Monthly Archives: October 2014

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (George Schwab, 1947)

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (1947) Harley Schwab

Another important book that is freely available online (here), Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland presents the ethnological results of the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum’s expedition to Liberia which George Schwab (a missionary and amateur anthropologist) undertook, together with his wife, in 1928, partly to make observations about missionary work and its effects, and on the survival of various elements of the indigenous cultures. Much of the material was gathered before by the editor and coauthor, Dr. George W. Harley, medical missionary for over twenty years in Ganta in Northern Liberia (which is Mano territory). The regions surveyed were Northern and Southeast Liberia, especially the Gbunde, Loma or Toma, Mano, Dan and Grebo. The book presents an enormous wealth of data on these peoples. The 526 pages discuss: village and village life; agriculture and time reckoning; domestic animals; fishing, trapping and hunting; food, drinks and narcotics; dress, adornment, and hygiene; handicrafts and utensils; music, dancing and games; social organization and trade; childhood and child training; war and weapons; death and burial customs; religion (cults and metaphysical concepts); divination, oracles, and science; local law; proverbs, riddles, and folk talkes, and character traits. At the end of the book there are 111 figures, including many beautiful field-photo’s and numerous images of objects of daily use (which you rarely see in publications due to their limited commercial value). Written by missionaries, there is of course a strong bias; although regrettable it doesn’t harm this publication immense value if you want to learn something about the people of the Liberian Hinterland.

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Peabody expedition Liberia route

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Dan bracelets anklets brass

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Dan drums Schwab Harley Peabody

Book tip: “Nok – African Sculpture in Archaeological Context”

Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context Goethe University Nigiera

One year ago, I wrote about the exhibition Nok. Origin of African Sculpture  at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt. The accompanying book presented the discoveries of a team of archaeologists from the Goethe University (Frankfurt/Main), who have been researching the Nok culture in situ since 2005 – unfortunately it was only published in German. A reader just informed me that the catalogue now has been translated into English (available here). In case you’re interested in the terracotta figures from the Nok this is a must read. 

Image courtesy of the Goethe University Frankfurt.

Image courtesy of the Goethe University Frankfurt.

Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.8206).

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.8206).

I’m currently obsessed with Benin plaques, so I thought I share one of my favorites. The above example, in the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, was attributed by William Fagg to the ‘Master of the Leopard Hunt’. It’s one of the seven known brass plaques which appear to be by this artist, certainly one of the greatest of Benin bronze casters. His works are free from the rather unimaginative rigidity of the great majority of the plaques, and this fragmentary scene of a Bini shooting at an ibis in the tree is often considered the most beautiful plaque of all. While most of the known Benin plaques show recurrent scenes of ritual, the work of the Master of the Leopard Hunt always depicts unique events, represented with a free sense of composition.

a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt Nigeria

This ‘master’ got his name thanks to another plaque in the same museum, illustrated below, featuring a hunting party and two leopards – which is however less three dimensional. The Oba alone was allowed to slay leopards during his ritual duties. Leopards would be captured as cubs to be raised within the palace and so tamed in preparation for their immolation by the king.

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.27485).

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.27485).

A third plaque from this artist show two Edo men harvesting fluted pumpkins – extremely unusual in subject matter. The two men’s dress is not that of farmers; their pot-like helmets mark palace officials. This complex plaque likely records a harvest for sacrificial reasons. In Benin this pumpkin type is equated with good things – success, unity and longevity – and is a standard sacrifice to two deities, the high god Osanobua and his son Olokun, god of the sea and wealth. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a rare container in its collection in the shape of such a gourd.

Image courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany.

Image courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany.

One element that these three plaques have in common is that they all depict actions: an archer aiming at a bird in a tree or palace officials catching leopards or garnering fruits. Together with the three-quarter view and the reference to an environment, this feature is alien to most African art and probably the result of a highly creative mind who dared to experiment with the standard prototype of the human-centered plaques.



The postcards of Jean Audema

Jean Audema postcard Vili diviner Kongo

The above postcard featuring a Vili diviner holding a statue and accompanied by two musicians is well known. It’s photographer, Jean François Audema (1864-1921), who joined the French colonial service in 1894, made numerous photos in Gabon, Congo and Tchad between 1894 and 1912. The National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives has made these precious time-documents available online here (ca. 150 images). If you wish to learn more about Audema and his photographs: Christraud Geary gives a short assessment of his work held by the Smithsonian in In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960 (London, 2002) and David MacDougall dedicates a chapter to the man in The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Jean Audema postcard Fang woman choker

Jean Audema postcard Ubangi warriors

Jean Audema postcard Yakoma village Congo

A preview of the renovated Musée Picasso (Paris)

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 1

The Picasso Museum in Paris reopens this Saturday, on 25 October (Picasso’s birthday), having been closed since 2009. The renovation, which cost about 52 million euros, has tripled the size of the exhibition space over five floors, making it more accessible to what is expected to be up to one million visitors per year. The museum houses an over-5,000 piece collection of paintings, sculptures and prints, as well as Picasso’s personal archives. The new installation looks fantastic and several African and Oceanic objects from Picasso’s collection are exhibited, a preview…

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 2

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 3

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 4

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 5

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 7

Picasso Museum Paris African and Oceanic Art 8

Exhibition tip: El Anatsui’s “Trains of Thought” at Jack Shainman Gallery (NY)

Image courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Image courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

In case you’re in New York early November for Sotheby’s sale of the Kunin collection, you might want to visit Chelsea to see some contemporary African art too. Jack Shainman Gallery on 24 Street currently is exhibiting new works of El Anatsui (info). His previous show at Shainman was mesmerizing (and nearly sold out). In 2012, Bonhams London achieved a world record for this Ghanaian artist (working in Nigeria), when they sold a similar woven tapestry for $ 850,544 (info) – making him one of the most successful African artists. He was also honored with a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum last year. Susan Vogel recently published an excellent book on the man and also produced an interesting documentary about his studio – see the trailer below.

The new Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève – opening 31 October 2014

Image by B. Glauser. Courtesy of the MEG.

Image by B. Glauser. Courtesy of the MEG.

The new Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) in Switzerland is opening at the end of this month. The old cramped museum closed its doors in September 2010. The new building (shown above), designed by architects Graber Pulver, will be inaugurated on October 31, 2014. About a thousand objects from the MEG’s permanent collection will be shown in seven main sections: a historical introduction, a separate section for each continent, and one devoted to ethnomusicology. The Autumn edition of Tribal Art Magazine features an interesting overview of the museum’s holdings by Boris Wastiau, the museum’s director (no. 73, pp. 76-85). You can read about all planned festivities here. My favorite Syrian wedding singer, Omar Souleyman, will be performing too.

Sotheby’s “In Pursuit of Beauty: The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art” catalogue online

Senufo figure (lot 48). Height: 92 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Senufo figure (lot 48). Height: 92 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The long anticipated catalogue of Sotheby’s sale of the Myron Kunin collection is now available online here. For the occasion, Sotheby’s also has created two short videos, discussing both the man as his collection; you can view them here. The pre-sale exhibition opens in New York on 8 November; the sale is on 11 November 2014.

Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

Image courtesy of Bruno Claessens.

These enigmatic U-shaped pieces of copper currency were made by Nkutshu blacksmiths for their monetary system. They also traded them with their neighbors, the Basongo Meno, a group of Mongo origin. The Nkutshu called them Konga or Kunga; among the Basongo Meno they were known as Boloko or Okano. The aforementioned considered them important objects and used them both in dowry payments and in the purchase of slaves and big animals. Alfred Mahieu specified their value in Numismatique du Congo 1485-1924 (Brussels, 1924):

  • 1 boloko bought a billy goat,
  • 2 boloko bought one goat or a man slave,
  • 3 boloko were worth a female slave,
  • 10 boloko constituted a normal dowry for a wife.

I found mine on Ebay for much less. The above information is quoted from Roberto Ballarini’s encyclopedic book on African currency, The Perfect Form; with its 415 pages a must have if you’re interested in the subject. These currencies were very rare in the West until the eighties; but with patience and a little luck you can find them at a double-digit price these days – a good example that even on a budget it’s possible to collect authentic African art. Dating these is impossible, but they could be much older than we think – the copper’s surface is amazing up close. Their simple form makes these objects very decorative. Most often they are placed on a base, with the open side upwards. But placing them upside down – which is only possible if the circles on the end are flat and the currency itself isn’t warped – presents a whole new dimension to the objects.

Book review: Claude-Henri Pirat’s “Du Fleuve Niger Au Fleuve Congo – Une Aventure Africaine” (2014)

Claude-Henri Pirat Du Fleuve Niger Au Fleuve Congo - Une aventure africaine (2014)

One the most entertaining reads of the year so far has been Claude-Henri Pirat’s Du Fleuve Niger Au Fleuve Congo – Une aventure africaine (Primedia, 2014). In this book, Pirat presents his private collection and in a honest way shares his journey as a collector. This 320 pages book is published in French, with a translation at the end in English. Printed on a rather big format (35x25cm), it is richly illustrated throughout with b/w images (made by Pirat himself) of both the objects that he once owned as the present contents of his collection – which is excellent. Pirat tells of his early years as a collector and shares the stories of his numerous travels to the African continent, including many beautiful field-photo’s taken during these trips. What makes this book especially worth a read are the authors’ personal reflections on the art market and its actors (Philippe Guimiot and especially Pierre Dartevelle are covered in detail), of the museums (with big sections on the entrance of the arts of Africa into the Louvre and on the opening of the quai Branly), and of some of the great questions that have been and still are under debate in this field – such as the trade in the Niger Valley’s archeological heritage. Pirat makes several interesting statements, and (praiseworthy) even offers a well-argued pragmatic solution for the current situation. I found it a very stimulating text, offering a well-written and personal perspective on the last 40 years of the African art market in all its aspects – something you rarely encounter written down. You can order the book here –  it’s not cheap, but it’s highly recommended.

EDIT: I had to remove the pictures I had posted from this book, since they were generating an enormous amount of traffic.