Emile Gorlia field-photo’s in The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

In Luba countryside : Judge Gorlia and his wife visiting a Luba village chief. (EEPA 1977-0001-458) (image courtesy of  the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives )
In Luba countryside: Judge Gorlia and his wife visiting a Luba village chief, ca. 1915. (EEPA 1977-0001-458) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives )

If you’re in the mood for field-photo’s, The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives are a fantastic resource.

The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art is a research and reference center with over 300,000 still photographic images documenting the arts, peoples and history of Africa over the past 120 years. Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973) was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker. He created an enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1973. Mr. Elisofon bequeathed to the museum his African materials, which included more than 50,000 black-and-white photographs and 30,000 color transparencies. The Archives has since added to its holdings important and varied collections from widely recognized photographers.

You can search by country, subject & cultural group. But, there’s more to the archive than only Elisofon’s pictures. As shown in the field-photo above, the database also contains photographs of lesser known individuals, Emile Gorlia being one of them. While Elisofon’s pictures are rather late (spanning a time-period from 1947 to 1973), the Gorlia pictures give a much earlier view of traditional African cultures in transition only decades after first contact. While only a small portion of the field-photos picture “art” (the Luba adze above or the Pende figure below), the majority of the pictures mainly illustrate the local daily life of the judge and his family and the peoples he visited. While on inspection tours through the region, Gorlia visited the Songye, Pende, Kuba, Luba, Kanyok, Tetela, Chokwe, and frequented noted places as Lusambo, Albertville, Bandundu, Boma, Matadi, the Sankuru River and The Stanley Pool. These pictures offer an unique historic view and bring life to all those legendary locations.

You can find the complete list of the 1151 Gorlia field-photo’s in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives here.

In Pende countryside: Judge Gorlia's wife standing in front of chief's ritual house. (EEPA 1977-0001-400) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
In Pende countryside: Judge Gorlia’s wife standing in front of chief’s ritual house, ca. 1915. (EEPA 1977-0001-400) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)

Note that judge Gorlia’s wife apparently didn’t bring many outfits with her to Congo. On both pictures she’s wearing the same blouse!


Arti delle Mani Nere – The Italian Forum of African Art Collectors

Online since May 2011, the Arti delle Mani Nere* forum is the online community where (mainly) Italian collectors gather to discuss African Art (*freely translatable to Art of the black hands). Its creator, Brescia-based Elio Revera, has succeeded in creating a lively forum where many critical but constructive discussions take place.

Since the majority of the posts are in Italian, it’s also a good place to practice your languages. Only one part of the forum, “Love driven choices“, is in English, presenting objects from the forum’s members private collections.

Arti delle Mani Nere

As is stated on the forum, “L’unico modo per moltiplicare l’amore, è dividerlo con gli altri” (the only way to multiply love is to share it with others), a goal I gladly endorse and support.


CT-scans of Djenne terracottas from Mali

(image courtesy of Dr. Marc Ghysels, Brussels)
(image courtesy of Dr. Marc Ghysels, Brussels)

Though inactive since November 2011, this videoblog “Djenne Terracotta” features some amazing views of Djenne figures from the Inland Niger Delta in Mali.

A project of the radiologist Marc Ghysels, 100 terracotta objects from both public as private collections are presented accompanied by an opaque rotation video 3D CT scan. Highlighting the details from all corners, one gets a much better understanding of the threedimensional sculptural qualities of these objects. Worth a visit.

The Menil Collection, Houston, USA (# 81-56 DJ) - (Image courtesy of the Menil Foundation)
The Menil Collection, Houston, USA (# 81-56 DJ) – (Image courtesy of the Menil Foundation)

African art inscriptions and labels project

After numerous inquiries on the origin of anonymous labels and inscriptions featured on African art objects, I have decided to publicly make available a project of mine which wishes to document all these old registration numbers and labels.

In the past, many museums, private collectors and dealers inscribed registration numbers or other information on artworks in their collections. It is the goal of this project to offer a list of such numbers and labels whose authors have been identified. This page will also feature inscriptions that still need to be attributed.

The present list is a work in progress. Please get in touch when you would like to share information and pictures of inscriptions or labels not yet listed.

African Art labels and inscriptions

Auctions Discoveries Objects Research

The Kanda-Kanda workshop of the Kanyok

The next Zemanek sale features a rare Kanyok bowl bearer from the Kanda-Kanda workshop.

Zemanek Kanyok bowlbearer
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

This seated bowl bearer (kabila mboko) can be compared to similar examples in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin (collected by Frobenius in 1904) and MRAC (acquired before 1918).
Kanioka Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin
(image courtesy of SMPK)
Kanyok Tervuren
(image courtesy of MRAC)

In November 2006, Sotheby’s NY sold a a rare couple from the Kanda-Kanda workshop from the William Brill collection for $ 273K. The auction catalogue featured a very interesting analysis of this particular style by Rik Ceyssens:

The style of the Brill Kanyok couple historically has been categorized as a ‘substyle’ largely concerning wood sculpture coming from Kanda-Kanda, a colonial administrative post situated in the northern outskirts of the Kanyok kingdom. This assumption was based primarily on some of the early writings of Frans Olbrechts who saw Kanyok works of art as a regional offshoot of the large-scale and far-reaching Luba style. However, his conclusions were based on a morphological analysis, rather than actual field information. Later, in 1955, Bert Maesen, Olbrecht’s former assistant, and by this time curator at the Tervuren Museum, was one of the first to do substantial field work in Mulund and in Kaatshisung, two political centers in Kanyok territory.

The earliest first-hand 19 century information on Kanyok art is based on the Michaux expedition (February–August 1896). After visiting the Luba and Ruund capitals successively, he traveled north, traversing Kanyok land and acquiring artifacts. The members of the expedition stayed in Kanda-Kanda for four days (May 22 until May 26). At this time, Oscar Michaux collected some of the most cherished Kanyok treasures in the Tervuren Museum, but none in the so-called Kanda-Kanda style.

In 1902, the Tervuren Museum received the first Kanda-Kanda style artefact, a ‘chaise pliante sculptée par les natifs de Kanda-Kanda (tribu des Bena-Kanioka)’ sent by Alexandre Pimpurniaux, commissaire de district in Lusambo (accession number EO.0.0.16168) (D.E. 13). Works in the Kanda-Kanda style could pre-date 1902, but this date together with the 1896 Michaux expedition date and collecting information give a relatively strong argument for the beginning timeframe of the Kanda-Kanda style: it was not yet operational in 1896 and fully operational before 1902. Although Maesen did not work in Kanda-Kanda, most of what we know today about Kanda-Kanda art is due to his fieldwork. During lectures on the radio (1967), he mentioned ‘tourist art’ offered at the Kanda-Kanda market, as indicated by archives (Tervuren Museum: R.T.B./Interview). I tried in vain to recover these precious document(s). Possibly, Maesen alluded to a 1950 article in L’éventail about a newly acquired wooden bowl in the Kanda-Kanda fashion (EO.1948.3.1) said to initially have been purchased in 1918 at the Kanda-Kanda market. However, this bowl was clearly used and could have been in the market place in the personal possession of its owner, and not for sale. Informed by Maesen’s research, Cornet dates the Kanda-Kanda “pseudo-style”, as he calls it, to the end of the 19th century (1972: 236–237; 1974: 132–134; 1975: 55). In 1987, Koloss learned from Maesen about a ‘workshop operating in the vicinity of Kandakanda in the first two decades of this [20th] century’ (Nooter and Koloss in Koloss 1990: 64).

Finally, in 1985, I myself twice interviewed several dignitaries at the court of Kanda-Kanda when I learned of Kadyaat-Kalool(-aa-Bineen) (d. 1920), the Manindak and titular wood carver of the Kanda-Kanda chief Kabw-Mukalang(-aa-Seey) (1894/96 – 1941/42) (Ceyssens 1990: 16–17).

Contrary to what may have been supposed based on the thematic choices and stylistic qualities of his work, Kadyaat was not a Chokwe migrant, neither a slave, nor a wandering trader. He was an ordinary indigenous Kanyok, installed as Manindak at a regional court, as a minor dignitary or technician, who never made it to one of the central Kanyok courts such as Mulund or Kaatshisung. He was able to develop his talents in combination with what were already multicultural surroundings in 1897 at Kanda-Kanda and its open market conditions. In addition, the open-mindedness of his first and formal employer, chief Kabw-Mukalang(aa-Seey) stimulated his work. Kadyaat, who died around 1920. His successor at the court of Kabw-Mukalang–Kabuya-wa-Biyombo (Bakwa Tembo, Myabi zone), though good enough as a Manindak, did not excel as a wood carver.

Brill Kanioka figures Kanda-Kanda
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Brill ‘couple’ is fully representative of Kadyaat’s personal style, and there is nothing “pseudo” about it! The particular bearing, resting in a squatting position, in real life, a relatively frequent one. As seen in Kadyaat’s œuvre, he has an anecdotal mind and in this case, the Brill couple, in the same posture, with their heads tilted at the exact angle and their eyes likewise fixed on the same point, Kadyaat indeed seems to be borrowing from the natural human interactions of his surroundings. At the same time, however, the couple here could be perceived as standing upright, the lower limbs being telescoped, as if seen from above, which is a common device in the canon of Central-African art. Moreover, the unisex coiffure is the Kanda-Kanda version of the traditional mafwifw hair style. The woman’s scarifications on the lower abdomen show that Kadyaat’s œuvre is still rooted in classic Kanyok art: I refer to the splendid caryatid stool collected by Michaux in 1896 (EO.0.0.23478) (Ceyssens 2001: cat. 87). Could it be that the smirking open mouth is Kadyaat’s personal trademark? In fact, some would say, the grin somehow echoes the mouth of Songye sculpture. In my opinion, the wide-open mouth can be retraced more closely to southeastern Kete and even Salampasu influence. In Kadyaat, we see an artist who is working within the artistic canons of Kanyok art, and Central African art in general, but he has chosen to incorporate his own perspective and idiosyncrasies to create a unique artistic sensibility.

Kanioka 376 Zemanek
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

Auctions Research

Baba Magba ibeji

image courtesy of Sotheby's
image courtesy of Sotheby’s

In the Sotheby’s May 16 African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art sale in New York last week four Yoruba female ere ibeji from Nigeria were presented without any contextual information. Nevertheless, this particular style is easily recognizable by its formal characteristics. A short little nose is always positioned high between the lozenge-shaped eyes. From a frontal view, the ears are not visible. They are positioned to the head’s rear and have a quite particular form. The simple hairdo transitions fluently with the face, and consists of different conical volumes. Female ibeji from Baba Magba have low-placed breasts, often reaching down to navel level. The legs stand spread apart, with feet up to the edge of a rounded rectangular base.

According to William Fagg, these ibeji come from Baba-Magba, that he alternately described as a village in the vicinity of Ilorin or as an outer district of the same locality (Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261 & Christie’s, 10 November 1981, lot 186). Equally, Baba Magba was also the title of the chief priest of the Shango cult, who had his seat in Oyo. So it is possible that the name is a commemoration denoting that at one time a Baba Magba came from this village (Fagg in Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261). Fagg identified this style on the basis of an ibeji collected in 1912 in the collection of the World Museum (part of the National Museums) in Liverpool (# Stoll & Stoll attribute them to an Igbomina sculptor (Stoll (Gert & Mareidi), Ibeji, Zwillingsfiguren der Yoruba, Munich, 1980: p. 309, #209), and according to Fausto Polo this well-known type of ibeji originates from Offa (Igbomina) (Polo (Fausto) & David (Jean), Ibeji. Catalogue des ibeji, Zürich, 2001:#905).

The master-sculptor who invented this style was active during the last-quarter of the 19th century, something attested to in a female ibeji that was collected between November 1896 and April 1897 by Major-General Sir Cecil Pereira (Christie’s, 13 June 1978, lot 261). This artist was very active and probably established a prolific workshop. Many comparable ibeji in this unique style are known and they were still seen in the field until the 1980s, as shown in this field-photo by Deborah Stokes.

Ramanu Iyanda holding a pair of ere ibeji representing the younger sisters of his father, Jimoh Ajadi. Said to be carved by his grandfather, Yesafu Amuda. Town of Somodero, Olondi compound, Oyo State, Nigeria, 1980. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stokes.
Ramanu Iyanda holding a pair of ere ibeji representing the younger sisters of his father, Jimoh Ajadi. Said to be carved by his grandfather, Yesafu Amuda. Town of Somodero, Olondi compound, Oyo State, Nigeria, 1980. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stokes.

UPDATE: William Fagg revised his attribution of this style a bit in 1984; he now stated this pairs as coming “from south of Ilorin” and gave this specific information: This style is a variant of one of which an example was acquired early in the century by Liverpool Museum, identified as from Baba Magba : this has recently been located as a ward in the town of Ilorin, to which it may be assumed that the style extended. However two years ago ibeji researchers found an old carver of another variant of the style living in a village 30 or 40 miles down the southward road. This variant could well be to the south-east in the direction of Igbomina. (source: Christie’s, London, 10 April 1984. Lot 88. & Christie’s, London, 14 December 1984. Lot 116.)
(Thanks Fausto Polo for the reference!)

Publications Research

Among the primitive Bakongo (Weeks, 1914)

A very informative book with some great field-photos, available for free here (20 MB, file info).

Among the primitive Bakongo (Weeks, 1914)

As read here, more old publications on African art are downloadable in pdf-format on the website of the Cultural Heritage Library of the Smithsonian Libraries.

We’ve been building this Congolese collection at the Warren M. Robbins Library for 33 years and are pleased to be able to share it with scholars and students globally, especially those living and working on the continent of Africa, where none of these books are likely to be found. Of particular interest is the set entitled Congo illustré, which contains historical photographs of Congolese society, Belgian colonial & missionary enterprises, and flora & fauna.

Their database can be searched here.

Publications Research

The Who’s Who in African Art

An indispensable tool for anyone doing provenance research; giving short biographies of primarily Europeans and Americans who have been connected with researching and publishing on African art, as well as with collecting and selling African art, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Compiled by Guy van Rijn, the Who’s Who in African Art lists circa 18,000 names. Around 10 % of them are joined by a picture. These names have been extracted from 50 years of auction catalogues, and from approximately two thousand books and exhibition catalogues which included the names of authors, scholars, field collectors, dealers & collectors. It is not an address list, but is meant to be used as a reference guide for background information. Following the name there will be a brief description that does not aim to be conclusive at any time, e.g. authors cannot be listed with all of their publications, and therefore only one title is mentioned. It is a work in progress; every week entries are being updated and new names are being added.

Available online here and in printed format here (the 2012 edition with a beautiful cover created by the Dutch artist Ingrid Baars).



Yours truly is also listed.




On the banks of the Ubangi

This amazing field-photo comes from an old postcard. Unfortunately, the only contextual information available is the title of the picture: ‘Sur les rives de l’Ubangi’. So, if a reader knows which Ubangian people these two lovely girls originate from, be sure to get in touch.

UPDATE: I finaly found the origin of this picture, see here. These two Sango girls were photographed by Meulemans ca. 1890 in Banzyville.

sur les rives de lubangi