African textiles renaissance

Rebecca Hoyes, of Habitat, and designer Boubacar Doumbla make cushions in Mali. Image courtesy of the Financial Times.
Rebecca Hoyes, of Habitat, and designer Boubacar Doumbla make cushions in Mali. Image courtesy of the Financial Times.

An interesting article in the Financial times about the fact that African textiles are beginning to appear in both the UK and US markets.

Rebecca Hoyes, a senior designer at Habitat, travelled to Burkina Faso and collaborated with Malian textile designer Boubacar Doumbia. The pair experimented with the traditional bogolan technique, which involves colouring cloth with natural plant-based dyes, hand-painting designs and then covering it with mud from the Niger river to draw out the distinctive black, ochre and white colours.

“My role was to ensure we delivered a contemporary aesthetic and a more graphic quality within this traditional method,” says Hoyes. “Traditionally, bogolan patterns reflect tribal life in Mali so I came up with more urban motifs that reflect life here, such as one inspired by road markings.”


ps: apologies for the lack of service last week !

Objects Research

Kulango spoons revisited

Image courtesy of Sotheby's
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

These spoons have always been one of my favourite household items from Africa. Their design surpasses the purely utilitarian character of many other examples. Presented on a pedestal, it is a wonderful form. In 1988, Jacques Kerchache, was the second to publish such a spoon in his magnus opus L’Art Africain (p. 377, n° 336). Among the hundreds of objects illustrated in this book only one is purely non-figurative: a single voluptuous spoon identified as Kulango. Gérard Berjonneau and Jean-Louis Sonnery had published it one year before in their book Rediscovered Masterpieces of African Art (1987, p. 270, no.273). In 2010, this particular spoon was sold by Sotheby’s for € 78.750,- (info, see above). A similar spoon, again identified as Kulango, fetched thirteen thousand euro in the famous Goldet auction of 2001 (lot 223). It was also published by Christiane Falgayrettes in the exhibition catalogue Cuillers-Sculptures (Paris: Editions Dapper, 1991: p. 68). Not suprisingly, these spoons have become very popular ever since and in recent years it became fairly easy to find examples in the trade (often at very fluctuating prices). More than a dozen got published, always identified as Kulango.

BUT, they might not even be from Ivory Coast ! It was thanks to the NY dealer Amyas Naegele I just learned that these spoons might in fact be from the Ashanti. In a Facebook photo album (here, see one example below), he showed a group of essentially identical spoons, all labeled as Ashanti. He writes:

Except for the small, slender example which pre-date them, they were all collected in central Ghanaian villages between 1990-2006 by friends. Each example is well used and varies subtly from the next in age, wear and form. They are used in the kitchen.

Amyas Naegele informed me that Michelle Gilbert, an art history professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, has been doing field research in Akwapim, an Ashanti town, for decades. She bought several examples locally and insisted they were Ashanti. Additional, multiple trustworthy Ghanaian art dealers brought many of these spoons to the US and always described them as Ashanti !

So, in all likelihood, Berjonneau, Sonnery, Paudrat or Kerchache were probably mislead and their misidentification has echoed ever since. As Amyas Naegele correctly states (personal communication, 08-10-13):

It is possible that the Kulango also made such spoons but the form shows relatively little variation – certainly not the kind of variation one would expect over an area ranging from Akwapim to Kulango country. The falsehood about the origin of these spoons spread against a background where there was no information and no expertise and certainly no contradicting information. Unfortunately this kind of thing is extremely common in our field.

Lastly, these spoons might not be a very old tradition – the first example only being published in 1987. Do let me know, if you are aware of earlier mentions !

Update: a spoon collected before 1967 here.

Image courtesy of Amyas Naegele.
Image courtesy of Amyas Naegele.
Publications Research

Movie tip: Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) – 1953

In case you hadn’t seen the film yet, somebody was so kind to upload it to Youtube (with English subtitles). ‘Bulgy eyes’ is in it.

If you want to know more about the movie and the objects featured in it, try to find a copy of the excellent book Ode au grand art africain. Les Statues meurent aussi. (Primedia, 2010). By the way, I helped to find several of those pieces back.

Ode au grand art africain. Les Statues meurent aussi

Publications Research

Book tip: Provenance, Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990 (Waterfield, 2006)

Provenance Waterfield

A very interesting book from 2006, written by Hermione Waterfield (ex Christie’s) and J.C.H. King, Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990, offers twelve biographies of early and important collectors of tribal art in Britain. If you want to learn more about: Sir Ashton Lever, General Pitt Rivers (from the notorious museum, W.D. Webster, William Oldman, Harry Beasley, Captain Fuller, William Ohly (from the Berkeley Galleries), James Thomas Hooper (from the famous auction), James Keggie, Herbert F. Rieser, Kenneth Webster or Kenneth John Hewett, this is a book for you.

In the chapter about John Hewett there’s an interesting paragraph on ‘Bulgy eyes’, which I featured in my previous post.

John Hewett would indulge the idiosyncrasies of his clients. For instance, John knew that the collector George Ortiz relished discovery, so he would leave a choice bronze in a drawer and find an excuses to leave the room, knowing that George could not resist a forage. Having found it, he would insist on buying it, so John would in turn insist that it was not for sale, but eventually would be persuaded to part with it for a considerable sum. Ortiz describes his acquistion of the bronze from the Pitt Rivers collection he subsequently called ‘Bulgy Eyes’: John had arranged to meet him for luncheon. He had a bottle of excellent claret, which he opened and poured a glass before he disappeared upstairs with the words: “I will now show you something you do not buy or collect”. He returned with a bronze head, which he placed on the table by the claret. George found it irresistible and so bought it. John was instrumental in secruing the Ortiz collection, when it was sold by Sotheby’s in 1978, but the bronze was not amongst the important tribal art – George had grown too fond of it to think of ever parting with it.

Forgotten fact of the day: George Ortiz had to sell his collection to pay the $2 million ransom for his kidnapped daughter, read more about it here.


Object of the day: a Yoruba head from the Ortiz collection

"Bulgy Eyes" (head) Bronze. H: 26.2 cm.  Thickness of bronze: 1-2.5 mm. Found in Benin City, Yoruba Culture. Probably 16th century. Ex  Webster 6366; Ex collection Lt.  Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, DCL., FRS., FSA, Farnham, Dorset. Image courtesy of George Ortiz Collection.
“Bulgy Eyes” (head). Bronze. H: 26.2 cm. Found in Benin City, Yoruba Culture. Probably 16th century. Ex Webster 6366; Ex collection Lt. Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. Image courtesy of George Ortiz Collection.

In my personal top 10 of African art, is this bronze head from the George Ortiz collection. I first saw it in Paris in 2010 during the exhibition about the film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, Les statues meurent aussi ; the force it radiated was incredible. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, there’s also a degree of identification since I was nicknamed ‘bulgy eyes’ as a child 🙂

The George Ortiz collection can be consulted online here. The main focus is ancient Greek art, but there are some splendid examples of African and Oceanic art too. To see this head in a 3-D format, click here.

This head was found during the British Benin punitive expedition in February 1897 in Benin City. Made in the Yoruba tradition: though possibly in Ijebu it could very well have been made by a Yoruba artist in Benin City and it is even conceivable that “Bulgy Eyes” could be a late Ife work. In art it would seem by observation of their respective works that the Yoruba must have had strong artistic ties and a “close on-going relationship with Benin”.

This bronze head bears tribal markings above the eyes and on the forehead. On either side of the Bini-like ears hang coral pendants with small crotals or nuts at their end. On the back of the head is something of indeterminate nature, either a rattle, bell or large nut. The hair and beard represented by cross-hatching which extends also above the upper lip.

With its immense bulging eyes and wide, hooked nose with flat nostrils, this head is one of the most extraordinary expressions of African art. We see in it the essence of Nature’s savagery and the “bulging eyes represent an extreme of the Oshugbo convention suggesting spiritual force and presence.”

It may have been placed on a royal ancestral altar, found in what Pitt Rivers called “Ju-Ju” houses and would have been used in spirit cult. It could have been surmounted with a headdress, as Drewal suggests. It is unlikely that it served to hold an elephant tusk as some of the tall and heavy Benin heads of later periods did. By its mystical strength, we feel that this unique head is a universal work of art.

Ijebu head Ortiz


For a short interview with George Ortiz, click here.

How does ethnography fit this collection?

Because some of it is very powerful, very pure or very beautiful sculpture, or both, often with a strong inner content. I have always liked African sculpture when it is genuine, which means unadulterated by European contact. And the Africans as no other peoples have been able to capture and express the savagery of nature in some of their sculptures, for nature is not burdened with considerations of morality or justice, it just is. See for example the Nok head, with its powerful psychic content, and “Bulgy eyes”, with its mystical strength.


Reinventing the New York Museum for African Art

Image courtesy of Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Image courtesy of Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects

This article in The Wall Street Journal just reported that, though still under construction, the building formerly known as the Museum for African Art opened its doors last Thursday night for a party celebrating its reinvention as the New Africa Center.

The Sudanese-British billionaire Mo Ibrahim, whose daughter Hadeel Ibrahim is chairwoman of the center, announced at the party that after years of construction delays, the building will open next year as a raw, flexible space, even as work on the build-out continues. In August, Museum officials announced they had decided to reinvent the institution as the New Africa Center — with a museum, policy institute and members’ club for business executives, cultural leaders and policy makers interested in Africa.

More on the party here and on the museum’s problematic fundraising efforts in the past here.