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Discoveries

Jacques Kerchache presents his new book “L’Art africain” (Mazenod) on French television in 1988

Unfortunately only in French, but how wonderful to see Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001) presenting his new book “L’Art africain” on French television in 1988 – see below, or click this link (the interview starts at 08:44). This publication would become a reference book on the subject, and is still consulted by all professionals in our field – so it’s very charming to see Kerchache, who was responsible for the selection, present it.

After the book presentation, three objects are highlighted in detail in the television studio: an incredible Mumuye statue, a janus Fon figure from the Republic of Benin, and an ivory Woyo staff finial from D.R. Congo. As Kerchache played a big role in the discovery and promotion of the art of the Mumuye, it is special to look at this statue together with him.

Kerchache jokes “Watch out ! It’s dangerous” when the host touches this Fon statue ūüôā

At the end of the interview Kerchache informs about his plans to bring African and Oceanic Art into the Louvre – a mission he would later accomplish successfully!

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Discoveries

African art on a Boeing 747

A reader of this blog was kind enough to mail me this (now historical) image of South African Ndebele designs gracing the livery of a British Airways Boeing 747 in the late 1990s. The twin sisters Emmly and Martha Masanabo from the village of Wolwekraai in the Mpumalanga district of South Africa each got to paint a livery as part of a re-branding operation of British Airways to appear more ‘global and caring’. The campaign wasn’t received as positive as expected, and already a few years (and ¬£60M) later British Airways would return to the Union Flag to decorate its tail fins – you can read the full story here.

The women of the Ndebele people of Southern African indeed are famed for having developed this highly original, colourful and vibrant design style. Every four years it is traditional for them to replaster the outside walls of their homes and paint on them bold geometric patterns, using images drawn from Ndebele beadwork, which featured intricate designs in coloured beads.

Ndebele women standing in front of a painted rondavel, Loopspruit, South Africa.

Earlier this year, the Brussels-Based Galerie Mestdagh organised an exhibition with works on paper by two other Ndebele artists, Francine Ndimande and her daughter Angelina. On the instigation of the famed Belgian dealer Alain Guisson (who left us too early last year), they transferred their traditional paintings to paper a few years before the British Airways campaign. A selection of these vibrant works was exhibited at the Mestdagh gallery. You can download their catalog and read the full story here.

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Discoveries

An African Art inspired bottle : Vudu liquor

I recently came across this cool liquor bottle from the Morey distillery based in Binissalem, Mallorca (Balearic Islands). Its black ceramic bottle clearly was inspired by African statues, and vaguely reminds of some Baule and/or Luba figures. This Spanish liquor was branded as ‘the sorcerer drink’ (El trago hechicero). Unfortunately I’ve never tasted it, so I can’t write about the special powers of this potion. The box also included a great promotional keychain as an extra gift, or talisman if you want.

A true collector’s item. The box is pretty cool too, with at its side the stylised drawing of a Sepik mask from Papua New Guinea. I couldn’t discover when exactly these were produced, but probably it can be placed within the context of the Tiki culture of the 1940s and 1950s.

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Discoveries

African art in a Pernod advertisement

I recently came across this old advertisement for the French liqueur Pernod in the Belgian magazine HUMO. Looking at the interior and outfits I would guess it is from the late 1970s? The tagline (in dutch) reads: “Real luxury is not to have money but to be able to enjoy it” and we see a collector proudly showing his latest purchase (a Pende kiwoyo-muyombo mask from D.R. Congo). His friend is not really looking directly at the mask, and I don’t really know how to interpret the facial expression of the woman, but I guess the most important is that they are all enjoying a glass of pastis. That tagline does not make much sense either as one does first need money to be able to enjoy it. But, anyhow, we can all agree that having the pleasure of owning a collection of African Art indeed is a luxury to celebrate.

Those were the days marketeers clearly were convinced collecting African art was a sophisticated activity with which their target audience wished to be associated. I wonder if this was a real interior (it does look like it) and who the owner was? Besides the Pende mask, one can also spot (from left to right) a seated Luba bowl-bearer, a Binji helmet mask (a rare thing), a Grassfields mask from Cameroon, a kifwebe mask from the Songye, a Suku hemba mask, a Ngombe sword, and part of a Zande throwing knife. I think the sword is the one recently exhibited at the Musée du quai Branly (see below), but I could be mistaken as they all look rather alike. Is any of you sleuths able to identify any of the other objects ?

Ngombe sword, D.R. Congo. Private Collection. Published in: “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”, ed. by Allen F. Roberts, Tom Joyce & Marla C. Berns, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019, p. 229, #II.13.
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Discoveries Objects

The last Luba carver: Kiloko of Busangu

A book I’ve been enjoying this summer is “Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art” by Robert Dick-Read and published in 1964. In the early 1960s, Dick-Read traveled to the Luba in D.R. Congo in search for art. He stayed with Harold Womersley on the outskirts of Kamina. This English missionary had been in the region since 1924. Attracted to the region by the fame of Luba sculpture, Dick-Read inquired with Womersley where the best places to search for it would be. The missionary’s reply is rather interesting:

“I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed. I know of not one single Luba artist in the whole of this huge territory. In the olden days, of course, there were certainly some excellent artists and craftsmen. But I fear that since the coming of this civilisation of ours, all that sort of thing has gone. In fact, let me tell you the story of a thing that happened to me when I was running our mission at Kabango. Kabongo was then the capital of the Luba king of the same name (who died in 1948), so if there were any artists anywhere in Lubaland, that is where they would have been living. The great chiefs, the paramount especially, were always the one who sponsored the arts, as you know. Well, there was one artist, an old man who is dead now, who used to live and work in a small village near Kabongo. One day he came to see me at the mission in a dreadful panic. Some people, he said, had tried to kill him, and he wanted me to protect him. The old chap was very distraught, and I thought he was exaggerating his story, so I quietened him down, and send him back to his village. I couldn’t really see any reason why anyone would want to kill him. But not long after that, exactly the same thing happened again; but this time he resolutely refused to leave the mission. He said he was lucky to have escaped as it was, and if he went back to his village he would surely be killed. So I gave him a bed, and over the next few days made some enquiries as to why anyone should want to kill him. What I heard was this. A number of young men in his and a neighbouring village, seeing him sitting outside his hut whittling away at his wood, began to wonder where this man got his knowledge and skill. The only conclusion they could come to was that he must be in league with the devil; and those in league with the devil deserved to die. We kept him in the mission for several years, and he did some excellent work … ” Mr. Womersley went over to a cupboard and took out a headrest, some combs, and several elaborate hatpins such as the Luba men used to wear. They were beautifully carved in the old tribal style. “But as far as I know”, he went on, “he was the last Luba artist or craftsman in the country”.

The name of this artist unfortunately remains unmentioned. However, next to this paragraph in Dick-Read’s book we find a schematic drawing of a Luba hairpin. Yours truly was able to find an almost identical hairpin in the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (cf. infra). In fact, very little wooden hairpins of the Luba are known, and, almost all of them appear to have been sculpted by the same artist – our master! The few hairpins by him I’ve come across through the years never had any patina, with the wood untouched. The above anecdote by Womersley thus finally explains the context of their creation!

Luba hairpin. Height: 14,3 cm. Collection Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, #EO.1978.25.77.

And a more complex example, also without any signs of usage:

Luba hairpin. Height: 20,3 cm. Collection Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, #EO.1952.53.1.

Womersley thus firsthand witnessed the changing attitudes towards traditional artists in the Congo of the 1940s. If it wasn’t for his protection, our dear old sculptor surely wouldn’t have survived a third attempt on his life. The mission station of the Womersleys was a popular rest stop for many travellers in the region, so the wood carver surely had a clientele for his sculptures in the later years of his career.

But wait, this anecdote gets even more interesting. In fact, in his book “Luba. To the sources of the Zaire”, Fran√ßois Neyt identifies this artist as Kiloko, who lived in Busangu, fifty miles from Kamina – so we do have his name! Typical morphological features are the complex coiffure (which for Neyt corresponds to the fashion of the 1920s), the double vertical line of keloid scarifications on the forehead, the coffee bean-shaped eyes, the triangular shaped nose and the oval mouth. Womersley’s statement that the artist sculpted different types of objects can be confirmed as indeed headrests, friction oracles, and bowl bearers, can be identified that can be positively attributed to this master carver. Below some examples of works in his easily recognisable style.

Luba bowl-bearer. Height: 26,5 cm. Collection Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, #EO.0.0.37053.
Luba headrest. Height: 15 cm. Collection Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, #EO.1955.77.2.
Luba figure. Height: 19,4 cm. Collection Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, #EO.1954.144.1.

So, you wonder, what happened to our dear treasure hunter, Robert Dick-Read ? Well, he continues.. “I stayed with the Womersleys for a day or two; then, feeling very depressed, once again got back on the road and headed north toward the land of the Bushongo where I hoped my luck would be better..”

 

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Auctions Collectors Discoveries

Christie’s announces sale of African and Oceanic art from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection

I’m very proud to announce Christie’s will be selling African and Oceanic masterpieces from the collection of Adolphe Stoclet in Paris on October 30th. Highlights will be on view this week in Paris for the occasion of Parcours des Mondes on Wednesday from 2pm to 6pm, and on Thursday and Friday from 10am until 6pm. You’re most welcome to a cocktail celebrating this announcement on Thursday evening at 6:30pm at Avenue Matignon 9.

Adolphe Stoclet was a very important Belgian patron of the arts in the early decades of the 20th century and is most famous for commissioning pioneer Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkst√§tte with the construction of his private mansion in Brussels. Palais Stoclet, classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco since 2009, was the home of this unseen collection to be sold by Christie’s in October. Stoclet is also remembered as an avid art collector with an avant-garde taste. Long before eclecticism became a trend, he juxtaposed archaic Chinese bronzes, early Greek sculpture, medieval bronzes, Italian ‘primitive’ Quattrocento paintings, and African and Oceanic art in his private residence. These rediscovered treasures have never been on the market before and only a few have been published or exhibited. The collection features a strong group of Congolese ivories, an exceptional kifwebe mask from the Songye, an important royal Luba-Shankadi stool, and the best zoomorphic Yaka headrest to remain in private hands. We are still working hard on the catalog, but it should be available online by mid-September.

Besides the Stoclet sale, we are also having a second auction in Paris on October 30th with objects coming from different important private collections. Highlights of this sale will also be on view in Paris later this week. I hope to meet you there!

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Discoveries

African art on record covers: Basa Basa

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 !

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Discoveries

A smoking Punu mask in “Ball im Savoy” (1935)

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):

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Auctions Discoveries Objects

Auction ‘surprise’ of the day: a rediscovered Maori flute (putorino)

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 ‚ā¨ 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..

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Auctions Discoveries News

Auction surprise of the month: a rediscovered Austral Islands necklace

auction-surprise-sleeper-bruno-claessens-cook-islands-necklace-whalebone

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.

austral-islands-necklace-sleeper-oceanic-art-sperm-whale-bone

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.‚Ä̬†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.