Category Archives: Museums

Good curating: “Mobile Worlds” at the MKG Hamburg

A bit under the radar and running until 14 October 2018, the exhibition Mobile Worlds or The Museum of our Transcultural Present at Hamburg’s Museums für Kunst ind Gewerbe is worth your attention. The blurb on the museum’s website reads:

The exhibition “Mobile Worlds” draws inspiration from the collection housed at the Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The MKG collection is in turn inspired by the great world exhibitions held in London, Paris and Vienna in the 19th-century. Now the world of the 19th century is passé, and with it the central position that the West has long claimed for itself. Even though our world knows many centers today, many Western museums still present themselves as though the traditional, museological division into geographies, nations, epochs, art and non-art were universally valid.

I can think of a museum or two where this indeed is still the case, so this central premise is relevant indeed. You can discover more about the show’s themes here. An interesting review in the New York Times was just published by Jason Farago; please find it here. Farago makes some excellent points:

When Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries established their grandest museums, each building meant to unite the world’s cultural heritage under a single roof, they had no doubt as to who should explain it all: themselves. They took a Eurocentric view, categorizing the spoils of colonial enterprise by nation and region, splitting art from craft, and nature from culture.How much has really changed in this so-called postcolonial era? Apologies are made for the pillaging; diverse populations are invited to “respond.” But the museums’ old assumptions, their methods of classification and display, remain largely untroubled. How might you reorganize a universal museum for the 21st century, an age of migration and of perpetual exchange? One of the boldest answers yet is to be found in “Mobile Worlds,” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in the northern German city of Hamburg that has a similar standing to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

And,

By and large, “Mobile Worlds” delivers on its contention that European museums need to do much more than just restitute plundered objects in their collections, important as that is. A 21st-century universal museum has to unsettle the very labels that the age of imperialism bequeathed to us: nations and races, East and West, art and craft. It’s not enough just to call for “decolonization,” a recent watchword in European museum studies; the whole fiction of cultural purity has to go, too. Any serious museum can only be a museum of our entangled past and present. The game is to not to tear down the walls, but to narrate those entanglements so that a new, global audience recognizes itself within them.

The curator Roger Buergel, best known for serving as artistic director of Documenta 12, hypothesis for a more conscionable museum is spot on. And as Farago points: “The past is hideously violent, and these institutions won’t be regenerated overnight. But history, “Mobile Worlds” reminds us, never stops moving forward — and museums won’t be reformed at all if we don’t put in the work.” The time is now!

Last days to visit the ‘Les Forêts Natales’ exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly (closing Sunday 21 January)

Tempus fugit! It’s already the last week of the Les Forêts Natales exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (info and pictures here). If you haven’t had the chance to see this must-see show, please don’t sleep and go visit it. I would suggest to reserve at least 3 hours for it, as you’ll need them. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see that much iconic masterpieces of Gabon in one single museum. I don’t think any other curator will ever dare to envision such a comprehensive selection – it did take Yves Le Fur more than 3 years to prepare it. With the closing of the Dapper Museum, he of course had the unique chance to lend about 25 of their top objects, but also the holdings of the MqB itself, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numerous private collectors proved indispensable for the success of this exhibition. The catalogue, which unfortunately is only available in French, is also recommended but does not prepare you for the real-life experience. Furthermore, not all exhibited works are included in it. Personally, I saw the show three times, and still I don’t have the feeling I have seen enough of it. Several sections of it (Fang, Kwele, Kota, Tsogho) easily could have been standalone exhibitions and still would be incomparable. I will never forget that wall of Kotas (more than 100 in total!) – see above.

Kuddos as well to the Friends of the Musée du quai Branly for their innovative thinking to include the source communities of this exhibition by organizing several ‘web tours’ (info). Several Mondays (when the museum was closed), they organized live broadcasted guided tours which could be followed in several places in both Gabon and Cameroon:

• Fondation Gacha à Bangoulap au Cameroun
• Musée des civilisations de Dschang au Cameroun
• Musée National de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Galerie Doual’art à Douala au Cameroun
• Galerie MAM à Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Institut français de Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Libreville au Gabon
• Etablissement scolaire Le Ruban Vert à Libreville au Gabon
• Lycée français Victor Hugo à Port-Gentil au Gabon

A wonderful initiative, and a first I think. The Gabonese president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, also visited the expo – as can be seen below. He was rightfully very proud.

Exhibition tip: Beyond Compare – Art from Africa in the Bode Museum in Berlin

I wanted to share some pictures of this unbelievable exhibition currently on view at Berlin’s Bode Museum. This beautiful museum, known for its outstanding collection of European sculpture, now temporarily houses 70 masterpieces from the Ethnologishes Museum (which closed last year) until they will relocate to the newly build Humboldt Forum (to open at the end of 2019).

The African works are placed in smart juxtapositions with the permanent collection creating fascinating dialogues across time, place and religions. Unexpected similarities and differences become apparent: Michel Erhart’s late Gothic Virgin of Mercy appears next to the famous Kongo power figure, which, like the Madonna, was also created to protect a community. Mythical heroes from central Africa take their place among late Gothic Christian figures and open up new perspectives on both collections. The show address major themes of human experience, such as power, death, beauty, memory, aesthetics, and identity. For each of them, the curators (Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine and Paola Ivanov) were able to find great object pairings.

Beyond Compare is just one spectacular view after the other. One room downstairs contains the majority of works, but the remainder is spread across the museum, so it is sometimes a bit of treasure hunt (which cleverly makes you explore the whole building). I must say it is one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen in our field. I’ve become somewhat tired of seeing African art juxtaposed with modern and contemporary Western art, making up links which are not necarilly there. This show merely endeavors to find common themes and for once it is not about who inspired who (although links between St. Sebastian, Madonna-and-child statues and Kongo figures are vaguely suggested).

The installation as well is top-notch; it is clear the Bode Museum has a lot of experience presenting three-dimensional wooden works of art, and many objects can be walked around. It was amazing, as well, to see the standing statue of the Buli Master all by itself, without a case. The Benin leopard in the big staircase is a view I will never forget and the Benin queen (famous from the front cover of Tom Phillips’ Art of a Continent) paired with a Donatello sculpture, as well in bronze, is just genius.

Another plus is the excellent selection, it truly gives you a new perspective of the scope and importance of the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection, showing many masterpieces that hadn’t been on view at the Dahlem for a very long time (the Hemba ancestor figure, for example). This ‘conversation of continents’ is a big success and I would highly recommend a visit. I dream of seeing the Louvre or the Metropolitan doing something like this one day.. but Berlin did it first!

Kuddos to the museum as well for publishing an English version of the catalogue (Musée du quai Branly, please take note!). You can out more about Beyond Compare on the Bode-Museum’s website here. I’ll just let my snapshots do the talking (click to magnify), as you’ll see Beyond Compare truly lives up to its title.

Update: a reader comments, the primitive art indeed pairs very well with the African art 🙂

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.

 

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..

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!

“Picasso Primitif” at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris, 28 March – 23 July 2017)

Timed with the preview of our April sale (info), next Tuesday sees the opening of the highly anticipated exhibition Picasso Primitif at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. Organized in collaboration with the Musée National Picasso and curated by Yves Le Fur, Picasso Primtif aims to explore the links between the omnipresent artist and the non-Western arts. This exhibition aims to decipher this relationship born of admiration, respect and fear. On the museum’s website we read:

“Negro art? Don’t know it.” It was with this provocative tone that the Andalusian painter, sculptor and graphic artist made a point of denying his relationship with non-European art. However, and as his personal collection demonstrates, the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia never ceased to accompany him in all his various studios. The documents, letters, objects and photographs brought together in the first part of the exhibition and displayed chronologically, are evidence of this, demonstrating Picasso’s interests and curiosity about non-Western creation.

In a second, more conceptual section, Primitive Picasso offers a comparative view of the artist’s works with those of non-Western artists, and leans more towards an anthropology of art than an analysis of aesthetic relationships. The resulting confrontation reveals the similar issues those artists have had to address (nudity, sexuality, impulses and loss) through parallel plastic solutions (deforming or deconstructing bodies, for example). Primitive art, therefore, is no longer considered to be a stage of non-development, but rather an access to the deepest, most fundamental layers of the human being.

It was about time somebody organized this exhibition; fingers crossed it exceeds the expectations. I must admit I was quite surprised by the show’s title, as the word ‘Primitive’ in general is widely frowned upon by the scholarly community when talking about non-Western art, but I guess it sounded catchy as a title.

Two Mbembe statues reunited just in time for Valentine’s Day

Right: Mbembe artist; male figure with rifle; 19th to early 20th century; wood; 77.8 cm; gift of Heinrich Schweizer in memory of Merton D. Simpson, 2016-12-1; left: Mbembe artist; female figure; 19th to early 20th century; wood; 68 cm; museum purchase, 85-1-12. Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

A wonderful story reached us from the National Museum of African art in Washington D.C.. The museum already owned the female Mbembe figure holding a child above, but recently also were given her husband. Until very recently, this “power couple” had been in separate collections, their connection lost. The two met again in New York in 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art, after being separated ever since they left Nigeria in the early 1970s.

The maternity figure had been in the Smithsonian’s collection since the 1980s, having arrived at the museum as part of the purchase of the African art collection of Emile Deletaille (info). Before, it had passed through the hands of Lucien Van de Velde and Alain Dufour. The male figure had stayed in the collection of Merton D. Simpson, in who’s memory it was now donated to the museum by Heinrich Schweizer. You can learn more about the reunion here.

Both statues were once connected by a slit gong, a large piece of hollowed wood used as resonant village drum. You can download Alisa LaGamma’s excellent article on the subject freely here. Both figures and the drum were all carved from one massive log of iroko wood. One can even spot the matching tree rings on the figures’ backs on the picture below!

Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

 

ps my apologies for the past quiet weeks on the blog, all my energy is currently dedicated to producing a wonderful catalog for our forthcoming April sale of the Laprugne collection (info).

 

 

 

Dutch museum admits one of its ‘masterpieces’ in fact is a 20th century fake

fake-mixtec-skull-museum-volkenkunde-leiden

This is not a blog about pre-Columbian art, but the story was too interesting not to share. Last week, Michel Berger, of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (The Netherlands), revealed that the 800-year-old Mexican skull decorated with turquoise mosaic, for decades believed to have been a masterpiece of Mixtec art in fact is a forgery. The museum bought the piece in 1963 for the equivalent of around $20,000 and was seen as a striking example of ancient Mesoamerican art. An intensive four-year study on the skull, one of only around 20 in existence world-wide, however showed a 20th-century glue was used to mount the mosaic on the skull – although radiometric dating had shown both the skull and the turquoise were from the correct time period and origin and ‘authentic’. The teeth, on the other hand, were much younger as they were too well preserved for a skull that lay underground for centuries.

An investigation into possible skull-duggery was launched after the museum’s conservator Martin Berger received a telephone call back in 2010 from a French colleague in Marseille. The colleague told Berger they received a similar skull from a private collection and that person who donated the object had doubts about its authenticity. Berger told a Dutch newspaper he suspects the fake was mounted by a Mexican dentist back in the 1940s or 1950s, when Mexican archeological sites were subjected to large-scale plunder and dealing in artworks like those of the Mixtecs was a lucrative business. Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No. In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board. In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”. “The skull as well as the turquoise are unique archaeological material. Only, the Mixtecs themselves didn’t do the glueing,” he said.

All findings of the investigations are currently presented at the museum’s current exhibition, Masterpieces under the microscope, which runs until November 2017 (info). The case got a lot of media attention in The Netherlands and surely will be able to draw new visitors to the museum, so it’s not all bad news in the end.

fake-mixtec-skull-museum-volkenkunde-leiden-schedel

“Masterpieces From Africa” at the Dapper Museum prolonged until 2017

musee-dapper-masterpieces-leveau-extended-paris-african-art

 

Good news reached us from from the Musée Dapper in Paris. Their current exhibition, Masterpieces From Africa (and that’s just what it is!) is being extended until June 17, 2017. This tribute to the museum’s founder, Michel Leveau (who passed away in 2012), shows 130 exceptional objects from its holdings. It’s a must see – who knows when these objects will be on view again..

What’s unique, is that now both the famous Bangwa queen and king figures are on view in Paris at the same time, although at different museums (respectively the Musée Dapper and the Musée du quai Branly) – Paris truly is the capital of African art these days. To get a teaser of the Dapper exhibition show, see the Youtube clip below (in French, and including an interview with Christiane Falgarayettes-Leveau, the museums’ director and curator of the exhibition).