If you need an excuse for a London trip, Frieze Masters from 15 through 19 October might be it. It was my favorite fair last year. It’s a nice walk from St. Pancras and the venue is beautifully located in Hyde Park. The offerings are very eclectic and the quality level exceptionally high. From the ca. 130 participants, Entwistle, Galerie Meyer, Donald Ellis and (new this year) Pace Primitive will be showing African, Oceanic and native American art. Across the park Frieze is featuring over 160 of the world’s leading contemporary galleries at another venue.
Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power, opening at the New York Jewish Museum on October 31, 2014, is the first museum exhibition to focus on the cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein. It will reunite much of Rubinstein’s famed collection (dispersed in 1966), including artworks by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Elie Nadelman, and Joan Miró, among others, as well as her iconic collection of African and Oceanic sculpture, miniature period rooms, jewelry, and fashion. The exhibition is organized by Mason Klein, Curator at the Jewish Museum, who also is the author of the catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition.
Helena Rubinstein (1872–1965), the great 20th-century cosmetics entrepreneur, changed the way women saw themselves, using her own remarkable life and spectacular art collections as a model. Rubinstein broke free from the constraints of her 19th-century, small-town, Polish Jewish background to become a giant of the beauty industry and an international household name. A key figure in the development of modern taste and style, she produced and marketed the means for ordinary women to assert their own individuality. Through her conception of the beauty salon as a place of modernist display, she empowered the modern woman to define herself through her choices in taste and decor.
Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power traces the path of this remarkable early feminist and visionary art patron. In Rubinstein’s world, art and commerce blended seamlessly. She ornamented her salons and homes with splendid artworks—Surrealist murals, modernist portraits, Art Deco furniture, Venetian mirrors, and one of the era’s great collections of African and Oceanic art. Her understanding of beauty was similarly expansive and democratic: she saw the face as the site for self-expression and the exploration of identity. The Rubinstein beauty program thus included not only makeup and hairdressing, but also lessons in health, deportment, and culture. Such features, innovative at the time and wildly popular, today provide a fascinating glimpse into popular culture as it affected women in the 20th century.
In African art circles, the sale of Rubinstein’s private collection, at Parke-Bernet Galleries on 21 April 1966, would prove to become an important momentum that would drive the market forward and nourished the continued growth and appreciation of African art at the time. Rubinstein still is a cherished provenance and even the auction catalogue is very sought after – and one of the most expensive doing the rounds.
Coming up February next year at the The Cleveland Museum of Art, Senufo: Art, History, and Style in West Africa will examine how individuals such as dealers, collectors and artists and the circulation of objects among continents contributed to the emergence and definition of the Senufo style as we know it. It will also examine how the creativity of artists and the sponsorship of patrons in different times and places have varied, thereby resulting in a rich, dynamic, and diverse corpus.
Artists and patrons in Korhogo and nearby Senufo communities, as well as in towns and cities peripheral to that center, have long produced visually engaging forms that do not necessarily fit within the canonical Senufo style. The exhibition will demonstrate that innovative artistic production takes place in an artistic center as well as in areas deemed peripheral to and less significant than that center.
The exhibition will reconsider previous exhibitions of Senufo art by tracing 20th-century development of the Senufo style. It will broaden the visual scope of Senufo art and explore multiple possibilities for referring to the art as “Senufo” rather than contribute to a history of efforts to fine-tune the parameters of a singular and seemingly unchanging style. Historical documentation and research conducted in the last two decades by scholars of Africa, Europe, and North America will inform the exhibition by highlighting how the art of Senufo artists and Senufo patrons vary.
The exhibition will run from February 22 to Sunday, May 31, 2015. The accompanying catalogue will be written by Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi – who did her Ph.D. on the Senufo at the University of California. The selection of objects was made by Constantine Petridis, curator of African Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Petridis himself is currently in the process of transforming his dissertation on the arts of the Luluwa into a book on the subject – something else to look forward to.
Above an interesting lecture by Hermione Waterfield, author of Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990, on ‘the people behind the lists, ledgers and labels’. Concluding with the wise words: “Provenance is not everything, but it is a fascinating subject and deserves all the obsessions that chase it”.
As anybody active in the world of African art, I’ve had my share of discussions about forgeries. An argument which often returns in many of these is the reasoning that it is not because you have never seen a certain type or style of object before, you can call it a fake. Fakers, this reasoning states, don’t invent styles, because that wouldn’t be profitable. In this view, they focus only on popular and valuable styles that will sell easily. Unfortunately, this argument is invalid. I won’t give examples from the African art world here, but do wish to share the well-documented and incredible story of the ‘Post-Pre-Colombian’ ceramicist Brigido Lara.
In July 1974, Mexican police arrested and imprisoned a group of individuals from the Gulf Coast State of Veracruz for the possession of a collection of what appeared to be looted Pre-Columbian ceramics. Though such objects have long been protected as national patrimony, the high prices they fetch in the auction houses and galleries of New York and Europe fuel a contraband traffic in antiquities. At the trial of the accused, archeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) testified that the ceramics had been taken from ancient sites in the Cempoala region, in the central part of the state of Veracruz. Convicted largely on the basis of this testimony, the individuals were sent to prison for their role in this illegal trade in looted objects.
From his cell, one of the convicted individuals, Brigído Lara, made an unusual demand. At his request, clay was brought to the jail. From within his cell Lara then proceeded to create indisputable proof of his innocence—identical reproductions of the pieces that had sent him to jail. He was not a looter at all, it turned out, but a wrongfully accused forger, an accomplished imitator of ancient styles. For the past twenty years he had been fabricating contemporary copies of ancient ceramics. Though he worked in many styles including Aztec and Mayan, his specialty was the ceramic wares of the ancient Totonac, a population that inhabited Veracruz and flourished between the seventh and twelfth centuries a.d. The replicas were taken from the jail and once again shown to the same experts from the INAH whose testimony had led to the convictions. Once again the verdict was rendered: These too were judged to be ancient pieces from Cempoala.
Read the full story here. Lara claims to have made approximately 40,000 fakes prior to his arrest. Some became part of prestigious international collections: the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton May collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and important collections in France, Australia, Spain, and Belgium all contained pieces that Lara claimed to have made. In fact, Lara may have been so prolific that he had a hand in shaping what is today understood as the classic Totonac style! As remarkable as Lara’s tale is, he’s certainly not alone and also in Africa similar practices unfortunately emerged throughout the twentieth century. As with the Lara case, some examples of these invented styles or types eventually got published and in such a way started to build credentials – complicating the discussion about their true origin.
Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) amassed two large collections of art objects during his lifetime. The first became the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. His second collection was displayed at a private museum in Farnham, Dorset during his lifetime and stayed in his family’s hands. This museum was eventually closed in the 1960s and this collection has now been dispersed. It is listed in nine beautifully illustrated volumes of a catalogue now part of the collections of Cambridge University Library. The Pitt-Rivers museum has made both the accession catalogues of their collection, as well as the above mentioned nine volumes of Pitt-Rivers’ private collection digitally available for consultation here. You can explore the pages of the catalogues by selecting a volume or by searching for a specific term using the ‘Search the volumes’ button. Most of these volumes are beautifully illustrated with detailed color drawings, accompanied by a description, the measures, the acquisition date, the price and the provenance. In other words an incredible research tool. Besides Oceanic and African art (with a focus on Benin art), these catalogues also contain art from other parts of the world. If you’re looking for a specific object, it can take a while (I did find Bulgy Eyes) – but these inventories are so interesting browsing them page by page is a pleasure to do. If you wish to learn more about the life and collections of Mr. Pitt-Rivers, do visit the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers website.
With big thanks to Marc Assayag for the tip. Sharing is caring!
There’s a lot of confusion about these two groups; Kaka works of art (schematically rendered anthropomorphic figures with an encrusted surface) are often mistakenly listed as Keaka. Since they are rather popular in today’s market, I decided to spend some time on the subject.
In 1994, Tribal Arts Magazine published a clarifying article from Pierre Harter (No. 3, September 1994: pp. 45-48), but unfortunately misattributions are still omnipresent. While scholarship points to Kaka, one German dealer/scholar’s attribution to Keaka has been causing a lot of mistakes. Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler was one of the first to publish these figures; he produced a number of books labeling these works of art Keaka. On a visit to Munich, US dealer Jim Willis questioned him and he admitted, “Jim, I just got it wrong. But once it was in my book, most people just don’t want to say Kaka”, scatological associations presumably diminishing respect and thus value (personal communication with Frederick Lamp, 9/6/10). But Schaedler surely wasn’t the only culprit, two other experts (Barry Hecht in Sieber (Roy) & Hecht (Barry), Eastern Nigerian Art from the Toby and Barry Hecht Collection, African Arts, Vol.35, No. 1, Spring 2002: pp. 56-77 and Jill Salmons in Northern (T.), Expressions of Cameroon Art: The Franklin Collection, Los Angeles, 1986: pp. 72-75) proposed a Keaka origin when describing Kaka figures. However, the Keaka and the Kaka are entirely different ethnic groups, though living not far from each other – adding up to the confusion.
The Keaka (or Eastern Ejagham) are one of the numerous Ejagham groups on the southern Nigeria-Cameroon border. They live around Ossing, near the left bank of the Cross River, with a total population number of 8000 people spread among 28 villages. The Keaka are neighboring the Banyang and to the west of the Bangwa. The Keaka, Anyang and Banyang adopted several mask types from the Ekoi groups. They consist of face masks, helmet masks, or whole figures carved in wood and covered with tanned animal skins, with a basketwork cap as the base for the dancer’s head.
The Kaka (also known as Yamba) have nothing to do with the Keaka. ‘Kaka’ is the Fulani name the Germans gave to the Mfumte, Mbem, Mbaw (Ntem) and Ntong, a cluster of about 18000 peoples living in scattered settlements (ca. 18) just south of the Donga River, on the high plateau near the Cameroon-Nigeria border. They reside south of the Mambila but are more related to their southern Tikar neighbours, with whom they share certain customs. The art of the Kaka was deeply influenced by their neighbours in the Cameroon Grassfields. Their statues and masks, like those of the Bangwa of Cameroon, are often covered with a thick, grainy curst of soot.
Also on the origin of their specific patina, there are a lot of different opinions in the literature. Some authors ascribe it to generations of ritual offerings, while others state it is an accumulation of blood sacrifices and ashes. In the trade, the explanation I’ve heard the most is that these objects were hung up to the roof of houses, where the smoke of the central ever-burning fire in time accumulated on the object, generating the observed blackish ‘smoke patina’. Should someone have any additional information on this ‘crust of soot’, please do get in touch.
Apologies for the radio silence; my excuse: the 13th annual edition of Parcours des Mondes. This year, 67, yes 67, participants, of which half from abroad, again did their utmost best to impress. More than ever, there were many curated exhibitions; often dedicated to the arts of a single culture. For example the Teke at Alain Lecomte, the Baule at Maine Durieu, the different Ekoi peoples at Alain Dufour and the Senufo at Olivier Castellano. Though from a dealer’s perspective a bit of a gamble (one excludes all collectors not interested in the culture you’re exhibiting), each of them presented an impressive and varied selection. Many other thematic exhibitions took place, 37 in total. Two personal favorites were the African jewelry show at Galerie Noir d’Ivoire and Serge Le Guennan’s musical instruments exhibition. A small, but beautiful collection of Sapi & Kissi stone figures from Sierra Leona was shown by Alain Bovis – a type of art still unrightfully underappreciated in my humble opinion. On a different level, Arte Y Ritual presented a selection of objects they sold in the last 30 years, many of them well established masterpieces; maybe even too much of them to fill a single room. It was a bit crowded, but the quality level was unsurpassed. Anyhow, I returned so many times that a week later I still have the piano-loop that was playing continuously in the background in my head. Across the street, as a first time participant, Martin Doustar made quite the introduction with his skull exhibition. All these ancestors from all over the world concentrated in one gallery was a very powerful and unique experience. Apparently the show took four years to make, and one could tell. You can download a preview of the catalogue here. Clearly, a dealer to keep an eye on. However, I was happy that not everybody had organized a thematic exhibition. While very didactic, it’s still fun to enter galleries with no idea whatsoever about what you’re about to see. Discovery remains key, as is the excitement of seeing an unknown object for the very first time. For many foreign collectors Parcours des Mondes has become an annual tradition; being the only time a year they visit the Parisian galleries. In so much there’s this festive atmosphere, this year helped by the wonderful weather. One runs into old and new friends from all over the world and stories and gossip are shared over coffee, lunch or dinner in the beautiful surroundings of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Each visitor has its own background and life at home, but in Paris we’re all the same passionate aficionados of tribal art. For me, it’s this temporary microcosmos that Parcours creates which makes it such a successful event – where else in the world can you discuss with random strangers how that one Bamana boli figure left you speechless…
ps The New York Times’ Scott Reyburn also wrote an interesting review, you can read it here.
Update: another review (discussing sales & Cafe Tribal – a praiseworthy initiative I unfortunately failed to attend due to a busy schedule).
Ben Hall recently found the above interior photo on a Brighton flea market. Talking about a room full of treasures. It appears to be a rare picture of the interior of George W. Neville’s house in Weybridge. Neville (1852-1929) worked for Elder Dempster, a shipping company, in Lagos. After his death, Neville’s collection (128 objects big) was sold by Foster in London on 1 May 1930, the auction was titled Highly Important Bronzes, Ivory & Wood Carvings from the Walled City of Benin, West Africa (G.W. Neville Collection from Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897).
So, where are these objects now ? The pair of Benin bronze leopards are in the National Museum in Lagos, Nigera. They were bought by Charles Ratton in the 1930 auction. Louis Carré acquired them from Ratton after the famous exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1935 and in 1952 they were bought for the new National Museum in Lagos. The plaque with the two Portuguese soldiers is currently in the Musée du quai Branly (#70.2002.4.1) in Paris after passing through a number of hands (Ratton, Carré, Pleven) since Neville owned it. Lastly, the bronze altar between the leopards is in the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles (X65-9088), having been given to them by the Wellcome Institute.
With thanks to Ben Hall, Tim Teuten, Hermione Waterfield and Susan Kloman for the excellent sleuthing – remember this picture came without any contextual information. Still unaccounted for are the big head on the windowsill on the left, the Benin plaque with the bird, the two hip ornaments on the chimney, the ivory tusk and the Yoruba stool.
The catalogue of Parcours des Mondes is online; you can find it here. This edition has a lot of side activities: apart from the usual signature sessions at Librairie Fischbacher (among others, Heinrich Schweizer’s book on the Malcolm collection will be presented), there are multiple lectures under the header ‘Café Tribal’. Read all about them here – there will even be a performance of a Guro zahouli mask! At the Grand Palais, it’s also the 27th edition of the Biennale des Antiquaires. Bernard Dulon & Didier Claes will both be exhibiting at this prestigious venue – Bernard de Grunne will also be showing a small selection at the stand of Dominique Levy. Lastly there are previews of the upcoming auctions of Christie’s and Sotheby’s NY, as well as the sale of the Frum collection at Sotheby’s.