Click here for a short news item from Belgium TV about the ongoing renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (in Dutch). Everything is still on schedule and the museum is expected to reopen mid-2017. You can follow the renovation on this blog.
According to this article in the French newspaper Le Figaro, the Musée du Quai Branly’s name will officially be changed into “Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac” on 20 June 2016. It is a French custom for prestigious buildings such as museums to take their final name after the death of an important statesman (for example the Centre Pompidou). However, on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, the museum’s president Stéphane Martin has requested the French Ministry of Culture to already approve the renaming of the museum. On 21 June the museum will as well open an exhibition dedicated to Chirac, who was closely involved with the museum’s foundation, showing 150 objects that have a link with the former French president (info).
Kenneth Cohen (a Fulbright Scholar of American and Museum Studies currently based in Ivory Coast) recently embarked on a praiseworthy mission: to build an online catalog of the collection of the Musée des Civilisations (MCCI) in Abidjan. This museum owns one of the largest uncatalogued art collections in West Africa, numbering some 15,000 objects.
As the museum continues to recover from raiding and damage during a civil war in 2010-2011, it is creating an online catalogue of the collection to help document, preserve, and share it.
The value of the project is that the museum’s overworked staff will not have to write descriptions for every object as a team of 25-30 scholars from Côte d’Ivoire, France, and the U.S. who will log into the catalog and add descriptive information based on the photos and metadata that gets uploaded. The team includes Yaelle Biro, Christine Kreamer, Susan Vogel, Susan Gagliardi, Najwa Borro, yours truly, and others.
Cohen is currently recruiting equipment and funds to pay extra staff to help complete the project and created a fundraising page for individual donors: you can contribute and find more information about the project here. They have already raised $ 14,000 and need another $ 6,000 for the final months’ labor costs.
ps unfortunately a lot of objects disappeared from the museum’s collection through the years – luckily the Musée de quai Branly in Paris holds the the photographic archives of Bohumil Holas (the museum’s curator in the 1960s and 1970s); they include a lot of installation shots (as above), which give a good idea of the museum’s holdings at the time. Cross-referencing these files with the new catalogue will give a good idea of which objects are no longer in the museum.
2015 certainly was a great year for the African art collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apart from an iconic Hemba statue, the museum also bought an excellent Jukun headdress. This shoulder mask was published in Elsy Leuzinger’s Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika (Zürich, 1970) – and featured on Jacques Kerchache New Year’s Card of 1971. It was ‘collected’ in Cameroon in 1968 or 1969 by Philippe Guimiot, acquired by Kerchache and then in a private collection from 1994 to 2015. I do hope European museums are taking note how the Met continuously is able to fortify its collection thanks to the generous contributions of several donors. Government grants practically reduced to zero, the ‘acquisitions’ of many of them unfortunately are limited to the occasional bequest. Of course, in the EU, there’s no beneficial system of tax-deductible donations as in the States – a not to be underestimated factor.
Some info about the object from the Met’s website:
This enigmatic and arresting creation of a Jukun sculptor active in central Nigeria’s Benue River Region was a kinetic ancestral sculpture. According to accounts gathered by researchers, such works were animated in performances devoted to agricultural rites as well as to those relating to initiation of young boys into adulthood. Access to those events was highly circumscribed. Women, children, and outsiders were not allowed to view those nocturnal apparitions.
The form is purported to have been manipulated by a person who used the lateral apertures to support and raise it. Perforations around the perimeter of the lower half allowed for the attachment of a vegetable fiber costume. The upper half distills an ancestral presence to essential features that are dramatically amplified. Crowning the summit is the majestic dome-like volume of the head. The eyes project in bold relief from the flat surface of the face and teeth are incised on the underside of the straight line of the mouth. At either side the flat discs of earflares favored by regional elites are emphasized. Adoption of Christianity and Islam during the first half of the twentieth century led to the abandonment of this minimally documented tradition.
Currently the object is not on view, but I hope that will change soon!
A quick note to say that I have updated my list of museum databases – with thanks to the messages of multiple readers. Newly added are:
I’ve now also included a ‘wall of shame‘, for museums who lack any online visibility of their collection. I hope they take notice and start digitalizing! I would love to see the collection of:
Do contact me if you know of any other museums; thanks.
As you can see above, I’ve created a new page on this website called ‘Museum Databases’. It includes a list of links to the online collection databases of museums that have African art. Since a couple of years more and more museums are making their collections accessible online, so I thought it would be convenient to have them all grouped on a single webpage as a starting point for some serious sleuthing.
This list is not (yet) exhaustive and a work in progress, so please do get in touch if you spot a museum I missed. What about the Italian museums for example ? There should be more in Germany as well – but not everybody has caught up with the digitalization trend of course. Also, the Tervuren Museum is still adding objects (but they do have 180,000 objects to process of course) and the British Museum still has a lot of objects without a picture, but most of these databases are pretty complete. I can only hope this list gets bigger through time. I often dream of one centralized database, but that’s for the distant future.
Anyway, happy browsing and all the best wishes for 2016 !
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven)
Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania)
American Museum of Natural History (New York)
Birmingham Museum of Art
Dallas Museum of Art
Fowler Museum (Los Angeles)
Saint Louis Art Museum
National Museum of African Art (Washington)
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Princeton University Art Museum
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Art Institute of Chicago
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia)
University of Michigan Museum of Art
Ethnologisches Museum (Berlin)
Museu de Cultures del Mon de Barcelona (in Spanish)
Museum for World Cultures (Gothenburg)
The Toledo Museum of Art has just announced they purchased the rare Saibai Island mask that was sold at Christie’s in Paris on December 3, 2015. Estimated €750,000 – €1,200,000, the mask was hammered down for € 1,665,500 (buyer’s premium included, info) – making it the most expensive Oceanic mask ever sold at auction. Deaccessioned by the de Young Museum (where it was part of the Jolika Collection), the mask was collected by Samuel MacFarlane circa 1870 and had already spend some time (from 1886 to 1974) in another museum before (the Staatlichen Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, Germany). I’m happy to learn it will stay on public view.
In the press release Dr. Brian Kennedy, president, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, commented that “This is an extraordinary, spectacular example of the sculptural tradition of mask making in the Torres Strait Islands. We have rarely seen such a striking and memorable mask. We are thrilled to have acquired an object of such rarity which expands the global range of the Toledo Museum of Art’s celebrated art collections.” You can learn more about the mask here.
ps the Toledo Museum does have a small collection of African art (search on ‘Africa‘ here; and they also possess Modigliani’s iconic portrait of Paul Guillaume.
Sad tidings from France: the Musée Africain de Lyon (founded in 1860 and holding about 6,000 objects) is threatened with closure. The museum (which receives no public subsidy and relies on income from entrance tickets and private donations) has created an online fundraiser to collect €20,000 to keep the museum open (info). Formerly run by missionaries, the museum ‘professionalized’ in 2012 by hiring two full-time employees. They welcome about 10,000 visitors a year, but need the double to break even. The yearly budget is not that high, with only €60,000 the museum can remain open and program two or three temporary exhibitions. The extra funds would be used to improve the educational activities, step up its public relations, and for the installation of the planned exhibitions for 2016 (Children’s games–ritual figurines; Migrants from African and West Indies in Lyon; and a show about the representation of African women in photography of the 20th and 21st centuries). Unfortunately the crowd funding’s start was launched the morning of the attacks in Paris, so not surprisingly failed to attract much attention. So far it has only reached a mere 5% of its goal – while more than ever we want children to learn about the world’s diversity. You can support the museum here.
ps for a virtual visit of the museum, click here.
Unlike their European counterparts, many US museums are still actively acquiring new objects to complete their (often relatively young) collections of African art. In many cases such purchases remain unnoticed, although sometimes there’s a press release to inform the public of a new acquisition. Last October, the Cleveland Museum of Art for example purchased an Igbo ikenga figure (info). The museum writes:
The Igbo constitute the largest ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria and their arts are among the country’s most varied and complex. The figure is a key example of an Igbo sculptural genre called ikenga. It depicts a man seated on a one-legged stool, holding a cutlass in one hand and a human skull turned upside down in the other. The ikenga would have been part of a shrine, where it would have received prayers and sacrifices in return for the ancestors’ support and guidance.
The figure wears an elaborate headdress comprised of two curving, interconnected horn-like extensions, with three projecting cone shapes on either side of the face. The horns, perhaps those of a ram, underline the male gender of the image. The figure’s forehead and temples are graced with parallel incisions imitating local scarification patterns known as ichi. The ichi scars signal that the sculpture represents a high-ranking member of one of the many Igbo male associations. The white color around the eyes, derived from chalk, signifies purity and protection, and refers to the benevolence of the spirits.
The ikenga figure is an important addition to the museum’s Nigerian holdings. It also adds a sculptural genre with widespread cultural connections, as it was shared by various different peoples across a vast geographic region.
Note that the fact that the figure is holding a decapitated head doesn’t mean the Igbo were headhunters (a story one often hears in the trade), this was more a symbol than an actual representation of a local custom. It is more reasonable to assume that it symbolizes courage, wit, bravery, material success and other achievement qualities, which raises the status of the owner.
The Cleveland Museum of Art bought the statue from a US dealer who had bought it in Paris in 2010 at the sale of the remainders of the Kerchache collection for only €10,000 (Pierre Bergé & Associates, Paris, “Collection Anne et Jacques Kerchache”, 13 June 2010. Lot 322). A bargain if you consider the quality of the statue and the fact that it was published in both Elsy Leuzinger’s Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika (p. 187, #M9) and Jacques Kerchache’s Art of Africa (p. 543, #930). After the sale it also got published in Herbert M. Cole’s Igbo book (Milan, 2013: pl. 9). Igbo art still remains under appreciated, but I’m happy to notice it’s getting the place it deserves in public collections.
UPDATE: Herbert M. Cole was so kind to respond to my statement about the meaning of the severed head; he writes:
The Igbo and several of their SE NIgerian neighbors WERE in fact headhunters, as evidenced in numerous headdresses featuring trophy heads, in ikoro slit gongs, and ikenga. Headhunting may have stopped by virtue of the pax brittanica, but it is well recorded in early accounts of this large area, and while the iconogrphy was sustained for symbolic reasons, it had it origin in warfare (even among Igbo subgroups, which were never unified). I see the upside-down head as an indication of doubled humiliation of enemy peoples whose head brings power to the captor’s community.
For the armchair traveller and those of us who will not have the chance to travel to New York, some professional installation shots from Kongo: Power & Majesty – click on the pictures to zoom. With thanks to the Department of Arts of Africa at the Met for providing the pictures.