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African art in a Chivas Regal advertisement from 1995

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.

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The first Galerie Claes – dealing in African Art at the end of the 19th century

Image courtesy Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. Coll.no. RV-607-A1.

One of the many fascinating stories highlighted in the new exhibition 100xCongo (curated by Els De Palmenaer, Keeper of the Africa collection MAS, in collaboration with Nadia Nsayi, co-curator representation) at the Antwerp MAS Museum is the first World Art Fair held in Antwerp in 1885. This fair presented the ideal occasion for Leopold II to promote his colonial projects in Congo. As with all World Fairs, industry and trade were the principal attractions, and the exhibition breathed the optimism of progress. All participating countries advertised their colonies; the Belgian pavilion displaying Congolese mineral resources, as well as art objects without much attention to their makers or function. To highlight the ‘work of civilisation’, a ‘human zoo’ was erected where 12 Congolese had to reenact daily life in a fictitious village – a forgotten shameful history the exhibition rightfully puts in the picture.

On the above invoice, we find this Teke (?) statue mentioned as ‘Godin der vruchtbaarheid’ (‘Fertility figure’). Image courtesy Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (#RMV 607-4, Info).

After the world fair, king Leopold II donated most of the art objects to the Leiden Ethnographic Museum in the Netherlands – as the Royal Museum for Central Africa did not exist yet! Another group of objects would be sold by the Antwerp firm F. & V. Claes in 1887. The exhibition shows an invoice from that year where the firm (not a true gallery in the current sense of the word) sells a group of objects to the Ethnographic Museum in Leiden. On the invoice we see they were specialised in the ‘Preparation and trade in natural specimens’ (‘Bereiding en handel van natuurkundige voorwerpen’). A bit similar to the Umlauff firm in Hamburg, one of their specialties indeed were stuffed animals. They also sold objects exhibited at the 1885 World Fair to the Berlin Museum, and would play an important role in the trade in African art up until the start of the 20th century. Frans Claes (1860-1933) would later become the curator of the Antwerp Vleeshuis Museum, and his private collection would be sold at auction after his death in 1933. I patiently await until a researcher explores the history of this pioneer dealers.

It is a fun coincidence that a century later, the brothers Didier and Alexandre Claes, while unrelated to Frans & Vincent, continue the tradition of their namesakes! And, if you were wondering, my name, Claessens, is just plural for Claes 🙂

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Masks & martinis – an Air Afrique advertisement from 1980

Bargain for a beautiful Dan mask in the morning and enjoy a delicious martini in the evening.

How telling for that time period, that such a marketing slogan was considered enticing enough to get more people to fly to West Africa, preferably with Air Afrique.

After seeing the Estée Lauder and Pernod advertisements I posted before, the Boston-based gentleman-collector Lou Wells was kind enough to email me the above advertisement from Air Afrique from 1980. Funnily enough the drawing of the illustrated Dan mask was based on a published photo of a mask that Wells owned at the time (pictured in African Arts magazine, January 1977, X2). The illustrator clearly had no idea as he also included the stand of the mask picture in the below photo in his drawing.

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Discoveries Objects

The origins of a Chokwe decorative motif

Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum, London (#10.2.62/34). Height: 27 cm.

You are looking at a rare Chokwe bird trap from Angola, held in the collection of the Horniman Museum in London (info). It is made from a soft wood for the frame, and strips of cane for the bars. Such a trap was composed of two compartments: the upper, with the deadfall lid (weighted with lumps of gum) and seed bait, and the lower, divided from upper by bars and provided with perch (where the live decoy bird would be).

The Chokwe expert Marie-Louise Bastin wrote about these dead-fall traps in 1961:

The Chokwe like to hear birds sing. So they keep the kasakala canary (Serinus mozambicus), a delicious singer, as a cagebird. The little cage, called cisakala (pl. yisakala) is rectangular, of vegetable matter, consisting of a frame and a fine interlocking lattice. They hang the cage with the little Mozambique canary in the shade among the trees, near houses, and feed it with its favourite seeds; on journeys they take it with them as a cheerful companion. All this was related by explorers during the last century, starting with Livingstone in 1873. It is thus that the most widespread Chokwe decorative motif is called maswi a yisakala, “net of cages”: a drawing with symmetrically crossing parallel lines, usually forming a diamond shape or adjacent diamonds. Maswi a yisakala is also the name given to a seed-like keloid tattoo which decorates men’s and women’s skins, in the form of a fine checkered embroidery (Bastin 1961, IV.c.d.7).

Below two examples of this motif. I’m sure you can easily find others yourself and hopefully will never look the same again at such decorations. As always in African art, everything refers to something, and we can only do our best to decipher these visual clues as good as we can.

Chokwe comb (tyimwanya). Collection Musée du quai Branly (#71.195.56.53).
Chokwe thumb piano (Tuysandzi). Collection Musée du quai Branly (#71.1954.56.11).

Thanks to Guy van Rijn for the tip!

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Oceanic and African art in an Estée Lauder advertisement (Fall 1984)

I recently came across this EstĂ©e Lauder advertisement from 1984 for their ‘Primitive Worlds’ make-up colors. We see a model posing in a museum-like setting with in the background a large Nafana bedu mask, a fragmentary Korewori spirit figure, an Abelam bark painting, a Vanuatu headdress, an Oro Province tapa from Papua New Guinea and a Fang ngil mask from Gabon. These objects and the model’s jewellery were on loan from the private collection of Maureen Zarember from Tambaran Gallery in New York.

With a bit of sleuthing I discovered the model for this campaign was Willow Bay, who Americans might recognise as she would later become a well-known television anchor of ABC, CNN and NBC, and now is married with the CEO of Disney, Bob Iger. She was a spokesperson for EstĂ©e Lauder cosmetics from 1983 to 1989. The photographer for the ‘Primitive Worlds’ campaign was Victor Skrebneski, who died earlier this year, and is most known for his fashion photography and his work for the ad campaigns of Estee Lauder. He and Bay collaborated on many shoots for the make-up company.

Update: Maureen Zarember was kind to react:

It was a 3 page color centre fold in the NYTimes Sunday magazine and other magazines. The other pages showed the model wearing my huge Nagaland necklace, and new cosmetic colors / lipstick same color as the necklace. It was really a daring add, I must have sold dozens of those big necklaces. Estée Lauder walked into my Madison Ave gallery and asked if she could use some of the Naga necklaces in her promotion, it just grew into something bigger. Today, companies hire an army to do that work, not Estée, she was so hands on and a pleasure to work with. Thanks Bruno. Maureen

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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 🙂

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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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 ÂŁ60M) 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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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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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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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”, François 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..”