Opinions Research

Museums and image reproduction fees

An interesting article by Jane Masséglia on museums charging reproduction fees can be found here.

Anyone with experience of the process of acquiring photographs from museum files or archives will know how varied, complex and financially horrifying it can be.

Recently I had the pleasure myself to clear the rights of four old field-photos for an upcoming publication about a private collection of African art. One museum in the UK’s image service demanded £ 75,- for each image and permission to reproduce it. A second museum asked € 100,- for each photo, while communication went painstakingly slow (four weeks and counting). In both cases the field-photos were almost a century old, made by early explorers and ending up in the museum by donation.

A small fee of course might not sound unreasonable. Museums need funds, after all. But what if this commercial attitude leads researchers to decide they can’t afford to discuss a particular photo? Then, of course, there is the bigger question of access. Do museums in receipt of public funds have a responsibility to make their holdings available for research? And in recovering the cost of digitising and administering their holdings, should they be allowed to make a profit from charging non-commercial users? Or are they right that if researchers are looking to get ahead by using their holdings, they should, like the keyring-makers and poster-printers, have to pay for them? But even if we accept that argument, the issue remains of how museums could have arrived at such vastly differing fees for the same service.

Luckily a new wind is going through museum land and more and more institutions are offering high-resolution pictures of objects in their collection free of charge; a fine examples being the Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands. Another noteworthy project is Artstor’s Images for Academic Publishing program, making publication-quality images from many bigger institutions (like the Metropolitan) available for use in scholarly publications free of charge. “Sharing is what museums need to learn to do”, as Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art stated in a related New York Times article. I couldn’t agree more!


Cameroon elephant masks, then and now

While doing research on the incredible Babanki elephant headdress in the last Sotheby’s sale, I encountered this wonderful field-photo (unfortunately withouth any contextual information).

(image courtesy of Henning Christoph)
(image courtesy of Henning Christoph)

The contrast with the field-photo below, taken in Oku in 1976, was so striking I just had to share it.

(image source: "African Masks: From the Barbier-Mueller Collection", 2002, p. 63)
(image source: “African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection”, 2002, p. 63)

More wonderful Henning Christoph field-photos can be found here (scroll down).


Emile Gorlia field-photo’s in The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

In Luba countryside : Judge Gorlia and his wife visiting a Luba village chief. (EEPA 1977-0001-458) (image courtesy of  the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives )
In Luba countryside: Judge Gorlia and his wife visiting a Luba village chief, ca. 1915. (EEPA 1977-0001-458) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives )

If you’re in the mood for field-photo’s, The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives are a fantastic resource.

The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art is a research and reference center with over 300,000 still photographic images documenting the arts, peoples and history of Africa over the past 120 years. Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973) was an internationally known photographer and filmmaker. He created an enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1973. Mr. Elisofon bequeathed to the museum his African materials, which included more than 50,000 black-and-white photographs and 30,000 color transparencies. The Archives has since added to its holdings important and varied collections from widely recognized photographers.

You can search by country, subject & cultural group. But, there’s more to the archive than only Elisofon’s pictures. As shown in the field-photo above, the database also contains photographs of lesser known individuals, Emile Gorlia being one of them. While Elisofon’s pictures are rather late (spanning a time-period from 1947 to 1973), the Gorlia pictures give a much earlier view of traditional African cultures in transition only decades after first contact. While only a small portion of the field-photos picture “art” (the Luba adze above or the Pende figure below), the majority of the pictures mainly illustrate the local daily life of the judge and his family and the peoples he visited. While on inspection tours through the region, Gorlia visited the Songye, Pende, Kuba, Luba, Kanyok, Tetela, Chokwe, and frequented noted places as Lusambo, Albertville, Bandundu, Boma, Matadi, the Sankuru River and The Stanley Pool. These pictures offer an unique historic view and bring life to all those legendary locations.

You can find the complete list of the 1151 Gorlia field-photo’s in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives here.

In Pende countryside: Judge Gorlia's wife standing in front of chief's ritual house. (EEPA 1977-0001-400) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)
In Pende countryside: Judge Gorlia’s wife standing in front of chief’s ritual house, ca. 1915. (EEPA 1977-0001-400) (image courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives)

Note that judge Gorlia’s wife apparently didn’t bring many outfits with her to Congo. On both pictures she’s wearing the same blouse!


Paris auction season in full swing

If you still need an excuse for a trip to Paris next month, here it is. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s prepared two sales. The online catalogue’s: Sotheby’s (18/06), Sotheby’s – Corlay Collection (18/06), Christie’s (19/06) & Christie’s – Jolika Collection (19/06). Get your auction paddles ready!

Sotheby's June 2013
Sotheby's Corlay
Christie's June 2013
Christie's Jolika 2013

UPDATE: On the Détours Des Mondes blog there’s an interesting write up on the incredible Songye headrest that Sotheby’s will be offering, read all about it here (in French).


African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan

African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde

I had the pleasure to receive a personal tour by Yaëlle Biro earlier this year and was quite impressed by this small but highly compelling exhibition. 36 wood sculptures from West and Central Africa are presented alongside photographs, sculptures, and paintings by Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, and Constantin Brancusi highlighting the African works acquired by the New York avant-garde and its most influential patrons during the 1910s and 1920s. The exhibition brings together African works from the collections of many key individuals of the period such as Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas, John Quinn, Louise and Walter Arensberg, Alain LeRoy Locke, and Eugene and Agnes Meyer. Together, these works of art from Africa and the Western avant-garde evoke the original context in which they were first experienced simultaneously almost a century ago. The exhibition is accompanied by a special issue of Tribal Art Magazine. The good news is that this wonderful show just got extended and will run until September 2, 2013. More information here and here. If you’re not convinced yet, you can read a praising New York Times review here.

Thanks to Yaëlle Biro’s meticulous research many of the objects are presented again for the first time after disappearing into private and public collections after those early New York gallery shows. Many of them had not been seen in public in close to a century. From the Stieglitz photo from October 1916 below, Ms. Biro managed to find back the pictured Fang figure, We masks and Lumbo and Bete spoons, a very commendable outcome.

Together with the upcoming quai Branly exhibition about the trailblazing work of Charles Ratton, this exhibition represents a new momentum in the research of the first steps of African art in a western context.

Camera Work, No. 48 Alfred Stieglitz. (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Camera Work, No. 48
Alfred Stieglitz. (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Auctions Discoveries Objects

A Lwena staff from Angola

(image courtesy of Native)
(image courtesy of Native)

Another interesting find in the next Native auction in Brussels: a beautiful Lwena staff from Angola. Such staffs were associated with the power and authority vested in chiefs. Staffs like this one are said to have represented female ancestors whose status as fulfilled women was signaled by, on the one hand, their elaborate coiffures, and, on the other, their body scarifications. Scarifications identified mature women as having undergone various forms of female initiation.

In their object description, Native refers to a Lwena lance sold by Sotheby’s in 2012 (for € 21K):

(image courtesy of Sotheby's)
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

which is most likely from the same hand. Three other staffs from this artist are known: one in a Belgian private collection (YVRA 0026700), one in a British private collection (YVRA 0097335) and a last in the Terence J. Pethica collection (UK), published in The Art of Southern Africa. The Terence Pethica Collection (p. 85, #29). More research will probably reveal additional works from this master carver, which we for now will call “The Lwena master of the center parting coiffure”.

UPDATE: the research on this artist continues here: A Chokwe carver named Itangui Itangui.

(image courtesy of Terence J. Pethica, Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, UK)
(image courtesy of Terence J. Pethica, Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, UK)

Appraisal Detroit Institute of Arts

Yombe nkisi nkondi collected by Robert Visser in 1903. (image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)
Yombe nkisi nkondi collected by Robert Visser in 1903. (image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

Alarming news from Detroit, where the city’s $15 billion debt has led to the entire contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts being seen as a disposable asset by the city’s emergency manager. More details here and here.

Right now no one knows exactly how much the collection is worth. A rough estimate is approximately $3 billion. It is somewhat taboo to appraise publicly owned art, as there is the belief it should not be put on the market.

A statement released by the emergency manager’s spokesperson said, “While there is no plan to sell any assets, it is possible that the city’s creditors could demand the city use its assets to settle its debts. The emergency manager has alerted certain assets, including the DIA, that they might face exposure to creditors should the city be forced to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. This is a precautionary measure.”

In the meantime, choose which piece of African Art you would buy in the presentation of the Africa, Oceanica & Indigenous Americas collection here. I love their Yaka figure, but my final decision would be this Bamana figure.

(image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)
(image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

UPDATE: please take note that Christie’s (Paris) is selling 14 African objects from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago next month; see lot 61-74 here – with a special mention for this important Baga headdress. Many of them were only recently donated to the museum, so I guess there were given without restrictions that would prevent a sale.

UPDATE 2: more recent news here. The objects illustrated in this post were or bought by the DIA itself or donated to the museum and thus can not be sold.


Arti delle Mani Nere – The Italian Forum of African Art Collectors

Online since May 2011, the Arti delle Mani Nere* forum is the online community where (mainly) Italian collectors gather to discuss African Art (*freely translatable to Art of the black hands). Its creator, Brescia-based Elio Revera, has succeeded in creating a lively forum where many critical but constructive discussions take place.

Since the majority of the posts are in Italian, it’s also a good place to practice your languages. Only one part of the forum, “Love driven choices“, is in English, presenting objects from the forum’s members private collections.

Arti delle Mani Nere

As is stated on the forum, “L’unico modo per moltiplicare l’amore, è dividerlo con gli altri” (the only way to multiply love is to share it with others), a goal I gladly endorse and support.


CT-scans of Djenne terracottas from Mali

(image courtesy of Dr. Marc Ghysels, Brussels)
(image courtesy of Dr. Marc Ghysels, Brussels)

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.

The Menil Collection, Houston, USA (# 81-56 DJ) - (Image courtesy of the Menil Foundation)
The Menil Collection, Houston, USA (# 81-56 DJ) – (Image courtesy of the Menil Foundation)

African art inscriptions and labels project

After numerous inquiries on the origin of anonymous labels and inscriptions featured on African art objects, I have decided to publicly make available a project of mine which wishes to document all these old registration numbers and labels.

In the past, many museums, private collectors and dealers inscribed registration numbers or other information on artworks in their collections. It is the goal of this project to offer a list of such numbers and labels whose authors have been identified. This page will also feature inscriptions that still need to be attributed.

The present list is a work in progress. Please get in touch when you would like to share information and pictures of inscriptions or labels not yet listed.

African Art labels and inscriptions