Object of the day: a Luba-Shankadi headrest of the “Master of the Cascade Coiffures”

Luba-Shankadi headrest Master of the Cascade Coiffures Blum

One of the highlights of the upcoming Christie’s sale is the above Luba-Shankadi headrest from the Blum collection. Rudolf and Leonore Blum acquired it 19 years ago (on 4 May 1995) at Sotheby’s New York for $ 46,000. Now, this beautiful headrest is estimated at € 200,000-300,000 – which is a rather low estimate, especially if you know that Sotheby’s sold a similar headrest for € 1,524,000 in 2006 (info) and another example of this workshop in 2005 for € 1,356,000.

Ezio Bassani wrote an interesting note on this lot in the catalogue:

My first encounter with the work of this sculptor goes back to more than forty years ago, to the mid-seventies, when I compiled the catalogue of African sculpture in Italian museums[1]. In the Museo di Antropologia ed Etnografia in Florence, I began to study a headrest created by a great miniaturist[2]. It was accessioned in 1902, and had been collected the previous year (according to the record of the Florentine institution) in the village of Kicondja on Lake Kisale, by Ernesto Brissoni, Italian member of the Force Public in the, then Belgian, Congo colony.

The offered Blum headrest is part of a small group of works to whom William Fagg and Margaret Plass, when studying one of these headrests in 1964, gave the name of “Master of the Cascade Coiffures”[3], justified by the monumental coiffure with two enormous wings of supreme elegance, which enrich and crown each of its figures. This element, apparently spectacular when seen in reality, was well-noted by the European explorers, who travelled the Western Congolese regions in the nineteenth-century.

Today the headrests attributed to a limited group of great artists – no more than three or four – working in the small kingdom of Kinkondja, according to the localization by François Neyt[4], are eighteen: eleven with a single caryatid; one with a human being riding an animal with very long body and horns (a sort of goat according to Neyt); six headrests with two face-to-face caryatids; four as the previous ones, and two with different coiffures: one in the cascade shape and the other cruciform fret-worked, a typology which relates to the Hemba, eastern neighbours of the Luba.

This last work, put on sale for the first time, by Sotheby’s of New York, on 4th May 1995, was collected, according to the information supplied by the owner, by his father in 1907, a year which places the piece in the period of acquisition of the group of documented headrests: Florence 1901, Berlin 1904, Philadelphia (exhibited) 1908, Bulawayo 1910, London 1913. A legend under the base of the carving reads: “Repose nuque – pour preserver la coiffure identique celle de l’objet – pice rare”, i.e. “Headrest – to save the hairdress identical to that of the object – rare piece”.

1 Bassani 1977.
2 Inv: n 8312
3 W.Fagg and M. Plass 1964, p. 88.
4 Neyt 1993, p. 177-187.

Bibliography

Bassani E., Il maestro delle capigliagture a cascata, “Critica d’Arte”, 1976, fasc: n 148-149, p.75-87.
Bassani E., Africa – capolavori da un continente, Firenze 2003.
De Maret P., Dery M., Murdoch C., The Luba Shankady Style, “African Arts”, 1973, vol VII, n 1, note p. 88.
Fagg W. and Plass M., African Sculpture, London 1964.
Neyt F., Luba – Aux sources du Zaire, Paris 1993.

Below a rare field-photo showing the aforementioned ‘cascade coiffure’.

The Luba-Shankadi hairstyle in the village of N'Gobo. Photographed by François Léopold Michel in 1899. Image courtesy of RMCA, AP.0.0.1227).

The Luba-Shankadi hairstyle in the village of N’Gobo. Photographed by François Léopold Michel in 1899. Image courtesy of RMCA, AP.0.0.1227).