A reader of the blog was kind enough to inform me the collection database of the Seattle Art Museum was missing in my list of museum databases; you can explore it here.
The core of the museum’s African Art collection was formed by a transformational gift by Katherine White (1929-1980) in 1981. You can learn more about this donation in Pamela McClusky’s article “Taming Reality: Katherine White and the Seattle Art Museum” (included in the book Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display, University of Washington Press, 2011).
White started collecting in 1960, and died in 1980, leaving 2,000 objects to the Seattle Art Museum – yes, that’s 100 objects each year she avidly acquired! Other noteworthy treasures were donated earlier by the Bombay-born collectors Nasli & Alice Heeramaneck, among which three important Sapi ivories (1, 2, & 3), and this killer Luluwa figure. Unfortunately the images in the database are rather small, but at least they are there. Have fun browsing!
A book I’ve been enjoying this summer is “Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art” by Robert Dick-Read and published in 1964. In the early 1960s, Dick-Read traveled to the Luba in D.R. Congo in search for art. He stayed with Harold Womersley on the outskirts of Kamina. This English missionary had been in the region since 1924. Attracted to the region by the fame of Luba sculpture, Dick-Read inquired with Womersley where the best places to search for it would be. The missionary’s reply is rather interesting:
“I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed. I know of not one single Luba artist in the whole of this huge territory. In the olden days, of course, there were certainly some excellent artists and craftsmen. But I fear that since the coming of this civilisation of ours, all that sort of thing has gone. In fact, let me tell you the story of a thing that happened to me when I was running our mission at Kabango. Kabongo was then the capital of the Luba king of the same name (who died in 1948), so if there were any artists anywhere in Lubaland, that is where they would have been living. The great chiefs, the paramount especially, were always the one who sponsored the arts, as you know. Well, there was one artist, an old man who is dead now, who used to live and work in a small village near Kabongo. One day he came to see me at the mission in a dreadful panic. Some people, he said, had tried to kill him, and he wanted me to protect him. The old chap was very distraught, and I thought he was exaggerating his story, so I quietened him down, and send him back to his village. I couldn’t really see any reason why anyone would want to kill him. But not long after that, exactly the same thing happened again; but this time he resolutely refused to leave the mission. He said he was lucky to have escaped as it was, and if he went back to his village he would surely be killed. So I gave him a bed, and over the next few days made some enquiries as to why anyone should want to kill him. What I heard was this. A number of young men in his and a neighbouring village, seeing him sitting outside his hut whittling away at his wood, began to wonder where this man got his knowledge and skill. The only conclusion they could come to was that he must be in league with the devil; and those in league with the devil deserved to die. We kept him in the mission for several years, and he did some excellent work … ” Mr. Womersley went over to a cupboard and took out a headrest, some combs, and several elaborate hatpins such as the Luba men used to wear. They were beautifully carved in the old tribal style. “But as far as I know”, he went on, “he was the last Luba artist or craftsman in the country”.
The name of this artist unfortunately remains unmentioned. However, next to this paragraph in Dick-Read’s book we find a schematic drawing of a Luba hairpin. Yours truly was able to find an almost identical hairpin in the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (cf. infra). In fact, very little wooden hairpins of the Luba are known, and, almost all of them appear to have been sculpted by the same artist – our master! The few hairpins by him I’ve come across through the years never had any patina, with the wood untouched. The above anecdote by Womersley thus finally explains the context of their creation!
And a more complex example, also without any signs of usage:
Womersley thus firsthand witnessed the changing attitudes towards traditional artists in the Congo of the 1940s. If it wasn’t for his protection, our dear old sculptor surely wouldn’t have survived a third attempt on his life. The mission station of the Womersleys was a popular rest stop for many travellers in the region, so the wood carver surely had a clientele for his sculptures in the later years of his career.
But wait, this anecdote gets even more interesting. In fact, in his book “Luba. To the sources of the Zaire”, François Neyt identifies this artist as Kiloko, who lived in Busangu, fifty miles from Kamina – so we do have his name! Typical morphological features are the complex coiffure (which for Neyt corresponds to the fashion of the 1920s), the double vertical line of keloid scarifications on the forehead, the coffee bean-shaped eyes, the triangular shaped nose and the oval mouth. Womersley’s statement that the artist sculpted different types of objects can be confirmed as indeed headrests, friction oracles, and bowl bearers, can be identified that can be positively attributed to this master carver. Below some examples of works in his easily recognisable style.
So, you wonder, what happened to our dear treasure hunter, Robert Dick-Read ? Well, he continues.. “I stayed with the Womersleys for a day or two; then, feeling very depressed, once again got back on the road and headed north toward the land of the Bushongo where I hoped my luck would be better..”
The 14th edition of Parcours des Mondes again was a big success*. With a baby at home, I only spent 3 days in Paris, but I succeeded in visiting every gallery at least once. I had never seen the galleries so crowded on the opening day, and it was not uncommon to find more than a dozen collectors in one gallery at the same time, so I would say visitor numbers were higher than ever before. The dollar being in a better situation than last year (or should we say the euro in a weaker position) certainly helped attracting more US collectors than the previous years.
*at least for the visitors, I’m not aware of the number of sales on the dealer’s end..
My favorite object in Paris was a Yaure mask presented by Olivier Castellano that succeeded in giving me goosebumps. As so many top Ivory Coast objects, it came from the Bediat collection. Not surprisingly it was sold immediately on the day of the opening for a six-number figure. Of an outstanding refinement, yet so simple in its rendering of the human face, this mask still haunts me after two weeks – in a good way. Probably one of the most talked about objects was an exceptional Kongo figure presented by Philippe Ratton. Still with all its original adornments intact and with its head slightly turned to the right, this statue was of a quality one normally only encounters in museums.
As always, there were a lot of thematic exhibitions, although some dealers were honest enough to call their theme ‘Latest acquisitions’. As said in my review of last year’s edition (here), for most of us the fair is about discovery anyway. Still some dealers did the effort and succeeded in creating remarkable exhibitions. Personally, I was very charmed by Jean-Yves Coué’s Madagascar show, perhaps a bit too ethnographic for many, but with a selection of objects one rarely gets to see. Impressive as well, was the “Animals” show of Lucas Ratton, in both quantity as quality. Joshua Dimondstein was brave enough to show a selection of (nowadays not so popular) heddle pulleys from Ivory Coast, and, also from the US, Bruce Frank presented a collection of something what I guess only the specialists knew before: terracotta masks from Papua New Guinea. From Spain, David Serra had brought with him a collection of fascinating Lhoro bronzes.
Good to see back was the Luba figure from the Warua Master (sold by Sotheby’s NY earlier this year; info), on view at Bernard Dulon – now without the ugly restoration of the feet and its oily patina dust-free, an improvement. I did miss Arte Y Ritual, who were not participating this year and usually a must-see, but Martin Doustar filled the hole they left and put up an impressive mask show in their old space – unfortunately with one of the star pieces still stuck in customs. Across the street, Bernard de Grunne had brought a small but outstanding selection, including a blocky and powerful Northern Congolese statue, which was juxtaposed beautifully with a slim elongated Fang figure – a view I will not forget quickly.
As said earlier here, this year was the first edition that included galleries specialized in Asian art; twenty renowned dealers with specialties in Chinese, Japanese, Himalayan, Indian, and, Southeast Asian art were exhibiting, so there was a lot extra to see. Most of what I saw was of an outstanding quality and especially the galleries of Marcel Nies and Jacques Barrere left a strong impression on me. I did see African art collectors going into the Asian art galleries so the interest definitely was there – but since I don’t recognize the Asian art aficionados, I don’t know the statement holds true the other way around. Anyway, a sign of the success of the fair’s enlargement might be the fact that yours truly brought home a 13th century Indian bronze purchased from Frederic Rond – who is based in Alain Lecomte’s old gallery (and thus on familiar territory).
Parcours des Mondes (which means ‘Journeys through Worlds’) this year thus was truer to its name than ever before. It was, again, a flawless edition, so many compliments to its organizers for all the hard work behind the scenes. Parcours through the years has become much more than just an ‘open doors’-type event; it has become the start of our ‘season’ and the place where one sees one’s friends back in the beautiful Parisian quarter that is Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
On 9 July 2015, Christie’s London is offering a spectacular Luba bowstand from D.R. Congo attributed to the Warua Master. It will be included in a special auction called “The Exceptional Sale” (info) – bringing a selection of decorative arts, and two important African art objects as well. To have another work by this artist on the market only two months after Sotheby’s NY sold a male statue by this artist (info) is exceptional. That figure was sold for $ 3,6 million (est. $ 3-5 million), the bowstand (by many considered the reference object of this artist and with an even more impressive provenance and publication and exhibition history) is estimated at $ 2,4 – 3,9 million.
The catalogue note (here) was written by Bernard de Grunne, famous for his identifications of master hands and thus well suited for the task. He gives an interesting overview of the various pseudo-names given to this artist through the years and suggests a new name:
This anonymous sculptor has been assigned various conventional names which I list here in chronological order: The Frobenius 1904 Warua Master by Susan Vogel in 1986, the Warua Master by Ezio Bassani in 1990, The Master of the Court of Sopola by François Neyt in 1993 and again the Warua Master by Heinrich Schweizer in 2015. I had suggested in my 2001 catalogue the name Kunda Master, a denomination used subsequently by Petridis in his publication. The Kunda were one of the most important and ancient royal clans of the Eastern Luba, which produced such amazing talent as the Kateba workshop (also know as the Buli Master) and the great Boyo art styles.
The highest concentration of geographical provenance of works by this sculptor are found on both sides of the Luvua River, at the crossroads of Luba, Hemba, Tabwa and Boyo art styles. Of the nine works by this Master, we have the exact geographical origin for one piece, the bowstand from an American Private Collection. It was given to the private collector by Chief Kahulu Ngoy in the village of Kishiale near Piana-Mwanga, the capital of the Batempo Chiefdom, not far from Kiambi. According to Maesen, the Tervuren figure was also collected between 1902 and 1903 not far from Kiambi by Rusmont in the village of Pweto, on the north bank of the Luvua River. The statue from my father’s collection was found in a village near Kiambi according to Dartevelle. Three works of this artist being collected near this river, the Luvua Master could be considered a proper pseudo-name.
In the catalogue note of the male statue sold by Sotheby’s earlier this year, Heinrich Schweizer in his turn wrote:
The name (The Warua Master) was chosen in reference to a male-female janus-figure in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin (inv. no. “III.C.19996”) which was collected by the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius in 1904 and labeled by him as “Warua”. While the name has been criticized as too vague and non-descriptive (“Warua” is the Arabic pronunciation of “Baluba”, i.e., “the Luba people”, and was widely used at the time for both the inhabitants as well as the territory west of Lake Tanganyika and north of Lake Moero), none of the other suggested names of convenience convince as they are either just as vague and non-descriptive, or not sufficiently supportable by evidence.
However, as the information gathered by Bernard de Grunne shows, a shift from Warua Master to Luvua Master would more precisely reflect the known geographical distribution of three of his works. But as he himself states, it remains to be seen if this will be accepted in future publications. Note that Christie’s is still using ‘The Warua Master’ for the time being.
This artist carved only nine works: two stools, four bowstands and three statues. In his catalogue note Bernard de Grunne has listed them in a detailed chronological sequence based on their first date of collection and careful archival research:
Statuette, M.R.A.C., Tervuren inv. N° 26633, collected by Rusmont between 1902 and 1903,7 (above, far right).
Janus statuette, Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, inv. N° III C 1996, purchased by Leo Frobenius from Hamburg dealer J.M.G. Umlauff and sold to the Berlin Museum in 1904,8 (above, one from right).
Bowstand, American Private Collection, New York, collected by Léon Guébels a.k.a. Olivier de Bouveignes between 1913-1918, Willy Mestach, Merton Simpson,9 (above, centre left).
Stool, Seattle Art Museum, Inv. N° 81.17.876, collected by Lieutenant Roger Castiau, a Belgian pilot based at M’Toa (just north of Kalemie) between April 1st and July 23 1916,10 (Fig. 6 below).
Stool, University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Inv. N° AF5121, purchased from French dealer Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919,11 (Fig. 7 below).
Bowstand, from the André Lefèvre and René Mendès-France collection, acquired prior to May 1931, (the present lot, above, one from left).
Bowstand, Frankfurt Museum des Weltkulturen, inv. N° NS.33.8.34, formerly A. Siffert Collection, Gent, acquired prior to 1937,12 (Fig. 5 below).
Bowstand, Malcolm Collection, collected in situ by Pierre Wustfeld in 1956, (above, centre right).
Statuette, former Comte B. de Grunne Collection, sold by Pierre Dartevelle, 1975, noted as coming from Kiambi (above, far left).
ps it is interesting to find this bowstand being offered by Christie’s. Only last year, it was exhibited by Entwistle at TEFAF Maastricht (info). Note that the excellent sleuthing of Bernard de Grunne in the current catalogue note shows that this object never belonged to Georges de Miré. The erroneous de Miré provenance was added in the entry of the Sotheby’s catalogue in 1980 and has been repeated ever since. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that de Miré did indeed consign some Oceanic objects from his collection to this 6 May 1931 auction (which included this bowstand). However, Georges de Miré’s African collection was sold six months later on 16 December 1931. At the May sale, the bowstand was consigned by another well-known collector, André Léfèvre.
The highlight of the next Sotheby’s sale obviously is the cover lot, a Luba statue from D.R. Congo, attributed to the so-called Warua Master (info). Fourteen (!) pages of the catalogue are dedicated to this lot – Myron Kunin’s Senufo statue got 18. Heinrich Schweizer’s catalogue note contains a very interesting paragraph about the “strong adherence to geometric principles” of the Warua Master. He writes:
The tangent connecting the upmost point of the eyebrows is a horizontal line dividing the face from the apex of the forehead to the chin into two exact halves (see the below drawing). While the upper half is plain, featuring only the forehead, the lower half is visually dense as it contains all facial features – the Warua Master uses the juxtaposition of visual void and density to create tension. Furthermore, the face is inscribed into a perfect ellipse of vertical orientation. The upper half of the ellipse follows exactly the outline of the forehead from its apex to about the line dividing the face into upper and lower half. In the lower half the outline of the face withdraws subtly to the inside. However, it is the lowest point of the beard that falls with mathematical precision onto the nadir of the ellipse. Inside the face, eyebrows and jawbones create two nearly elliptical shapes of horizontal position which follow the same length and width ratio as the vertical ellipse into which the face is inscribed.
Schweizer continues (and here it gets really interesting):
In light of these strong inherent tensions it is surprising that the face overall exudes so much tranquility and serenity. How does the artist do this? The answer has to do with the position of the eyes and is mesmerizingly mathematical (see below drawing): inscribed in the two smaller, horizontally positioned quasi-ellipses are laterally wide and medially narrow eyes. The virtual horizontal line connecting their inner corners of these eyes (i.e., running right through their middle) bisects the length of the face such that the distance from this line to the bottom of the neck is equal to the distance from this line to the top of the forehead, is equal to the distance between the outer points of the two horizontal quasi-ellipses. We may define this distance as b.
However, it is the relation of the lowest point of the beard to the virtual line connecting the eyes that renders the composition in such “perfect balance”. We may define this distance as a. As shown, a and b are measures relating the apex and nadir of the vertical ellipse defining the face to the virtual line connecting the eyes.
The ratio of the distances measured by a and b corresponds to a formula which is well-known in aesthetic studies and art history as the golden ratio of proportion. It has been observed in ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, early medieval painting and was propagated widely during the Italian Renaissance, most famously in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) as manifestation of the divine spark visible in the greatest masterpieces of creation. This ideal proportion is mathematically defined by an irrational number that is approximately 1.618 and most often replaced by the Greek letter Φ.
As the drawings and the above show, a number of the aesthetic choices made by the Warua Master follow the golden ratio with an uncanny mathematical precision – although we don’t know whether this is a result of intuition or calculation.
To my knowledge (and do correct me if I’m wrong*), this is the first time the golden ratio has been applied in the analysis of an African art object. I’m confident that once you start looking you can find it in a lot of other objects too. For example, have a look at this Mende mask in the same catalogue. It is possible to see the golden ratio in anything, really. While the relation between the golden ratio and aesthetics remains highly debated in academic circles (for example here), this analysis certainly helps to better understand and appreciate the beauty of this Luba figure, or African art in general.
*UPDATE: a reader informed me about Jean-Pierre Fournier’s analysis of an Akan comb (“Le peigne ashanti et ses mystères”), published Arts d’Afrique Noire” in 1985 (no. 56, pp. 11-14), where Fournier applies the section dorée and rectangle d’or to a comb from his collection.
When discussing the correspondence between traditional Luba hairstyles and cicatrization, and the coiffures and body decoration on their chiefly stools, one often encounters the following quote from William Burton’s excellent study Luba religion and magic in custom and belief (1961, p. 24):
So petrified have become the customs of the present in the traditions of the past, that we have known women to go two days journey to see the stool of the chief at Nkulu, that they might settle some little matter as to the correct vogue in cicatrization marks. This stool, carved at least 150 years ago, still sets the fashion, to certain of the Luba in cicatrization.
Burton’s observations are important in that they suggest that, not only did the artists who made the Luba stools copied actual hair and scarification styles, but also that they set a standard of fashion for succeeding generations.
Note that well known is that Burton also photographed this stool in the 1920s, as illustrated above. Unfortunately the details of this field-photo are not very clear – which might explain why this picture hasn’t been published much. However, after some sleuthing I was able to track down this stool (which fortunately survived time) and we now can finally see the cicatrization patterns in detail (click on the picture to zoom).
This stool was sold by Sotheby’s London on 17 June 1991 (lot 150); the Belgian dealer/collector who bought it for £ 63,800 presumably being aware of its importance. Interestingly enough, Burton’s original caption accompanying this field-photo stated: “Stool of office of Nkulu chiefs, 250 years old. Insignia of office carried even in war”. Especially the supposed age of this stool is remarkable; Burton’s informants stating it was made in the 18th century. This shows that many Luba regalia may in fact be much older than we think.
While researching an important Luba object, I came across this amazing field-photo of a Luba chief in the 1922 book Missionary pioneering in Congo forests: a narrative of the labours of William F.P. Burton and his companions in the native villages of Luba-Land” (p. 196).
Traveling the Luba region around his missionary post at Mwanza, William Burton made a stop at Kilulwe, which was renowned far and near for its iron work. He writes:
The old chief Kilulwe came to meet us in the most extra-ordinary get up. He had a sort of halo round his head made of blue, black, and white beads, a similar bead-covered insignia across his breast, a very keen, well-made Luba knife stuck into his belt, a beautiful little leopard skin around his loins, and most extraordinary of all, an elaborately carved staff in his hand, on the head of which were artistically carved two Luba women arm in arm.
I did some research and was able to track down this staff; it is now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum.
This staff was donated to the museum by Katherine White, who had bought it from Alan Brandt. Unfortunately it is not known how and when it left Congo. What can be sure is that Chief Kilulwe certainly did not give it to Burton, who writes:
By the afternoon, the chief, who had become offended, had recovered from his sulks and attended the Gospel with a big following, though his whole attitude was that of graciously condescending to patronize our meeting with his august presence; and I fear that he will have to bend his bead-crowned head considerably lower before he can enter the strait gate of Salvation through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
ps Kilulwe was also documented by Burton as a blacksmith & sculptor. Considering the important role of blacksmithing in the founding of the Luba kingdom and the original culture hero’s identity as a master blacksmith, it is not surprising that a chief would also by be an artist. So possibly it was Chief Twito Kilulwe himself who carved this remarkable staff.
The above lot came up at a small UK auction earlier this week with an estimate of £ 100-150. Although the auctioneer had clearly overlooked the qualities of the Luba axe, a couple of attentive bidders apparently were not sleeping and this ‘mixed bag’ sold for £ 19,000 (€ 25,600) – yes, that’s 190 times the low estimate 🙂
Not the expected bargain, but still totally worth it* – I guess we’ll see it soonish in Brussels or Paris. The handle of this axe used to be decorated with copper strips, of which only remnants remain at the top. The blades of this type of Luba axes are always this simple, the end of the shaft often decorated with geometric patterns (here apparently with recuperated copper strips that used to be on the shaft). Evidently, this object is all about the beautifully carved head sitting at the handle’s end. The facial features are worn down, but not too much and consistent with the objects’ use and very representational of what Luba art is all about. This axe thus is a very exciting new discovery that proves once again we haven’t seen all treasures from Africa yet!
*Sotheby’s NY sold one for $ 156,500 on 25 May 1999 (lot 53) and Christie’s sold one for € 163,500 last year – which the seller had bought himself in the same room five years earlier for € 20,000 (16 June 2009, lot 111).
The above royal Luba cup probably can be crowned as the discovery of 2013. It was sold at a small European auction at the end of last year. The estimate being € 7,5-10K, it was hammered down for € 130.000 ! Not suprisingly, since cups shaped like human heads with twin drinking receptacles on their underside are among the rarest of Luba royal insignia. This example is very close to a cup sold by Sotheby’s in 2010 for € 161K (info). A third is in the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (purchased from Hermann Haberer in 1925) and a fourth cup was published in Utotombo (Brussels, 1988: p. 232, #219). Most cups of this type have emanated from Kanyok people and perhaps related groups to the west of the Luba heartland. The Sotheby’s cup has been attributed to a workshop in the Kalundwe region (Felix 1987: 48-49; Neyt 1993: 212), not far from the Luba heartland, as evidenced by certain formal attributes. Some additional pictures:
In the Sotheby’s catalogue, Mary Nooter Roberts made some interesting remarks about the function of these cups:
Luba cups of this sort were documented by the late Albert Maesen, former Head of the Ethnography Section at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, who conducted research and a collecting mission in southern Belgian Congo in the 1950s. Maesen reports that among the Kanyok, royal drinking vessels were the only objects he was not permitted to see in a storeroom in which the ruler’s emblems were guarded, including thrones and scepters. He was allowed to view the rectangular box in which the cups were kept, but he was informed that they were only used during a ruler’s investiture and for other sacred occasions (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1987).
Maesen found that royal cups called musenge were also used in a ceremony to honor paternal ancestral spirits, when a titleholder made an offering of cooked cassava while the ruler communed with his ancestors. The chief counselor named Shinga Hemb drank palm wine from one side of the cup and then passed it to the participants who drank from the other side. Similar acts were performed after divination or at the rising of a new moon (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1982).
The secrecy associated with these royal cups and their limited number suggests another possible association: Early colonial sources and oral traditions point to the importance of the skull of the previous ruler to the investiture of his successor. The skull was the vehicle through which the new ruler obtained power, blessing, and wisdom from his predecessor and validated his own link in the chain of political and moral authority. Quiet contemplation with the skull was essential to investiture, and some writers assert that the king consumed human blood from the cranium, to effect his transformation from an ordinary human being to a semi-divine ruler (Verbeke 1937: 59; Van Avermaet and Mbuya 1954: 709-711; Theuws 1962:216). Indeed, the Luba word for royalty, bulopwe,” refers to “the status of the blood” (Roberts and Roberts 2007:32). It has been asserted that carved wooden cups might have replaced and symbolized the use of skulls in important rituals (Huguette Van Geluwe, personal communication, 1982). Such an assertion remains a hypothetical explanation for the existence of these beautifully carved and carefully concealed cups.
Earlier this month the Colin Sayers collection of African art was auctioned by Stephan Welz & Co. in Cape Town. You can read a tribute to the man here. The above Luba bowl bearer was the top lot of the sale and sold for € 18,000 (including premium). Most likely it was carved by by Kitwa Biseke, official carver to the Nkulu chieftainship (Mwanzi region). Many mboko from this workshop are known, but this one was a new addition to the corpus. More info can be found in an article by A. Nettleton: Burton’s Luba Mboko: Reflections of Reality, The Collection of WFP Burton (University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries, Johannesburg, 1992, pp 51-67).