19th century Kongo tourist art: the “Banana atelier”

Early Kongo Tourist Art Bassani

Continuing on the theme of an earlier post about a Loango market stall with Kongo-derived art for tourists, a reader informed me about an interesting article by Ezio Bassani in African Arts (vol. 12, 1979: pp. 34-35). It discusses seven figures in the collection of the Museo Civici, Reggio Emilia. They belonged to a larger group of ethnographic objects assembled by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Corona in 1887 near the mouth of the Congo River. These objects, stored in Antwerp, were bought on the basis of photographs, and later declared unsatisfactory by their buyer, Luigi Pigorini, founder and director of the Museo Pigorini in Rome. Bassani unveiled a letter dated July 12, 1889, where Pigorini asked the Minister of Public Instruction to interrupt negotiations on the museum’s behalf and oblige the seller to either refund expenses or reduce the price that had been fixed for the acquisition. Pigorini stated the situation as follows:

Since there was no possibility of examining the collection before we agreed to buy it, when asked whether I considered it suitable to acquire it for the museum I direct, I answered in the affirmative, on the condition, of course, that we receive all the objects documented by the photographs presented by the Cav. Corona, and on condition that each object bear unequivocal signs of having been used by the natives from whom it originated, thus excluding the possibility that it [the collection] might consist of materials produced along the coast to be sold to those who hunt for curios … Of such objects, which the Cav. Corona had guaranteed the number given and the condition of having been used, only a few reached us, or the items appear utterly new.

Clearly, already in 1889, signs of ritual usage were considered an important element to consider an object authentic. The seven figures illustrated in the article (shown above) were most likely made by the same anonymous sculptor. Most of the figures appear to represent Europeans. Bassani rightfully concludes that this artist must have worked on order, creating sculptures for sale to foreign sailors and travelers. Even in the 1880s, the production of objects “to be sold to those who hunt for curios” was already flourishing along the African coast.

Figures in this easily recognizable style sometimes pop up at auction, for example recently at Zemanek-Münster here or at Neumeister here (all three illustrated below).

Image courtesy of Neumeister (left figure) and Zemanek-Münster (middle and right figure).

Image courtesy of Neumeister (left figure) and Zemanek-Münster (middle and right figure).

Since J. F. G. Umlauff acquired another figure by this sculptor in Banana (illustrated below) , it’s likely this sculptor was based at this important port on the Kongo coast. The “Banana atelier” therefore seems an appropriate name to label his production.

Image courtesy of the Penn Museum. Figure purchased from Umlauff. (#AF1338)

Image courtesy of the Penn Museum. (#AF1338)

To finish, a letter from Romolo Gessi, an Italian explorer who traveled in the southern Sudan in 1874-1880, quoted by Bassani, which illustrates the liveliness of the hunt for African “objects” on the part of explorers and merchants. In a letter, dated October 21, 1876, to a friend in Cairo, Gessi wrote:

You suggest that I should bring you curiosities. Is there a good market for them in Cairo? I made a collection but it is still incomplete. It is very difficult to find these objects. Everybody here wants to buy them, and the prices have been spoiled, especially by Englishmen who pay for this rubbish at its weight in gold. There are also many Greeks, Jews, etc. who buy up everything. I have sent orders to the chiefs of our military stations to find objects. There is a Russian doctor* here who for 20,000 francs, has already bought utensils, lances, arrows, etc. from the savages. You will easily understand that I cannot rival the prices offered by these people, who are ready to pay whatever price is demanded so as not to return to Europe without a collection. Therefore, let me know whether it is possible to sell these objects at a good price in Cairo because, believe me, it is difficult to find any.

* This was W. Yunker, the Russian explorer, whose collection is one of the oldest and important in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Academy of Sciences, Leningrad.