Featured in the upcoming Zemanek-Münster auction on 22 March, this spectacular Mongo drum (lot 579) is one of my personal highlights from the sale. 121 cm high, the upper and lower part are carved in steps, a typical feature of these drums. The interplay between the black and white planes enforces the geometric character of this drum substantially. It was published in Belgium collects African art (p. 290), while being in the Damian Reeners collection. I only know a handful other drums like this. This example is an excellent condition for its age.
“Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World” features 12 limestone cult masks from the Neolithic Age. These 9,000-year-old masks, found in the Judean Desert and Hills, will be on display from March 11 until September 13 in the Israel Museum’s archaeology wing in Jerusalem. The exhibition concludes a decade of investigative work and marks the first time that this enigmatic group will be displayed together in their place of origin. Read more about them here.
Weighing in at one or two kilograms apiece, each of the artifacts represents a oval visage with glaring ocular cavities, toothy maws, and a set of holes along the outer edge. They were likely painted in antiquity, but only one has remnants of pigment. Each of the 12 is unique, and possibly depicts individuals. Some of the faces are old, others appear younger. One is a miniature, the size of a brooch. They may represent ancestors venerated as part of an early Stone Age religion.
“Other groups likely made other masks from other materials that did not withstand the test of time”, said Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum, who organized the exhibit. These fortunate few were made of stone and were preserved in the arid desert climate.
The history of art, is the history of what survives. Especially in Africa, we can only wonder about the masks that once existed.
“It’s not what you say, but how you say it” has always been a popular marketing phrase. One dealer who’s very aware of this, is the Brussels based Didier Claes. Today, I received the catalogue for his exhibition at TEFAF. It was packaged in a very fancy black bubble wrap envelope. Once again, Claes is raising the bar for his fellow dealers. Participating as a full member of Tefaf for the first time*, a statement had to be made of course. Inserted in a luxurious slipcase, the catalogue presents 24 carefully selected objects – my favourite being the superb Luba caryatid stool illustrated below. Talking about Tefaf-quality! The book features texts by Agnès Lacaille, Marc L. Felix, François Neyt, Manuel Jordan, Louis Perrois and yours truly.
*In 2008, he had already participated as part of Tefaf’s showcase program.
UPDATE: you can download the French edition of the catalogue here.
Everybody knows the classic icons and masterpieces of African art by now; which makes an encounter with an object that doesn’t belong to this canon just yet always very captivating. The moment I saw the above object for the first time a couple of years ago, I could not take my eyes of it. It doesn’t matter how much (or less) one knows about the art of the Fon, the strength that radiates from this piece is mesmerizing. The two raised naturalistic hands parallel to the shaft of the miniature recade, with its top raising above the scene, is a stroke of genius. Measuring 18,5 cm, this 19th century brass element once decorated an asen, a Fon altar dedicated to the ancestors. It was placed on a circular metal tray raised on a pick (now lost). The form of the scepter seen between the two hands refers to the hammer and anvil which symbolize King Guezo (1818-1858). This piece comes from King Glele’s descendants. The brass was probably manufactured by the Hountondji family of blacksmiths who worked exclusively for the royal court of Abomey. This object was featured in Serge Schoffel’s Fon exhibition during the last Brafa in Brussels (info); it came from the private collection of Ann De Pauw and Luc Huysveld (Amma Tribal Art, Antwerp) and is also featured in the exhibition’s catalogue.
I just discovered the trailer of a documentary I have been wanting to see for a long time*. You can watch it here. Fang: An Epic Journey, a film by Susan Vogel, recounts a Fang figure’s journey through a century of peril and adventure, and uses the film styles of each historical period to tell its story – a whole century of Western attitudes towards African culture packed into 8 minutes. A fantastic idea if you ask me. Much more information can be found in the illustrated dvd booklet, free to download here – which also features the notes of an interesting roundtable discussion on the subject.
* The DVD is still for sale here, but priced slightly above my budget.
ps the featured “Fang” figure is currently in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery (info).
A nice slide show, compiled by Marco Barina and clearly inspired by Rubin’s magnus opus Primitivism, showcasing the metamorphoses of the human face and body from the most varied cultures through art history. View it here.
This long, long journey back in time begins with Lucy, the first hominid whose remains are preserved at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Our journey from the remotest of times to the present day begins from this “primary” image. Through sudden leaps that juxtapose distant epochs and civilizations, the forms in which human beings depict themselves reveal immediate yet “mysterious” resonances…
Normally, I’m not a big fan of contemporary art influenced by traditional African art, but for the work of the Dutch artist Ingrid Baars I’m willing to make an exception. Instead of just borrowing examples of the many genious African plastic solutions, Baars succeeds in going a step further. Pushing the envelope, she superimposes fragments of masks, heads and figures with beautiful African women and many other subtle details and surfaces. A couple of her works, clearly inspired by the art of the Fang, are of an utmost beauty. In other works wood flows into skin in such a graceful way they become one. A catalogue documenting this ongoing series recently has been published, you can order it via her website here (where you can also find many other works of this series). An artist to keep an eye on.