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!
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.
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.
While more attention than ever is given to the Western history of African art these days, the African part of these objects voyage to the West still remains largely ignored. Recent books on topics as Dogon art or Djenne terracottas once more graciously evaded the question of the featured objects’ provenance – it remains a very sensitive subject. However, my curiosity was met when I recently discovered a very enlightening (& scientific) article by Cristiana Panella in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. “Looters or Heroes? Production of Illegality and Memories of ‘Looting’ in Mali” explores the clandestine trade in antiquities in Mali by showing on one side the social organization (techniques, hierarchies, trade chains) of farmers-diggers; on the other side, by analyzing the rhetorics of illegality driven by official cultural heritage policies.
Exemplifying the diggers active in the Inland Niger Delta from the 1970s to the 1990s was Satimbé (a pseudonym), a key contact for Panella’s PhD fieldwork in Mali. From 1970 to 1990, Satimbé was digging throughout almost the entirety of the ancient habitat of the Mopti region, through most of the Djenne area and some of the San area. During his long career, he worked as cliff-climber robber, farmer-digger, team-chief and middleman. He was one of the rare diggers who received large sums of money cash-in-hand after undertaking digs for European collectors and who would haggle over the price of statuettes with Malian urban dealers. Panella writes:
At the end of the 1950s, Satimbé was a farmer in his village in the Dogon countryside. Around 1958, when he was in his 30s, he started work as a prospector for a Sarakole dealer to whom he would sell wooden objects for between 100 and 500 FCFA each (the price of a goat), that the dealer would then export to Burkina Faso. The first object Satimbé sold the dealer for 500 FCFA was a wooden Dogon horseman. When the Sarakole dealer came back from Burkina, he offered Satimbé a commission for 5000 FCFA. Satimbé used to go to the rock wall with scaffolding and a rope allowing him access to the inside of the cliff. Thanks to his mastery of the Bandiagara Cliffs as well as to his courage, he became an incomparable prospector of Tellem, and more generally, wooden objects. At a time where tourism was not so developed in the Dogon country, people feared Tellem objects, unlike Dogon sculpture), so that only a limited number of prospectors specialized in their collection. From 1958 to 1970, Satimbé prospected only ‘woods’. After 1970, however, he stated that very good wooden pieces started to become rare.
Satimbé saw ancient terracotta statuettes for the first time in 1968 at a stall in the Mopti Grand Marché. The owner of the stall was selling finds from surface collecting to visiting Europeans. It was at this time that Satimbé started collaborating with Drabo, a dealer who had just settled in Sevaré. In 1968, Satimbé went to Sevaré to sell a group of objects and met Drabo, who was very interested in buying them. Nevertheless, Drabo could not afford the 300.000 MF that Satimbé was asking and he proposed instead going to Bamako to sell them. Satimbé accepted this offer, and after Drabo’s return he received his requested price of 300.000 MF (which must mean that Drabo had sold the group for much more than 300.000 MF). At this time, Drabo was not familiar with the region and he was lacking prospectors, so he asked Satimbé to work with him, especially to obtain wooden sculptures from the Dogon cliffs. One of Drabo’s most important customers, a Belgian collector, was able to give Dolo (the most important dealer for Satimbé in the Mopti region) and Satimbé 50 million MF to fund the acquisition of high quality wooden pieces. Thus the demand for terracotta first developed within this wider and more prestigious market of wooden objects, and several rural middlemen shifted into the terracotta market. For instance Souleymane started as a wooden objects dealer in 1970, trading at Bankass, Sevaré and Bandiagara, where he was settled, especially supplying Mingali, Sangha, Dourou, Kendié and Kani Bozo. He sometimes bought new replica pieces that he would artificially age in order to sell them to urban dealers in Bamako. Starting in 1975, the first digging teams started to be established. Satimbé stated that some teams had already appeared in 1968 but that he himself had only started to work as a digger of terracotta in 1970, when he dug a site between Sevaré and Mopti. He found his first terracotta on the second site he dug, in the area of Djemandaka.
Panella continues to explain how the diggers work and their techniques of exploiting archaeological sites (pp. 493-497); you can read the full article here.
Often forgotten, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem holds an interesting collection of African art. It received its first objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the 1950s. The bulk of Precolumbian, African, Oceanic, and North American art was donated by major collectors in the late seventies (for example Lawrence Gussman, Gaston T. de Havenon, Daniel Solomon and others). Over the years many more unique and rare individual pieces were given, as were whole collections, which came from the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Amrouche, de Monbrison, Entwistle, Kerchache, Guimiot – they all donated objects. As the collection grew, the department experienced a number of major changes in concept, eventually crystallizing into the Department for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The department’s steadily growing collection today numbers over 6,500 objects from diverse cultural traditions, spanning four continents and four millennia.
The online collection shows 365 objects from Africa; browse them here.
171 objects are also featured in Douglas Newton’s book African and Oceanic Art in Jerusalem.
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.