As if something is in the air, in the spirit of my previous two posts, I just stumbled on an interesting article by David Moss on “niche” art fairs. Read it here (from the Antiques Trade Gazette – 24th March 2012). As Moss states correctly:
I think another blow to the bigger fairs was the development of dealer-inspired initiatives, where local and overseas specialists found it cheaper and just as profitable to mount city-wide festivals in their own and borrowed galleries. This is the case with Asian art in London and New York and with tribal art in Paris and Brussels.
Opening 24 October (by invitation only) and running from 25 to 27 October, the Tribal Art Fair in Amsterdam this year presents nineteen dealers showing objects from Oceania, Africa, Indonesia, South-America, Tibet and the Philippines. Located in an old church, this fair was a nice suprise for me last year when I visited it for the first time. Opening punctually at 15:00 the day of the preview, there was a queue of at least 150 eager collectors and dealers. There was a certain buzz in the air, and everybody was in a happy and relaxed mood – being located in Amsterdam and only starting in the afternoon, while everybody was already there for some hours, might of course have had something to do with it. Last year, I met several dealers that had made the long journey from Paris and even spotted Tom Phillips accompanied by David Attenborough. A fun fair !
One of my favourite Congolese masks, formerly in the collection of Jay T. Last and currently held by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles. A very rare idumu mask without eyes. We can only guess about its meaning, but its beauty is on a transcendent level. In Art of the Lega (Los Angeles, 2001), Elisabeth Cameron wrote (p. 209):
It has been suggested that Bwami members attached cowrie shells to serve as eyes, but this seems unlikely since the kaolin on these examples is even, showing no scars to indicate missing elements. Perhaps, instead, the masks illustrate the saying “Big-One of the men’s house, the guardian, has no eyes” (Biebuyck, 1986: p. 77). Although this important high-level Bwami member does not see with his eyes, he sees with his heart and guards the affairs of the community.
Accompanied by a drum roll by the above musician, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has unveiled a new gallery dedicated to the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of bronzes and ivories created in the ancient Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria. The single greatest private holding of objects from Benin (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) the Lehman Collection was a gift to the Museum in 2012. Lehman, a banker and a great-grandson of a founder of Lehman Brothers, had purchased the Benin sculptures between the 1950s and the 1970s. On display for the first time in Boston, the 36 objects (two Lehman Collection loans are included) comprising 30 bronzes and six ivories, all date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The gallery, which was completely renovated, also includes two early ivories from Sierra Leone and Guinea, crafted by African artists for the European market. Read all about it here. For an inventory of the donation, including provenances, click here.
The plaque above has a typical provenance for a Benin bronze: Ex William Downing Webster, London; sold by him on October 15, 1898 for £ 19 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 – d. 1900), Farnham, England; until the 1960s, kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham. The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.
The provenance of these Benin bronzes remains the origin of a lot of controversy. What the MFA forgot to list was that Webster most likely purchased this plaque from a British soldier returning from the Benin Expedition, which had sacked the kingdom’s capital. So, understandably, not everybody is amused by this donation. For the reaction of the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments, that demands a return of the objects, click here. More on the story on the Elginism blog here, and lastly, a more nuanced view by Chika Okeke-Agulu here.
Often forgotten, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem holds an interesting collection of African art. It received its first objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the 1950s. The bulk of Precolumbian, African, Oceanic, and North American art was donated by major collectors in the late seventies (for example Lawrence Gussman, Gaston T. de Havenon, Daniel Solomon and others). Over the years many more unique and rare individual pieces were given, as were whole collections, which came from the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Amrouche, de Monbrison, Entwistle, Kerchache, Guimiot – they all donated objects. As the collection grew, the department experienced a number of major changes in concept, eventually crystallizing into the Department for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The department’s steadily growing collection today numbers over 6,500 objects from diverse cultural traditions, spanning four continents and four millennia.
The online collection shows 365 objects from Africa; browse them here.
As stated before, the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren (RMCA) will be closing for 3 years while many of its objects will be travelling the world. One of the stops is the the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida. In close collaboration with the RMCA it will display and travel the first exhibition in the United States to explore deeply the legacy of Kongo culture in both Central Africa and in North America.
Kongo across the Waters, opens at the Harn Museum October 22, 2013, and presents more than 160 works of historic and contemporary art and artifacts-including loans from the Royal Museum for Central Africa that have never been on display in the United States and several never before exhibited archaeological discoveries – spanning more than five centuries from the late 15th century when Kongo first emerged as a major Atlantic presence, to the present day. Accompanying the exhibition are a richly-illustrated book and international conference documenting and analyzing milestones in the history of African presence in North America.
Much more information can be found on the exhibition’s website here.
Carbon-14 (C-14) dating, also called radiocarbon dating, makes it possible to determine how much time has elapsed since an organism’s death – for example, the felling of a tree. The method is based on the measurement of the amount of carbon-14 remaining in the tested material. Carbon-14 being a radioactive isotope that disappears over time. When a tree dies, the quantity of carbon-14 diminishes at a known rate – its concentration is divided in half every 5730 years. The measurement of the amount of C-14 present in a sample compared to its original content is what makes it possible to date wood. Obviously, the test dates the age of the used wood and not an object’s date of manufacture. Due to technical reasons, using a C-14 test for an object dating between the eighteenth and middle twentieth century (being the most relevant period for African art), remains problematic (partly to blame on the Industrial Revolution). Different calibrations yield different possible intervals of manufacture with non conclusive probability percentages. For example, the results for a tested mask were: 1661-1664 (20,4 %), 1735-1806 (54%) and 1930-1954 (21 %). The second half of the 18th century here is the most probable period of the object’s manufacture, though for an African mask this is a very early date – the last interval thus might be the correct one. This proves a C-14 test should always be complemented by art historical research.
Where C-14 testing could become important is by the definitive determination of whether the tested material existed before or after 1954. This artificial cutoff is man-made. The atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and especially the extensive nuclear testing that continued in the 1950s, resulted in a near doubling of the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere. Recent objects, created after 1954, thus contain elevated concentrations of carbon-14, at levels higher than ever before in history. These abnormally high levels of C-14 thus can serve as a so-called “modernity marker” (quoting CIRAM). A copy of the late 20th century can easily be distinguished. Additionally, since the halt of nuclear testing in the atmosphere, which took place in the early 1960s, the diminution of the amount of C-14 has been very regular. This has made it possible to date recent materials very precisely, with an error margin of only one to two years. Over time, this test thus will become an important tool for the African art market. Unfortunately at the moment it is still a bit too expensive (€ 1190 at CIRAM) to be used extensively. Mostly high-level works of art are currently being dated, though they often don’t really need the additional confirmation. Art historically, testing the € 5000 masks or figures could be far more interesting, while in such instances the cost is disproportionally large.
Published by Five Continents, African Fetishes and Ancestral Objects is an upcoming publication about a Brussels-based private collection. It features ca. 70 objects from four African style groups: the Kongo, Teke, Luba and Songye. Each object is described meticulously by François Neyt and illustrated with multiple beautiful pictures taken by Hughes Dubois. I was happy to contribute numerous related field-photos and drawings. Among others, I found an old drawing from 1888 featuring a Bwende man with the same hairstyle and scarifications as a pictured figure; as well as a field-photo by Burton showing one of the carvers of the Mwanza workshop (see below). The majority of the shown figures have never been published before and this book definitely puts them on the map. It’s very praiseworthy that the anonymous collector succeeded in bringing them together at this point in time; the close guidance by Didier Claes may have played an important role in the rediscovery of so many important objects.