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.



Collection Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Cambridge University) available online

Ikenga statue collected by Thomas Northcote Whitridge (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

A new addition to my list of museum databases available online (which you can find here) are the online archives of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge (UK); you can explore them here. This new, fully searchable online catalogue of the object, photograph and document collections cared for by MAA was launched in August 2020 and is well worth a visit – it’s easy to loose a couple of hours in it 🙂

In the photo archives you’ll find the complete files of G.I. Jones, who travelled among the Igbo and neighbouring groups in the 1930s – an incredible recourse. Also travelling in Nigeria two decades earlier, was Northcote W. Thomas (who got a dedicated webpage here). The museum also holds important collection besides Africa: its founding curator, Anatole von Hügel spent several years in Fiji and assembled the single most important collection of nineteenth-century Fijian art outside Fiji itself. Other notable collections were brought together by Charles Hose for the Sarawak, by Gregory Bateson for the Sepik River, and by Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf for the Nagas.

Besides the ‘objects’ section, the archives of field-photos are truly spectacular and full of rare and unpublished images – below a small selection of some of my discoveries – but please do go explore yourself !

Northern Congolese stools, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.
Ogbom headdress placed on the head of a male – notice the amazing wickerwork structure to which it is attached – photographed by G.I. Jones (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

Ngombe family, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

Luba-Shankadi man with the typical ‘cascade’-hairstyle (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.
A beautiful picture of three generations of Poto men, photographed by Kenred Smith (info). Image courtesy of the MAA.

“Cod is love”, a unique pearl shell ornament from Western Australia

I recently came across this special pearl shell ornament (locally called riji or jakoli) from Western Australia, and it is so unique I just had to share it here. You might have heard that ‘god is love’, but the indigenous maker of this shell pendant unknowingly gave a most funny twist to this well-known bible verse. Perhaps the local missionary was more obsessed with fishing than preaching indeed. This jewel was collected circa 1927 by Professor Elkin on Sunday Island in the Kimberly Region (don’t google that island unless you are prepared to start dreaming away about currently impossible trips). This pendant is part of the Macleay collections (future Chau Chak Wing Museum) at the University of Sydney (#ETA.2014). It is published in “Adorned. Traditional Jewellery and Body Decoration from Australia and the Pacific” by Anna Edmundson and Chris Boylan (Sydney, 1999).

Prior to 1920, the most common patterns applied to such pearl shell pendants included more abstract designs such as zigzags, meanders and mazes with the interlocking key design the most common. From the mid-1920s European themes and more realistic imagery started to appear more frequently. Here we find a male figure wearing shorts and a broad brimmed hat, who is holding a dugong in one hand and a dolphin in the other – no cods. Prized as ornaments and ceremonial objects, they were exchanged along a vast system of trade routes that extended as far as Australia’s southern coast. Pearl shell was associated with water, the essence of life, especially in Australia’s arid interior. They were predominantly worn by men as a cache sexe, suspended from a belt of human hair worn around the waist and, in some instances, as pendants.


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.


Jacques Kerchache presents his new book “L’Art africain” (Mazenod) on French television in 1988

Unfortunately only in French, but how wonderful to see Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001) presenting his new book “L’Art africain” on French television in 1988 – see below, or click this link (the interview starts at 08:44). This publication would become a reference book on the subject, and is still consulted by all professionals in our field – so it’s very charming to see Kerchache, who was responsible for the selection, present it.

After the book presentation, three objects are highlighted in detail in the television studio: an incredible Mumuye statue, a janus Fon figure from the Republic of Benin, and an ivory Woyo staff finial from D.R. Congo. As Kerchache played a big role in the discovery and promotion of the art of the Mumuye, it is special to look at this statue together with him.

Kerchache jokes “Watch out ! It’s dangerous” when the host touches this Fon statue 🙂

At the end of the interview Kerchache informs about his plans to bring African and Oceanic Art into the Louvre – a mission he would later accomplish successfully!


Ethnografiska Museet (Stockholm) collection available online

Young Bwende men on their way to the missionary station of Kingyi to give in their ‘minkisi’ power statues in order to convert to Christianity. Photographed by Edvard Karlman in 1912. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0025).

Stockholm’s Ethnografiska Museet recently has made its archives accessible online. The database is called Carlotta and you can access it here. As many Swedish missionaries, explorers and soldiers donated their collections and archives to the museum, the database truly is a treasure-trove of never published material! One can easily browse away a day. The whole thing is in Swedish, so you might want to translate a country’s name before entering it in your query. Search for ‘Kongo figur‘, or names of field collectors like Bolinger or Karlman, and you are bound to find some interesting objects and images. Below some random examples of discoveries of mine.

Public display of Igbo wooden ancestral figures called alusi. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.g.0072).
Gbandi/Toma/Loma mask performance, Liberia. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.a.0033).
Early tourist art from Congo-Brazzaville. Acquired by Edvard Karlman in 1926. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0040).
Bangu-Bangu figure, D.R. Congo. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1917.01.0104).
Mask, Cameroon – culture unknown. Pre 1893. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1893.04.0092).

I can’t applaud this kind of digitalisation initiatives enough. As a reminder, I’ve created a page on my website documenting all museum databases available online here. If something is missing, please do let me know – thanks. Also, if you know any museums that haven’t started digitalising yet, I’ll happily put them on the wall of shame 🙂


“African Faces, African Figures – the Arman Collection” available online for free

Some weekend reading: I recently discovered this hard to find and out-of-print exhibition catalog available for free online. You can browse it below, or find it here.

Published in 1997, it documents 180 objects gathered over forty years by the well-known French artist/collector. The book includes a nice introduction by Jacques Kerchache, as well as interesting interviews of the man by both Alain Nicolas and Monique Barbier-Mueller. As the collection was mostly dispersed after the artist’s death, you’ll find many objects that have been circulating on the art market in the catalog; I sold the Kwele mask at Christie’s two years ago for example. Especially the group of Gabonese objects truly stands out within this collection; the quantity and quality of figures the artist was able to bring together is quite impressive, and, which collector hasn’t yet dreamt of building his own wall of Kota figures as illustrated below. As in his art, Arman was the ultimate accumulator. From Derain, Vlaminck, Epstein, Picasso and up to Baselitz, Arman was without doubt the artist who accorded the most of his time, effort and energy to his collection of African art, and the result is here for us to be admired.

Let me know what your favourite object is ?!


African art on a Boeing 747

A reader of this blog was kind enough to mail me this (now historical) image of South African Ndebele designs gracing the livery of a British Airways Boeing 747 in the late 1990s. The twin sisters Emmly and Martha Masanabo from the village of Wolwekraai in the Mpumalanga district of South Africa each got to paint a livery as part of a re-branding operation of British Airways to appear more ‘global and caring’. The campaign wasn’t received as positive as expected, and already a few years (and £60M) later British Airways would return to the Union Flag to decorate its tail fins – you can read the full story here.

The women of the Ndebele people of Southern African indeed are famed for having developed this highly original, colourful and vibrant design style. Every four years it is traditional for them to replaster the outside walls of their homes and paint on them bold geometric patterns, using images drawn from Ndebele beadwork, which featured intricate designs in coloured beads.

Ndebele women standing in front of a painted rondavel, Loopspruit, South Africa.

Earlier this year, the Brussels-Based Galerie Mestdagh organised an exhibition with works on paper by two other Ndebele artists, Francine Ndimande and her daughter Angelina. On the instigation of the famed Belgian dealer Alain Guisson (who left us too early last year), they transferred their traditional paintings to paper a few years before the British Airways campaign. A selection of these vibrant works was exhibited at the Mestdagh gallery. You can download their catalog and read the full story here.


An African Art inspired bottle : Vudu liquor

I recently came across this cool liquor bottle from the Morey distillery based in Binissalem, Mallorca (Balearic Islands). Its black ceramic bottle clearly was inspired by African statues, and vaguely reminds of some Baule and/or Luba figures. This Spanish liquor was branded as ‘the sorcerer drink’ (El trago hechicero). Unfortunately I’ve never tasted it, so I can’t write about the special powers of this potion. The box also included a great promotional keychain as an extra gift, or talisman if you want.

A true collector’s item. The box is pretty cool too, with at its side the stylised drawing of a Sepik mask from Papua New Guinea. I couldn’t discover when exactly these were produced, but probably it can be placed within the context of the Tiki culture of the 1940s and 1950s.


African art in a Pernod advertisement

I recently came across this old advertisement for the French liqueur Pernod in the Belgian magazine HUMO. Looking at the interior and outfits I would guess it is from the late 1970s? The tagline (in dutch) reads: “Real luxury is not to have money but to be able to enjoy it” and we see a collector proudly showing his latest purchase (a Pende kiwoyo-muyombo mask from D.R. Congo). His friend is not really looking directly at the mask, and I don’t really know how to interpret the facial expression of the woman, but I guess the most important is that they are all enjoying a glass of pastis. That tagline does not make much sense either as one does first need money to be able to enjoy it. But, anyhow, we can all agree that having the pleasure of owning a collection of African Art indeed is a luxury to celebrate.

Those were the days marketeers clearly were convinced collecting African art was a sophisticated activity with which their target audience wished to be associated. I wonder if this was a real interior (it does look like it) and who the owner was? Besides the Pende mask, one can also spot (from left to right) a seated Luba bowl-bearer, a Binji helmet mask (a rare thing), a Grassfields mask from Cameroon, a kifwebe mask from the Songye, a Suku hemba mask, a Ngombe sword, and part of a Zande throwing knife. I think the sword is the one recently exhibited at the Musée du quai Branly (see below), but I could be mistaken as they all look rather alike. Is any of you sleuths able to identify any of the other objects ?

Ngombe sword, D.R. Congo. Private Collection. Published in: “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”, ed. by Allen F. Roberts, Tom Joyce & Marla C. Berns, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019, p. 229, #II.13.