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.


Star Wars, Princess Leia and the Hopi

Hopi girl. Photo by Edward Curtis, 1906.

As everybody seems to be grieving the death of Carrie Fisher, best known for playing Princess Leai in the Star Wars film series, I thought it would be nice to share a detail about the hairstyle of said princess. This complex hairstyle by some is said to be inspired by the coiffure that unmarried Hopi girls would wear. To make this hairdo, a young woman’s mother would wind her hair around a curved piece of wood to give it a round shape, then remove the wood frame. However, George Lucas, asked about his inspiration for what is now one of the most well-known hairstyles in SciFi culture, once stated that Leia’s hair is “a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look” (source). The below image from his costuming archive serves as proof. So consider this BBC story as incorrect.

Picture from the ‘Stars Wars and the the Power of Costume’ exhibition at the Denver Art Museum.

ps I talked about Star Wars on these pages before, click here to discover the Oceanic influence on one particular weapon, or here to learn if African art influenced the costumes in these films.

Museums Research

Dutch museum admits one of its ‘masterpieces’ in fact is a 20th century fake


This is not a blog about pre-Columbian art, but the story was too interesting not to share. Last week, Michel Berger, of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (The Netherlands), revealed that the 800-year-old Mexican skull decorated with turquoise mosaic, for decades believed to have been a masterpiece of Mixtec art in fact is a forgery. The museum bought the piece in 1963 for the equivalent of around $20,000 and was seen as a striking example of ancient Mesoamerican art. An intensive four-year study on the skull, one of only around 20 in existence world-wide, however showed a 20th-century glue was used to mount the mosaic on the skull – although radiometric dating had shown both the skull and the turquoise were from the correct time period and origin and ‘authentic’. The teeth, on the other hand, were much younger as they were too well preserved for a skull that lay underground for centuries.

An investigation into possible skull-duggery was launched after the museum’s conservator Martin Berger received a telephone call back in 2010 from a French colleague in Marseille. The colleague told Berger they received a similar skull from a private collection and that person who donated the object had doubts about its authenticity. Berger told a Dutch newspaper he suspects the fake was mounted by a Mexican dentist back in the 1940s or 1950s, when Mexican archeological sites were subjected to large-scale plunder and dealing in artworks like those of the Mixtecs was a lucrative business. Asked whether he was disappointed by the revelation, Berger told the newspaper: “No. In actual fact it’s given us a bizarre story and that’s exactly what museums want to do, to tell stories. It remains as one of our masterpieces — except, we’ve changed the information on the sign board. In any case, said Berger, the skull is only a “partial forgery”. “The skull as well as the turquoise are unique archaeological material. Only, the Mixtecs themselves didn’t do the glueing,” he said.

All findings of the investigations are currently presented at the museum’s current exhibition, Masterpieces under the microscope, which runs until November 2017 (info). The case got a lot of media attention in The Netherlands and surely will be able to draw new visitors to the museum, so it’s not all bad news in the end.



Gallery Lemaire archives digitized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Therese Finette Lemaire and Matthias Lemaire, circa 1970s. Photo courtesy of Finette Lemaire.
Therese Finette Lemaire and Matthias Lemaire, circa 1970s. Photo courtesy of Finette Lemaire.

As my mentor Guy van Rijn always used to say when discussing old archives: “our greatest enemy is the trash bin”. Fortunately, more than ever, people these days realize the value and importance of photographic archives and not that much gets thrown away anymore. I was thus very happy to learn that Jen Larson, Assistant Visual Resource Manager at the Met’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA), recently digitized approximately 15,000 inventory photographs from the Amsterdam based Gallery Lemaire. This archive spans over 40 years of international, non-Western art-dealing activity from this well-known Dutch gallery. It was founded in 1933 by Matthias Lemaire and since then has been continually run by three generations of the family. The records unfortunately are not accessible online, but are open for research by appointment at the AAOA Visual Resource Archive – you can find more info here.

Matthias Lemaire, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of Finette Lemaire.
Matthias Lemaire, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of Finette Lemaire.

Robert Verly’s influence on the art of the Kasaï (D.R. Congo)

Robert Verly in the atelier of Kaluesha in the region of Tshikapa, ca. 1956. Photo by Carlo Lamote, Inforcongo.
Robert Verly in the atelier of Kaluesha in the region of Tshikapa, ca. 1956. Photo by Carlo Lamote, Inforcongo.

I don’t have the time to research it myself, but somebody should write a Ph. D. on the influence of Belgian colonial administrators on the postwar artistic production of Congo and the  accompanying establishment of workshops. This largely forgotten episode of Congo’s art history took place near the end of Belgium’s colonial rule. Administrators, like Robert Verly, were instigated to find the last surviving sculptors and set up ateliers to preserve and pass on their craftsmanship. Verly’s intentions were pure, as he wanted to stop the  westernization of traditional Congolese art. Commissioned by Belgian amateurs, many carvers had ceased to create masks and figures and invented a whole new body of work suited for the external market – every Belgian family still has pieces like this. Verly wanted to protect the Congolese sculptors from external influences and stimulate the continued development of the indigenous art styles. Verly’s first ‘social workshop for indigenous art’ was founded in 1955 in Tshchikapa (see above). In the following years Verly would open about 20 more of them in the Kasaï region. As the Belgian photographer Carlo Lamote (from the press agency Inforcongo) at the time visited Verly, images of some of these ateliers and their production exist. Half a century later, as the history of these workshops is largely forgotten, many of these masks and statues unfortunately are now sold as the real thing…

Robert Verly in the workshop of Kaseya-Ntambwe (here instructing an apprentice) in Kandolo-Mututwa. Photo by Carlo Lamote, Inforcongo, ca. 1956.
Robert Verly in the workshop of Kaseya-Ntambwe (on the left, while instructing an apprentice) in Kandolo-Mututwa. Photo by Carlo Lamote, Inforcongo, ca. 1956.

UPDATE: I was very happy to learn that there is a scholar working on the subject! Read more about Sarah Van Beurden’s research project Planning a Colonial Cultural Economy: Arts and Crafts in the Belgian Congo (1930-1960) here. Today I also encountered the below sticker on the bottom of a terra-cotta pot lid in a Chokwe style (but made in Katanga) in a private collection.

protection des art indigènes Katanga Congo

Museums News Research

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.

Museums Research

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)


The Mapungubwe golden rhinoceros

Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.
Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.

The above golden rhino is the best known remnant of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, the first major urban centre in southern African history, which went into decline around the 1300s. Since the end of apartheid regime in 1994, the stunning object — just 15 cm long and more than 700 years old — has become a defining symbol of precolonial civilization in South Africa. Originally nailed on to a wooden carving, nothing is known about its function – but it is clearly the product of great workmanship.

Described as southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask, the golden foil rhino could be displayed overseas for the first time in the British Museum at an exhibition of South African art late 2016. ‘Could’, since the South Afrian government already rejected a proposal for the rhino to be displayed in Paris in 2001. You can read all about the new request here. It would make a dramatic world debut for the rhino, which is currently on display in a little-known gallery at the University of Pretoria (which holds about 9 kg of gold treasures from the Mapungubwe). To date, the South African government has declined to say whether the object will feature as a star exhibit at the London show – although its absence obviously would be a great shame in an exhibition on the history of South African art.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe hill

Learn more about the discovery of the site here.

The site was rediscovered in December, 1932, by five white adventurers who had heard rumours of a great treasure. They persuaded the reluctant and frightened locals to show them a secret stairway to the top of Mapungubwe’s steep sandstone cliffs. Even 700 years after the kingdom’s disappearance, the local residents revered the hill so much that they would not gaze directly at it. But the treasure hunters quickly climbed up and dug out the gold artifacts. At first, they decided to split their loot, including the fabulous rhino. But one of the five – a young guilt-riddled university student – had a change of heart. He sent some of the fragments to a University of Pretoria professor, and the hill was soon purchased for archeological research.

Exhibtions Research

Fraught signifiers in African art: “Kota”

Detail of a Sango reliquary figure. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Detail of a Sango reliquary figure from Gabon. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In the exhibition catalogue for his exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Kota – Digital Excavations in African Art, Frédéric Cloth makes an interesting comment on the usage of the attribution ‘Kota’ for the well-known reliquary guardians covered with metal from Gabon. He writes:

The word ‘Kota’ refers to a small ethnic group living in northeastern Gabon (estimated between 14,000 and 40,000 peoples by the mid-twentieth century), but one might be surprised to learn that there are no works in this exhibition created by the Kota people themselves.

Yes, you read that right. The Kota did not make any reliquary figures ! Cloth continues:

The reason for this is the result of a complex history. When, in the nineteenth century, Europeans started to explore eastern Gabon along the course of the Ogooué River, one of the first people they met were the Kota. Only later, the European explorers encountered the peoples who produced the art we refer to as ‘Kota’; groups such as the Shamaye, Sango, Obamba, Wumbu, and Ndassa. Oversimplification over time led Westerners unfortunately to refer to all reliquary guardians from this region as ‘Kota’.

This imprecise nomenclature now is so embedded that even Cloth remained obliged to use it for the title of his exhibition. Such fraught signifiers unfortunately tend to be hard to eradicate. Other examples previously mentioned on my blog are the so-called ‘Boa’ (info) and ‘Kulango’ spoons (info) – notwithstanding recent scholarship proved them incorrect, both designations are still widely used.

Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), "l'Art Funéraire au Gabon", Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.
Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), “l’Art Funéraire au Gabon”, Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.

The future of online object presentation

Marc Ghysels, always on the edge of new technologic progress, just released a first so-called ‘photoscan‘ of an African art object, see below (or here). It is a 3D view of a Djenne terracotta figure from Mali, which can be admired from all angles (and zoomed upon). I think it’s extraordinary and can’t stop playing with it. This imaging technique seems very natural (and in fact is very easy to use), but does require “a lot photographic and post processing work/time… as well as huge computer horsepower”, to quote Ghysels. The beauty of the technique is also that its final result can be easily displayed on an iPhone or an iPad without time-lag. In my humble opinion, it’s the future of online object presentation – especially for very three dimensional objects, such as this terracotta figure. The only thing that is still missing is a ‘PRINT’-option, but with 3D printing technology advancing rapidly that’s just a matter of a few more years.

Djenne terracotta figure
by Marc Ghysels • Scantix
on Sketchfab



Update: the future is here ! A reader informed me about 3D scans taken at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, see them here – the used software (TRNIO) even runs on an Iphone.

Update 2: the Indianapolis Museum of Art is already using this technology on their website, click here for a 3D view of a Songye figure from their collection.