Andre Breton’s Guro mask (previously discussed here) did very well last Wednesday in Paris. Estimated at € 100.000-150.000 it sold for € 1.375.000,- (costs included) – a world record for a work of art of the Guro. Apparently, this mask was found in an estate in the South of France; that’s how it ended up at Tajan. The idea of having an auction especially for this mask definitely payed off. I think this was the first single-object sale in the African art world ever – and maybe not the last? The well written text by Bertrand Goy certainly helped, but it was of course the western segment of this mask’s history that skyrocketed the price. But even without it’s provenance, it is a gem of an object.
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.
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.
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.
The above object, possibly a ritual double spoon, reportedly comes from Congo. Where exactly is unknown to me. If you have already seen an object like this before, or have more information about its origin, please do get in touch! Thanks.
UPDATE: a reader has suggested Kuba as the origin of this double spoon. Personally, I have seen similar fixation twigs on Kuba cups, so he could be right.
UPDATE 2: I got a very interesting reply from Boris Kegel-Konietzko from Hamburg.
Dear Bruno, in 1955-1956 I traveled in the Mweka territory (Kasai) and neighboring areas to collect ethnographic objects. I had very good relations with the Kuba living there and was able to collect many boxes, cups, pipes, textiles and masks of various types. Many of the smaller utensils were provided with a a similar suspension device as the object shown here: liana fibers (lukodi) and a kind of flat-curved hook made from a palm rib. With this hook, objects could be attached to the hut wand, out of reach of mouses. This type of suspension is typically Kuba.
I don’t think this object is a spoon. Since one half would be spilled, when filling the other half. In my opinion this is a ceremonial dinner dish, which could have served as the double drinking cups for simultaneous use by two people during ceremonies.
That solves the mystery !
In the emerging world of presenting collections digitally, the Pitt Rivers Museum sits at the forefront. Once again, it has created a wonderful website, highlighting an important part of their holdings. This website is designed to provide researchers and the general public with access to all the information that the Pitt Rivers Museum holds about the objects in its care that were collected on the famous Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook (1728–1779). At its heart is a searchable catalogue that links to the relevant records in the Museum’s extensive online database. If you have an interest in one of the world’s greatest collections of eighteenth-century Pacific art and material culture, this is a must visit.
Two cultural heritage related news items emerged from Nigeria this month. Firstly, this article discusses the poor current state of three Nigerian museums. The title: Museums: Rotting Away Across The States unfortunately sums it all up. The National Museum Onikan in Lagos for example cannot boast of optimum maintenance and grapples with the issue of power supply.
Anytime there is power outage, visitors to the museum are asked to just hang around and view the cultural antiquities in the quadrangle while they wait for power to be restored at an uncertain time. When asked if there was no alternative power source to power the museum, a staff manning one of the galleries said “the operator of the generator was not around.” However, another staff debunked him, saying “the museum has no generator.” According to the curator of the National Museum, Lagos, Mrs Edith Ekunke, there are other challenges being faced by the National Museum which has pegged its optimal functionality, especially funding.
The Ford Foundation’s $2 million gift to the museum in 2009 (info) apparently didn’t help.
More positive is another news item (info), which reported that Mark Walker, great-grandson of Captain Philip Walker, who took part in the Benin punitive expedition in 1897, is returning two antique Benin bronze works in his possession later this month. Unfortunately the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the palace of the Oba of Benin are currently fighting over who can host the reception later this month, read more about it here. Mr. Walker is also bringing with him a replica of the war diary which his great grandfather kept during the expedition. I couldn’t find pictures of the two objects that will be returned; do get in touch if you can.
UPDATE: In the meantime the two objects were returned, read more about it here.
Subject of an upcoming single-object auction, the above Guro mask might so far be one of the most important rediscoveries of 2014. It was published only once, by Nancy Cunard, in Negro: Anthology (London, 1934, p. 663). This rare book recently was the subject of an exhibition at the quai Branly museum (info). Formerly in the collections of André Breton & Charles Ratton, this mask disappeared from the public eye since 1931. It’s reappearance on the market, after being ‘lost’ for more than 80 years, is thus quite an exciting event. You can read all about the mask in the catalogue here. The text by Bertrand Goy includes a very interesting paragraph (in French) on the Guro, the history of their discovery and this master carver.
As icing on the cake, this mask is visible on two photos taken in the apartment of André Breton, rue Fontaine, ca. 1924 and ca. 1927.
UPDATE: this mask was sold for € 1.375.000,- !
Crowned by a lovingly embracing couple, this mask can be attributed to the so-called ‘Master of Bouaflé’. The choice of this village for naming this talented sculptor happened quite arbitrary apparently. Bouaflé or Buafle is a town in the southeastern part of the Guro territory, close to the Yaure border. However, it’s not sure that this artist, active prior to 1920, ever lived there. Though many works of this ‘master’ are known, only one other mask of this specific type exists. Housed at the Yale University Art Gallery, it is however difficult to attribute this mask definitely to the same artist since it lacks the same refinement and is partly repainted.
UPDATE: now also with video..
The history of art is the history of what survives. One can only wonder of all the marvels that went lost. The above illustration, made in Sogno in the Kingdom of Kongo in the 1740s, illustrates how early the destruction of the so-called African idols started. Written and illustrated by Bernardino Ignazio di Vezza d’Asti in about 1750, this vignette was published in an early manual for Capuchin missionaries (Missione in prattica: Padri cappucini ne Regni di Congo, Angola, et adiacenti). Two other images of this manuscript are published in the exhibition catalogue of Kongo across the Waters (pp. 32-33).