Tag Archives: Dogon

The trade in African art in Mali: the case of ‘Satimbé’

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.

Freestyle climbing the Bandiagara cliffs in Dogon country

In this short documentary Catherine Destivelle climbs the Bandiagara cliffs in Dogon country without any ropes – offering some new views of the surroundings along the way, while Catherine encounters old Tellem caves (6:05) and graves (7:50) on her way to the top. Gives you a better idea of why the Tellem at the time found it such a suitable environment to escape their aggressive neighbors.

Objects of the day: three Dogon pendants from Mali

Dogon pendant not ring Bruno Claessens collection

Pendants? Yes, pendants! Commonly referred to as rings – even by the Metropolitan – these are in fact pendants. They were strung on a cotton band and tied around the waist by women during dance performances. Sometimes there were more than thirty on one belt. While they used to be quite easy to find, they are becoming much more rare nowadays, even generating a production of poorly made copies.

Opinions of what the two cone-like finials represent vary. The most common answer is that these ‘rings’ were symbols of fecundity, representing the breasts of a woman – ‘titty ring’ being used as a colloquial name. Others refer to the breasts of goats or cows. One source state that the form is based on the antlers of antelope masks (walu). Some say the resemble the typical shape of traditional Dogon granaries with pointy roofs. Or, as an informant said to André Blandin (quoted in Bronzes et autres alliages, 1988, p. 37): “I do not know what it represents, but it is part of the beauty”.

The three pendants above I received as a gift from Guy van Rijn; one for me, one for my wife and recently (this fertility object clearly doing its work) another one for our son. We use them as keychains. Since our son doesn’t have keys yet, his – the left one – has still the same color as when we got it. My wife keeps her keys in her purse, so her pendant (in the middle) only got a bit of patina, while my example (on the right) is always in my pocket. After three years the brass got very shiny again with lots of wear on both cone’s incisions and a smooth patina. File as: ‘experimental African art research’ 🙂

The Dogon build four types of granaries: two for the men, and two for the women. The most common type is the square guyo ya (female) granary. There the wife keeps her personal belongings. For some special harvest, the women use a less common round granary (guyo totori). The man of the compound has at least one high granary, the guyo ana (male), with two levels inside, for the storage of millet and sorghum. The second male type of granary, the guyo togu (shelter) serves as a dwelling for a very old man." [Hollyman S. and Van Beek W., 2001: Dogon, Africa's People of the Cliffs. Harry N Abrams, Inc.]. During his trip to Mali, Elisofon visited the Dogon people in Sanga (Sangha), a group of thirteen villages lying east of Bandiagara at the top of an escarpment. The most important villages are Ogol-du-Haut and Ogol-du-Bas. This photograph was taken when Eliot Elisofon was on assignment for National Geographic and traveled to Africa from January 19, 1972 to mid April 1972. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, Washington.

The Dogon build four types of granaries: two for the men, and two for the women. The most common type is the square guyo ya (female) granary. There the wife keeps her personal belongings. For some special harvest, the women use a less common round granary (guyo totori). The man of the compound has at least one high granary, the guyo ana (male), with two levels inside, for the storage of millet and sorghum. The second male type of granary, the guyo togu (shelter) serves as a dwelling for a very old man.” [Hollyman (S.) and Van Beek (W.), Dogon, Africa’s People of the Cliffs, 2001]. During his trip to Mali, Eliot Elisofon visited the Dogon people in Sanga (Sangha), a group of thirteen villages lying east of Bandiagara at the top of an escarpment. The most important villages are Ogol-du-Haut and Ogol-du-Bas. This photograph was taken when he was on assignment for National Geographic and traveled to Africa from January 19, 1972 to mid April 1972. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art.

African art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Dogon-Soninke figure. Height: 76,2 cm. Image Courtesy of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sotheby's.

Dogon-Soninke figure. Height: 76,2 cm. Image Courtesy of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sotheby’s.

Opening in December 2015, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the first universal museum in the Arab world. The museum will present all civilizations and cultures, and – unlike the Paris Louvre –  modern and contemporary art will also be exhibited. Several French museums (such as the Louvre, Musée Versailles, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Musée Guimet, the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, and the Musée du Quai Branly) will be loaning works for the permanent galleries and exhibitions during the first ten years.

In the meantime the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been discretely building a collection of its own; you can see a list of some of these works here – among others a stool by Martin Legrain (bought from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent for € 457,000), which has a very familiar shape (see below). A preview exhibition of its latest acquisitions, Birth of a Museum, is currently on view at the Louvre in Paris. The idea is to show the commitment of the government of Abu Dhabi to acquire works of art for their permanent public collection. More than 160 of its finest masterpieces will be on view until July 28th. The online presentation of the collection (here) features one object from sub-Sahara Africa: a Dogon-Soninke figure from Mali (illustrated above). This 13th century statue was bought from a private collector from NY who had acquired it during Sotheby’s sale of the Chaim Gross collection in 2009. Estimated $ 400,000-600,000, it was sold for $ 530,000 (info). Clearly the quality level of the African art in the collection will be extremely high. As everybody, I’m of course very curious about their other acquisitions..

Pierre Legrain (1888-1929), Curule Stool, c. 1920-1925. Beech coloured like walnut tree - 53 x 49.5 x 30 cm. Image Courtesy of the  Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Christie’s.

Pierre Legrain (1888-1929), Curule Stool, c. 1920-1925. Beech coloured like walnut tree – 53 x 49.5 x 30 cm. Image Courtesy of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Christie’s.

Happy Easter

Happy easter everybody ! I just returned from a short holiday and will resume posting tomorrow. Best, Bruno

Dogon dyommo (rabbit) mask. Height: 40,5 cm. Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., USA.

Dogon dyommo (rabbit) mask. Height: 40,5 cm. Image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., USA.

Ladders of the Lobi vs. ladders of the Dogon

Image courtesy of Petra Schütz / Detlef Linse.

Image courtesy of Petra Schütz / Detlef Linse.

I recently discovered the fascinating website of Petra Schütz & Detlef Linse documenting their travels through Lobi-country in Burkina Faso. You can find it here; it’s great for the armchair-traveller. Going through these photos, I discovered the presence of Dogon ladders on some of these pictures. At least, a type of ladders often offered for sale as Dogon in the trade (examples 1, 23). Clearly, the Lobi made use of very similar ladders, but apparently those of the Dogon are valued higher. Personally, I can’t tell the difference.

Image courtesy of Petra Schütz / Detlef Linse.

Image courtesy of Petra Schütz / Detlef Linse.

Auction review: Christie’s Paris – June 19, 2013

Senufo bird Bartos Christie's

The June 19, 2013 auction at Christie’s had a couple of major museum quality objects, such as the Baga snake on the front cover, but it also has a wide range of interesting and good works that carried very reasonable estimates. 79 of the 132 objects (or 60 %) were sold. With a sale total (including buyer’s premium) of € 4,723.755,- for the 79 sold lots, it equalled Sotheby’s with a total of € 3,475.050,- for 56 lots with the average price/lot (ca. € 60K). Seen the intensified competition between the two auction houses, a praiseworthy result – but not a success.

Objects from the Celeste and Armand Bartos collection offered a couple of great opportunities for connoisseurs with a bit of money. My personal favourite was the Senufo bird (pictured above). Estimated at € 20-30K, it sold to a private collector for only € 32K. Its strong lines and abstraction for me made it the best example of the Bartos’s refined taste. In the catalogue we read:

In the assemblage of the pure forms seen on the Bartos Senufo bird – the oval in high relief upon a square – surmounted by the curved, tapering head offers the essential spirit of the gliding bird. It is clear in this sculpture the inspiration of modern artists, like Brancusi or Jean Arp, in the realization of many of their sculptures.

Clearly appealing to their sophisticated feeling for line and form, the Senufo bird held a prominent place for many years in the Bartos’s collection. In the early 1960’s we see it near Miro’s Le Port (1945) which they acquired from Pierre Matisse and juxtaposed to Arp’s polished bronze (x) tbc. Later, the Senufo bird could be found prominently in their foyer, next to Noguchi’s Untitled (1968) in stone and wood – always the first piece they saw when they entered their home.

The biggest suprise from the Bartos collection (and in the sale alltogether) was the squatting Dogon figure. Estimated between € 30-50K, it realized a record price of € 601K selling to a collector from Qatar. Everybody predicted a strong result for this exquisite miniature, but this result was clearly beyond expectations. Other highlights from the Bartos collection were a Kongo figure selling for € 97K (though mainly covered with European nails), a rare Bamana staff (€ 16K) and a Fang head exhibited in New York in 1935 (€ 337K). The centerpiece of their small collection was of course the Baga snake, which tripled its lower estimate, selling for € 2,337.500,-. In a recent mailing Christie’s advertised this result as a “world auction record for a Baga work”, apparently forgetting the Baga serpent from the Dinhofer collection that was sold by Sotheby’s NY for 3,3 million dollars in 2008 (currently € 2,5 million). Nevertheless, they do mention it in the catalogue note:

The majority of exceptional examples among these sculptures, the Bartos serpent among them, were collected by Hélène and Henri Kamer in the 1950s, and are now held in the greatest museums in the world. Among the eight snakes collected by the Kamers are: one belonging to the Musée du Quai Branly, now exhibited in the Pavillon des Sessions (Louvre, Paris, 71.1989.49.1), it was given to the museum by Jacques Lazard under Hélène (Kamer) Leloup’s instigation; another one from the Menil Collection in Houston (V9009), two other examples from the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1978.206.101 and 1978.412.339) formerly in the Rockefeller collection, another snake sold by Leloup to the American director, John Huston, and finally, the one formerly part of the Pierre Matisse collection, now in a private collection (see Sotheby’s, 16 May 2008, lot 58). For other similar snakes, see: the Geneva Barbier-Mueller Museum figure; the Cleveland Museum of Art example (1960.37) published in Robbins and Nooter (1989 fig.247); and the Rietberg Museum figure in Zurich, acquired from Emil Storrer.

Hélène Leloup recently recalled the specific circumstances under which she collected the Bartos serpent: When she arrived in Guinea in 1957, she and Henri Kamer settled in Boke. Over the course of 10 days she visited the Baga and Nalu territories. Searching for snakes. The Bartos snake was found toward the end of 1957 in a Guinea village then referred to as Victoria, today Kanfarandé. At the time, because it is situated at the mouth of the Rio Nuez River, this village had different names depending of the ethnical origin of the speakers. At low tide, she went via canoe up the river, which was bordered by mangroves, and she could see frightened crocodiles were escaping and dashing into the water. The return was very dangerous as the tide was high, and the waves became stronger causing the canoe to heave to and fro as it was very heavy with passengers – both objects and people (Leloup, personal communication, Paris, March 27, 2013).

A second private collection offered in this sale, from the American performer Andy Williams, didn’t bring as much suprises. The Igbo couple for example was sold for half the estimate (€ 47K) – probably due to its post-1920 creation date. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago a Baga headdress (lot 61), estimated at € 400-800K, failed to sell. Both objects illustrate that the dedication of several pages in the auction catalogue to one specific lot (eight for the Baga!) doesn’t always pay off. The six pages praising the Epstein Dogon figure (lot 93, est. € 300-500K) also didn’t help. Two last important objects that remained unsold were the Bahan royal commemorative group (lot 122, est. € 250-350K) and the Ndengse figure (lot 127, est. € 150-250K). For me, this indicates the current markets concentration on esthetics rather than history and provenance.

Dogon figure Bartos Christie's

(all images courtesy of Christie’s)