In a previous life I used to be a dj and record collector, so I’m always thrilled when I discover a record with African art on the cover. I recently came across the above lp by Basa Basa, which features this great drawing of a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon. This album was recorded at Decca Studios in Lagos, Nigeria in 1979 and performed by the Basa Basa band which was The Nyaku twins from Ghana and Themba Matebese who played synths and keyboards and also produced it. The connection with a Kota is therefor a bit mysterious. Also note how the empty space between arms and legs is white, so the graphic designer clearly did not know this area was empty on the original thing. The Amsterdam based label Vintage Voudou recently re-released this hard to find album, you can buy the lp here; it’s great. Happy weekend !
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):
These last few days there was a lot of buzz in the air in the circles of collectors and dealers in Maori art. Did you hear about this previously unknown flute in a small UK auction? Of course one did! Thanks to the well-consulted live online auction site The saleroom even the smallest British auction house (in this case in the small village of Haslemere, Surrey) now can reach a global audience. Even if mislabeled, so many aficionados are browsing these sales, that no sleeper stays unnoticed. Estimated at only £50-100, this masterpiece was bound to make a top price.
A few were somewhat skeptical about this offering. Surely it should be clear, even to the untrained eye, this is not a pipe. A one second google search would make that very obvious. They got the culture right, at least. In my view, just five minutes on google would eventualy end at the beautiful Maori flute we sold at Christie’s Paris last year. So, the auctioneers, or didn’t do their homework – but why then illustrating the lot with so many professional pictures ? – or did know the object would make what it is worth anyway and hoped to generate a lot of extra buzz with the low estimate. It did work if that was the case, as this exceptional Maori flute sold for £140,000 (without premium) this afternoon. With costs, the total price is around £180,000 or € 210,000 ($ 225,000). This might sound as a lot of money compared with the estimate, but in fact this still is a very good price for it and I’m sure we’ll see it again sooner or later.
Now, you’re probably wondering how these flutes sound like ? Well, you can hear (and see) Richard Nunns play an early 19th century putorino form the Oldman collection below..
Austral Islands necklaces are among the rarest and most sought after of all Polynesian artifacts. It was thus no surprise that when a newly discovered example popped up in a small auction in the UK, listed as an ‘ethnic carved bone and antler necklace’ and with an estimate of only £60-100, it was sold for £125,000 (including premium).
The lucky seller runs a house clearance firm and found the item among the contents of an empty property he had been tasked to clear. He had no idea of its value and arrived at a jumble sale with a view of selling it for £15. But he had a change of heart at the last moment and decided to pop across the road to an auction house for experts there to have a look at. They believed it to be an 18th century ethnic carved bone and antler necklace and told him it might be worth between £60 and £100. However, Auctioneer Chris Ewbank started to suspect he underestimated the item in the days leading up to the sale when potential buyers booked up phone lines and left preliminary bids. And when it went under the hammer on 2 December at Ewbank’s Auctions of Surrey (UK), three bidders forced the bidding up to a staggering £99,000. With fees added on the Paris-based winning bidder will pay £125,000 for it.
Mr Ewbank reacted in this interview: “It is what we in the business call a sleeper, it came out of nowhere. It can make the auctioneer look slightly silly because they failed to spot a gem. There’s no point in trying to hide the fact that we got this one wrong.” In 2010, Sotheby’s sold a similar necklace from the Niagara Falls Museum for £ 200,000. Julien Harding wrote in the catalogue note:
The iconic status of these ornaments is enhanced by a certain mystery which has surrounded their place of origin. In establishing this it will be helpful to begin with the “testicle” pendants which are known in a variety of sizes and materials (ivory, bone, wood). In the official account of Captain Cook’s last voyage we find a description of the natives of Atiu, one of the southern Cook Islands: “Some, who were of a superior class, and also the Chiefs, had two little balls, with a common base, made from the bone of some animal, which hung round the neck, with a great many folds of small cord” (Cook, 1784).
William Wyatt Gill of the London Missionary Society noted that such objects were worn as ear ornaments by the chiefs of Mangaia, the southernmost of the Cook Islands (Gill,1894).
Later, E.L.Gruning, who lived in the Cook Islands from 1905 to 1914, carried out an exploration of Atiu during which he had himself lowered into a cave of unknown depth at the end of a makeshift liana rope. His courage was rewarded by the discovery of human skeletons and two “phallic ornaments”, one suspended from braided human hair, in the manner of a Hawaiian lei niho palaoa. He notes that these ornaments “are reputed to have been worn only by champion warriors of the island, who had the right of possessing any woman, married or single, while wearing one” (Gruning, 1937). The term “phallic”, used by several authors to describe these pendants, is of course a mistake. They may well represent testicles but certainly not a phallus.
It is thus certain that individual testicle pendants were worn as chiefly ornaments in at least two of the Cook Islands in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Very possibly they were similarly used in the neighbouring Austral Islands since there was canoe contact, both deliberate and accidental, between the island groups.
If we now turn to the composite necklaces themselves we find the evidence of origin much less clear, no doubt because early records for the Austral Islands are extremely sparse. In his monumental Album (1890) Edge-Partington published a fine example, attributing it to Mangaia (plate17, no.2). Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck, 1944) gave a detailed account based on the ten necklaces known to him and held in various institutions: British Museum (2), Cambridge University Museum, England (2), Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (1), Boulogne Museum (1), Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1) and the Oldman Collection (3). He also attributes these necklaces to Mangaia, but suggests a close connection with Rurutu in the Austral group. Significantly, Buck states that the pig was unknown in Mangaia but was present in Rurutu (ibid.).
More recently Roger Duff pointed firmly to the Australs as the origin for these necklaces on the basis of old missionary attributions for three examples not known to Buck. Two, now in the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, were previously in the Wisbech Museum, England, where they were described as “Necklaces from Rurutu, Austral Islands. Composed of the fibres of cocoanut, human hair and bones; worn as a memorial of friendship. Rev. Wm. Ellis 26.8.1841”. Duff notes that a third necklace, in the Saffron Walden Museum, England, is also attributed to the Australs and specifically to the island of Tupua’i (Duff, 1969).
A persuasive argument in favour of the Austral Islands derives from comparative morphology. The famous figure of A’a in the British Museum (Harding, 1994) is certainly from the Australs – it was given up to John Williams of the London Missionary Society in 1821 by a party of Rurutu islanders. The small figures (“demigods”) carved on this sculpture closely resemble those on a whalebone bowl of typical Australs form (Oldman collection no. 476, now in the Auckland Museum). This bowl has a handle in the form of two pig figures identical in style to the one on the present necklace.
Thus, on the available evidence, we can safely attribute these beautiful necklaces to the Austral Islands, those specks of land to the south of Tahiti which produced some of the finest art of the Pacific. The Australs culture, briefly glimpsed by Captain Cook in 1769 and again in 1777, was more or less intact when Fletcher Christian and the other Bounty mutineers arrived there in 1787. Missionary influence and introduced diseases effectively destroyed the old way of life and today this is merely a remote corner of French Polynesia with a total population of 6500 and virtually no trace of the original culture. The survival of a few Australs masterpieces, such as the necklace offered here, is of the greatest importance. These objects are silent witnesses to a tradition of superb craftsmanship which has disappeared for ever.
The necklace may be compared with three examples in the Oldman collection (illustrated in Oldman, 1943, plate 21, nos. 477, 478, 479) and with three in the Hooper collection (illustrated in Phelps, 1976, plate 83, nos. 654, 655, 656). Understandably, very few Australs necklaces have ever appeared at auction. One of the Hooper examples (no.654) was sold at Christie’s, London, June 17, 1980. After many years in the De Menil collection this reappeared at Sotheby’s, New York, auction on November 22, 1998. Another Hooper necklace (no. 656, the Edge-Partington example previously mentioned) was sold by Christie’s, London, July 3, 1990.
If you liked last weeks installation shots of African Negro Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1935 (here), you’ll love these pictures of Primitivism in 20th Century Art held at the same museum in 1984. I was still a baby at the time, but going through these pictures I can understand it had such a big impact and would come to instigate a new generation of collectors. If you think of it, it is fascinating that two of the most influential African art exhibitions of the twentieth century were organized by a museum of modern art.
The good folks at the MoMa even made the (Chinese version of the) exhibition catalogue freely available online here (long download) – kudos to them!
ps anecdote of the day: after New York, the show would travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Dallas Museum of Art – a tour that was sponsored by Philip Morris Incorporated. I wonder if cigarette companies still get to sponsor museum shows these days.
Four years ago I did a small study of the above Ntumu figure from Gabon; in my description I wrote: “Sometimes the eyes of byeri statues served as an opportunity for the integration of relics into the figure itself by embedding fragments of bone, often in the form of teeth, into deeply excaved cavities – which could be the case here.” A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the current owner of this statue. He had taken the figure to his radiologist to test my hypothesis. A scan proved me right and revealed the presence of three human molars: 2 behind the eyes and 1 inserted in the forehead (which had not been spotted on the statue before) – a great discovery! Next time you have an appointment at your radiologist, don’t forget to bring an African statue 🙂
UPDATE: a reader writes that the third tooth is an upper premolar.
A new category on the blog, “African art in unexpected places” wants to show African art where you least expect it. Last weekend I finally got to photograph the “ancient” ruins of the palace walls of the Benin Kingdom, preserved in a monkey cage in the Antwerp Zoo! These walls were clearly inspired by the famous brass Benin plaques from Nigeria. The monkeys not even being African, I wonder what the idea behind this was. It’s rather intriguing, especially as none of the other cages are decorated… the monkeys clearly were indifferent, so not a big success.
Don’t hesitate to share a picture if you would run into African art in strange surroundings as well!
One encounters African art in the strangest places; yesterday I was leaving Paris as I ran into this advertisement for the new book of Jean-Christophe Grange in Gare du Nord. On the front cover, I spotted a famous zoomorphic figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This Vili monkey figure was collected before 1884 and is currently in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (Leiden, The Netherlands) – see it in its full glory below. I haven’t read the book, but apparently the antagonist of this thriller is called l’Homme Clou (‘the nail man’).
Another Hollywood film featuring African art: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). In one scene Vincent Vega (John Travolta) picks up Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) at Marsellus Wallace’s house. Pretending to be a sophisticated gangster, the latter’s living room is full of African art – all of it fake unfortunately. Above a “Dan” mask, spot more objects (or “African fellas” to quote Mia) in the clip below. A film with a fantastic soundtrack by the way.
I came across a remarkable bronze object today. It’s clearly inspired on the famous Mbala statues of a drummer (as illustrated below), but it’s not in wood and much smaller.
The owner of the object was so kind to reveal the object’s function to me: a bottle opener, made for Belgian colonials, to be used during rituals involving beer 🙂 This object had a deep patina indicating extensive ritual use! These could be bought on Kinshasa’s craft market and were probably made far from the Mbala region to be sold as a souvenir of a visit to Congo.
I want one !