Tag Archives: Songye

African art inspired tattoo of the day: a Songye kifwebe mask

Last month in New York, I came across this amazing tattoo of a Songye kifwebe mask. This famous mask resides in the collection of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. It was sold by Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919 to Marius de Zaya and was one of the stars of Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde in 2012 (info).

Hilary Whitham, who has this tattoo on her upper arm, assisted as a graduate curatorial intern at that show. She chose the Philadelphia-based tattoo artist Jennifer Rahman for the project because of her specialization in stippling and shading. The formal qualities of this kifwebe mask had always drawn her attention – the rhythmic disposition of striations over its curvatures making it a truly stunning object. Who knew it would be so suitable as a tattoo. Hilary generously allowed me to post a picture of the tattoo here and wrote:

Learning about the mask’s role within late nineteenth century Songye communities as an agent of social moderation – marking life events and safeguarding secret knowledge – furthered my fascination. Kifwebe epitomize the scholarly challenges associated with African objects arriving in European and American collections during the first decades of the twentieth century.  Elucidating the complex epistemologies from which these objects emerged, given the extremely partial and biased historical record resulting from colonialism, drives the field of African art history. The mask’s personal significance contributed to my choice to inscribe it permanently on my person. It was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde on which I assisted as a graduate curatorial intern, and belongs to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am completing my PhD. Both of these institutions and the individuals that comprise them have shaped not only my approach to and understanding of art history, but also life more generally, in innumerable positive ways.

Whitham is currently writing a dissertation on the impact of African art on the Dada movement as a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She will especially focus on Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the Romanian avant-garde poet and African art collector who played a pivotal role in the the development of Dada. Her dissertation aims to fill the lacunae in scholarship on Tzara’s role in the development of twentieth century collecting of African art as well as to demonstrate how Tzara’s interest in African art impacted the development of the Dada movement. So please do get in touch if you would happen to own an object once in the possession of Tzara!

ps I’m sure there are more African and Oceanic art inspired tattoos around, so don’t hesitate to send a picture (and its story) if you’re willing to share; thanks.

Songye statue of the day: Tombwe of Kabashilange

Songye figure Kabashilange Congo Burton field-photo


After yesterdays Luba chief, another amazing field-photo from 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. 188): a Songye figure, “the famous fetish of Kabashilange”, in full action. Burton, still exploring the Luba-Songye region, writes in his diary:

Arriving at Kabashilange, our stopping place, a village of about 250 people, we found ourselves in the centre of a considerable crowd doing honor to their far famed ‘Nkishi’ or idol, named Tombwe, which was made by four powerful magicians at a price of 200 francs and a woman. The woman, frightened to become the wife of a magician, ran away, but was brought back and forced into submission, though screaming and almost incoherent in her terror

This tiny bit of information proves already to be very informative. It confirms, once more, that each Songye statue had a personal name. This is the first reference I’ve come across of a figure being ‘made’ by four diviners. Unfortunately that ‘made’ isn’t specified; Burton probably meant ‘activated’ and it’s not clear if one of the four was also the sculptor. Also note how even a small village of 250 people did have (at least) 4 diviners. Burton continues describing ‘Tombwe’:

The ‘nkishi’ is about two feet six inches high. A wooden figure covered with charms, etc. It is carried about by two women, who may not touch its sacred person, but hold it by two long poles attached to its arms. Moreover as it is carried, a drum and rattle band is in attendance, while little girls sweep the ground before it, as it stood upright, with grass cloth bundles filled with magic charms. The father of a certain native Songye, was lost, and the idol was paid a big sum to find him. The poor tired woman attendants dragged it uphill and down dale, through stream and forest, now and again professing to get on the scent, but in vain.

I knew the functions of these power statues were varied, but I had never read they were also used to find missing persons. What is especially noteworthy about this description is the fact that the statue couldn’t be touched and was carried by long poles attached to its arms – a known fact. This explains why you will see the connoisseur evaluating a Songye power figure looking at the arm pits of the statue: a well used authentic example will show a notable wear caused by the ropes connecting the poles to the figure under the arms.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t not able to discover the current location of Tombwe – it is even not sure if he ever left Kabashilange..

ps you can browse (or download) that 1922 Burton book here – there’s plenty more to discover!

Painting of the day: ‘Katompe’ by Fernand Allard d’Olivier

'Katompe' - Fernand Allard l'Olivier. Oil on canvast, 80 x 100 cm. Image by Ferry Herrebrugh, courtesy of Galerie Raf Van Severen, Antwerp.

‘Katompe’ – Fernand Allard l’Olivier. Oil on canvast, 80 x 100 cm. Image by Ferry Herrebrugh, courtesy of Galerie Raf Van Severen, Antwerp.

A couple of years ago, when I was working for a local art-event, I was pleased to discover the above painting at one of the participants. It was made by Fernand Allard l’Olivier (Tournai, 1883-Yanongé, Belgian Congo 1933), one of the most important Belgian Africanists (the artists, not the scholars in this case). It features a pair of Songye kifwebe masks, accompanied by multiple musicians and dancers. Curiously enough women are present during the depicted masquerade – perhaps an addition by the painter to fill the canvas? Anyhow, the detail in which the scene is depicted is remarkable – check those costumes! Painted between 1928 and 1933, it is a very early in-situ recording of these mask’s existence. In 1928 Allard l’Olivier made his first trip to what was then the Belgian Congo where he made copious sketches and drawings – scenes of daily life, dancers, musicians, rituals and so on. Allard l’Olivier’s second mission to Congo was also his last, brought to a tragic end when he drowned in the River Congo. The Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp has some of his monumental paintings, and his works hang in the museums of Tournai and Tervuren as well.

(Click the image to zoom.)

Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Vandevelde Songye kifwebe mask 19th century

Currently on view at the Initiates exhibition at the Musée Dapper in Paris, the above Songye kifwebe mask was the first to arrive in Europe in the late 19th century. It was collected by Liévin Vandevelde (1850-1888), a Belgian colonial officer of the Congo Free State, who gave it to his sister in 1885. Stanley, who Vandevelde accompanied during one of his trips considered Vandevelde ‘his second self’. Vandevelde had assisted the German explorer Eduard Pechuël-Loesche on an earlier trip and would later die during his third voyage in Congo in 1888. In 1885, he collaborated with the government of Angola to eradicate witchcraft in the region. He never traveled in the Songye region and probably acquired the mask from a Portuguese. The Musée du quai Branly holds another famous Songye object collected by him, the incredible headrest illustrated below.

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).

Sotheby’s NY catalogues online (16/05/2014)

Ngbandi figure (lot 308). Height: 72,1 cm. Est. $ 200-300K. Ex Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Ngbandi figure (lot 308). Height: 72,1 cm. Est. $ 200-300K. Ex Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

























The two May 16 auction catalogues are online; you can browse the second part of the Allan Stone collection here. The various owners sale among others includes African art from the Lasansky and Krugier collections can be found here.

Songye figure (lot 69). Height: 54,6 cm. Est. $ 40-60K. Ex Allan Stone. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Songye figure (lot 69). Height: 54,6 cm. Est. $ 40-60K. Ex Allan Stone. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Field-photo of the day: a Songye figure

Image courtesy of Boris Kegel-Konietzko, 1959.

Image courtesy of Boris Kegel-Konietzko, 1959.

A few years ago, when I was still actively contributing to the Yale University – Van Rijn – Archive of African art, the German dealer Boris Kegel-Konietzko allowed us to include the field-photos from his travels through Songye-land in the database. The above picture, taken at Kabinda in 1959, was included in the batch. Of course, I did not hesitate to browse through the thousands of Songye figures in the archive to check if I could find this figure back. Great was my suprise, when I discovered this statue was now, in a slightly different state, in Yale’s own collection. Being part of the Benenson collection, it was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery in 2006 – without the Kegel-Konietzko provenance! Thanks to this picture of the figure at its time of collection, we now know it was originally dressed with an animal skin and partly wrapped in a cotton cloth. The attached smaller figures were also original to the figure. Both field-photo and figure are published in Frederick J. Lamp’s catalogue of the Benenson collection, Accumulating Histories (p. 149).

Songye figure. Height: 124,5 cm. Image courtesy of the  Yale University Art Gallery (#2006.51.148).

Songye figure. Height: 124,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery (#2006.51.148). (info)

Sleepers and wake up calls at auctions

I received an interesting note from my mentor Guy van Rijn today.

Dear Bruno,

I think that you use the word ”sleeper’ in the wrong sense.

A sleeper in an auction is an object that stays unnoticed, but the expert with a keen eye has spotted it and will buy it at very fair price. For example, a Congo figure was sold in 2006 on Ebay for € 10,000,-; the next week it was sold for more than 1 million. Discretion stops me to show a photo (insiders know about this story).

An object that will make a much higher price than the estimation, is a totally other thing. This Teke figure, for example, could have been a sleeper, if it wouldn’t have been discovered by numerous interested parties and made a record price.

Teke figure. Height: 36 cm. Sold for € 198,000 (premium included) by Hôtel des Ventes Victor Hugo (Dijon) on 9 February 2014.

Teke figure. Height: 36 cm. Sold for € 198,000 (premium included) by Hôtel des Ventes Victor Hugo (Dijon) on 9 February 2014.

There are several reasons why an object makes a price multiple times the high estimate. I will list some for you:

A) It is possible that an expert-dealer or collector has spotted an object with a too low estimate because certain provenance was unknown to the auctioneer. The full provenance is missing because the seller did not know it, and/or the auction expert did not have the time to do the proper research on it. This Baule tapper for example was sold by Lucien Van de Velde in the 1970s, information unknown to Native, and with a positive effect on its actual value. The same often happens with objects that were published long ago.

Image courtesy of Native.

Image courtesy of Native.

B) The auction expert knows, but uses an object as a teaser to lure buyers. He deliberately appraises an object with a very low estimate. Collectors will be attracted and hopefully bid more eager on this piece, and on the rest of the auction, than with a high estimate. A good example is the cover lot of the last Lempertz sale in Brussels, estimated € 10,000-20,000,- this top quality Korwar made € 105,000,- (including costs € 133,000,-).

Image courtesy of Lempertz.

Image courtesy of Lempertz.

C) Overpaid. Let me state here first that a great object is hardly ever overpaid. But it happens that two bidders will not give in, and a less important object will make a price that is not comparison with the market value, “it takes two to Tango”! The Songye axe below might be the best example of these last years (info); it sold for almost 100 times its estimate.

Songye axe. Collected by Leo Frogenius between 1910-1912. Estimated at € 4,000-8,000,- and sold for € 384,750,-

Songye axe. Collected by Leo Frogenius between 1910-1912. Estimated at € 4,000-8,000,- and sold for € 384,750,- Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

D) A last reason is less ethical, a dealer who sells a piece at auction and lets a friend do the bidding by phone (unknown by the people in the salesroom). In the meantime the dealer advised/convinced an ‘amateur’ ( the third person, or actual buyer) to buy at a high price. This could be a nasty “wake up call” some day!

So the sleepers I have been posting on my blog were in fact wide awake. The auctioneer might have been sleepy, the bidders were not. I might need a new term.


UPDATE: A reader writes:

I am not sure my understanding of the term ’sleeper’ is consistent with that of Mr. van Rijn, at least in the US. It means here ‘unanticipated success or recognition’. In politics, for instance, it refers to a candidacy, pundits wrote off, but the candidate showed surprising strength, if not victory. Your use of terms and examples cited by Mr. van Rijn are entirely consistent with this definition and usage of the term ’sleeper’. A more common term in politics but still applicable elsewhere is ‘dark horse’ essentially conveying the same meaning.

Ethnographic Museum Antwerp Collection Online

Nkanu panel. Height: 43,8 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (# AE.1961.0077)

Nkanu panel. Height: 43,8 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (# AE.1961.0077).

The Antwerp MAS – Museum aan de Stroom, which holds the collection of the former Ethnographic Museum, recently launched their online collection database. You can browse it here. Note that the data describing the content is only in Dutch. So figure becomes beeld and mask, masker. Unfortunately only the basic data for all of the items held in the collection database is shown; provenance and acquisition date (information so valuable) aren’t listed (yet) – I would for example love to know when the kifwebe mask below entered the collection. The images are also only in low resolution, but at least the items that are not on display in the museum – over 95% of the total – are now accessible. What is also nice is that you can leave comments with additions or reactions if you spot mistakes or gaps. Note that not all of the 400,000 objects in the collection of the MAS have already been added to the database. Happy browsing*, there’s plenty to discover! (*best not with safari since there are still some small bugs in the software)

UPDATE: both acquistion date & provenance are now also visible in extended display (info) !

Mbuun cup. Height: 20,5 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (#AE.0281).

Mbuun cup. Height: 20,5 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (#AE.0281).

Songye figure. Height: 40,5 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (AE.0744).

Songye figure. Height: 40,5 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (AE.0744).

Songye kifwebe mask. Height: 36 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (#AE.0338).

Songye kifwebe mask. Height: 36 cm. Image courtesy of the MAS (#AE.0338).

Sotheby’s announces sale of the collection of Allan Stone

On November 15, 2013, Sotheby’s will present the collection of Allan Stone, featuring African, Oceanic and Indonesian Art, from the famed collections of this legendary New York art dealer. A second sale of equal size will be held in November 2014. A first group of works from Stone’s collection was already auctioned at Christie’s in 2007.

The Allan Stone Collection is most well-known for its strong holdings of Songye and Kongo figures – partly exhibited in 2011 during “Power Incarnate” at the Bruce Museum (more info hereherehere). Especially for Songye sculpture these two sales could prove to be an important momentum.

You can read the press announcement here. Quoting Sotheby’s: the sculptures in his personal collection are manifestations of an artistic vision that seeks to feature expressive energy through powerful accumulations of mixed media. That’s poetry. Allan Stone did make his name dealing in 20th-century American art, particularly abstract expressionism, and the press texts clearly try to recontextualise his African art collection establishing an intellectual relationship with the assemblage sculpture that Stone championed.

A wonderful view on how Stone’s collection was presented at his house can be seen in this fragment from “The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art”, a film created by his youngest daughter Olympia Stone:

More info about the film here (featuring more clips, interviews, etc.). For his obituary in The New York Times, click here.

Open-access images from the Yale University Art Gallery

Songye caryatid stool. (image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, #2006.51.292)

Songye caryatid stool. (image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, #2006.51.292)

Since last week, the Yale University Art Gallery is pleased to participate in the Yale open-access policy, which offers access to images of objects in their collection. Around 1800 images of African art are available for immediate download through the Gallery’s website. Simply search the collection, and once you have found the object you are looking for, click the download link beneath the image. Open-access means that no permission is required to use these images (on the condition that the YUAG is of course correctly credited). As discussed before here, I think this is a wonderful evolution and I’m happy to hear my former employer is leading the way.

Discover the highlights of the African art collection here or search the collection here.

The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art from Africa south of the Sahara had its beginnings with gifts of several textiles in 1937, and it now numbers some 1,800 objects in wood, metal, ivory, ceramic, and other materials. Major milestones in forming the collection occurred in 1954 with the acquisition of the Linton Collection of African Art, purchased for the Gallery by Mr. and Mrs. James M. Osborn, and in 2004 with the gift of the collection of nearly six hundred African objects from Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933. Concurrent with the 2004 gift, Mr. Benenson endowed the new position of the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art, and the Department of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery was born. In 2010 the museum received a collection of approximately two hundred African antiquities from Susanna and Joel B. Grae.

The collection is strongest in ritual figures and masks from West and Central Africa, and terracotta antiquities from the Sahel region. There are also several specialized collections, such as Christian crosses from Ethiopia and miniature masks from Liberia. Several ancient African civilizations are represented, including the Djenne, Nok, Bura, Sokoto, Koma, Sapi, and Benin. Some of the outstanding objects in the collection include: from the Sahel area, a Bamana wooden equestrian figure and a Nok male figure with arms upraised; from the Upper Guinea Coast, a Senufo figurative rhythm pounder and a Temne bush cow mask; from the Lower Guinea Coast, an elaborate Ejagham skin-covered headdress and a Fante appliquéd banner; from Central Africa, a Luba female figure with bowl and a Fang female reliquary figure; and from southern Africa, an elegant Zulu stool.