Category Archives: Museums

The MET acquires the best Bamana antelope headdress ever

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Field-photo of the day: behind the scenes at the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum

Image courtesy of Jonathan Fine.

Image courtesy of Jonathan Fine.

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.


“MetCollects”: the Epstein Sachihongo mask

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Mark Morosse.

MoMa’s “African Negro Art” archives online (1935)

Image courtesy of the Moma.

Image courtesy of the Moma.

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.

Image courtesy of the MoMA.

Image courtesy of the MoMA.

Musée du Quai Branly to be renamed Musée Chirac

Musee Chirac quai branly

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).

Abidjan’s Musée des Civilisations needs your support

Installation shot of the Musée de Côte d'Ivoire, Abidjan, in the 1970s. Photo by Bohumil Holas, courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (PP0179800).

Installation shot of the Musée de Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan, in the 1970s. Photo by Bohumil Holas, courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (PP0179800).

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.

The Met acquires a Jukun shoulder mask

Jukun headdress, Nigeria. Height: 114,3 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015.445). Purchase, Pfeiffer, Leona Sobel Education, 2005 Benefit, and Dodge Funds; Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family; Andrea Bollt Bequest, in memory of Robert Bollt Sr. and Robert Bollt Jr.; Elaine Rosenberg, James J. Ross, and The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gifts, 2015.

Jukun headdress, Nigeria. Height: 114,3 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015.445). Purchase, Pfeiffer, Leona Sobel Education, 2005 Benefit, and Dodge Funds; Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family; Andrea Bollt Bequest, in memory of Robert Bollt Sr. and Robert Bollt Jr.; Elaine Rosenberg, James J. Ross, and The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gifts, 2015.

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.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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!

Updated list of online museum databases

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.

Museum databases online

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)
Brooklyn Museum
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
Amherst College
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


British Museum (London)
Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford)
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (Norwich)
Horniman Museum (London)


Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren)
Museum aan de Stroom (Antwerp, former Ethnographic Museum)


Musée du quai Branly (Paris, in French)
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

The Netherlands

Wereldmuseum (Rotterdam, in dutch)
Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Leiden)


Ethnologisches Museum (Berlin)


Museu de Cultures del Mon de Barcelona (in Spanish)


Musée d’ethnographie de Genève
Rietberg Museum (Zürich)
Musée Barbier-Mueller (Genève)

Other Countries

Museum for World Cultures (Gothenburg)