Throwing throwing knives

The US based dealer Ethan Rider, specialized in African knives, had a fun afternoon of experimental ethnology recently when he decided to actually for once try out the Congolese throwing knives he’d been selling for years. The pictures and videos that he produced that day are worth a look and can be found here. Especially the last video, with the Banda knife, is very impressive. It’s amazing to see these flying through the air. Don’t try this at home!

ps in the last issue of Tribal Art Magazine, Ethan also wrote a great expose about fake African knives made by the Austrian blacksmith Tilman Hebeisen together with Wolf-Dieter Miersch; you can read it here.

Objects Research

African art inspired tattoo of the day: a Songye kifwebe mask

Last month in New York, I came across this amazing tattoo of a Songye kifwebe mask. This famous mask resides in the collection of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. It was sold by Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919 to Marius de Zaya and was one of the stars of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde in 2012 (info).

Hilary Whitham, who has this tattoo on her upper arm, assisted as a graduate curatorial intern at that show. She chose the Philadelphia-based tattoo artist Jennifer Rahman for the project because of her specialization in stippling and shading. The formal qualities of this kifwebe mask had always drawn her attention – the rhythmic disposition of striations over its curvatures making it a truly stunning object. Who knew it would be so suitable as a tattoo. Hilary generously allowed me to post a picture of the tattoo here and wrote:

Learning about the mask’s role within late nineteenth century Songye communities as an agent of social moderation – marking life events and safeguarding secret knowledge – furthered my fascination. Kifwebe epitomize the scholarly challenges associated with African objects arriving in European and American collections during the first decades of the twentieth century.  Elucidating the complex epistemologies from which these objects emerged, given the extremely partial and biased historical record resulting from colonialism, drives the field of African art history. The mask’s personal significance contributed to my choice to inscribe it permanently on my person. It was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde on which I assisted as a graduate curatorial intern, and belongs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am completing my PhD. Both of these institutions and the individuals that comprise them have shaped not only my approach to and understanding of art history, but also life more generally, in innumerable positive ways.

Whitham is currently writing a dissertation on the impact of African art on the Dada movement as a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She will especially focus on Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the Romanian avant-garde poet and African art collector who played a pivotal role in the the development of Dada. Her dissertation aims to fill the lacunae in scholarship on Tzara’s role in the development of twentieth century collecting of African art as well as to demonstrate how Tzara’s interest in African art impacted the development of the Dada movement. So please do get in touch if you would happen to own an object once in the possession of Tzara!

ps I’m sure there are more African and Oceanic art inspired tattoos around, so don’t hesitate to send a picture (and its story) if you’re willing to share; thanks.

Museums News Objects

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!

Auctions Discoveries Objects

Auction ‘surprise’ of the day: a rediscovered Maori flute (putorino)

These last few days there was a lot of buzz in the air in the circles of collectors and dealers in Maori art. Did you hear about this previously unknown flute in a small UK auction? Of course one did! Thanks to the well-consulted live online auction site The saleroom even the smallest British auction house (in this case in the small village of Haslemere, Surrey) now can reach a global audience. Even if mislabeled, so many aficionados are browsing these sales, that no sleeper stays unnoticed. Estimated at only £50-100, this masterpiece was bound to make a top price.

A few were somewhat skeptical about this offering. Surely it should be clear, even to the untrained eye, this is not a pipe. A one second google search would make that very obvious. They got the culture right, at least. In my view, just five minutes on google would eventualy end at the beautiful Maori flute we sold at Christie’s Paris last year. So, the auctioneers, or didn’t do their homework – but why then illustrating the lot with so many professional pictures ? – or did know the object would make what it is worth anyway and hoped to generate a lot of extra buzz with the low estimate. It did work if that was the case, as this exceptional Maori flute sold for £140,000 (without premium) this afternoon. With costs, the total price is around £180,000 or € 210,000 ($ 225,000). This might sound as a lot of money compared with the estimate, but in fact this still is a very good price for it and I’m sure we’ll see it again sooner or later.

Now, you’re probably wondering how these flutes sound like ? Well, you can hear (and see) Richard Nunns play an early 19th century putorino form the Oldman collection below..

Museums Objects

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).





African art on Instagram



As I unfortunately do not have as much time to blog as before, I was happy to recently discover a new outlet to document my adventures in the wonderful world of African and Oceanic art by creating an Instagram account. You can find it here (username: brunoclaessens). Instagram is a free photo-sharing app that you can install on your smartphone. It lets you share pictures (which you can easily manipulate to make them look better) with the world and allows you to follow or discover people with the same interests as you. The African art community on Instagram has been growing steadily these last few years – you would be surprised who has an account – but I’ll let you discover them yourself. Personally, I try to post daily and it can be anything, from the ex libris of Jacques Kerchache to sneak previews of objects in forthcoming sales. Most pics are geotagged, so you can see where they were taken – which can be also be an excellent way to discover more photos from a specific location (for example, at the Rietberg Museum). Users can also add hashtags (a type of label preceded with a #) to facilitate the traceability of their pictures. For example, I didn’t had the time to go to Frieze Masters this year, but searching on #FriezeMasters2016 I still got to discover what was on view (at least if it was photographed, properly labeled and shared) – but as the (new) saying goes, if it’s not on Instagram, it did not happen 🙂


As you can see, with the proper effects it’s easy to create some wonderful shots. Below some more of my recent posts..


Discoveries Objects

A Fang-Ntumu figure reveals its secrets


Four years ago I did a small study of the above Ntumu figure from Gabon; in my description I wrote: “Sometimes the eyes of byeri statues served as an opportunity for the integration of relics into the figure itself by embedding fragments of bone, often in the form of teeth, into deeply excaved cavities – which could be the case here.” A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the current owner of this statue. He had taken the figure to his radiologist to test my hypothesis. A scan proved me right and revealed the presence of three human molars: 2 behind the eyes and 1 inserted in the forehead (which had not been spotted on the statue before) – a great discovery! Next time you have an appointment at your radiologist, don’t forget to bring an African statue 🙂

UPDATE: a reader writes that the third tooth is an upper premolar.





Discoveries Objects

Object of the day: a ‘Mbala’ bottle opener

Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.
Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.


I came across a remarkable bronze object today. It’s clearly inspired on the famous Mbala statues of a drummer (as illustrated below), but it’s not in wood and much smaller.


Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.
Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.


The owner of the object was so kind to reveal the object’s function to me: a bottle opener, made for Belgian colonials, to be used during rituals involving beer 🙂  This object had a deep patina indicating extensive ritual use! These could be bought on Kinshasa’s craft market and were probably made far from the Mbala region to be sold as a souvenir of a visit to Congo.


Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.
Image courtesy of Gi Mateusen.

I want one !

Discoveries News Objects

A first important success for my inscriptions database

Pende mask, D.R. Congo. Height: 30 cm. Image courtesy of Studio Philippe de Formanoir - Paso Doble.
Pende mask, D.R. Congo. Height: 30 cm. Image courtesy of Studio Philippe de Formanoir – Paso Doble. Collection Javier Peres, Berlin.

The above Pende pumbu mask was acquired with my assistance at BRAFA in Brussels in January. While inspecting the mask, I spotted the below inventory number on the inside of the mask. While the dealer had missed it, I immediately recognized the style of this inscription..

Kongo-Kunst tentoonstelling Pende Mask Olbrechts Stadsfeestzaal 1937

I had seen this type of labeling before and was pretty sure it was done by Frans M. Olbrechts for his 1937 exhibition in Antwerp’s Stadsfeestzaal. Back home, I consulted the (rare) exhibition catalogue and checked the upper number of the inscription (92), which proved to be a Pende mask! Note that the majority of objects in the catalogue was not illustrated. However, a second confirmation that this mask was in the famed ‘Tentoonstelling van Kongo Kunst‘ came in the form of the lower line of the inscription: it starts with an abbreviation of the consignor (DERA), followed by the number of the object consigned by that collector. As the catalogue listed J.V. De Raadt as the consignor for mask no. 92, it’s certain the above mask was in the 1937 exhibition. I haven’t been able to identify the second inventory number, but it looks even older. So, I (and the masks’s new owner with me) am very happy that after all these years, an important piece of the object’s history was rediscovered.

Pende Mask Kongo Kunst Olbrechts

ps a day of sleuthing later revealed the existence of two more masks from this carver, see below. The mask on the left is in the Collection Museum aan de Stroom (former Ethnographic Museum), Antwerp (AE.0551), and was purchased from Henri Pareyn on 13 April 1920; the mask on the right was sold in Paris by Boisgirard on 19 February 1968 (lot 110) – its current whereabouts are unknown.

Pende mask pumbu Bruno Claessens Pareyn Etnographic Museum Antwerp




Museums News Objects

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!