Masks of the Afikpo

My son and I wish you a wonderful weekend !

Afikpo Felix Claessens

Cultural anthropologist Dr. Simon Ottenberg documented the traditions of this region during the 1950′s – 60′s, which resulted in an in-depth book, ‘Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art’, and archive of images now part of the Smithsonian. Click here for a short preview of his book, showing multiple field-photos and masks.

ps my son Felix was so kind to donate this wonderful Afikpo mask to the Antwerp Ethnographic Museum after having realized it was not his size and it would serve a better purpose in the museums’s collection.



Royal Museum for Central Africa closing for 3 years

renovation Tervuren

Saturday 30 November the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, “the last colonial museum in the world” quoting director Guido Gryseels, will be closing for three years, so only 3 months left to go enjoy it’s dated, but unique charm!

More information about the € 66 million renovation here. For a video and the news item (in Dutch), click here. The good news is that the masterpieces will be travelling to New York (Metropolitan), Los Angeles (LACMA), Parijs (Musée Dapper), Florida and Atlanta. The Museum for African Art in NY is also listed, though its opening has been delayed repeatedly since it broke ground in 2007. The current targeted opening date, in 2015, still depends on the success of the capital campaign – they still need $ 60 million.

Auctions News

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.


Getty Museum images made free

In the spirit of my previous post, the Getty Museum in California earlier this month announced that 4,600 of their images are now free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose. Yet again, a US museum leads the way – though this time without any African art in its collection. In its discussion of open content, the most recent Horizon Report, Museum Edition stated that “it is now the mark—and social responsibility—of world-class institutions to develop and share free cultural and educational resources”. European museums, take note please.

More information about Getty’s open content policy can be found here. You can browse all available images here. Artworks gallop around the galleries and head out into the world in this short little video.

News Research

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.


“Identités” exhibition – Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Lille

Identies Lille 1

The Natural History Museum of Lille in France is currently showing a selection of 80 objects from their ethnographic collection (holding ca. 13,000 items). I visited the exhibition last week and I am still a bit ambivalent if it really was worth the long voyage. Let us say that I travelled six hours in total to spend 30 minutes in the museum – seeing everything two times ! But in the end, multiple objects in the show did prove to be a good excuse for a day trip to Lille. If a label states ‘before 1850’, I do tend to get excited – see for example the rare Nguni container and the New Ireland mask below.

The only big disappointment was the use of nets to shield the showcases off. I had never encountered such a presentation before and I must say it was a big visual distraction for the connaisseur that wanted to see the objects in closer detail.

Identies Lille 2

Identies Lille 4

These lidded vessels are decorated with broad bands of deeply incised lines. Each is carved from a single block of wood. The robust virtuosity of these vessels (achieved in part through the patterns created by such ridges) is reinforced by their chunky proportions. Only some of the works in this genre, like this example are surrounded by exterior structures. But vessels of this kind are otherwise so consistent in style and execution that they may well have been produced by a single carver or workshop. Since hardly anything is known about their history or possible functions, it is not even certain that they were produced for an indigenous African market. Indeed most (if not all) of them appear never to have been used as receptacles for liquids or cooked foods, suggesting that they may have been sold as virtuoso examples of African craftsmanship. An alternative but less probable explanation of their function is that they may have been commissioned by chiefs seeking to highlight their status through monumentally carved display objects. Unlike those owned by the heads of ordinary homesteads, the tall, slim milkpails commissioned by Zulu kings were generally lidded for fear that lightning might enter them. This tradition was probably linked to the belief that the king would never return as an ancestor of he drank milk thus affected.

( Sandra Klopper in “Africa: The Art of a Continent”, Phillips (Tom), editor, Munich/New York: Prestel, 1995:p. 223, #3.40b)

Storage vessels like this one have been rediscovered in Europea collections only over the past 50 years. Some have collection dates that go back before the 1850’s, but most appear to have arrived in Europe from the 1860’s onwards. Identical examples are recorded as having been on display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1862. Their shape is unlike any indigenously used vessels, except that they have rounded bottoms like indigenous post, necessitating the addition of three legs. The very finely engraved ridged or fluted interlaced patterns are similar to those found on snuff-boxes made by a number of different southern African groups. Because of this, it has been suggested that such vessels were used as storage jars for tobacco, but there is no field evidence which points to this as an accurate reflection of their function.

(Klopper (Sandra), Nettleton (Anitra) & Pethica (Terence J.), “The Art of Southern Africa. The Terence Pethica Collection”, Milan: 5 Continents, 2007:65, #13)

Identies Lille 5

A full photographic review of the exhibition can be found here (pictures by Luc Lefevbre).

News Publications Research

African rock art

Air Mountain, Niger. Man with necklace, tight fitting clothes and possible sticks in hands. “Bash’ marks on side of rock suggest rock gong. Horse Period. (image courtesy of David Coulson)
Air Mountain, Niger. Man with necklace, tight fitting clothes and possible sticks in hands. “Bash’ marks on side of rock suggest rock gong. Horse Period. (image courtesy of David Coulson)

The July/August 2013 issue of Minerva (The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology) is featuring a very interesting article by David Coulson, the leading photographer of African Rock Art, discussing the threats it is facing. Coulson’s Trust for African Rock Art wishes to create greater global awareness of the importance and endangered state of African rock art. It records the rock art heritage of the African continent and makes this information accessible online. In 2014, TARA’s digital rock art archive will become accessible through the British Museum’s global online collections, but for now many images can be consulted here (more than 1000 images and well worth a visit). Unfortunately no references to the rock art of the Dogon can be found on the website (yet).

UPDATE: for Dogon rock art, check this album with fantastic pictures by Huib Blom.

 Drakensberg, South Africa. Coloured shapes and areas of red have been superimposed by more recent and easily discernable images. Note superimposed faded body and legs of antelope protruding from behind central eland. (image courtesy of TARA)

Drakensberg, South Africa. Coloured shapes and areas of red have been superimposed by more recent and easily discernable images. Note superimposed faded body and legs of antelope protruding from behind central eland. (image courtesy of TARA)

The Nsapo Nsapo master of Matamba

The Nsapo Nsapo master of Matamba

My latest research project, a 27 page long study of a Nsapo Nsapo atelier.

This mother-and-child figure orginates from the most profilic Nsapo Nsapo workshop known. The founder of this atelier lived in a mixed Songye-Luluwa region where he created his own unique style that borrowed features from both the Songye as the Luluwa. Together with the Nsapo Nsapo, this sculptor lived on the Matamba hill where he arrived in 1887 . After leaving their homeland, the Nsapo Nsapo were detached from their own traditions and came under new cultural influences. These were not only African, from the Lulua and Chokwe, but also European – with a mission and an army post in Luluabourg (now Kananga) only a couple of kilometer away. Freed from his old cultural context, our artist could give free rein to his imagination and accede to the demands of the market, both local for traditional use as colonial for the Belgians in Kananga. The following types of figures from this workshop are known: standing figures, seated mother-and-child figures, figures seated on a bench, musicians (more specifically drum players), figures smoking a pipe and squatting figures with the hands to the face. This diversity of subject is a rare characteristic for an artist in this region and proves how masterfully he handled the adze. Probably the more anecdotical figures were made for the Belgians.

The Nsapo Nsapo left Matamba again by 1925; probably the sculptor of the figure under discussion here was already deceased at that time. Timmermans discovered that he orginated from a Katuambi group and that his family lived between Djibu and Lupaka after 1925. In the impossibility to discover his real name, Marc Felix labeled this artist with the pseudo-name “the master of the sitting maternities”; the mother-and-child figures being the most prominent in his corpus. I would opt for the name “The Nsapo Nsapo master of Matamba”, in reference to the hill where he developed his style.

The earliest documented figures from this workshop arrived in Belgium in October 1912 and were donated to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. They were collected by Emeri-Henri-Célestin Cambier (°1865 – †1943), who arrived in Luluabourg on 14 November 1889 and founded the Mikalaye mission that same year. The Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp owns 4 figures from this atelier (one maternity and three male figures); all of them were purchased from Henri Pareyn on 13 April 1920.



Apologies for the radio silence on the blog these last weeks, I was occupied documenting a collection..
Certificates printscreen

Time for some rest now..

resting Yoruba


Book tip: African Art and Agency in the Workshop

African Art and Agency in the Workshop

A newly published book under the supervision of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster, African Art and Agency in the Workshop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, 410 pp) presents fifteen essays by a variety of scholars that explore the importance of the workshop in relation to the creative agency of its members and its interactions with patrons. While in the last years the research of “master hands” and ateliers had been mainly confined to the market segment of the African Art world, I am happy to notice the academic world is catching up.

The workshops under disscussion in this book range from the 19th century (King Lewanika’s at Victoria Falls) to the contemporary (Triangle workshops in Zambia and South Africa) and from the earliest modern (Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa) to reassessments of the famous and controversial (Ulli and Georgina Beier at Osogbo, Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga in Zimbabwe). They also include two instances of revolutionary patronage (Makonde cooperatives in Mozambique after FRELIMO’s victory and Kulibele (Senufo) sculpture in Korhogo after the 2002 Côte d’Ivoire rebellion which left them in rebel-territory). These are augmented by a stand-alone introduction examining both well-known European (Lucas Cranach the Elder, the Bauhaus) and African workshops and the intersubjectivity of their practice, the modes of imagination employed, as well as the social and economic aspects of production. The collection ends with a reprint of an essay from a 1985 Iowa conference on ‘The Artist and the Workshop in Traditional Africa” followed by a Coda discussing the major changes that have taken place in workshops since that time due to politics, urbanization, changes in patterns of consumption, tourism, and large-scale economic changes.

Quoting Allen F. Roberts (University of California) in his review:

“Mozambican freedom fighters direct artistic cooperatives to anti-colonial ends. An entrepreneurial Zambian king “brands” his people through patronage of distinctive visual and performance arts. These and equally compelling case studies demonstrate how African workshops have long mediated collective expression and individual imagination. In their nuanced contextualization of “the workshop” across cultural, geographical, and temporal diversities, the editors frame apprenticeship, cultural constructions of creativity, pragmatic materiality, and phenomenologies of production as no Africanist art historians have before, and in ways applicable anywhere in the world.”

The table of contents does looks promising.



Rethinking the Workshop \ Till Förster and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

PART 1. Production, Education, and Learning

1. Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art
Workshop in Africa \ Elizabeth Morton

2. Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in Oku,
Cameroon \ Nicolas Argenti

3. Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei,
Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery Workshop \ Silvia Forni

4. An Artist’s Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and
South Africa \ Namubiru Rose Kirumira and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

PART 2. Audience and Encounters

5. Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in
Weya and Mapula Needlework, Zimbabwe and South Africa \ Brenda Schmahmann

6. Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Osogbo Workshops in the 1960s,
Nigeria \ Chika Okeke-Agulu

7. Working on the Small Difference: Notes on the Making of
Sculpture in Tengenenge, Zimbabwe \ Christine Scherer

8. Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System, Kenya \
Jessica Gerschultz

PART 3. Patronage and Domination

9. Lewanika’s Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia \ Karen E.

10. Artesãos da Nossa Pátria: Makonde Blackwood Sculptors,
Cooperatives, and the Art of Socialist Revolution in Postcolonial Mozambique
\ Alexander Bortolot

11. Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in
the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting, Zimbabwe \ Elizabeth Morton

12. “A Matter of Must”: Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe
Woodcarving Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria \ Norma H. Wolff

PART 4. Comparative Aspects

13. Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop
Settings, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon \ Till Förster

14. Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in
Sub-Saharan Africa \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir


Apprentices and Entrepreneurs Revisited: Twenty Years of Workshop Changes,
1987–2007 \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

The book is available here.