The most beautiful exhibition of Lobi statuary I personally ever visited, Whispering Woods (even more poetic in French: Les bois qui murmurent), was held in the Ancienne Nonciature in Brussels during Bruneaf 2016. It was organised by Serge Schoffel and featured art from the François & Marie Christiaens Collection. Unfortunately it lasted only a week and stayed a bit under the radar. Luckily, it lives on in its exhibition catalog. Enriched with beautiful field-photos, and a text by Viviane Baeke, the good people of Bruneaf have made it available online for free here (click right to download the pdf). You’ll notice that the selection of statues is outstanding, and perfectly illustrates how good Lobi art can be.
ps on this page on the Bruneaf’s website, you can also freely download their other exhibition catalogs.
Ten years in the making, the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, organised by the Block Museum of Art and curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, just had a virtual opening at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Perfect for a rainy sunday, the online opening event was made available online. Below, Kevin Dumouchelle, curator at the Smithsonian gives a virtual tour (intermitted by speeches).
As did Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition explorers the pre-colonial kingdoms and trade networks on the African continent. You can discover much more about the Caravans of Gold exhibition on its dedicated website here. Both of these shows worked with several African museums, bringing several iconic masterpieces to the US for the first time ever.
ps as a reminder, in case you missed Sahel due to travel restrictions (like most of us), you can find a virtual tour of the exhibition below.
After the Pernod advertisement, another liquor including African Art in an ad. Here we find the musician Herbie Hancock enjoying a glass of Chivas Regal with a collection of African Art in the background. I spot a janus Hemba kabeja statue, a Bembe statue from Congo Brazzaville, a Luba rattle, and a Gabonese Vuvi mask. Searching on the photographer’s name, Bobby Holland, I found two other images from the same photo session, see below. I haven’t been able to find out who’s house was used for the photo shoot, but I did discover that the big red Chokwe figure would later be sold by Bonhams, and once was in the Bronson collection (info).
Could it be Hancock’s private collection? He did use an image of a Baule mask for the famous cover of his Head Hunters album. Read more about his album art here.
The British architect Sir David Adjaye has revealed his plans for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. Blog readers might remember how a Yoruba post inspired his design for the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C. (as written about here). Princeton University also just announced the architect designed their new Art Museum (info).
In this article in The New York Times, Adjaye explains how the project for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art is very close to his heart.
On November 13th, the architect, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities already had announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls (info here). This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City. In the interview, Adjaye explains how they play an integral part in this story:
I’ve been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so we can make them visible. With the (museum) building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’d have encountered if you came precolonization. It’s trying to make a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.
Adjaye intents the museum to be completed in five years (while the Smithsonian took nine, and the money to build it still needs to be raised (!). The building is intended to house some 300 items on loan from European museums and aims ” to house the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes, alongside other collections”. Please note that although the museum has “West African Art” in its title all press releases only talk about its holdings of Nigerian Art (but I did spot two giant Baule statues from Ivory Coast in the front garden).
Creating a state-of-the-art conservation context for those objets will indeed take away the argument that Nigeria doesn’t have the resources to properly care for the objects it wishes to see returned. However it remains to be seen what will happen with the about 50 government owned museums across Nigeria, which are all heavily underfunded, as spelled out in this article from 2018 in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. Let’s not forget a Federal Government-Ford Foundation project aimed at remodelling the existing National Museum in Lagos, worth $2 million dollar was recently suspended by the foreign donor due to the inability of the government to provide N500 million counterpart funding. With the underfunding of the existing museums, it remains to be seen if the funding for the EMOWAA can be found.
The local apathy for cultural heritage indeed is a factor rarely taken into consideration in the current restitution debate. Don’t forget that between 2007 and 2019 the Nigerian government even removed history from the primary and secondary school curriculum (info). This interview with Ibironke Ashaye, who worked for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), is very enlightening on this subject and highly recommended to get a better view on the local agency for such projects. It is clear that building a museum can only be a first step, and I hope a long-term vision will be developed. As museum professionals know well enough, a museum has to be much more than just a fancy building.
However, it is Adjaye’s profound wish to stimulate a cultural revival in Nigeria with the help of the planned Edo Museum. “It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said, and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.” “It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and an international site second.” Adjaye’s further elaborates on this in the NYT interview.
Exciting news from Paris, where the above Yaka comb was sold for € 24,472 (buyer’s premium incl.) by the French auction house Binoche & Giquello. Notwithstanding the global pandemic, and in a Paris under lockdown again, this small masterpiece established a new world record for an object of this type. Its estimate, € 10,000-15,000, was already at a very serious level – as it did pass through the hands of two respected dealers (Pierre Dartevelle & Jacques Germain), and was published in the reference book on the subject by Arthur Bourgeois. With a beautiful oily patina, and in a perfect condition this small gem combined several of the classical Yaka physiognomic features; first and foremost the typical massive nose. A cute little bird on top was the cherry on the cake. This comb is probably one of the best still in private hands, and with this ‘masterpiece’-status it clearly attracted the attention of some well-informed collectors. To quote the famous art dealer Joseph Duveen (who’s biography I just read): “when you pay high for the priceless, you’re getting it cheap“, so congrats to its new owner.
Courageously, the french auction house had maintained their fall sale, although surely nobody would have blamed them if it would have been postponed. With foreign collectors unable to come preview the objects, and with the fact that the sale was held behind closed doors (with only the auctioneer and experts in the room), the auction still performed ok seen the circumstances – selling more than half of the sale. Early on, the eleven kachina dolls from the A.F. collection all sold, most above the high estimate – once more confirming the current vogue for these. A big Maori hei tiki, previously on long term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, sold for a solid € 117,798.
In the African art section, savy buyers could find some great opportunities: this ancient Dan mask, unsold in a previous B&G sale, was hammered below the low estimate and sold for € 10,304, a great buy. Among the Dan sculptors there was a strong competition to come up with new inventive variations within the set guidelines, and the artist who created this mask clearly was pushing these boundaries. Furthermore, the ridges on the upper eyelids make it possible to situate it probably in the area of Flanpleu. An important janus Kota reliquary figure , attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, was sold just below the high estimate for € 148,120. Two years ago, I sold an almost identical one for double that price at Christie’s (info). In this case I do think the object might have suffered from the fact it was impossible to come see it in real life; 67 cm high and very voluminous, these are very impressive Kota with tons of wallpower. Surely interest should have been higher in a normal world. Another great buy was the hermaphrodite Djennenké bowl-bearer, selling under the low estimate for € 135,400. It was acquired by the consignor 31 years ago, at Sotheby’s NY in 1989 for $ 60,000, and unsold at a previous B&G sale in 2017 with an estimate of € 350,000-450,000. Obviously the condition was not perfect, missing its nose and left arm, but here you have a 13th century wooden statue from Mali – contemporary with the Notre Dame cathedral, as is stated eloquently in its catalog entry. A very fair price for an important piece of African Art history. Unsold was this 18th century Dogon fragment of a stool formerly in the Goldet collection – I did not find that estimate unreasonable.
A small miss by the catalogers of the sale was the Bamileke pipe bowl; they failed to mention it was already exhibited in New York in 1935 at the Museum of Modern Art during the famed African Negro Art exhibition.. A bit of sleuthing would also have revealed this particular pipe bowl is featured on the famous group shot by Soichi Sunami! Click on the above picture to check for yourself. I do wonder if the buyer knew 🙂 It also looks to be standing on an Inagaki base.
Two fine Mangbetu items (a harp, lot 62, and a knife, lot 72) failed to sell, confirming the decreased appetite for the art of this culture. A rare Tsonga staff finial sold for € 186,775 (while in 2016 it remained unsold at an estimate of € 300,000-450,000) – under its low estimate but still a very good price for a South African work of art of only 30 centimeters. I do regret not having seen it in reality, as I’m sure it is real gem. Also worth mentioning was a very rare and beautifully stylised Banda figure from the Central African Republic, selling for € 135,400. So, all in all, I do think this was definitely an ok sale – especially seen the tough circumstances, and I’m sure all the buyers are delighted with their new acquisitions.
As it looks like we’re all be spending much more time at home again (here in Belgium going into lockdown again until at least mid December), I thought it would be a good moment to share this classic documentary. In these times of restricted travel, what’s not better to join a young David Attenborough on his travels through Australia’s Northern Territory anno 1963.
Episode 1 (below), Desert Gods, starts at Uluru. From minute 19, Attenborough explores Aboriginal rock paintings, before being introduced to churingas and their symbolism. Please do keep watching as it is followed with rare scenes of some of the traditional initiation ceremonies (you want to hear those bullroarer sounds!).
Attenborough’s four month stay in the region would result in a series of six programmes, and the fourth of them, The Artists of Arnhem Land (below), is also a must watch if you are interested in Aboriginal Art.
Please do let me know if you have any other documentary tips (as long as they are available online) for us armchair travellers.
Abrus precatorius (commonly known as jequirity bean or rosary pea) is a plant best known for its red seeds; these are valued throughout Africa for their bright red coloration and used as a decorative element on masks and statues, in jewellery, and in percussion instruments. While the leaves of the Abrus precatorius are consumed as a vegetable in central and east Africa, its seeds are very poisonous. Ingestion of a single seed, well chewed, can be fatal to both adults and children. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and death, usually after several days. The seeds contain a toxin called abrin which is closely related to ricin (and twice as toxic). However, these seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract because of their hard shell. So, if you were given one during a poison ordeal, the key was not to nervously start chewing!
Such seeds where often attached with resin or wax on the masks of several African cultures, among which the Bobo and Bwa (Burkina Faso), Binji (D.R. Congo), Bozo (Mali) and Wè (Ivory Coast). Especially among Nigerian cultures, the prevalence of the use of these bright red seeds is high: we find them on masks from the Igala, Jukun, Kutep, Angas, Kulere, and Sura; and on Afo, Koro and Hausa headdresses. Several Tiv ritual objects (including skulls) tend to be covered in them as well. It’s less frequent to encounter them on statues, although the famous Senufo deble statues of the Folona Master had large numbers of them attached to the body. Some Koro cups from Nigeria, as well as Chamba statues also feature them, and rare Luluwa, Chokwe and Lega statues exist with few seeds attached to the head.
I have not been able to find much literature on the symbolic meaning of these specific seeds. In his writings about the Leopard society among the Bembe in Eastern Congo, Gossiaux wrote they were called also called ‘eye of the night’, and a pejorative right of Akanga initiates – who were informed about their poisonous properties. Surely, other African cultures must have been well aware of their toxic nature, which must have come with strong symbolic connotations. The color red itself obviously often had a strong ritual meaning. Kuddos to the African artists, as long before Duchamp, they were already working with ‘ready-mades’ to increase the power of their works.
Please do get in touch if you have any more information about the use and symbolism of these seeds in African Art! And, be careful if you have any children running around in your house when you possess objects featuring these seeds, they do look like candy..
A project from a few years ago that stayed a bit under the radar but deserves your attention is the South Sudan Museum Network. Funded by the AHRC, its main mission was to research the holdings of South Sudanese material across European museums “for advancing understandings of South Sudan’s history, global connections and creative arts“.
On top of this page, you find one of the results of this project: the inventory with list of museums, including short contextualisations of the collections of South Sudanese objects in their possession. The reports of the three workshops the network held can be found here, and the resources page holds some interesting pdfs of hard to find publications, such as Georg Schweinfurth’s Artes Africanae (1875) and Robert Joost Willink’s The Fateful Journey the expedition of Alexine Tinne and Theodor von Heuglin in Sudan, 1863-1864 (2011) – with many rarely seen objects illustrated at the end of the publication. In fact, many of the 15 participating museums hold collections with very early collected material – so definitely worth exploring if you want to get a feel of the objects created in this troubled area in the pre-colonial era. Below a lecture by one of the projects’ organizers, Dr. Zoe Cormack (Oxford University) about the Italian collections holding South Sudanese art.
Recorded in May 2005 in the Mossi village of Dabo, in northern Burkina Faso, the above video produced by the late Christopher Roy (1947-2019) documents the traditional way of smelting iron. We witness a group of smith elders making charcoal, digging and mining the ore and flux, building the kiln (with clay from a termite mound), firing the kiln, making sacrifices, smelting the iron, and forging the iron into tools. No iron had been smelted in the region for over 50 years, this video being a reenactment of the old ways – as they now buy their iron imported from China. It’s a fascinating documentary that can only enlarge your respect for the makers of the many traditional African iron tools and weapons we encounter in the West. And, you’ll see that ‘pumping iron’ has a meaning outside the gym as well!
A reader of the blog was kind enough to inform me the collection database of the Seattle Art Museum was missing in my list of museum databases; you can explore it here.
The core of the museum’s African Art collection was formed by a transformational gift by Katherine White (1929-1980) in 1981. You can learn more about this donation in Pamela McClusky’s article “Taming Reality: Katherine White and the Seattle Art Museum” (included in the book Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display, University of Washington Press, 2011).
White started collecting in 1960, and died in 1980, leaving 2,000 objects to the Seattle Art Museum – yes, that’s 100 objects each year she avidly acquired! Other noteworthy treasures were donated earlier by the Bombay-born collectors Nasli & Alice Heeramaneck, among which three important Sapi ivories (1, 2, & 3), and this killer Luluwa figure. Unfortunately the images in the database are rather small, but at least they are there. Have fun browsing!