Tempus fugit! It’s already the last week of the Les Forêts Natales exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (info and pictures here). If you haven’t had the chance to see this must-see show, please don’t sleep and go visit it. I would suggest to reserve at least 3 hours for it, as you’ll need them. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see that much iconic masterpieces of Gabon in one single museum. I don’t think any other curator will ever dare to envision such a comprehensive selection – it did take Yves Le Fur more than 3 years to prepare it. With the closing of the Dapper Museum, he of course had the unique chance to lend about 25 of their top objects, but also the holdings of the MqB itself, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numerous private collectors proved indispensable for the success of this exhibition. The catalogue, which unfortunately is only available in French, is also recommended but does not prepare you for the real-life experience. Furthermore, not all exhibited works are included in it. Personally, I saw the show three times, and still I don’t have the feeling I have seen enough of it. Several sections of it (Fang, Kwele, Kota, Tsogho) easily could have been standalone exhibitions and still would be incomparable. I will never forget that wall of Kotas (more than 100 in total!) – see above.
Kuddos as well to the Friends of the Musée du quai Branly for their innovative thinking to include the source communities of this exhibition by organizing several ‘web tours’ (info). Several Mondays (when the museum was closed), they organized live broadcasted guided tours which could be followed in several places in both Gabon and Cameroon:
• Fondation Gacha à Bangoulap au Cameroun
• Musée des civilisations de Dschang au Cameroun
• Musée National de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Galerie Doual’art à Douala au Cameroun
• Galerie MAM à Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Institut français de Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Libreville au Gabon
• Etablissement scolaire Le Ruban Vert à Libreville au Gabon
• Lycée français Victor Hugo à Port-Gentil au Gabon
A wonderful initiative, and a first I think. The Gabonese president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, also visited the expo – as can be seen below. He was rightfully very proud.
A very nice discovery by Ingo Barlovic, the man behind the About-Africa website: the 1935 Austrian movie Ball im Savoy, based on an opera by Paul Abraham, contains a funny little scene with a Punu mask. While in previous scenes an actual mask was hanging on the wall, here it appears to be replaced by a woman made up like such a mask, including the typical scarification patterns on the temples and forehead. It’s very well done I must say; see the full scene below (starts at the right moment):
In two weeks time Brussels will again be the epicenter of the African art circus, with BRAFA and the winter edition of Bruneaf taking place at more or less the same time. Didier Claes (president of Bruneaf and vice-chairman of Brafa), just send out the above (full version here), which I thought was not a bad idea – as a paucity of public relations has been hampering both events in the past. After a short hiatus, Claes is president again of Bruneaf and it’s up to him now to bring the organization into the 21th century. An anticlimax had been last summer’s exhibition Finalité sans Fin, which brought together a fantastic group of iconic masterpieces, accompanied by an excellent catalogue – but which did barely get any promotion and was therefor not really noticed outside the regular crowd. A shame, as a lot of effort had gone into it – but not in promoting it. However, this sad episode served as a wake-up call and now Bruneaf is even on Instagram. It’s my sincere hope this historical event can continue successfully and learns from previous mistakes.
The strengthened presence of African and Oceanic Art at the Brussels Art Fair (BRAFA), shown by 12 (!) dealers, certainly has heightened the effort put into the winter edition of Bruneaf (which originally used to be the less exciting brother of the summer edition, now branded Cultures, confusing isn’t it). While the non-European presence used to be very small, BRAFA truly has become a not to be missed event in our field. Participating galleries are: Didier Claes, Dartevelle, Yann Ferrandin, Jacques Germain, Bernard de Grunne, Grusenmyer-Woliner, Monbrison, Ratton (both father and son!), Guilhem Montagut (for the first time!), Serge Schoffel, and Galerie Schoffel de Fabry – all of them combined, that’s a lot of great art!
Talking about insufficient public relations, no. 3 in Claes’ list, the Oceania exhibition at the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels deserves a special mention, as it must be the least publicized exhibition of Oceanic art ever. A shame as it is, although not very big, a great introduction to the art of this region, and, extra points from a young father here, very kid friendly! Fingers crossed that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, reopening in June after years of renovation, is taking note and preparing a serious media campaign! Anyway, apologies for the rambling – as Didier Claes, I just wanted to invite you to Brussels this month, it’s worth the trip!
Great news on the book front: Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Department Head for the Arts of Africa and Oceania at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, just published her eagerly awaited research on Benin plaques as a book. As her academic publisher is not really making any promotion for it (which it rightfully deserves), I thought I gave a little feature here. The blurb reads:
The 16th century bronze plaques from the kingdom of Benin are among the most recognized masterpieces of African art, and yet many details of their commission and installation in the palace in Benin City, Nigeria, are little understood. The Benin Plaques, A 16th Century Imperial Monument is a detailed analysis of a corpus of nearly 850 bronze plaques that were installed in the court of the Benin kingdom at the moment of its greatest political power and geographic reach. By examining European accounts, Benin oral histories, and the physical evidence of the extant plaques, Gunsch is the first to propose an installation pattern for the series.
Gunsch spend more than four years on the subject, traveling the world to handle as many plaques as possible. If you are as obsessed as me with these, this is a must-read. I thought I’d do a small interview with her to tell us more about this research project.
What brought you to Benin plaques ?
I began studying Renaissance art history when I began my masters/PhD program at the Institute of Fine Arts, at NYU. I thought I would minor in African art history, because I had spent a lot of time in Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda in my former career in international development. I was surprised at how anthropological the discourse in African art history was, especially compared to Renaissance art, and I realized I had more to contribute in this field, so I made African art history my main subject in my second year and never looked back. I have always loved 16th century bronzes — first in Italy and then in Nigeria — and so the Benin bronzes were a natural fit for a topic.
There’s already a lot of literature of the art of the Benin Kingdom, when did you realize you could add something to the existing scholarship?
I had a pit in my stomach when I walked into my first meeting about the project with Susan Vogel, who supervised my dissertation with Jonathan Hay. I had done a preliminary literature survey and couldn’t find the installation proposal for the plaques — I was sure I had somehow missed a major publication. When Susan said there hadn’t been any installation proposal, I knew I had something to offer. It still boggles my mind that no one has tried to reconstruct the 16th century audience hall before — but then again, it is a lot easier to do now that I can organize images of this 850+ corpus on Flickr!
What do you see as the biggest revelation in your book ?
My biggest revelation in the research was that when you look at the entire series, there are overlooked clues to dating and workshop method, as well as the original installation plan. I saw more than 640 plaques in person and another 100 by photograph, and looking at so many helped me find new insights. For example, all of the wide plaques have one of three patterns on their flanges, the small collar of brass perpendicular to the left and right sides of the plaque surface. In the book, I explain how these flange patterns are likely a signature of the head of the brass-casting guild, and that they certainly mark a progression in time. You can see how plaques with one pattern are in lower relief and show less daring use of the medium than the plaques with other patterns, a sign that the brass-casting guild is learning as it completes the commission. Looking at the reverse of the plaques, and the way the river-leaf pattern is applied to the front, I believe we have evidence for a guild production method that shrinks the dating of the corpus to less than 60 years. This is the more objective ‘new news’.
I’m curious to see what readers have to say about my more hypothetical proposal, that pairs and near-identical series can support a theory of which plaques were installed on the same pillar as each other, and why. It turns out that 36% of the known plaques have a near-identical pair. That’s not easy to achieve in lost-wax casting, where the clay mold is destroyed in the casting process. My installation proposal argues that the pairs and sets structure the corpus, giving the installation a framework within the enormous architectural space of the court. I’m trying to explain why the brass-casters would have gone to the extreme effort to make these pairs and sets, and what the Obas reigning at the time — Esigie and Orhogbua — could have achieved with this monumental commission.
Did you get to answer all the questions you had ?
No! We never get to answer all our questions, right? I am still not sure why the first set of plaques has a strict width of 30cm, and the narrow plaques are nearly all 19cm wide, but the later sets are more variable in their width. But if I had answered all my questions, what would I do next?
How was the experience of going to Benin City yourself ?
I loved visiting Benin City. I had spent a lot of time in Abuja and had visited Lagos before, but coming back to Nigeria and spending time in Benin City made me appreciate the importance of the kingdom’s art history today. This isn’t a dead subject — Oba Ewuare II reigns over a thriving court, with all the politics that entails. Seeing his father, Oba Erediauwa, during a title ceremony really brought that home. Thinking about Oba Erediauwa’s commissions in the Ring Road at the city center helped me focus on what kings achieve with the art works they sponsor. I didn’t have an audience with the Oba, but his brothers and other high court officials were gracious and patient with my questions, as was the then-new head of the brass-casting guild, Kingsley Inneh, and his uncle Daniel Inneh. I wish I could go back more often.
What are your future plans ? Is there already another book/project in the pipeline ?
I’m currently working on a theory that the altar figures are paired, just as the plaques are — and I mean paired to the centimeter, not just having similar iconography. It seems that triadic symmetry is a main feature of Benin aesthetics, and I wonder what we can learn about the heads and the altar figures if we apply that idea. I’m not sure it will be enough material for a book, but we’ll see!
I’m looking forward to that; thanks for the interview Kathryn.
If you want to learn more, you have to buy the book; you can can order it here !
I wanted to share some pictures of this unbelievable exhibition currently on view at Berlin’s Bode Museum. This beautiful museum, known for its outstanding collection of European sculpture, now temporarily houses 70 masterpieces from the Ethnologishes Museum (which closed last year) until they will relocate to the newly build Humboldt Forum (to open at the end of 2019).
The African works are placed in smart juxtapositions with the permanent collection creating fascinating dialogues across time, place and religions. Unexpected similarities and differences become apparent: Michel Erhart’s late Gothic Virgin of Mercy appears next to the famous Kongo power figure, which, like the Madonna, was also created to protect a community. Mythical heroes from central Africa take their place among late Gothic Christian figures and open up new perspectives on both collections. The show address major themes of human experience, such as power, death, beauty, memory, aesthetics, and identity. For each of them, the curators (Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov) were able to find great object pairings.
Beyond Compare is just one spectacular view after the other. One room downstairs contains the majority of works, but the remainder is spread across the museum, so it is sometimes a bit of treasure hunt (which cleverly makes you explore the whole building). I must say it is one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen in our field. I’ve become somewhat tired of seeing African art juxtaposed with modern and contemporary Western art, making up links which are not necarilly there. This show merely endeavors to find common themes and for once it is not about who inspired who (although links between St. Sebastian, Madonna-and-child statues and Kongo figures are vaguely suggested).
The installation as well is top-notch; it is clear the Bode Museum has a lot of experience presenting three-dimensional wooden works of art, and many objects can be walked around. It was amazing, as well, to see the standing statue of the Buli Master all by itself, without a case. The Benin leopard in the big staircase is a view I will never forget and the Benin queen (famous from the front cover of Tom Phillips’ Art of a Continent) paired with a Donatello sculpture, as well in bronze, is just genius.
Another plus is the excellent selection, it truly gives you a new perspective of the scope and importance of the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection, showing many masterpieces that hadn’t been on view at the Dahlem for a very long time (the Hemba ancestor figure, for example). This ‘conversation of continents’ is a big success and I would highly recommend a visit. I dream of seeing the Louvre or the Metropolitan doing something like this one day.. but Berlin did it first!
Kuddos to the museum as well for publishing an English version of the catalogue (Musée du quai Branly, please take note!). You can out more about Beyond Compare on the Bode-Museum’s website here. I’ll just let my snapshots do the talking (click to magnify), as you’ll see Beyond Compare truly lives up to its title.
Update: a reader comments, the primitive art indeed pairs very well with the African art 🙂