Category Archives: Research

A rediscovered Senufo staff

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

In 1969, Anita J. Glaze took the above field-photo of a Senufo staff in Ivory Coast. It was published recently in Bernard de Grunne’s catalogue on the subject, Senufo Champion Cultivator Staffs – which is freely available online here (p. 32). Unfortunately no additional information about the place, owner or carver is mentioned.

Last week, the above staff was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris (info). Apparently the staff left Ivory Coast not long after Anita J. Glaze photographed it, since according to Sotheby’s it was already owned by Harvery T. Menist ca. 1968. Although the field-photo is a bit blurry, details such as the red fibers and presence of cowrie strings make it clear this is one and the same staff.

telafpitya senufo staff sotheby's anita glaze


I discovered two more staffs that are possibly carved by the same sculptor – only the angle between the upper and lower arm is different. A nice detail is how the carver omitted the two front legs of the stool the woman is sitting on, carving only the legs of the figure while maintaining the balance of the stool.


Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.

Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.


ps the elaborate hairdo of the female figure crowning this staff in facts reflects an existing Senufo hairstyle – as can be seen on the beautiful field-photo below.


Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), "Negerkunst und Negerkünstler", Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).

Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), “Negerkunst und Negerkünstler”, Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).

African art made in the UK: the ‘Birmingham Bells’


Lower Niger River bells Forcados

Above two conical bells that depict human heads in a style that is generally identified as the ‘Lower Niger Bronze Industry’ (southern Nigeria). It may come as a surprise, but these were not made in Africa: identical in form and size (but not in alloy), they were cast from a mold in the UK. These bells can be identified by a seam where the two halves have been attached (as opposed to the seamless lost-wax method traditionally used in Nigeria).

In Where Gods and Mortals Meet – Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo art, Perkins Foss writes about these so-called ‘Birmingham Bells’ (p. 51):

John Picton recalls that he and William Fagg saw ‘bells with a stamped job number on the back’ at the British Museum in the 1970s, and that ‘unlike the regular Lower Niger River bells they were cast in piece molds, as evidenced by the seams along each side from top to bottom.

Fagg’s hypothesis was that enterprising English District Officer or trader might have seen such a bell on a Nigerian shrine and taken it to a UK foundry (Birmingham is only a suggestion of where they might have been made) to produce a series, then to test their sales-worthiness in the lower Niger region.

Presumably these replicas were made for sale or trade or as gifts in what is now southern Nigeria around 1900. Examples have later been documented in rituals among the Urhobo, Igbo and other groups, so some of them did end up on a shrine – and thus can in way be deemed ‘authentic’.


Birmingham Bells UK Nigeria copper bronze


These bells always have a stamped number on the lower back – you can zoom in by clicking on the above picture; it starts with ‘R’, followed by 199063. They weigh more than twice as much as the thinly cast authentic bells; made at a time when copper was still scarce. A couple of dozen of them are known and one of them even ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan (info, correctly listed as ‘made in England’). Christie’s even sold one in 2006 for € 3,360 (info). The present whereabouts of the original bell remain a mystery, but the Dallas Museum of Art holds one that is similar in style (info); as does the Smithsonian (here). The function of these bells remains unknown, but the imagery of the (abstract) snakes issuing from the nostrils can be associated with the Edo of the Benin Kingdom, the Yoruba, the Igbo and other groups in the region. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would have more information about them.


Lower Niger Nigeria copper bronze bell bells cloche

A tour of Segy Art Gallery, 1951

Ladislas Segy and Lloyd Moss. Image courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Ladislas Segy and Lloyd Moss. Image courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

A reader was so kind to send me a link to a radio interview (anno 1951) with African art dealer Ladislas Segy; hear it here (15 minutes). How wonderful to hear his voice, talking about his gallery, his background, why he got into African art, etc. Sixty-four years later, one can argue about the quality of the objects he sold in his gallery, but a pioneer in the popularization of African art he certainly was.

Garance in African art

Wè miniature mask, Ivory Coast. Height: 12 cm (34 cm with beard).

Wè miniature mask, Ivory Coast. Height: 12 cm (34 cm with beard). Peres Projects Collection.

After picking the name of our daughter, I was very pleased to discover there was a link with African art. Garance, except for a beautiful first name, is the name of a plant, the madder, belonging to the coffee tree family (the Rubiaceae). Madder, well characterised by its clinging leaves, has been grown for ages to produce a red dye from its roots. This dye was used to color the garance red trousers of the French infantry uniform, introduced originally in 1829 (in an attempt to boost the madder-growing industry). With the start of World War I, the high visibility of these trousers became a liability and they were discarded. To this day, some soldiers of the US and UK army still wear garance red uniforms on special ceremonial occasions.

French infantry soldiers, anno 1914.

French infantry soldiers, anno 1914.

But back to Africa. When the French conquered mainland Ivory Coast at the end of the 19th century, the indigenous population was quickly overpowered due to the superior military strength of the invading force. The brightly colored trousers of the French soldiers unsurprisingly did not fail to leave an impression on peoples such as the Dan and Wè. As this alien type of cloth became associated with power, mask wearers tried to obtain fragments of it to include in their costumes. One can sometimes find small strips of it attached to masks – or as in the example above, on a Wè miniature mask, where a small piece hangs from the left pierced ear (probably the right ear once had a similar strip). Such small masks were used to secure the consent and support of the supernatural world through the mediation of the ancestors. With these miniature masks the living strove to please their ancestors to make them positively sympathetic towards their acts. One way of pleasing them was by attaching all kinds of paraphernalia to them – each being very symbolic. Another foreign material one often can spot are glass beads – probably easier to obtain than a soldier’s pants.

ps many thanks for all your kind emails; both mother and daughter are doing very well.

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Oceanic art

Totokia war club Fiji Star Wars

While African art had no influence on the costumes used in George Lucas’ Star Wars (as explained here), the props department did use wooden Fijian war clubs as an inspiration for the design of the weapon of one of its characters.

Gaderffii or gaffi stick used by the Tusken Raider from Star Wars.

Gaderffii or gaffi stick used by the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine.

The handle of the gaffi stick, used by the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine, incorporates a full length Fijian totokia, and other versions incorporated other forms of long handled Fijian clubs – not surprisingly seen their fearsome appearance.

Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

According to Fiji material culture scholar Fergus Clunie who describes it as a beaked battle hammer (in Fijian Weapons and Warfare, 1977: p. 55), “…the totokia was intended to “peck” holes in skulls.” The weight of the head of the club was concentrated in the point of the beak of the weapon or kedi-toki (toki to peck; i toki: a bird’s beak). The totokia “…delivered a deadly blow in an abrupt but vicious stab, not requiring the wide swinging arc demanded by the others.” (Yalo i Viti. A Fiji Museum Catalogue, 1986: p. 185) It was a club that could be used in open warfare or to finish-off or execute warriors on the battlefield.

ps as you can see below, the large spiky head of the club references the fruit of the pandanus (and not the pineapple as is often erroneously stated).


Star Wars and African Art

Image courtesy of the Beyeler Foundation.

Image courtesy of the Beyeler Foundation.

This famous Mumuye figure, in the collection of the Fondation Beyeler, was exhibited to high acclaim in New York more than a quarter century ago during the exhibition Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art (1984). It was then likened by the New York Times reviewer of the show to Darth Vader from Star Wars – a comparison that succeeded in living through all these years.

Darth Vader Mumuye head

As revealed in a footnote in Central Nigeria Unmasked (pp. 573-574, footnote 17), the Fowler Museum in 2011 contacted George Lucas to inquire if he was indeed influenced by African art while coming up with the design of Darth Vader’s helmet. Lucas responded, negatively, and stated that especially samurai armor had been a significant influence on his conception of Darth Vader – the helm itself being both inspired by Japanese kabuto helmets, as well as early 20th century German war helmets.

ps earlier this year Stuttgart’s Linden Museum shared the great installation shot below on Twitter (here), stating that George Lucas did study anthropology and got inspired by African masks. These fully costumed Ibibio masks indeed do look from outer space, but, as we know now, not from Star Wars’ galaxy.

Image courtesy of the Linden Museum.

Image courtesy of the Linden Museum.

Label question (“Gallery Pro Arte – Bologna, 1973”)

yaka label fantin pro arte bologna suku

One of the big surprises in the last Christie’s sale was the Yaka figure illustrated below (info). While one could easily have overlooked this lot in the auction catalogue, this big and exceptionally strongly carved statue just owned the preview room it was presented in.

Notwithstanding the fact that Christie’s only mentions a private French collection as the provenance of this figure, an old label in Dutch on the base of the figure indicates the statue has much more history; translated it reads:

Collectie Mario Fantin, Bologna, Italy
Mario Fantin was a mountaineer – collector – researcher.
He made a lot of trips to Asia and was the first to succesfully climb the K2 in the Himalaya. He traveled 20 times to Africa and wrote a book about Ivory Coast.
This statue was exhibited in 1973 in Galerie Pro Arte in Bologna and was illustrated on the exhibition’s poster.
In 1983, after the death of Mario Fantin, this statue was acquired by Paolo Morigi.

I was wondering if anyone recognizes this label ? Surely, it can’t be the only one of this type.

Also, I haven’t been able to track down this ‘Pro Arte’ gallery (which apparently was active in Bologna in 1973).

If anyone would have an idea of that exhibition poster, that would be great too.

Prove that Morigi indeed acquired a lot of objects from the Fantin collection can be found in the auction catalogue of the Morigi collection (Sotheby’s, Paris, “Collection Paolo Morigi”, 6 June 2005.): lot 20, 41, 57, 64, 77, 78, 79, 112, 122 and 123 all came from Fantin – so that part of the story is plausible.

Fingers crossed somebody knows more !

UPDATE: Beppe Berna, who runs an African art gallery in Bologna, was so kind to do some research. He checked the yearbooks of the local association of galleries (of which he has been president) of those years and could find no trace of a gallery with the name ‘Pro Arte’. Berna was able to trace three ‘Pro Arte’ galleries: in 1973 there was one in Morges (Switzerland) and one in Mexico City and in 1987 one in Lugano (Switzerland). Strange !


Image courtesy of Christie's.

Image courtesy of Christie’s.

African and Oceanic art in “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958)

kim novak kota gabon reliquary bell, book and candle

Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 American romantic comedy Technicolor film directed by Richard Quine, based on the successful Broadway play by John Van Druten, which stars James Stewart and Kim Novak. During the Christmas holiday season, Greenwich Village witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), a free spirit with a penchant for going barefoot, has been unlucky in love and restless in life. She admires from afar her neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart), who one day walks into her gallery of African art to use the telephone..

In the opening title sequence we get a nice view of that gallery..

The African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian objects for the movie set were provided by Julius Carlebach, who at the time had a gallery in New York. I was already able to identify the seated male Baule figure; it was sold by Christie’s Paris on 6 December 2005 (lot 184) and has passed through several dealers ever since. The Kota was last seen at Sotheby’s New York (24 February 1982, lot 437). There’s a lot more African and Oceanic art in that gallery, I’m sure further sleuthing would reveal the present location of other objects.

Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie's.

Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

UPDATE: several readers at 1:39 attentively spotted the name of Eliot Elisofon as the ‘special color consultant’. He’s better known as an avid Africa traveler; his photographic archives are kept by the Smithsonian (info).

The Baule figure in “La maladie noire” identified

Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).

Baule figure. Height: 68 cm. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation (A221).

Thanks to a tip of a kind reader, I’ve been able to localize the Baule figure featured in the previously described “La maladie noirepostcard: it’s currently held by the Barnes Foundation (info). Albert C. Barnes in all likelihood acquired it directly from Paul Guillaume between 1922 and 1924 (like the majority of the collection).

Further sleuthing revealed the original black&white image of the statue which Albert Guillaume used as an inspiration for his postcard; it was published in 1926 by Thomas Munro and Paul Guillaume in Primitive Negro Sculpture” (p. 89 & 91, #21). Albert Guillaume only slightly exaggerated the buttocks and clearly truthfully reproduced the statue in his postcard.

Baule figures Barnes La maladie noire Guillaume

This makes this postcard even more exciting, as it may have represented an event that really happened – so I started wondering about all those characters: the portrayed collector might be Dr. Albert C. Barnes himself (although he was not bald). Anyhow, the man behind him clearly is no one other than Paul Guillaume ! Note his typical mustache and hairdo.

Albert C. Barnes

Paul Guillaume

In the just-published catalogue about the African Art collection of the Barnes Foundation (details here), where the sculpture is published as Plate 20b, Susan Vogel notes (p. 132) that “the figure was among the most expensive African sculptures that Barnes acquired, and it remained one he considered very important: he had it reproduced in tile at the museum entrance and it was prominently published”. Barnes himself published the figure as 14th century in an essay, “The Temple” in the May 24 issue of Opportunity (reproduced by Christa Clarke on p. 57). That date might seem funny, but know that Paul Guillaume used to attach metal labels with such dates on the Inagaki bases he had made for his objects 🙂

ps apologies for the radio silence on my blog these last weeks, I was very occupied with the Paris auctions – on which more later..

UPDATE: a reader has suggested the man on the left in all likelihood is no other than the Felix Féneon !

Felix Feneon


UPDATE2: David Zemanek just informed me that the round object hanging on the curtains in the back in fact is a Songye dance shield – Bonhams sold a similar (rare and unusual) shield in 2007 (info).

Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Image courtesy of Bonhams.