A rare category on my blog. After last year’s extravaganza*, Didier Claes outdid himself again sending out his catalogue for TEFAF 2015 as a carefully wrapped USB flash drive. Even my postman looked at me with glistening eyes when he handed me the shiny red bubble wrap envelope this morning. The catalogue presents three masks (Guro, Yaure and Kwele) from the collection of Alex Rafaeli that will be shown in Maastricht from 13 to 22 March (among other objects). E for effort, once again.
In October 2014 Geneva’s Musée d’ethnographie re-opened after a 5-year renovation (info). This new start was accompanied by the launch of eMEG, a digital platform to explore their permanent and temporary exhibitions, from home or on your phone or tablet while visiting the museum. You can browse through each display case and learn more about the exhibited objects in detail, check it out for yourself here.
The whole website is nicely designed and very user-friendly. A great plus is the presence of multiple views of the presented objects, such as the back of the sachihongo mask below.
A nice discovery was this field-photo featuring the king of Babanki Tungo around 1930 next to a house post by the previously discussed sculptor-king Phonchu Aseh.
ps the objects from the MEG’s collection that are not on display can be explored here (unlike eMEG only in French).
The above Teke figure was sold last year by Christie’s in Paris (info). Besides the fact that it was exhibited during African Negro Art at the NY Museum of Modern Art in 1935 (consigned by Stephen Chauvet), it was clearly created by a master carver. Although Christie’s catalogue note did not mention other Teke figures by this artist, I was convinced there would be more works by this talented sculptor out there. That this would be the only figure known from this hand (in a well-developed personal style) would have been surprising. A first stop was to consult the book on the subject: Raoul Lehuard’s Les arts Batéké. He published this figure as ‘type 43’ (p.307, fig. 43.1.1) and wrote that the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève held a statue by the same hand still completely covered by offerings (below on the left). In all likelihood the head of the Chauvet Teke once also was covered with offerings and cleaned when it arrived in Europe – not uncommon at the time.
A third figure from this carver (on the right above) was photographed by Guy van Rijn in the early 1990s at a Belgian dealer. Completely stripped from its attachments, it gives us the opportunity to see how the sculpture looks beneath the packed torso. There is a small additional cavity, created by the sculptor to accomodate the initial charge of the figure, and no arms were sculpted (they would be covered anyway). The above picture thus gives a good example of the different stadia of ‘cleaning’ that often took place after such statues arrived in the West.
With these three figures, it became possible to identify the essential morphological characteristics that define the work of this master carver: the narrow wide slit eyes, the shape of the nostrils, the jawline that flows into the beard, the shape of the beard (sitting directly under the mouth), the circular line that separates the beard from the part of the face covered with vertical scarifications, the C-shaped ears and the shape of the base with no feet (although there is an open space between the two ‘feet’ at the back). Furthermore, these three figures all had the same double-lobed coiffure (called mupani according to Lehuard).
Not much later, a fourth figure from this sculptor was discovered in the collection of the Tervuren Museum (illustrated below). While the figure has a different coiffure, the eyes, nose, mouth and beard are clearly the work of the same sculptor – although Lehuard lists this figure as ‘style 53’ (and not 43!).
Discussing the notable features of the Chauvet figure with its new owner, its wedge-shaped beard was concluded to be the identifying morphological element of the work of this artist. I have thus chosen to call him ‘The Master of the wedge-shaped beard’.
One of the icons of Teke statuary, another figure in the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, probably also was made by this master carver. While Lehuard lists this figure as ‘type 10’, it does has the same nose, mouth and wedge-shaped beard. Just as the Chauvet Teke, the upper end of the C-shaped ear flows directly in the line separating the coiffure from the face, a small but significant detail (cf. my post about ears).
In 1956 Henri Goldstein was able to photograph this amazing group of ancestor figures among the Bahutshwe, one of the Boyo groups (also known as Buyu or Buye). These five statues were owned by chief Kimano II, who lived in the territory of Kabambare between the Lualaba River and Lake Tanganyika in southeastern Congo.
Each wooden statue was given the name of the ancestor it represented and each such figurative group reflected the internal lineage structure of the local group. In this case, the largest statue (second from the left) represented Abikili, the oldest of the ancestors celebrated by the five images.
Two years after this photo was taken all five figures were collected by Nicolas de Kun (who also wrote an article on the art of the Boyo in 1979). Not much later the group was dispersed.
So, where are these figures now? The statue on the left is currently in the collection of the Metropolitain Museum of Art in New York (info), it was donated to the museum by Sidney and Bernice Clyman in 1985.
The biggest figure, second from left, could be the figure in the The Menil Collection in Houston – unfortunately I only found a frontal picture of it.
The middle figure is in the Richard Scheller collection and currently on view at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (info).
The second figure from the right is in private collection.
The figure on the right was sold by Sotheby’s in 1985 and currently in a private Belgian collection.
The current location of all five figures is thus known. If someone could bring them together for an exhibition, that would be a wonderful thing to do. A bit like the current exhibition at the MET, Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, which reunites the group of Mbembe figures first shown by Hélène Leloup in 1974 (info).
While more attention than ever is given to the Western history of African art these days, the African part of these objects voyage to the West still remains largely ignored. Recent books on topics as Dogon art or Djenne terracottas once more graciously evaded the question of the featured objects’ provenance – it remains a very sensitive subject. However, my curiosity was met when I recently discovered a very enlightening (& scientific) article by Cristiana Panella in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. “Looters or Heroes? Production of Illegality and Memories of ‘Looting’ in Mali” explores the clandestine trade in antiquities in Mali by showing on one side the social organization (techniques, hierarchies, trade chains) of farmers-diggers; on the other side, by analyzing the rhetorics of illegality driven by official cultural heritage policies.
Exemplifying the diggers active in the Inland Niger Delta from the 1970s to the 1990s was Satimbé (a pseudonym), a key contact for Panella’s PhD fieldwork in Mali. From 1970 to 1990, Satimbé was digging throughout almost the entirety of the ancient habitat of the Mopti region, through most of the Djenne area and some of the San area. During his long career, he worked as cliff-climber robber, farmer-digger, team-chief and middleman. He was one of the rare diggers who received large sums of money cash-in-hand after undertaking digs for European collectors and who would haggle over the price of statuettes with Malian urban dealers. Panella writes:
At the end of the 1950s, Satimbé was a farmer in his village in the Dogon countryside. Around 1958, when he was in his 30s, he started work as a prospector for a Sarakole dealer to whom he would sell wooden objects for between 100 and 500 FCFA each (the price of a goat), that the dealer would then export to Burkina Faso. The first object Satimbé sold the dealer for 500 FCFA was a wooden Dogon horseman. When the Sarakole dealer came back from Burkina, he offered Satimbé a commission for 5000 FCFA. Satimbé used to go to the rock wall with scaffolding and a rope allowing him access to the inside of the cliff. Thanks to his mastery of the Bandiagara Cliffs as well as to his courage, he became an incomparable prospector of Tellem, and more generally, wooden objects. At a time where tourism was not so developed in the Dogon country, people feared Tellem objects, unlike Dogon sculpture), so that only a limited number of prospectors specialized in their collection. From 1958 to 1970, Satimbé prospected only ‘woods’. After 1970, however, he stated that very good wooden pieces started to become rare.
Satimbé saw ancient terracotta statuettes for the first time in 1968 at a stall in the Mopti Grand Marché. The owner of the stall was selling finds from surface collecting to visiting Europeans. It was at this time that Satimbé started collaborating with Drabo, a dealer who had just settled in Sevaré. In 1968, Satimbé went to Sevaré to sell a group of objects and met Drabo, who was very interested in buying them. Nevertheless, Drabo could not afford the 300.000 MF that Satimbé was asking and he proposed instead going to Bamako to sell them. Satimbé accepted this offer, and after Drabo’s return he received his requested price of 300.000 MF (which must mean that Drabo had sold the group for much more than 300.000 MF). At this time, Drabo was not familiar with the region and he was lacking prospectors, so he asked Satimbé to work with him, especially to obtain wooden sculptures from the Dogon cliffs. One of Drabo’s most important customers, a Belgian collector, was able to give Dolo (the most important dealer for Satimbé in the Mopti region) and Satimbé 50 million MF to fund the acquisition of high quality wooden pieces. Thus the demand for terracotta first developed within this wider and more prestigious market of wooden objects, and several rural middlemen shifted into the terracotta market. For instance Souleymane started as a wooden objects dealer in 1970, trading at Bankass, Sevaré and Bandiagara, where he was settled, especially supplying Mingali, Sangha, Dourou, Kendié and Kani Bozo. He sometimes bought new replica pieces that he would artificially age in order to sell them to urban dealers in Bamako. Starting in 1975, the first digging teams started to be established. Satimbé stated that some teams had already appeared in 1968 but that he himself had only started to work as a digger of terracotta in 1970, when he dug a site between Sevaré and Mopti. He found his first terracotta on the second site he dug, in the area of Djemandaka.
Panella continues to explain how the diggers work and their techniques of exploiting archaeological sites (pp. 493-497); you can read the full article here.