sites of memory archived in man’s mind. With its empty chambers, the work in that way can be seen as a reflection on collective memory and humanity’s inability to learn from its mistakes. After all, we are for example still clueless what happened with the Nok civilisation, a culture so forgotten we don’t even remember its real name. I like how the artist, inspired by this specific case, made this universal and timeless message. And, also for collectors of classical African art, it does add a new layer of meaning when admiring traditional African terracotta sculptures.
Long before he would get famous with his hanging metal tapestries, El Anatsui thus was already pushing boundaries as an artist. If you are not familiar with his work, please read the brilliant article The New Yorker recently published about him here.
The news stayed a bit under the radar during this global pandemic, but something rather extraordinary happened in the art market earlier this month : the acclaimed Ivorian artist Abdoulaye Diarrassouba (1983), better known under his moniker Aboudia, was given a dedicated online sale at Christie’s New York of paintings and works on paper created by the artist over the past year – you can learn more about this sale here. The auction was accompanied by a solo exhibition of the works on sale in Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries from 4 to 8 March (as illustrated above).
Not only was it exceptional for an auction house to consign works directly from an artist, the 22 works in the sale all were sold, and the auction made a total of $ 1,066,875 (!), with most works on canvas selling for 10 times the low estimate. Admittedly, the estimates were deliberately kept low – their market value being substantially higher – yet with the six bigger paintings all selling above $100K, all previous price records for the artist were pulverised. In the art industry, that sort of thing should make you famous overnight – yet I have not found many articles about these astonishing results?! For market insiders, this success wasn’t a real surprise, as on October 22th, 2020, the artist’s Le Petit Chien Rouge (2018), which was expected to sell at Sotheby’s for just $23,400, instead was hammered down for $98,400.
Based in both Abidjan and Brooklyn, Aboudia’s work is informed by both Western and African art movements, referencing styles from avant-garde movements such as abstract expressionism to the street art and murals of Abidjan. His paintings consist of layered child-like figures, and often incorporate clippings from newspapers, magazines, or books to contextualise the work. Combining text with raw images, Aboudia has often been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and one can only admit the works do have a comparable energy to them. Depending to who you are talking with, this comparison has worked both against the artist as to his advantage. Personally, I think one is degrading Aboudia’s own unique voice by using the Basquiat reference in sale pitches of his work. The artist himself claims a multitude of both Western and African influences, and the art dealer Jack Bell has recounted how during his initial visits to the Tate Modern, Aboudia was impressed by the large formats used by Jackson Pollock and the loose gestures of Cy Twombly. Anyhow, I think it should be avoided to view his work solely through a western art historical perspective.
Aboudia originally gained international attention in 2011 for his depictions of the Ivorian war and its child soldiers – and that series by some is still considered to be his best work. The artist’s motivation to create art mainly comes from telling stories about the unfavourable conditions and city life of his country, especially for children. You might enjoy to learn he has also been adding photos of classical African masks and statues in his works – for example, spot the Dan masks and Igbo masks in the painting above. Aboudia has stated that these elements of ‘his ancestral history’ nourish him as much as a the raw contemporaneity of city life in Abidjan.
In response to market demand, Aboudia has become a very prolific and productive artist, and has been exhibited by Jack Bell Gallery, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Ethan Cohen Gallery, and Saatchi Gallery, among others. The fact that both Jean Pigozzi and Charles Saatchi, two discerning collectors of African art, acquired works from him has counted as an early market validation, and ambitious dealers (and now also auction houses) have been most active to build on to his success. In 2017, Christophe Person (now at Artcurial), for example also held a selling exhibition of Aboudia’s work at the French auction house Piasa. Surely, the Christie’s auction, held in anything but favourable circumstances, also rode the waves of the huge current interest in artworks created by millennial African artists.
Ever since Adenike Cosgrove published her yearly State of the African Art Market last month, I’ve been thinking about the comment one of the participants of the survey made:
“The (African) contemporary scene is now flooded with mediocre portraiture and self-portraiture, narcissistic works turning on ‘identity’, formulaic flat-styled figurative painting and a lot of imitative work. This superficiality/commercialism is stoked by art fairs and frothy auction action that is mainly driven by wealthy and speculative buyers (including corporate interests) who have more money than taste or discernment.”
The above juxtaposition of three paintings just next to that quote seems to illustrate the collector’s point. Yet, I do disagree. Firstly, one can hardly state the emergence of portraiture celebrating blackness is something new. The African American artist Kerry James Marshall, who indirectly can be considered an influence on some contemporary African artists, has been building 40 years on an oeuvre focused on black self-representation. His 1980 work “Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” for example features a black man dressed in black and before a black background. Through his work, Marshall has helped correct what he has called the “lack in the image bank of Black subjects”, and has paved the way for other artists such as Kehinde Wiley. Wiley, an American portrait painter with Yoruba roots, indeed has cited Marshall as a big influence. He is most famous for inserting black protagonists into a setting that recalls traditional European Old Master paintings. Kehinde Wiley’s fame got rocketed to a new level when Barack Obama commissioned him to paint his official portrait. Wiley depicted Obama seated casually on an antique chair among abundant foliage. With his art, the artist wishes to inspire future African American generations who visit museums and finally get to see someone who looks like them being displayed at its walls. In an interview with NPR, Wiley said:
“What I wanted to do was to look at the powerlessness that I felt as — and continue to feel at times — as a black man in the American streets. I know what it feels like to walk through the streets, knowing what it is to be in this body, and how certain people respond to that body. This dissonance between the world that you know, and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for … this double consciousness.”
Hijacking traditional models of representation, reimagined with black models, Wiley’s work thus can be interpreted as a comment on the absence of black portraits in museums. His criticism of the art world has helped generate an emancipatory response among contemporary African artists.
Wiley’s brightly-coloured, one-dimensional backgrounds for example reemerge for example in the work of the Ghanaian artist Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne – who’s portrait of Amanda Gorman was recently donated to Harvard’s Hutchins Center (info). Mayne’s latest works, capturing and celebrating black experiences, are currently on view at the sold-out exhibition “The joy of my skin” at the Antwerp gallery Geukens & De Vil.
It is fair to say there is currently indeed a wave of Black figurative contemporary artists specialising in portraiture. One of the leading figures is the painter Amoako Boafo, who after selling out a solo show at Art Basel Miami in 2019 became one of the most coveted contemporary African artists (a demand resulting in stratospheric prices at auction). Rendered with a distinctive finger-sculpted technique, Boafo’s portraits celebrate the Blackness of the subject. Portrayed against a light or monochromatic backdrop, the viewer’s attention is focused on the sitter.
The use of such monochromatic backgrounds to highlight the intensity of the blackness of the sitter perhaps should be considered a stylistical element of a whole new movement in contemporary African art. The list of talented artists who each give their own take on these aesthetics of representation is long: Cinga Samson, Collins Obijiaku, Kwesi Botchway, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Eniwaye Oluwaseyi, Sungi Mlengeya, Ephrem Solomon, and Annan Affotey all are raising interesting questions about black identity and representation. As always, self-portrait do speak multiple visual languages at once, drawing on the artist’s own multifarious identity as a painter, and generalisations should be avoided. Fact is that a whole new generation is exploring new interpretations on the sociological complexities of blackness and difference.
The work of Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye, who currently has a solo show at the TATE Modern (info), has been celebrated for its portrayal of Black normalcy. Yiadom-Boakye has frequently noted that her use of Black figures is merely drawing from her own inspiration rather than the critique of Western art’s relationship with Blackness some writers have projected on it. The artist thus already has moved ahead and in her own way is setting things right in the inequalities of visual representation in present day art world and its cultural institutions. Working with similar made-up empowering narratives as a frame for her portraits is Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, whose discovery of the work of aforementioned Yiadom-Boakye proved most inspirational to her own practice.
In the second half of the 20th century portraiture somewhat fell out of favour as a serious genre, yet Hwami and the other mentioned artists are helping to revive the genre while reformulating it around the Black body. Eventually this resurgence of figuration ‘will go beyond the Black body,’ Hwami said in an interview, ‘it will lift up portraiture as a genre for everyone. And that’s the beautiful thing about it.’
In case you missed it, African art made it to the main page of BBC News last weekend, you can read the article “The art dealer, the £10m Benin Bronze and the Holocaust” here.
This article was published on the occasion of the publication of the forthcoming book “Loot. Britain and the Benin Bronzes” by Barnaby Phillips – a former BBC correspondent, hence the big coverage on the website. The book will be out on April 1st, and you can order it here. But back to that article first. Phillips prosaically starts the story..
One morning in April 2016, a woman walked into Barclays Bank on London’s exclusive Park Lane, to retrieve a mysterious object that had been locked in the vaults for 63 years.
Attendants ushered her downstairs. Three men waited upstairs, perched anxiously on an uncomfortable sofa, watching customers go about their business.
Twenty minutes later the woman appeared, carrying something covered in an old dishcloth. She unwrapped it, and everyone gasped.
A youthful face cast in bronze or brass stared out at them. He had a beaded collar around his neck and a gourd on his head.
The men, an art dealer called Lance Entwistle and two experts from the auctioneers Woolley and Wallis, recognised it as an early Benin Bronze head, perhaps depicting an oba, or king, from the 16th Century.
It was in near-immaculate condition, with the dark grey patina of old bronze, much like a contemporary piece from the Italian Renaissance. They suspected it was worth millions of pounds. The bank staff quickly led them into a panelled room, where they placed the head on a table.
The woman who went down into the vaults is a daughter of an art dealer called Ernest Ohly, who died in 2008.
I have chosen to call her Frieda and not reveal her married name to protect her privacy.
Ernest’s father, William Ohly, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany and was prominent in London’s mid-century art scene.
As you might recall, the extensive collection of African and Oceanic art from Ernest Ohly was put up at auction by the family at Woolley and Wallis in 2011 and 2013.
And that, dealers assumed, was that.
But his children knew otherwise. In old age, he had told them he had one more sculpture. It was in a Barclays safe box and not to be sold, he specified, unless there was another Holocaust.
In 2016 matters were taken out of the children’s hands. Barclays on Park Lane was closing its safe boxes; it told customers to collect their belongings.
Woolley and Wallis were contacted for their appraisal services, and they brought in Lance Entwistle, the most experienced dealer in African art in the UK, with a talent for bringing rediscovered masterpieces to the market. The gallery advertised with the head in Tribal Art Magazine in 2016, and some of you might have seen it in their Parisian gallery at the time. However, Entwistle remembered who had bought the $4,7m Benin head sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2007 and contacted the collector – who acquired the “Ohly head” for £10m – a figure not previously disclosed (!). Obviously the heirs did not get that full sum, after the commissions for the auction house and the art dealer, surely the taxman will have taken a large chunk of it. Yet, it was still a very substantial amount.
Interestingly, from Phillips we learn more about the heir, Ohly’s daughter..
She is a grandmother, with grey close-cropped hair and glasses. She used to work in children’s nurseries, but is retired. “My family is riddled with secrets,” she said. “My father refused to speak about his Jewish ancestry.” She did her own research on relatives who were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Ernest Ohly was haunted, “paranoid”, says Frieda, by the prospect of another catastrophe engulfing the Jews.
Ernest Ohly distrusted strangers and lived in a world of cash and secret objects. He kept a suitcase of £50 notes under the bed. “Ernie the Dealer” was the family nickname. The children grew up surrounded by art. But by the end he was tired of life.
Ernest Ohly listed his buys in ledger books. That’s how Entwistle found what he was looking for: “Benin Bronze head… Dec 51, £230” from Glendining’s – a London auctioneers where he also bought coins and stamps. In today’s money, that is just over £7,000. In other words, a substantial purchase. But Ernest Ohly knew what he was doing. He had a steal. He put the head in the safe box in 1953, and it stayed there until 2016.
“It was like a lump of gold,” said Frieda. The windfall was not quite as large as it might have been. Ernest Ohly’s affairs were a mess, and the taxman took a substantial amount. Still, Frieda says, she can sleep easy now. The Benin head bought care for her family, and property for her children.
“Part of me will always feel guilty for not giving it to the Nigerians… It’s a murky past, tied up with colonialism and exploitation.” Her voice trailed off. “But that’s in the past, lots of governments aren’t stable and things have been destroyed. I’m afraid I took the decision to sell. I stand by it. I wanted my family to be secure.”
Sometimes, she said, she wished her father had sold that head when he was still alive.
A dilemma would have been taken out of her hands. “It was difficult for me,” she said again. “Part of me felt we should have given it back.” Then she was gone.
That’s quite the ethical conflict there. If you would have been in Ms. Ohly’s shoes, what would you have done? I would perhaps have suggested to use part of the sum to help build up educational infrastructure in Nigeria. Let’s not forget in 2007 history was removed from the teaching curriculum in Nigeria by the Federal Government, only to be reintroduced in 2019.
This remarkable article, in anticipation of the book, gives a fascinating inside about this art deal which’s proceedings otherwise would have stayed limited to the in-crowd of the African art trade. I wonder if Entwistle could have thought the BBC would pick up this specific story from the book. Yet, we do know that journalists always do love to focus on only the major financial transactions in the art world – think of the $69m NFT work by Beeple that sold last week and made headlines throughout the world. The focus goes to the financial wins, yet the art historical importance of the art works remains undiscussed. In my humble opinion art has been taken hostage in much larger discussions about the post-colonial guilt many Western nations face.
ps a second, almost identical, head was sold by Sotheby’s in London in 1971 (see below, with the bowl on top still complete). This specific head was acquired in Nigeria by Eugen Fischer, who had a trading company in Nigeria between 1880 and 1890. Fischer was given this head by the King of Mahin between 1880 and 1884, 13 years before the British punitive expedition. So this head is the perfect example not all Benin bronzes were looted..
There was lots of excitement in the community of African weapons collectors a couple of days ago. A small auction house in France (Dupont-Morlaix) was offering an extremely rare Gabonese throwing knife with an early provenance. In the same French family since the 1920s, this Fang knife was previously unknown and never published before. Besides the fact it was misattributed to the Nsakara, its estimate of 60-80 € created quite a fuzz before the sale. Many collectors and dealers were hoping the knife would stay under everybody’s radar. But, as we know, the era of the sleeper is long gone – especially now that everybody is spending so much time behind his/her computer at home – and the beautiful weapon was hammered down for 9300 € – with premium 12000 €, or 200 times the low estimate! Once more a confirmation that quality always makes its price, be it in small auction or a big sale. By the way, a similar knife was sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2012 for only 5000 € (info), so the excitement for a supposed sleeper sometimes indeed can generate inflated prices. A very similar throwing knife can be found in the collection of the Pitt Rivers museum and was acquired in 1899, attesting the old age of the type. It needs some cleaning, but I’m sure its new owner will be delighted with the purchase as the opportunity to find a knife like this is extremely rare.
ps thanks to Luc Lefebvre for sharing this news on the Facebook page ‘Tribal Ethnographic Weapons and Primitive Currencies’.
A blog reader was so kind to signal me the presence of two Bamana masks in the cult classic A New Leaf, directed by Elaine May (1971). Two Bamana masks from Mali can be observed in the living room of the main character, Henry Graham. Walther Matthau plays this wealthy playboy and I assume the set designers found it appropriate that such a character had African art in his living quarters!
In another comedy, À gauche en sortant de l’ascenseur (1988), the apartment of the lead actor, the shy painter Yann (played by Pierre Richard) is also packed with African art – below an Afikpo mask from Nigeria. A must see if you are in for a laugh…
While virtually visiting the 35th annual San Francisco Tribal and Textile Art online show last week, I was delighted to learn about the publication of a new book on the super cool ‘phantom’ shield of the New Guinea Highlands. Published by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney, and Jessica Lindsay Phillips of Toronto, this publication contains several essays on the subject, and a catalog section illustrating 105 examples from public and private collections. I discussed these amazing shields already on this blog in 2014, see that post here. You can order the new book online here, below the blurb:
In the second half of the twentieth century, an artistic tradition arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea of painting traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom. This derived from some seemingly inexplicable intersection of the age-old bellicose traditions of one of the most culturally remote areas of the world and twentieth-century comic book illustration, if not pop art — a phenomenon that art historian N. F. Karlins has referred to as pop tribal. The frequent text in English or in Tok Pisin on other examples — man ino save dai (man who cannot die) or man bilong pait (man of war) — only adds to the multicultural depth. Though these appear to be curiously syncretic objects to the Western eye, to the people of the Wahgi Valley they held deep meaning to the martial power of moral rectitude and the guidance of ancestral spirits.