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Controversy around Damien Hirst’s golden (Ife) head on view in Venice

I don’t know if you have noticed, but the influence of traditional African art on contemporary artists has never been so big. When frequenting any contemporary art fair these days, chances are big one runs into some very explicit references, and more often just plain copies of African masks and statues.

This trend is not new of course. Kendall Geers, for example, already made ‘nail figures’ (citing Kongo nkondi statues) in the early 2000s. But also many younger artists are following this trend and finding inspiration in the historical art of the African continent. Damien Hirst, one of the best known ‘Young British Artist’ of the 1990s, could not resist to join in, and his current exhibition in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, features a copy in massive gold of an ancient Ife head from Nigeria.

The head (illustrated above and below) is presented with the label ‘Golden head (Female)’, that, without any reference to its inspiration, which has been causing a huge controversy. While all of the artworks in the exhibition imitate or are inspired by the arts from a wide range of cultures throughout history, Ife has proven to a somewhat more sensitive subjet and a major fuzz about this head has emerged. Even CNN has dedicated an article to it: Damien Hirst accused of copying African art at Venice Biennale. On social media, Hirst has been widely branded as a ‘thief’, and the head continues to generate a lot of critique in so far even a spokesperson of Hirst had to react clarifying Ife is in fact cited in the exhibition guide. But the damage was done.

Things got rolling when the Nigerian artist Victor Ehighale Ehihkamenor, currently exhibiting at the Nigerian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, openly criticized Hirst in articles in the New York Times and Huffington Post. It is interesting to note that none of the representatives of other cited cultures have reacted to the show. There are numerous copies of Egyptian and Greek statues, for example. But none of those cultures have almost all of their national heritage outside their country of course, which is the case with Nigeria’s old Ife Kingdom. To make it even more interesting, also in the general press the show has received a lot of negative critique; ARTnews calling it ‘undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade’ (here) or generating statements like that it ‘offers scale in lieu of ambition, and kitsch masquerading as high art’ (in The Telegraph).

For my part, I think it is too soon to judge Damien Hirst – let’s see in 50 years what remains of his work. And, the famous Salon des Refusés in mind, I do recall some other artists who were once rejected by the general public. Jeff Koons also just copied someone else’s work (read about that here). Anyway, if it made only a handful of new people genuinely interested in the ancient art of Nigeria, we can only be happy about the effect this head provoked.

African art inspired tattoo of the day: a Songye kifwebe mask

Last month in New York, I came across this amazing tattoo of a Songye kifwebe mask. This famous mask resides in the collection of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. It was sold by Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919 to Marius de Zaya and was one of the stars of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde in 2012 (info).

Hilary Whitham, who has this tattoo on her upper arm, assisted as a graduate curatorial intern at that show. She chose the Philadelphia-based tattoo artist Jennifer Rahman for the project because of her specialization in stippling and shading. The formal qualities of this kifwebe mask had always drawn her attention – the rhythmic disposition of striations over its curvatures making it a truly stunning object. Who knew it would be so suitable as a tattoo. Hilary generously allowed me to post a picture of the tattoo here and wrote:

Learning about the mask’s role within late nineteenth century Songye communities as an agent of social moderation – marking life events and safeguarding secret knowledge – furthered my fascination. Kifwebe epitomize the scholarly challenges associated with African objects arriving in European and American collections during the first decades of the twentieth century.  Elucidating the complex epistemologies from which these objects emerged, given the extremely partial and biased historical record resulting from colonialism, drives the field of African art history. The mask’s personal significance contributed to my choice to inscribe it permanently on my person. It was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde on which I assisted as a graduate curatorial intern, and belongs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am completing my PhD. Both of these institutions and the individuals that comprise them have shaped not only my approach to and understanding of art history, but also life more generally, in innumerable positive ways.

Whitham is currently writing a dissertation on the impact of African art on the Dada movement as a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She will especially focus on Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the Romanian avant-garde poet and African art collector who played a pivotal role in the the development of Dada. Her dissertation aims to fill the lacunae in scholarship on Tzara’s role in the development of twentieth century collecting of African art as well as to demonstrate how Tzara’s interest in African art impacted the development of the Dada movement. So please do get in touch if you would happen to own an object once in the possession of Tzara!

ps I’m sure there are more African and Oceanic art inspired tattoos around, so don’t hesitate to send a picture (and its story) if you’re willing to share; thanks.

Musée Dapper to close its doors forever on 18 June 2017

Sad tidings from Paris, the Musée Dapper will be closing its doors permanently on 18 June 2017 🙁  You can find the official press release here (French only). The brainchild of Michel Leveau (who passed away in 2012) and Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, the museum was founded in 1986 to stimulate the interest in African culture. It moved to its current location in 2000. The Dapper foundation will continue its mission, but without having a permanent exhibition space (which had become too expensive to run).

The best private African and Oceanic art museum in the world, the Musée Dapper set up over 40 (!) groundbreaking shows over the years – without any public funding. All its excellent exhibition catalogues easily take up a full shelf in one’s library. It’s current exhibition, Masterpieces of Africa (which was already prolonged) will be its last. So don’t sleep if you want to say goodbye to all these treasures. The museum’s presence will be sorely missed; it’s a huge loss for our field.

ps this October, the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac will include some of the masterpieces of the Dapper collection in their big upcoming Gabon exhibition.

 

Javier Peres on Why Contemporary Art Collectors Should Care About Tribal Art

Last week Artnet, one of the most important and widely read websites about the art market, interviewed this years honorary president of Parcours des Mondes about his passion for African art. The interview took place ahead of Frieze New York, which was showing tribal art for the first time (with Galerie Meyer, Entwistle and Donald Ellis participating). At the same time as TEFAF NY (with the presence of Jacques Germain, Tambaran Gallery and Galerie Meyer), the Almine Rech Imaginary Ancestors exhibition, and coinciding with the preview of Christie’s African art sale TIMELESS, there definitely was a momentum going on in New York city, which elicited the interest of Artnet. You can read the full interview here. An excerpt:

How does the tribal art market compare to the contemporary art market in terms of price points?

I think the record for an African tribal art work at auction is $12 million—that is the pinnacle. You can still get masterpieces depending on the type of object. And there are incredible objects that can be bought for under $100,000. Recently, Christie’s in Paris sold a really iconic Dogon mask with a figure on top that was in all the important museum shows for $2,5 million. It’s a chunk of change, but if you compare it to contemporary artists where we don’t even know if they’re going to be around in 20 years, then it’s not that much. So relatively speaking, the high end is in the low millions—maybe between $1-6 million—whilst in the modern and contemporary market, an edition by Koons can cost more.

I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s why we are so proud of our upcoming sale, bringing together a selective group of top notch African art – below two teaser installation views of the preview. As you can see, African art does get its rightful place at Christie’s (amidst works of Brancusi, Braque and Basquiat).

The Sanza blog celebrates its 10th birthday

Kuddos to François Boulanger, who’s Sanza blog just passed its 10th year – after more than 1500 blog posts and 50,000 pictures! Early on, Boulanger understood the importance of the internet and created several websites documenting his adventures in the African art scene. In fact, I think he probably created the first blog dedicated to African art! It’s a perfect site for the armchair traveller far away 🙂

Boulangers has photographed hundreds of ephemeral exhibitions, mostly in galleries in Brussels and Paris, thereby generating lasting visual documents for us to enjoy. It’s quite an archive. Apart from the Sanza page, he also has a website documenting his acquisitions of traditional African instruments (here), of which he has one of the largest private collections in the world – a wonderful selection his thumb pianos (known as sanza, hence the blog’s name) was exhibited in Brussels in 2011, images here.

PS some adventures of yours truly (in his pre-Christie’s days) are as well documented on the site: click here to see pictures of the exhibition on African weapons (“Vlijmscherp” – Razor Sharp) I organized at Ghent University seven years ago, or here for pictures of the exhibition I organized in 2013 to celebrate the launch of my Ibeji book.

“Timeless: Masterworks of African Art”, Christie’s, New York, 19 May 2017

I’m proud to announce our May sale in New York, “Timeless: Masterworks of African Art“; you can browse the catalogue online here. This exceptional sale features only twelve masterworks of African Art. As the exhibition and auction will coincide with Christie’s major 20th Century Week sales, which always attract huge crowds to our Rockefeller Center viewing rooms, we wish to confront these new audiences with only the best of the best. As last year’s curated sale, Evolution of Form, the twelve works will be in good company and spread throughout the viewing rooms.

A celebration the diversity of form and innovation of African artistry, from the West coast, to Central and to South Africa, these rare works are fresh to the market and maintain distinguished provenance, which is further enhanced by their exhibition histories and published literature. From incarnations of gods, supreme beings and oracles to works of virtuosity and idealized beauty this presentation is highly rich and was brought together not only to present classical examples, in addition to the Dogon maternity, such as the Bédiat-Huston Baule mask and Matisse Fang Figure, but foremost works of innovation rarely seen on the market – such as the Grebo mask, the Pindi dancing fgure, the Mfumte fgure and the Tsonga female fgure from South Africa. Although these masterworks have only become ‘art’ rather recently upon their arrival in Europe and the United States in the 20th century, Timeless aspires to reveal their universal qualities and demonstrate their rightful place on the great world stage of art throughout time and space.

The sale is on Friday 19 May at 10AM. The viewing days are:

6 May, 10am – 5pm
7 May, 1pm – 5pm
8 May, 10am – 5pm
9 May, 10am – 5pm
10 May, 10am – 5pm
11 May, 10am – 5pm
12 May, 10am – 5pm
13 May, 10am – 5pm
14 May, 1pm – 5pm
15 May, 10am – 5pm
16 May, 10am – 5pm
17 May, 10am – 5pm
18 May, 10am – 5pm

I hope to see you there!

ps If you were wondering.. the sale’s theme was partly inspired by a text by André Malraux, Promenades imaginaires dans Florence, from 1975:

On this earth of ours where everything is subject to the passing of time, one thing only is both subject to time and yet victorious over it: the work of art.

The relevance of ethnographic museums in the 21th century

A display of the archaeological and anthropological collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. © LatitudeStock/Alamy Stock Photo.

The last issue of Apollo Magazine features a nice article about the relevance of ethnographic museums in the 21st century, you can read it here. Its conclusion:

The periodic revival of the repatriation debate reminds us that ethnographic collections stand in for histories of colonial exploitation, even if the objects were in fact fairly obtained, and sometimes willingly presented by local people interested in the representation of their cultures in metropolitan exhibitions. Certainly, ethnography was associated with the business of empire, both in practice and in theory. But it was also, from the start, distinguished by genuine efforts to document and celebrate cultures beyond Europe – efforts that are often considered important by the people concerned today. Ethnography collections need to be living collections, representative of cultural diversity in the present, as well as of traditions which suffered upheaval, the confrontation of empire, at the time of the museums’ formation. Renewed museums have the capacity to represent not only world cultures, but also the interconnectedness of the world, starting with the puzzling and sometimes problematic stories of how their collections reached Europe. Conceived ambitiously rather than apologetically, museums of ethnography and world culture now have more to offer than ever before.

ps perhaps the most successful of all ethnographic museum remains the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, with ca. 1,3 million yearly visitors even more popular than New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum (source) ! Not bad for a museum that was only founded ten years ago..

“Imaginary Ancestors”, restaging a famous Fang exhibition from 1933 at Almine Rech Gallery in New York, May-June 2017

After Adam Lindemann (info) and Javier Peres (info), a third major contemporary art gallery is staging an African art show. Imaginary Ancestors is an exhibition organized and hosted by Almine Rech Gallery in New York with Bernard de Grunne as guest curator for the Arts of Africa. The press release reads:

Imaginary Ancestors is a group exhibition looking at Primitivism in modern and contemporary art, which comprises two parts: One room will be dedicated to works by André Derain and Max Pechstein together with a restaging of the exhibition Early African Heads and Statues from the Gabon Pahouin Tribes. That landmark show was originally realized by Paul Guillaume at the Durand- Ruel Gallery on 57th Street in New York, from February 15 to March 10, 1933. This exhibition was the first show to be devoted to a single African art style, with a large group of Fang sculptures presented on a table alongside Derain paintings made at the time. For Imaginary Ancestors, Bernard de Grunne sourced the majority of the sculptures included in the original exhibition, which will be reunited for the first time since 1933 at Almine Rech Gallery New York. A second room of this exhibition will present modern and contemporary artworks inspired by primitive art including primitive pieces from the personal collections of Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and David Smith.

You can find more info here. Almine Rech, married to Bernard Picasso, has access to Picasso’s African art collection still in the family’s possession, so the second part surely will be a treat as well. The opening is on May 2, 2017, and the exhibition runs until June 15, 2017. Kuddos to Amine Rech and Bernard de Grunne for making this happen; this surely will be a historical show. Below additional, less known, installation shots of the original exhibition at Durand-Ruel Galleries in 1933. I’m curious how the new installation will look!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquires one of the last Batcham headdresses in private hands

Talking about one of the ‘holy grails’ of African Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired one of the last Batcham headdresses in private hands. The acquisition happened in all silence earlier this year, and the mask just made it to the website here – pictures are still missing, so fresh is the news.

After acquiring one of the best Bamana ci wara headdresses last year, as well as a world class Hemba ancestor statue, the Epstein Sachihongo mask, and a great Jukun shoulder mask in these last few years, the MET definitely is leading the way. Kuddos to head of the department, Alisa Lagamma, who, thanks to a small circle of donors (Jim Ross and Marian Malcolm in this case), once more strengthens the museum’s holdings with an important icon of African Art. This is even more impressive if you know that the museum is currently going through a very difficult period (source).

This rare 19th-century mask is one of the less than 20 known masks of its kind in public and private collections. These were the only three examples known until the mid-1960s, when several other examples were collected in situ. The Belgian African art dealer Pierre Dartevelle acquired his headdress in Cameroon between 1967 and 1970 and it stayed in his private collection ever since. The selling price is unknown, but it certainly will have been a seven digit number. The headdress is not on view yet, but hopefully soon will be. I’m delighted that another ‘eroded’ object will be shown publicly – in the past the African art wing mostly showed art in a ‘pristine’ condition.

These headdresses are designated “Batcham” after the small chiefdom in the northwest Bamileke region from which the first mask of this type was collected in 1904 by a German colonial officer named Von Wuthenow. Once in the collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, Germany (#MAF.9401), that mask unfortunately was destroyed by bombing in December 1943. However, these were in use in the wider Bamileke region, but the name stuck. The example in the Fowler Museum at UCLA (#X65.5820) for example was photographed in situ by the missionary Frank Christol in 1925 in Bamendjo, which is about ten kilometres north of Batcham. If you want to learn more about these the book to get is Batcham – Sculptures du Cameroun by Jean-Paul Notué, published in connection with an exposition in Marseille in 1993 (which also includes this mask).

UPDATE: the MET has added pictures in the meantime, which can be downloaded freely -jay!

How a Benin Kingdom bronze cockerel suddenly became famous

The story is already one year old, but I never got the opportunity to write about it. In March 2016, Cambridge University agreed to remove a bronze Benin Kingdom rooster that had been on display in the dining hall at Jesus College for more than half a century (as shown above). Yes you read that correct, a dining hall. Students had complained about its links to Britain’s colonial past and the sacking of Benin Kingdom’s capital in 1897. An integral part of being a student of course is protesting, but one can wonder why only now the rooster crowed.

A university spokesperson at the time said: “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin Bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the Okukor from its Hall.” Okukor was the rooster’s nickname; it was given to Jesus College by George Willan Neville (a member of the Benin punitive expedition) in 1930. It was adopted as a symbol because of the surname of its founder, John Alcock, a former Bishop of Ely. Three cockerels’ heads as well appear on the college’s crest. The spokesperson continued: “The College commits to work actively with the wider University and to commit resources to new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”

The campaign for the Okukor’s return produced a flurry of media attention in the British and international press; the BBCThe GuardianThe Telegraph, and even Artnet all reported on the story. It’s rare that African art make the headlines like that. John Picton, an authority on the art of Nigeria, reacted in Newsweek on the question of the return of the looted Benin Kingdom treasures: “There is of course a strong moral case for the return of this material—all of it—but to be honest there is currently nowhere safe to put it in Nigeria. The existing facilities could not cope if all the artifacts from museums in LA, Chicago, New York, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and so on were to arrive. In any case, it is only right that world-class museums of world art history and archaeology should include some of this material; so there is a place for compromise. The trouble is no-one really wants to do anything about it; and if a group of students make a fuss and this brass bird is wrapped up and sent back, so what? The problem is much more complex.” Hear, hear.

One year later the rooster is still crowing for attention and in April 2017, Prince Gregory Akenzua of Benin renewed calls for Jesus College to return it to Nigeria during a visit to Cambridge University (info). But, for the moment, the Okukor remains in storage and Jesus College have not yet made any indication as to whether it will be returned to Nigeria.

ps This cock definitely displays the obsession with pattern and the technical expertise in lost-wax casting that typifies the great works made by brass-casters at the Benin Kingdom court. Only about two dozen of them are known (one of them being in the Lagos Museum by the way). It should be noted that none of the articles on this cock speak of its function, so here is what the MET says about theirs:

Brass roosters are placed on ancestral altars commemorating the queen mothers of Benin. They stand for fowl and other animals that are sacrificed during rituals honoring royal ancestors. These explicitly male creatures acknowledge that the queen mother is different from other women and shares many powers and privileges with men. In depicting these birds, Benin brass casters indulge their love of dense overall patterns. Although stylized, these incised designs deftly suggest the rooster’s showy plumage, scaly legs, and dimpled comb.

You can learn more about them in the freely available pdf of Kate Ezra’s book on the Perls Collection of Benin Art at the Metropolitan Art here (pp. 85-89).

 

Wishing you all a joyful Easter !