Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ethnographic Museum Antwerp Collection Online UPDATE

Mbole figure. Height:  cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (# AE.0673).

Mbole figure. Height: 69,5 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (# AE.0673).

As previously reported here, the Antwerp MAS – Museum aan de Stroom, which holds the collection of the former Ethnographic Museum, recently launched their online collection database (which can be browsed here). Thanks to the efforts of Els De Palmenaer (keeper of the Africa collections), the provenance and acquisition date are now also visible ! This is quite helpful when establishing a terminus ante quem for the creation date of a specific object. While viewing an object entry you can click on ‘Extended display’ in the left tab to show both data fields. The Mbole figure above, for example, was acquired from Henri Pareyn, together with seven other Mbole figures, on 13 April 1920.

The Ross Archive of African Images (1590 – 1920)

Ross Archive of African Images 1590 - 1920

Whenever I begin with a new study, I always start my research with a search in the Ross Archive of African Images. It contains approximately 5000 pictures of African art published before 1921 and is thus an ideal tool to discover if a particular object type was known before this date and if so when & where the first examples were ever published. This archive aspires to include all the figurative African objects in books, periodicals, catalogues, newspapers, and other publications appearing in 1920 and earlier from the James J. Ross library – the oldest dates to 1590. It does not include postcards or pamphlets of limited distribution, and focuses exclusively on figurative art. A fantastic plus of this database is the inclusion of the original captions & relevant text, both in the original language and translated. Since many of the listed publications are very hard to get, it makes a researcher’s life much easier. To make it even better, multiple scholars have often made additional interesting comments. All images are downloadable in high resolution scans and users can contribute to the database by sending in comments. And, it’s available for free ! In other words, a website definitely worth a visit – you can find it here.

The Mangbetu in 3D

Chef Magbate from the Magoka with his shields and bundles of lances. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Chef Magbate from the Magoka with his shields and bundles of lances. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

If you’re in the possession of 3D red/blue glasses, now is the time to put them on. In 2003, the American Museum of Natural History digitized a sample from the approximately 1500 stereoscopic negatives produced by Herbert Lang during his six-year stay among the Mangbetu hundred years ago. The original glass plate negatives featured two side-by-side images made by a stereo camera (one for the right eye and one for the left). For more information about the conversion into anaglyph form click here. You can browse the gallery here.

Isumba mulimu, aerophones from the Pere and Nande

From left to right: MAS - Antwerp (AE.1956.00024), MRAC - Tervuren (EO.0.0.35476), Private Collection, MRAC - Tervuren, MRAC - Tervuren. All MRAC aerophones collected in the Batangi Chiefdom (Nande), by A. Jacob, before 1934 and donated to the MRAC in April 1934 by R. Hoffmann.

From left to right: Collection MAS – Antwerp (AE.1956.00024), MRAC – Tervuren (EO.0.0.35476), Private Collection, MRAC – Tervuren, MRAC – Tervuren. All 3 MRAC aerophones collected in the Batangi Chiefdom (Nande) by A. Jacob before 1934 and donated to the MRAC in April 1934 by R. Hoffmann.

Two years ago I did a study on these amazing but enigmatic objects from the Eastern Congo. Biebuyck placed these instruments within a Pere context; according to Julien Volper they also could be found among the Nande. The exact use and meaning of these famous ‘trumpets’ remains unknown. According to Hoffman these wind instruments fall within the category of isumba, and are found among the Tangi subgroup of the Nande (under the names mulimu, kanyamakende and kazoni). They are generically called mulimu and have specific names derived from the place and the manner in which they are carved. During the initiation, the structure of the trumpet and the meaning of the sounds it produces were explained and interpreted. Those initiated to its secret received special scarifications on the belly or upper arm, which were assumed to be the marks of mulimu. The incised designs on the trumpets themselves resemble these tattoos. Biebuyck believes that they are related to the anthropozoomorphic musical instruments of the Nyanga (called mumbira), and connected with the Pygmy molimo-initiations. In almost all literature they are defined as trumpets, though they should be classified as a different category of aerophane or wind instrument, producing a various scope of sounds with the vibrating air contained within the instrument.

Similar to the Nyanga’s mumbira the possible connections between sculptural form and semantics of this Pere or Nande aerophone are not clear. We can postulate that this complex sculptural form is constitued of a conglomerate of several abstractions derived from the surrounding fauna and flora. The exact nature of this form will probably remain unknown forever. Analogous with the mumbira it will have been the central object of a male initiation.This unusual and mysterious object became the sacred and distinctive patrimony of a specific group of initiated men. It success might explain the existence of several examples. As an initiation object, it probably helped to consolidate the bonds between a kinship group and could remedy disease, infertility, lack of hunting success, and other misfortunes. It was a secret object used during the initiation and its appearence (and, in some cases, audition) included the learning of symbolic interpretations. The strange forms of the trumpet evoked the mysterious, the unlikely, the indescribable and unpredictable aspect of the forest; they formed a symbolic system that aimed at presenting the initiates with an ambiguous, complex, somewhat undefinable being. During the initiation an expert singer murmured, hummed, sung and talked into the aerophone while he or his helpers created with cupped hands various sound effects from the circular aperture which was used as a sound box. Analogous with the Mbuti Pymies’ molimo horn and Nyanga’s mumbira, sounds of different animals, as well as natural sounds, were reproduced to restore and/or maintain the good will of the forces of the forest. The object thus acted as a mediator in the process of reconciliation between men and nature, as a means to preserve and restore their harmonious relation.

The open middle part has never been properly explained by scholars. There have been speculations about an iconographic link with an animal. Since the tube is not in correspondence with the open space, there is no technical explanation for it. The symbolic is very important in the isumba initiation. We know that unusual objects found in the natural environment were used as initiation objects and the preferential secret (and sacred) patrimony of associations. A wild guess might be that it represents two crabs during an act of love or rage..

Enigmatic middle part Nande aerophone

Field-photo of the day: Djabbir warriors, 1894

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.

A well-armed group of warriors in front of a hut in Djabbir featuring a very interesting variety of shields. This pictures was made by Strauss Meulemans and shown at the Antwerp World Expo in 1894. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find more information about this Mr. Meulemans (yet); he was a good photographer, that’s for sure. The picture of the proud chief below is absolutely stunning; it’s rare to find a field-photo featuring an execution knife of this type by the way. For 33 other Meulemans field-photo’s, search with the query “Meulemans; Strauss” on the Memory of the Netherlands website here. These pictures are part of the image collection Photographed on behalf of science; exotic people between 1860 and 1920 of the National Museum of Ethnology (Leiden, The Netherlands), more information here.

I was very happy to discover a picture I have loved since a long time which was actually one of the first posts on this site (see here); now I finally know its origin.

ps apologies for the lack of service these last weeks, I was rather busy due to the Winter Bruneaf, BRAFA and the Native and Lempertz sales.

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.