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 waraheaddresses 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).
Timed with the preview of our April sale (info), next Tuesday sees the opening of the highly anticipated exhibition Picasso Primitifat 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.
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).
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.
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).
Kevin Dumouchelle with an untitled 2009 work by El Anatsui at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.
To use a soccer term, the news of two ‘top transfers’ recently reached us: after almost a decade at the Brooklyn Museum, Kevin Dumouchelle has joined the Smithsonian Institution as Curator at the National Museum of African Art. Constantine Petridis in his turn, after 15 years at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has just been appointed chair and curator of African art and Indian art of the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago. We wish them both much success in their new professional endeavors.
Across the pond the sad tidings reached us that Herman Burssens, professor emeritus at Ghent University, passed away at the age of 89. Burssens is best know for his excellent work on the sculpture of the Zande (Yanda-beelden en Mani-sekte bij de Azande (Centraal-Afrika), 1962).
The Associate Curator of African Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yaëlle Biro, just broke the news on twitter that the museum acquired the above Bamana antelope headdress (ci wara) from Mali. In my humble opinion this is the best ci wara in existence. It has been in my African art top 10 since a very long time. The stylization of the antelope is spot on and the artists’ use of negative space is pure genius. I’m so happy that this headdress will soon go on public display after having been out of view for so long. The last time it could be seen was 15 years ago, when it was included in Bernard de Grunne’s Masterhands exhibition (Brussels, 2001: p. 54, #11). In 1966, it was shown in New York’s Museum of Primitive Art during the exhibition Masks and Sculptures from the Collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler (#46). In 1989 it was published in Warren Robbins & Nancy Nooter’s African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989 (p. 73, #59); and from the Schindler collection it went on to a private NY collection until last month. The news is still fresh so this ci wara isn’t listed on the Met’s website just yet and neither do we know the kind benefactors who have made this exceptional purchase possible, but what a great addition again for the Met’s African art collection! It will be on view soon..
UPDATE: it was also published in Alisa Lagamma’s Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture (p. 92, #47), which is freely available for download here. The catalog note eloquently describes the headdress as follows:
This headdress suggests a symphony of interwoven concave and convex elements. The horns, with their powerful outward and upward thrust, harmonize with the elongated and hollowed triangular ears, and prominent negative spaces are distributed throughout as visual highlights. The reductive sculptural form, a striking departure from convention, is an essentialized, skeletal structure that frames empty volumes in the area of the head, neck and lower body. The demarcation of these interior areas is accentuated by finely carved surface patterns that include a chain of diamonds along the ridge of the nose and the sides of the mane and neck; dense cross-hatching along the front of the neck and surface of the ears; and spiraling lines that travel up the length of the horns. In this interpretation, the antelope’s transparent being appears as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with life force.
A 19th century Vili mask from Congo meets a 21th century masked conservator in Berlin – now that’s an image worth sharing! Jonathan Fine, African art curator at Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, recently posted this great picture on his twitter account. It shows a conservator examining a Vili mask (III.C.8098a) to figure out what kind of conservation it needs to be displayed. He’s wearing a mask because many objects in the museum’s storage were treated with pesticides years ago. Its residues tend to collect on the surfaces and if these are dusty, the pesticides can get into the air easily. For objects that have not recently had dust removed (especially things with feathers where dust is easily trapped), conservators need to wear masks and protective gear. One of the first steps in preparing objects for exhibition in the Humboldt Forum in 2019 is to treat them to remove surface dust.
ps Robert Visser, who collected the Berlin mask between 1882 and 1898, made the below field-photo showing a ndunga mask “at work”. On the pedestal before the kneeling man, one can also spot a power figure (intriguingly slightly out of focus as if it did not want to be photographed). There are only a few known examples of this type of mask: the Museum of Ethnography in Leiden and the World Museum Rotterdam each have two; another example can be found in the Museu Nacional de Etnologia in Lisbon.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art leads the way again. Their webpage the “MetCollects” introduces highlights of works of art recently acquired by the Met through gifts and purchases. Each month a new work is put under the spotlight. Click here to explore Jacob Epstein’s Mbunda mask from Zambia – which was acquired earlier this year. More than 20 detailed pictures let you closely inspect all angles from this mask; so next time you come across one you know how a good one should look.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Mark Morosse.
In 1935 the groundbreaking “African Negro Art” exhibition was organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first exhibitions in the United States to display African sculptures as works of art, rather than as ethnographic objects. A reader just informed me MoMa has made their archives of this show available online – you can find them here. Besides the integral version of the exhibition’s catalogue edited by James J. Sweeney, you can also browse the checklist of all 603 displayed objects here. The site as well includes several wonderful installation shot – most of these objects now are rightfully considered as icons of African art and collectors are prepared to pay a considerable premium to own a piece with such a historic provenance.