Category Archives: Objects

The Cleveland Museum of Art acquires an Igbo Ikenga figure

Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Ikenga figure. Height: 73,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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.

Oceanic art in the streets of Antwerp

Walter van Beirendonck bicycle bag duk duk Tolai PNG Bruno Claessens blog

In 2009, the Belgian fashion designer Walter van Beirendonck created a bicycle bag for a bicycle promotion campaign in Flanders. Ever since, one can spot these flashy bags on the streets of Antwerp. What no one realizes is that they were in fact inspired by the masks worn by members of the Duk-Duk secret society of the Tolai people of the Rabaul area of New Britain, the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea. The motif of the spiral eyes of these masks was used by van Beirendonck in his Glow collection (Autumn/Winter 2009-10) after having seen a real duk duk mask at a gallery on the Sablon in Brussels. And that’s the reason why one can often spot an Oceanic motif in the streets of Antwerp 🙂

Duk-Duk Members, Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of Maxwell R. Hayes, 1964.

Duk-Duk Members. Image courtesy of Maxwell R. Hayes, 1964.

A rediscovered Senufo figure from the Helena Rubinstein collection

Helena Rubinstein Senufo Paris 1951

An important momentum in the appreciation of African art was the sale of the Helena Rubinstein collection by Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc. in April 1966. The unprecedented prices paid for the objects from her collection would radically alter the commercial value of African art. Ever since, and even more since the 2014 exhibition dedicated to her (info here & here), objects coming from her collection have been highly sought after. Last weekend, one of them popped up in an small US estate auction. An attentive collector discovered it on the above interior photo and was able to acquire it at a fair price. A wonderful detail is that after being cherished so long by the most important female collector of the 20th century, it will now be treasured again by another female collector, a species of which there are far too few.

Senufo figure Ivory Coast Rubinstein 1966

A pair of Mbala figures reunited during BRUNEAF 2015

Mbala couple Julien Flak reunited

A nice story from BRUNEAF: Julien Flak was exhibiting a female Mbala figure (which he had recently bought at Sotheby’s – info), when a local private dealer remarked he possessed its male pendant. He went home to collect it and not long after the two figures were reunited after being separated for about half a century: the female figure had been in the US since the 1970s, while the male figure had left Congo much later. Note how the female figure is bigger than the male statue. Unfortunately the male figure had lost its penis. Julien Flak of course did not hesitate and was able to buy the figure. Of course we don’t know if the two figures in fact ever were used together (the patina does differ) – however, it is clear that they were made by the same sculptor. They did look happy to be together again.

ps during Parcours des Mondes 2013 I witnessed an even more important reunion, read all about it here.

Mbala Suku couple Congo Flak

Back Mbala figures Bruneaf Perls Galleries Patric Claes

African artists index

A quick service notice: I have created a special page on my website (here) grouping all my blog posts about African artists. ‘Masterhands’ unites my identifications of previously anonymous carvers, as well as posts about known sculptors and master sculptors or workshops established by other scholars. It is still a fairly short list, but in the long run I wish to create a substantial index of African artists on this page.

Note that Sotheby’s Paris will be selling a Teke figure by The Master of the wedge-shaped beard (who I identified in March) later this month; read all about it here. In French his pseudo-name translated into le Maître de la barbe cunéiforme.


Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Objects of the day: Tellem lip plugs

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom  Collection, Switzerland.

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.

I was in Switzerland last week and had the pleasure to visit a private collection with a focus on art of the Dogon and Tellem from Mali. One type of objects I had never seen before were the above rock crystal lip plugs. These were found in Tellem caves, close to female neck rests and textiles. Their owner kindly allowed me to share these photos – I photographed the plugs on my hand to get a better idea of their size. It must have taken a long time to shape a piece of rock crystal like this (and a lot of accidental fractures of other examples). Note how one end of each lip plug is crowned by a piece of metal to make sure it would stay in place when being worn in the lower lip. It must have been a spectacular view. Unfortunately nothing is known about their function. Even more impressive were the two examples made in an unidentified type of stone illustrated below.

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.

Photo: Bruno Claessens. Image courtesy of the Blom Collection, Switzerland.

These characteristic lip plugs can often be found on wooden Dogon and Tellem statues, see for example the statue on the book cover below. This book, Dogon. Images & Traditions, was published by the owner of these lip plugs, Huib Blom, in 2010. The book summarizes more than 25 years of research and, including numerous beautiful black-and-white field-photos by the author himself, is highly recommended. If you mention my blog while ordering it here, you’ll get a € 20 discount.

Dogon images and traditions Huib Blom Tellem art

The Jay T. Last collection of Lega art at the Fowler available online

Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The Fowler Museum recently launched an online presentation of the collection of Lega art they received from Jay T. Last (info). You can find it here; if you click through you get each object’s details and a larger picture. Excellent study material now available for everyone. Some more info:

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa highlights the impressive collection of Lega art amassed by physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously donated these holdings to the Fowler Museum. When Dr. Last started collecting Lega art in 1962, his passion for aesthetics developed into a life-long pursuit of the meaning and history of the beautiful works he sought. In discussing his interests, Dr. Last has commented, “This linking of art with moral culture, the use of art objects to serve as a teaching and inspirational device during Lega ceremonies added a great deal of meaning to my collection.” By gifting his collection to the Fowler Museum, he ensures its access, study, and preservation for decades to come. Most works date to the 19th century and were collected during the 20th century. All the works are in the permanent collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, gift of Dr. Jay T. Last.

ps Jonathan Fogel wrote about the Jay T. Last collection in the Autumn 2013 issue of Tribal Art Magazine (here).

Auction surprise of the month: a Bembe figure from Congo Brazzaville

Bembe Congo Brazzaville

A new surprise at auction, in France this time, where the above Bembe figure (height: 14,5 cm) sold for € 117,800 (buyer’s premium included). It was estimated at € 12-18K and has no provenance. Compliments for the buyer because it is indeed a gem.

Raoul Lehuard in his magnus opus Art Bakongo. Les Centres de style classified this as style G-16, “a style in which Bembe art realized perfection” (1989, Vol. II, pp. 371-377). He eloquently writes: “Admirables d’élégance, de finesse et de préciosité, les productions de ce centre de style témoignent d’un art élaboré ayant abouti là à sa perfection mais, peut-être aussi, sa fin. Tant de raffinement et de délicatesse pourraient être l’opposite de l’archétype”.

This muscular style was later identified and attributed to the Bembe Gangala by Marc Felix (Art & Kongos, 1995: p. 199), north of Mindouli at the Loukoumi River. Another example in this style, held by the British Museum, below.

Image courtesy of the British Museum (14623).

Image courtesy of the British Museum (14623). Height: 14 cm.

At first glance, the result of this statue might seem remarkable, but it is in fact not that surprising. Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Sotheby’s NY already sold a statue in this style for $ 55,000 (pictured below). For now, it is the most expensive standing male Bembe figure ever sold at auction, but squatting Bembe figures have already passed the €100K mark for some years – Christie’s sold one in 2014 for €145K (info) and Sotheby’s sold one for €384K in 2007 (info).

Image courtesy of Sotheby's NY (16 November 2002. Lot 42.). Height: 19,7 cm.

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s NY (16 November 2002. Lot 42.). Height: 19,7 cm.

ps another gem in the same sale was the Kongo fly-whisk below. Mounted on an Inagaki base and estimated €3,5-5K, it sold for €20,460.

Kongo Flywhisk Inagaki base

Field-photo of the day: an ancient Luba stool (D.R. Congo)

Luba Stool Burton D.R. Congo

When discussing the correspondence between traditional Luba hairstyles and cicatrization, and the coiffures and body decoration on their chiefly stools, one often encounters the following quote from William Burton’s excellent study Luba religion and magic in custom and belief (1961, p. 24):

So petrified have become the customs of the present in the traditions of the past, that we have known women to go two days journey to see the stool of the chief at Nkulu, that they might settle some little matter as to the correct vogue in cicatrization marks. This stool, carved at least 150 years ago, still sets the fashion, to certain of the Luba in cicatrization.

Burton’s observations are important in that they suggest that, not only did the artists who made the Luba stools copied actual hair and scarification styles, but also that they set a standard of fashion for succeeding generations.

Note that well known is that Burton also photographed this stool in the 1920s, as illustrated above. Unfortunately the details of this field-photo are not very clear – which might explain why this picture hasn’t been published much. However, after some sleuthing I was able to track down this stool (which fortunately survived time) and we now can finally see the cicatrization patterns in detail (click on the picture to zoom).


Luba stool Nkulu wood Burton


This stool was sold by Sotheby’s London on 17 June 1991 (lot 150); the Belgian dealer/collector who bought it for £ 63,800 presumably being aware of its importance. Interestingly enough, Burton’s original caption accompanying this field-photo stated: “Stool of office of Nkulu chiefs, 250 years old. Insignia of office carried even in war”. Especially the supposed age of this stool is remarkable; Burton’s informants stating it was made in the 18th century. This shows that many Luba regalia may in fact be much older than we think.

Songye statue of the day: Tombwe of Kabashilange

Songye figure Kabashilange Congo Burton field-photo


After yesterdays Luba chief, another amazing field-photo from Missionary pioneering in Congo forests: a narrative of the labours of William F.P. Burton and his companions in the native villages of Luba-Land (p. 188): a Songye figure, “the famous fetish of Kabashilange”, in full action. Burton, still exploring the Luba-Songye region, writes in his diary:

Arriving at Kabashilange, our stopping place, a village of about 250 people, we found ourselves in the centre of a considerable crowd doing honor to their far famed ‘Nkishi’ or idol, named Tombwe, which was made by four powerful magicians at a price of 200 francs and a woman. The woman, frightened to become the wife of a magician, ran away, but was brought back and forced into submission, though screaming and almost incoherent in her terror

This tiny bit of information proves already to be very informative. It confirms, once more, that each Songye statue had a personal name. This is the first reference I’ve come across of a figure being ‘made’ by four diviners. Unfortunately that ‘made’ isn’t specified; Burton probably meant ‘activated’ and it’s not clear if one of the four was also the sculptor. Also note how even a small village of 250 people did have (at least) 4 diviners. Burton continues describing ‘Tombwe’:

The ‘nkishi’ is about two feet six inches high. A wooden figure covered with charms, etc. It is carried about by two women, who may not touch its sacred person, but hold it by two long poles attached to its arms. Moreover as it is carried, a drum and rattle band is in attendance, while little girls sweep the ground before it, as it stood upright, with grass cloth bundles filled with magic charms. The father of a certain native Songye, was lost, and the idol was paid a big sum to find him. The poor tired woman attendants dragged it uphill and down dale, through stream and forest, now and again professing to get on the scent, but in vain.

I knew the functions of these power statues were varied, but I had never read they were also used to find missing persons. What is especially noteworthy about this description is the fact that the statue couldn’t be touched and was carried by long poles attached to its arms – a known fact. This explains why you will see the connoisseur evaluating a Songye power figure looking at the arm pits of the statue: a well used authentic example will show a notable wear caused by the ropes connecting the poles to the figure under the arms.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t not able to discover the current location of Tombwe – it is even not sure if he ever left Kabashilange..

ps you can browse (or download) that 1922 Burton book here – there’s plenty more to discover!