Category Archives: Publications

New book: “The Benin Plaques, A 16th Century Imperial Monument”, by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch (2018)

Great news on the book front: Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Department Head for the Arts of Africa and Oceania at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, just published her eagerly awaited research on Benin plaques as a book. As her academic publisher is not really making any promotion for it (which it rightfully deserves), I thought I gave a little feature here. The blurb reads:

The 16th century bronze plaques from the kingdom of Benin are among the most recognized masterpieces of African art, and yet many details of their commission and installation in the palace in Benin City, Nigeria, are little understood. The Benin Plaques, A 16th Century Imperial Monument is a detailed analysis of a corpus of nearly 850 bronze plaques that were installed in the court of the Benin kingdom at the moment of its greatest political power and geographic reach. By examining European accounts, Benin oral histories, and the physical evidence of the extant plaques, Gunsch is the first to propose an installation pattern for the series.

Gunsch spend more than four years on the subject, traveling the world to handle as many plaques as possible. If you are as obsessed as me with these, this is a must-read. I thought I’d do a small interview with her to tell us more about this research project.

What brought you to Benin plaques ?

I began studying Renaissance art history when I began my masters/PhD program at the Institute of Fine Arts, at NYU. I thought I would minor in African art history, because I had spent a lot of time in Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda in my former career in international development. I was surprised at how anthropological the discourse in African art history was, especially compared to Renaissance art, and I realized I had more to contribute in this field, so I made African art history my main subject in my second year and never looked back. I have always loved 16th century bronzes — first in Italy and then in Nigeria — and so the Benin bronzes were a natural fit for a topic.

There’s already a lot of literature of the art of the Benin Kingdom, when did you realize you could add something to the existing scholarship?

I had a pit in my stomach when I walked into my first meeting about the project with Susan Vogel, who supervised my dissertation with Jonathan Hay. I had done a preliminary literature survey and couldn’t find the installation proposal for the plaques — I was sure I had somehow missed a major publication. When Susan said there hadn’t been any installation proposal, I knew I had something to offer. It still boggles my mind that no one has tried to reconstruct the 16th century audience hall before — but then again, it is a lot easier to do now that I can organize images of this 850+ corpus on Flickr!

A mock-up of a view of the courtyard from the entryway (using just two plaques as examples in the drafting program). Image courtesy of Kathryn Gunsch.

What do you see as the biggest revelation in your book ?

My biggest revelation in the research was that when you look at the entire series, there are overlooked clues to dating and workshop method, as well as the original installation plan. I saw more than 640 plaques in person and another 100 by photograph, and looking at so many helped me find new insights. For example, all of the wide plaques have one of three patterns on their flanges, the small collar of brass perpendicular to the left and right sides of the plaque surface. In the book, I explain how these flange patterns are likely a signature of the head of the brass-casting guild, and that they certainly mark a progression in time. You can see how plaques with one pattern are in lower relief and show less daring use of the medium than the plaques with other patterns, a sign that the brass-casting guild is learning as it completes the commission. Looking at the reverse of the plaques, and the way the river-leaf pattern is applied to the front, I believe we have evidence for a guild production method that shrinks the dating of the corpus to less than 60 years. This is the more objective ‘new news’.

An example of the patterns on a plaque flange. Image courtesy of Kathryn Gunsch.

I’m curious to see what readers have to say about my more hypothetical proposal, that pairs and near-identical series can support a theory of which plaques were installed on the same pillar as each other, and why. It turns out that 36% of the known plaques have a near-identical pair. That’s not easy to achieve in lost-wax casting, where the clay mold is destroyed in the casting process. My installation proposal argues that the pairs and sets structure the corpus, giving the installation a framework within the enormous architectural space of the court. I’m trying to explain why the brass-casters would have gone to the extreme effort to make these pairs and sets, and what the Obas reigning at the time — Esigie and Orhogbua — could have achieved with this monumental commission.

Did you get to answer all the questions you had ?

No! We never get to answer all our questions, right? I am still not sure why the first set of plaques has a strict width of 30cm, and the narrow plaques are nearly all 19cm wide, but the later sets are more variable in their width. But if I had answered all my questions, what would I do next?

How was the experience of going to Benin City yourself ?

I loved visiting Benin City. I had spent a lot of time in Abuja and had visited Lagos before, but coming back to Nigeria and spending time in Benin City made me appreciate the importance of the kingdom’s art history today. This isn’t a dead subject — Oba Ewuare II reigns over a thriving court, with all the politics that entails. Seeing his father, Oba Erediauwa, during a title ceremony really brought that home. Thinking about Oba Erediauwa’s commissions in the Ring Road at the city center helped me focus on what kings achieve with the art works they sponsor. I didn’t have an audience with the Oba, but his brothers and other high court officials were gracious and patient with my questions, as was the then-new head of the brass-casting guild, Kingsley Inneh, and his uncle Daniel Inneh. I wish I could go back more often.

What are your future plans ? Is there already another book/project in the pipeline ?

I’m currently working on a theory that the altar figures are paired, just as the plaques are — and I mean paired to the centimeter, not just having similar iconography. It seems that triadic symmetry is a main feature of Benin aesthetics, and I wonder what we can learn about the heads and the altar figures if we apply that idea. I’m not sure it will be enough material for a book, but we’ll see!

I’m looking forward to that; thanks for the interview Kathryn.

If you want to learn more, you have to buy the book; you can can order it here !

‘Baule Monkeys’ selected for the International Tribal Art Book Prize 2016: VOTE NOW

pilat-2016-baule-monkeys-bruno-claessens-international-tribal-art-book-prize

It’s the time of the year to vote! Not only on your president (if you’re American), but also on your favorite English and French tribal art book. I’m very proud to announce that my book ‘Baule Monkeys’, co-authored with Jean-Louis Danis, made it on the shortlist for the Tribal Art Book Prize (PILAT) 2016. Its one of the three preselected titles in English (the language the book was written in). An independent jury will select the winner early December and takes into account the readers’ vote. So if you could help my monkeys to get as many votes as possible, they surely will not be able to ignore them – you know how monkeys are. So, please do vote for my book Baule Monkeys HERE ! Quit monkeying around, vote now! Thanks.

New book: “William O. Oldman (1879-1949) – The Remarkable Collector” (Conru & Hales, 2016)

William O. Oldman holding a Rarotongan staff god figure. Image courtesy of Robert Hales.

William O. Oldman holding a Rarotongan staff god figure. Image courtesy of Robert Hales.

This week I’ve been enjoying the new book “W.O. Oldman. The Remarkable Collector”, published by Robert Hales and Kevin Conru and recounting the life of one of the most prolific British collectors/dealers of the first decades of the 20th century, William Oldman. During his life Oldman amassed the world’s largest and finest private collection of ethnographic objects, predominantly from Polynesia and Melanesia. This publication documents this lifelong journey through Oldman’s private archives – recently rediscovered by Robert Hales. There are more than 240 illustrations (most of them never published before) showing his inventory and private collection – not surprisingly I learnt that several dealers & collectors already discovered their own objects in the book (for example the Mbole figure Entwistle showed at Tefaf two years ago).

Robert Hales himself only knew one person who had dealt with Oldman, James Keggie (1901-1985), who regularly sold to him during the 1930s and 1940s. James said that Oldman had a mission to collect together as many Polynesian gods as possible, so that they cold receive the respect they deserved. At the time they were generally regarded as heathen idols and curios, and he abhorred this. When he brought home another Rarotongan god (similar to the one above), he would place it next to the others. James Keggie was present on one occasion and overheard Oldman say:

I have brought you another friend and now there are five of you. I am going to get you all back together and one day hopefully you will all go back home.

A wonderful quote. Documented by the photo below (apologies for the bad quality), on 13 August 1948 Oldman accomplished his life goal and sold his private collection of Oceanic material to the New Zealand Government for about £ 44,000 – he would die less than a year later. I’ve been looking a lot at this old photo; it has something very tragic about it. Not much later government officials would come to pack and ship away the treasures Oldman had been assembling his whole life. On the one hand, he must have been comforted they would (theoretically) stay together and return (more or less) to their origin, but one can’t fail to notice the incredible sadness in the man’s eyes – a big contrast with the big grin of his wife, who was probably very happy she didn’t had to live in museum anymore!

A photograph taken for the signing of the agreement of the purchase of a big part of the Oldman Collection by the New Zealand government on 13 August 1948. A very sad looking Oldman is seated next to the Rt. Hon. W.J. Jordan, High Commissioner for New Zealand. Behind Oldman stands is wife, Dorothy, all smiles. Image courtesy of Robert Hales.

A (bad scan of a) photograph taken for the signing of the agreement of the purchase of a big part of the Oldman Collection by the New Zealand government on 13 August 1948. A very sad looking Oldman is seated next to the Rt. Hon. W.J. Jordan, High Commissioner for New Zealand. Behind Oldman stands his wife, Dorothy, all smiles. Image courtesy of Robert Hales.

ps it’s interesting to observe that unfortunately only 300 copies of this book were printed. Even with a price tag of € 275, it was able to sell out in only one week! The Mazarine bookstore in Paris even had to limit copies to 1 per customer during Parcours des Mondes. As a good friend observed: “In a dying industry (print), niche tribal art books seems to be going strong.” Turning your limited print run into a marketing opportunity seems to be a very clever move – as long as you don’t mind that your book will never reach a big audience. But as my friend observed: “Had they done a run 10 times larger and driven the unit costs down so they could charge 50 euros a book without the slip case, would they have sold out in one week as well?”

 

 

GBEKRE – an excerpt of ‘Baule Monkeys’ (Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis, 2016)

Baule mouse oracle. Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).

Baule mouse oracle (gbekre-sè). Photographed by Martin Lippmann (who accompanied Hans Himmelheber), 1935. Image courtesy of: Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (#EBA-B 02563).

The term “gbekre” has long been used to designate the monkey figures of the Baule. In my book Baule Monkeys I tracked down the origin of this unfortunate appellation.

The word gbèkrè first appeared in a now little-known article written by Maurice Delafosse in 1897 for the Museum of Natural History in Paris[1]. Describing the animals indigenous to the Baule region, he noted that the baboon, Cynocephalus sphinx, was widely found throughout the area and was known as Gbèkrè or Wotoumo.

Under the heading of ‘religion and superstition’, Delafosse mentions the existence of two types of ‘idols’ in his Baule dictionary of 1900: waka akatya – in the form of a chimpanzee, and waka gbèkrè – in the form of a baboon[2]; in both cases waka may be translated as ‘wood’[3]. Akatya is not mentioned later and seems to have been forgotten, perhaps because the heads of so many such figures were indeed more reminiscent of a baboon[4]. The same dictionary mentions two other uses of the word gbekre, namely the differently pronounced gbékré (mouse) and gbekre-sè (mouse box).

However, a better-known publication by Delafosse is at the root of the misunderstanding that has persisted to the present. In his article on the art of the Baule published in 1900, he identified gbèkrè as the ‘baboon god’ in the subsection entitled ‘Génies’[5]. Consequently, every apelike Baule figure would be referred as gbekre (without diacritics) in the literature. As early as 1956, Holas wrote in the introduction to his article on Baule bowl-bearing figures that, owing to Delafosse’s 1900 article, such figures were wrongly described as gbèkré [6] (note, however, that Holas was also imprecise in his use of diacritics). Despite its having been long known to be erroneous, this term is still prevalent in 2016.

With or without diacritics, gbekre always means ‘mouse’ and should be avoided when referencing Baule bowl-bearing monkey figures. If you want to discover how we should call these statues, you’ll have to read the book 🙂 You can order it here.

 

[1] Delafosse, 1897: pp. 193–197.

[2] Delafosse, 1900b: p. 31. There was little room in that dictionary for discussing the use of these figures.

[3] Waka sona or waka sran is Baule for ‘statue’.

[4] According to Boyer, akatya (or kakatiwa) is the name of a bush spirit (personal communication, 8 December 2014). Interestingly, Kakatika was a common name for bush spirits in the Akwe area (personal communication with Susan M. Vogel, 3 August 2015).

[5] Delafosse, 1900a: p. 556

[6] Holas, 1956: p. 408.

OUT NOW: “Baule Monkeys” (by Bruno Claessens & Jean-Louis Danis – Fonds Mercator, 2016)

Baule Monkeys Bruno Claessens Jean-Louis Danis Mercator Fonds Ivory Coast

It’s time to go bananas! After 2,5 years of hard work, I’m proud to finally announce the launch of my second book: “Baule Monkeys”. My new, beautiful baby has 118 illustrations and counts 192 pages (with 25 chapters divided into four sections and 408 must-read footnotes); there’s also a French version. The seeds for this book go back a long time: about ten years ago, I encountered a Baule monkey figure from Ivory Coast for the first time during a visit to Bruneaf in Brussels’ Sablon quarter. I was utterly amazed by this bowl-bearing figure and the encounter with this statue was one of the very first times that an African art object really grasped the novice I then was. The opportunity to explore these enigmatic figures would come only years later. The Africarium Collection (which I at that time had been co-curating for a while) in June 2013 acquired the incredible cross-legged bowl-bearer illustrated on the front cover. This purchase would turn out to the catalyst to this book. The Africarium had already assembled an important group of monkey figures at the time, and this acquisition justified to dedicate these figures to the first monograph on the subject. Sharing my passion for them, Jean-Louis Danis, Africarium’s founder, agreed, and so we came to write this book.

“Baule Monkeys” wishes to explores the many aspects of these fear-inducing sculptures far from the traditional art canon of the well-known delicate Baule masks and figures. The book explores the creation, usage and morphology of the bowlbearers, and sheds light on the cultural and ritual context in which they operated. There’s also a general chapter on monkeys in African art. Through extensive research, “Baule Monkeys” combines new and fascinating discoveries with all earlier research on the subject. It as well includes several unpublished field-photos from Susan M. Vogel (who also wrote the foreword). The book focuses on fifteen examples from the Africarium Collection and a further forty monkey figures from public and private collections all presented in beautifully detailed full page spreads.

“Baule Monkeys” (and its French version “Singes Baule”) are published by Mercator Fonds – you can order it on their website here – and if you scroll down you can also find a small preview of the inside.

This Thursday (9 June), I’ll be signing the book at Vasco Books in Brussels (who also have the book in stock) from 3 to 5PM – I hope to see you there!

ps there’s also a private event in Brussels on Friday (contact me to get on the guest list).

Book review of the day

Bernard Dulon book review Gabon book fakes Tribal Art Magazine

A couple of years ago, Bernard Dulon wrote this hilarious book review for Tribal Art Magazine; the man has humor. But also, it’s one of the seldom cases where an important player in the tribal art market dares to make a public statement about the big (African) elephant in the room, namely the enormous amount of fake African art that gets exhibited, published, and unfortunately also sold these days.

Roy Sieber’s Sculpture of Northern Nigeria (1961)

Roy Sieber Sculpture of Northern Nigeria 1961 free pdf

One of the first books on the art of that region, Roy Sieber’s Sculpture of Northern Nigeria is available online for free here. Published in 1961, it was based on Sieber’s fieldwork in Nigeria and accompanied an exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art. The catalogue discusses the Igala, Idoma, Goemai, Montal and Jaba. Sieber was the first person in the United States to get a Ph.D. in African art history, at the University of Iowa, in 1957. He’s considered the founder of the discipline of African art history in the United States. During his long tenure at the University of Indiana, he supervised the Ph.D. theses of at least thirty scholars, three of the first being René Bravmann, Arnold Rubin, and Anita Glaze.

Sculpture of Northern Nigeria throws new light on two of these obscure areas, both near the Benue River of Nigeria. The history of the region is one of migrations and cross-currents of conquest ending only in the last century; but despite the shattering impact of such upheavals, the tribes about the Benue River have maintained strong artistic traditions. These traditions have few affinities with the well-known tribal styles of southern Nigeria, but seem rather to be related to western Sudanic forms.

This is a rare and hard to find catalogue, so be sure to have a look.

Goemai ceremony at Jelbam Hill near the graves of the former chiefs. Photographed by Robin Jagoe in 1957.

Goemai ceremony at Jelbam Hill near the graves of the former chiefs. Photographed by Robin Jagoe in 1957.

Coming soon: “African Art in the Barnes Foundation” (Christa Clarke, May 2015)

African Art in the Barnes Foundation clarke

To be published by Skira Rizzoli end of May, African Art in the Barnes Foundation: The Triumph of L’Art Negre and the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Christa Clarke (senior curator of Arts of Global Africa at the Newark Museum, New Jersey) and with contributions of Arthur Bourgeois, Nichole Bridges, Kevin Dumouchelle and Kate Ezra, is the first publication of the Barnes Foundation’s important and extensive African art collection. I had already written about their holdings last year here, so I’m very happy to learn about the upcoming monograph dedicated to this special collection.

African Art in the Barnes Foundation philadelphia

The Barnes Foundation is renowned for its astonishing collection of Postimpressionist and early Modern art assembled by Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Less known is the pioneering collection of African sculpture that Barnes acquired between 1922 and 1924, mainly from Paul Guillaume, the Paris-based dealer. The Barnes Foundation was one of the first permanent installations in the United States to present objects from Africa as fine art. Indeed, the African collection is central to understanding Barnes’s socially progressive vision for his foundation.This comprehensive volume showcases all 123 objects, including reliquary figures, masks, and utensils, most of which originated in France’s African colonies—Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and the Congo—as well as in Sierra Leone, Republic of Benin, and Nigeria. Christa Clarke considers the significance of the collection and Barnes’s role in the Harlem Renaissance and in fostering broader appreciation of African art in the twentieth century. In-depth catalog entries by noted scholars in the field complete the volume.

A unique aspect that makes this collection art-historically important is the very short timespan in which it was acquired, more specifically between 1922 and 1924. One thus gets a very good idea of what was available right then. In retrospect it is easy to state that the quality or authenticity of some of the objects is questionable, but one should be aware of the limited knowledge on the subject available then and the pioneering role of Albert C. Barnes assembling these artworks.

African Art in the Barnes Foundation Bamana Mali

African Art in the Barnes Foundation Mande

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (George Schwab, 1947)

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (1947) Harley Schwab

Another important book that is freely available online (here), Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland presents the ethnological results of the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum’s expedition to Liberia which George Schwab (a missionary and amateur anthropologist) undertook, together with his wife, in 1928, partly to make observations about missionary work and its effects, and on the survival of various elements of the indigenous cultures. Much of the material was gathered before by the editor and coauthor, Dr. George W. Harley, medical missionary for over twenty years in Ganta in Northern Liberia (which is Mano territory). The regions surveyed were Northern and Southeast Liberia, especially the Gbunde, Loma or Toma, Mano, Dan and Grebo. The book presents an enormous wealth of data on these peoples. The 526 pages discuss: village and village life; agriculture and time reckoning; domestic animals; fishing, trapping and hunting; food, drinks and narcotics; dress, adornment, and hygiene; handicrafts and utensils; music, dancing and games; social organization and trade; childhood and child training; war and weapons; death and burial customs; religion (cults and metaphysical concepts); divination, oracles, and science; local law; proverbs, riddles, and folk talkes, and character traits. At the end of the book there are 111 figures, including many beautiful field-photo’s and numerous images of objects of daily use (which you rarely see in publications due to their limited commercial value). Written by missionaries, there is of course a strong bias; although regrettable it doesn’t harm this publication immense value if you want to learn something about the people of the Liberian Hinterland.

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Peabody expedition Liberia route

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Dan bracelets anklets brass

Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland Dan drums Schwab Harley Peabody

Book tip: “Nok – African Sculpture in Archaeological Context”

Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context Goethe University Nigiera

One year ago, I wrote about the exhibition Nok. Origin of African Sculpture  at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt. The accompanying book presented the discoveries of a team of archaeologists from the Goethe University (Frankfurt/Main), who have been researching the Nok culture in situ since 2005 – unfortunately it was only published in German. A reader just informed me that the catalogue now has been translated into English (available here). In case you’re interested in the terracotta figures from the Nok this is a must read. 

Image courtesy of the Goethe University Frankfurt.

Image courtesy of the Goethe University Frankfurt.