Help needed tracking down a Djenne head

37 years ago, in 1984, this Djenne head in terracotta from Mali was exhibited in Antwerp during the exhibition Ancient terra-cotta statuary and pottery from Djenne. It was published in the show’s catalog by Adriaan Claerhout as no. 37. This rare head with a miniature figure on top was sold not long after the exhibition, and has not been seen ever since. 13,5 cm high, it should reside somewhere in a private collection, and I was wondering if anyone recognises it or knows where it now lives? Please do get in touch if that would be the case; thanks!

Discoveries Research

[Re:]Entanglements – Re-engaging with Colonial Archives in Postcolonial Times (MAA, Cambridge, 2021)

[Re:]Entanglements is an exhibition to open at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge later this year. It will be the fourth major exhibition of this project, previous ones having taken place in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka, as well as many smaller ‘pop up’ exhibitions in towns and villages in Nigeria and Sierra Leone where the British colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas, who’s archives are the subject of the project, worked. The above door graphic is taken from the Faces|Voices film, and articulates the curator’s hope that the exhibition will provide an opportunity to confront/interrogate/debate colonial collections and archives in our decolonial times.

Funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, the [Re:]Entanglements project has been re-engaging with a unique ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. As well as better understanding the historical context in which these materials were gathered, the project seeks to examine their significance in the present. What do these archives and collections mean for different communities today? What actions do they make possible? How might we creatively explore their latent possibilities? The answers to those questions can be found on the project’s website here. A beautiful and very relevant endeavour if you ask me.

The blog features interesting posts about an Igbo alusi statue collected by Thomas here, the restoration of an ikenga statue (here), and a most interesting article on sacred stone axes on Benin altars (here) – and there’s much more to discover on the blog! Below a short clip as an introduction to the wealth of the Thomas archives.


Museums Research

Munich’s Museum Fünf Kontinente stepping up its provenance research game

In terms of provenance research of their holdings, German museums historically have always been one step ahead. The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich leads by example again, by making scans of the original inventory books of its ethnological collections available on their website. You can find them here (in chronological order on the left of the page). Funded by the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art, the museum with this projects wishes to make these important historical sources freely available to researchers who wish to study the museum’s collecting activities and acquisitions.

ps thanks Ingo Barlovic for the tip!

Objects Research

Help needed deciphering inscriptions on a Mahdist knife

Yours truly is currently studying a Mahdist knife from Sudan and would love to decipher the acid-etched inscriptions. I’m hoping one of you knows someone who can read this Arabic script known as thuluth ? Additionally, I am most curious to find out the origin of the hunting scene depicted on the above blade. While this weapon (of which for now I can only share a detail) dates from the late 19th century, the style of this scene feels much older. Does anybody has a suggestion for a possible source? It feels copied from something.. Many thanks in advance!

In case you were wondering about the origin of this remarkable type of African knives, below a short introduction on them by Ethan Rider:

“Sudan was governed by foreign powers for most of the nineteenth century – first by Egypt in 1822 and then by Great Britain in 1873. The hardship experienced by the Sudanese population during this time produced widespread support for Muhammed Ibn Ahmad, who promised liberation alongside a renewal of faith. In 1881, Ahmad was proclaimed “the Mahdi” – the messiah and revolutionary leader – and he would go on to lead his Mahdist followers to military victories and the establishment of a vast Islamic state. The Mahdist regime came to an end after a defeat by the British at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and Sudan was again placed under British and Egyptian control until 1956. Most Mahdist blades were covered with acid-etched Arabic script known as thuluth, in which exhortations to the faithful from the Koran are written. Sometimes, thuluth script also included personal messages from the artisan, praising the person for whom the knife was made. This specific knife imitates a throwing knife of the Fur and dates from the 1880s.”

The Mahdist state was effectively dissolved in 1898. Indeed, many of these weapons were found on the battlefield after the British victory.  In his discussion of the two similar replica knifes in the Manchester Museum, Christopher Spring wrote (in Phillips, Art of a Continent, 1995, p. 134) notes:

“The increasing unrest among the peoples of central and eastern Sudanic Africa during the 19th century culminated in the rebellion of 1881 in Kordofan Province, Sudan, led by Muhammad Ahmad, who declared himself Mahdi (‘The Rightly Guided One’). By 1885 he had overthrown the corrupt Turco-Egyptian government in Khartoum and had established the Mahdist state. Peoples from a vast area of north-eastern and central Africa joined the Mahdist armies, either of their own free will or as slaves. Workshops set up in towns such as Omdurman produced a range of artefacts, including regalia, weaponry and armor, which in one way or another reflected the Mahdist ideology, but which occasionally also displayed stylistic influences from much more diverse sources. Among such objects were these non-functional, replica throwing knives, cut out of sheet metal and covered with the acid-etched Arabic script known as thuluth, in which exhortations to the faithful from the Koran are written. Most likely they were given as Islamicised (though still potent) status symbols to the leaders of those elements of the Mahdist armies that consisted mainly of central African slaves.”


Hear the voice of Guillaume Apollinaire (“Le Voyageur”, 1913)

Guillaume Apollinaire in the atelier of Picasso, 1910.

Synonymous with the advent of African art in Paris in the early decades of the 20th century is the name of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918, as a victim of the Spanish flu, a previous pandemic). The ‘Archives de la parole‘ of the French National Library has made a recording available of his famous poem “Le Voyageur” (info). Recorded in December 1913 by the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, I personally find it magical to hear the famed avant-garde poet read his own writings. Appolinaire would write about the experience.. “I didn’t recognise my voice at all” (a familiar feeling still), and these mixed feelings about advancing modernity and technology were exactly the subject of this poem too. Click on the video below to hear his voice (the poem starts at 1:05).

The full text in French

Ouvrez-moi cette porte où je frappe en pleurant

La vie est variable aussi bien que l’Euripe

Tu regardais un banc de nuages descendre
Avec le paquebot orphelin vers les fièvres futures
Et de tous ces regrets de tous ces repentirs
Te souviens-tu

Vagues poisons arqués fleurs surmarines
Une nuit c’était la mer
Et les fleuves s’y répandaient

Je m’en souviens je m’en souviens encore

Un soir je descendis dans une auberge triste
Auprès de Luxembourg
Dans le fond de la sale il s’envolait un Christ
Quelqu’un avait un furet
Un autre un hérisson
L’on jouait aux cartes
Et toi tu m’avais oublié

Te souviens-tu du long orphelinat des gares
Nous traversâmes des villes qui tout le jour tournaient
Et vomissaient la nuit le soleil des journées
Ô matelots ô femmes sombres et vous mes compagnons
Souvenez-vous en

Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais quittés
Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais parlé
Le plus jeune en mourant tomba sur le coté

Ô vous chers compagnons
Sonneries électriques des gares chants des moissonneuses
Traîneau d’un boucher régiment des rues sans nombre
Cavalerie des ponts nuits livides de l’alcool
Les villes que j’ai vues vivaient comme des folles

Te souviens-tu des banlieues et du troupeau plaintif des paysages

Les cyprès projetaient sous la lune leurs ombres
J’écoutais cette nuit au déclin de l’été
Un oiseau langoureux et toujours irrité
Et le bruit éternel d’un fleuve large et sombre

Mais tandis que mourants roulaient vers l’estuaire
Tous les regards tous les regards de tous les yeux
Les bords étaient déserts herbus silencieux
Et la montagne a l’autre rive était très claire

Alors sans bruit sans qu’on put voir rien de vivant
Contre le mont passèrent des ombres vivaces
De profil ou soudain tournant leurs vagues faces
Et tenant l’ombre de leurs lances en avant

Les ombres contre le mont perpendiculaire
Grandissaient ou parfois s’abaissaient brusquement
Et ces ombres barbues pleuraient humainement
En glissant pas à pas sur la montagne Claire

Qui donc reconnais-tu sur ces vieilles photographies
Te souviens-tu du jour ou une abeille tomba dans le feu
C’était tu t’en souviens à la fin de l’été
Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais quittés
L’aîné portait au cou une chaîne de fer
Le plus jeune mettait ses cheveux blonds en tresse

Ouvrez-moi cette porte ou je frappe en pleurant

La vie est variable aussi bien que l’Euripe

And its English translation:

Open that door I knock crying

Life is variable as well as Euripus

You were gazing at a cloudbank going down
With the orphan liner to future fever
And all the regrets and all the repentances
Do you remember

Vague arched fishes surmarine flowers
One night it was the sea
And rivers fled to it

I remember I remember

One evening I put up at a gloomy inn
Near Luxembourg-City
At the back of the room a Christ was flying away
Someone had a ferret
An other a hedgehog
Cards were played there
And you you had forgotten me

Do you remember of the stations the long orphanage
We went across towns that all the day were going-round
And on night were vomiting the days’ sun
O seamen o dark women and you my companions
Remember it

Two seamen who never leaved each other
Two seamen who never spoke to each other
The younger when dying felt down sideway

O you dear companions
Electric rings of stations songs of harvesters
Sledge of a butcher regiment of countless streets
Bridges’ cavalry livid nights of alcohol
Cities I saw they had mad lives

Do you remember the suburbs and the doleful landscapes’ herd

Cypresses were graphing their shadows under the moon
I lessened to the night as summer was setting
A languorous and ever upset bird
And the perpetual noise of a wide and dark river

While yet dying were rolling to estuary
The entire eye the entire eye of all the eyes
Deserted grassy and silent were sides
And the mountain over the opposite bank was very clear

Then silent with no life around
Vivid shades passed by against the mount
In profile or suddenly turning their vague faces
And holding forward the shadow of their spears

Shadows against the perpendicular mount
Were widening or sometimes abruptly sloped down
And the bearded shadows were crying with a human tune
While step by step sliding along the clear mountain

Who then do you recognize on those old photography
Do you remember the day when a bee fell down in the fire
It was you remember at the end of summer
Two seamen who never leaved each other
The eldest was wearing an iron chain
The younger was making plaits with his blond hair

Open that door I knock crying

Life is variable as well as Euripus



Quest under Capricorn – David Attenborough visits the Northern Territory of Australia (1963)

As it looks like we’re all be spending much more time at home again (here in Belgium going into lockdown again until at least mid December), I thought it would be a good moment to share this classic documentary. In these times of restricted travel, what’s not better to join a young David Attenborough on his travels through Australia’s Northern Territory anno 1963.

Episode 1 (below), Desert Gods, starts at Uluru. From minute 19, Attenborough explores Aboriginal rock paintings, before being introduced to churingas and their symbolism. Please do keep watching as it is followed with rare scenes of some of the traditional initiation ceremonies (you want to hear those bullroarer sounds!).

Attenborough’s four month stay in the region would result in a series of six programmes, and the fourth of them, The Artists of Arnhem Land (below), is also a must watch if you are interested in Aboriginal Art.

Please do let me know if you have any other documentary tips (as long as they are available online) for us armchair travellers.


Abrus precatorius seeds in African Art

Abrus precatorius (commonly known as jequirity bean or rosary pea) is a plant best known for its red seeds; these are valued throughout Africa for their bright red coloration and used as a decorative element on masks and statues, in jewellery, and in percussion instruments. While the leaves of the Abrus precatorius are consumed as a vegetable in central and east Africa, its seeds are very poisonous. Ingestion of a single seed, well chewed, can be fatal to both adults and children. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and death, usually after several days. The seeds contain a toxin called abrin which is closely related to ricin (and twice as toxic). However, these seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract because of their hard shell. So, if you were given one during a poison ordeal, the key was not to nervously start chewing!

Such seeds where often attached with resin or wax on the masks of several African cultures, among which the Bobo and Bwa (Burkina Faso), Binji (D.R. Congo), Bozo (Mali) and Wè (Ivory Coast). Especially among Nigerian cultures, the prevalence of the use of these bright red seeds is high: we find them on masks from the Igala, Jukun, Kutep, Angas, Kulere, and Sura; and on Afo, Koro and Hausa headdresses. Several Tiv ritual objects (including skulls) tend to be covered in them as well. It’s less frequent to encounter them on statues, although the famous Senufo deble statues of the Folona Master had large numbers of them attached to the body. Some Koro cups from Nigeria, as well as Chamba statues also feature them, and rare Luluwa, Chokwe and Lega statues exist with few seeds attached to the head.

I have not been able to find much literature on the symbolic meaning of these specific seeds. In his writings about the Leopard society among the Bembe in Eastern Congo, Gossiaux wrote they were called also called ‘eye of the night’, and a pejorative right of Akanga initiates – who were informed about their poisonous properties. Surely, other African cultures must have been well aware of their toxic nature, which must have come with strong symbolic connotations. The color red itself obviously often had a strong ritual meaning. Kuddos to the African artists, as long before Duchamp, they were already working with ‘ready-mades’ to increase the power of their works.

Please do get in touch if you have any more information about the use and symbolism of these seeds in African Art! And, be careful if you have any children running around in your house when you possess objects featuring these seeds, they do look like candy..

Igala helmet mask, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the Lagos National Museum, Nigeria.
Angas headdress, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.2/3157).
Binji helmet mask, D.R. Congo.
Bamana mask, Mali. Image courtesy of the De Young Museum, San Francisco (#1996.12.38).
Afo headdress, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#1956.Af14.5).
Sura mask, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the Jos Museum, Nigeria (#67.J.28).
Senufo statue, Ivory Coast. Collected by F.H.Lem in Sikasso in the Folona district. Image courtesy of Christie’s (New York 5 May 1995, Lot 49).

Smelting iron in Africa, a video by Christopher Roy (2005)


Recorded in May 2005 in the Mossi village of Dabo, in northern Burkina Faso, the above video produced by the late Christopher Roy (1947-2019) documents the traditional way of smelting iron. We witness a group of smith elders making charcoal, digging and mining the ore and flux, building the kiln (with clay from a termite mound), firing the kiln, making sacrifices, smelting the iron, and forging the iron into tools. No iron had been smelted in the region for over 50 years, this video being a reenactment of the old ways – as they now buy their iron imported from China. It’s a fascinating documentary that can only enlarge your respect for the makers of the many traditional African iron tools and weapons we encounter in the West. And, you’ll see that ‘pumping iron’ has a meaning outside the gym as well!

Objects Research

G.I. Jones on the early Anang (Ibibio) tourist art trade

A ‘modern’ Anang female doll figure, carved in wood and painted in a ‘naturalistic’ style. Photographed by G.I. Jones in South Eastern Nigeria between 1932-1938. Image courtesy of the Cambridge Museum of Archeaology and Anthropology (N.13196.GIJ).

The above field-photo presented a nice discovery in the archives of the Cambridge museum (discussed yesterday here). Photographed by G.I. Jones in the 1930s among the Anang (Ibibio) in South Eastern Nigeria’s Ikot Ekpene district, it illustrated the Anang’s shift from skin covered masks and sculpture to a more naturalistic approach resulting in a new style of free-standing, painted figures in a soft wood. In 1984, Jones wrote about this art-historical transition in The Art of Eastern Nigeria (Cambridge, pp. 184-185):

“The Modern Anang (Ibibio) style diffused into a ‘naturalistic style’ in which the hair, eyes and lips were painted in natural colours and in place of the covering of skin the face and neck were painted with clear varnish. The associated masquerade, which received different names in different areas, was spread widely to their Ibibio and Ibo neighbours. During the colonial period there was an increasing demand for Anang sculpture but primarily for masks, heads and figures in this modern naturalistic style. For it was a very successful compromise between the Traditional Anang (Ibibio) and the ‘traditional European’ style, meaning by the latter term Victorian naturalism and the classical Greek sculpture which inspired it. Europeans bought this sculpture because it looked sufficiently African but not too African. Nigerians bought it because it looked sufficiently modern and European. In response to this demand Anang carvers developed a minor local industry in the Ikot Ekpene district mass-producing inferior masks, heads, and dolls. The inferiority was due primarily for the buyers’ reluctance to pay for something better.

It is this kind of stories that are missing in the restitution debate; the agency of local actors is often completely ignored – unrightfully so, as this example shows.

Anang Ibibio couple made for trade (Sotheby’s, New York, 20 May 1987. Lot 86.)


PS you can find the obituary of Gwilym Iwan (known as G.I.) Jones (1904-1995), who had a most interesting life, here.



A visit to the Tellem caves (1964)

In these months of armchair-travelling, it is fascinating to see the below documentary of a famous Dutch expedition to the Tellem caves in Bandiagara, Mali. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, yet the views alone are worth a look.

This expedition was led by Herman Haan (1914-1996), an architect and amateur archeologist, together with Rogier Bedaux, Gerard Jansen, and Ton Hosemans. Haan had first visited the famous Dogon cliffs in 1960 and saw the potential for exploration. Through his contacts with Dutch television network NCRV, the expedition got weekly coverage on Dutch national television and millions of people would follow the journey (which would take 4 weeks instead of the ten days originally planned). It’s goal was to examine the links between the Dogon people, living at the feet of the cliffs, and the culture they had encountered when they arrived at the location in the 15th century: the Tellem (Dogon for “we found them”).

To explore the higher located caves, Haan himself had designed a metal cage that could be lowered down the cliffs. The team did numerous archaeological excavations, finding all kinds of grave gifts, like iron bracelets, quarts lip-plugs, and wooden neck-rests. One cave was used as a graveyard and held about 1,000 skeletons from the 11th and 12th century. The results of the Tellem expedition would result in several scientific publications, and the television series would inspire a whole generation of African art amateurs in The Netherlands.