Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

tungunga Bamun de Vlaminck Ndam nji Mare Makoutam

This powerful sculpture is one of my favorite African art objects, I can look at it for hours. It can be attributed to a Bamum workshop in the Makutam region, which produced large scale headcrests, so-called tungunga. It’s talented sculptor found a striking balance between the circular volumes of the eyes, cheeks, and chin; placed below protruding arched brows and surmounted by a dramatically backswept bi-lobed headdress. To its benefit, the blown cheeks of this headcrest are smaller and more schematized than in other examples. The subtle curve of the neck lends the sculpture an additional striking dynamic.

This head crest was sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for 1,608,000 USD (info). The owner, Saul Stanoff, had bought it at auction in Paris twenty years earlier for 65,000 USD (Loudmer, 2 July 1987, lot 176). Quite a markup ! The fact that the piece was once owned by Maurice de Vlaminck did of course play a role in this story.

Tungunga headcrests were danced in pairs of two and evoked the images of a deceased king and his wife. They were held on top of the head and affixed by a fiber construction hidden underneath a raffia frill. Tungungas were danced by the members of the nsoro, a secret society for warriors. Only those men who had killed an enemy in the field of battle could become members of this society. Tungunga dancers appeared only at funerals of important persons, namely of chiefs, members of the royal family, state ministers, and initiates of the nsoro. The bilobed bonnet of the Stanoff tungunga indicates the representation of a king.

Only a few other examples of this rare type of Cameroon art are known; the one below was collected by Henri Labouret and donated before 1934 to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now part of the Musée du quai Branly).

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (71.1934.171.29).
Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (71.1934.171.29).

UPDATE: Sotheby’s Heinrich Schweizer informed me that in his view this head crest in fact wasn’t made by Ndam nji Mare (as I had said earlier, quoting the Rietberg Museum’s Cameroon – Art and Kings). What is a work by Ndam nji Mare is the tungunga in the Malcolm collection (see below) which he discusses in his forthcoming book Visions of Grace: 100 African Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm (coming out in September). Schweizer believes there are at least three different carvers who made this type of head crest. They do look similar, but when handling them one can note many differences in the carving style (eyes, ears), technique (faceted carving vs. smooth surface), patina, wood, etc. Ndam nji Mare was carving a generation later and presumably a follower working in an earlier tradition. He is known by name as he was still active in the 1940s.

Malcolm ndam jni mare tungunga bamun head crest


African Art from the World Bank Collection

African Art from The World Bank Collection

Fairly unknown, the World Bank has a small collection of African art. Under the instigation of Philip Ravenhill, chief curator of the National Museum of African art at the time, they published a catalogue featuring pieces from their collection in 1998; it’s freely available here via Google Books.


Witchcraft Among the Azande (Singer & Ryle, 1981)

Evans-Pritchard’s book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande has become a classic of both ethnography and theories of witchcraft. Now, anthropologist John Ryle and film-maker André Singer, who was himself one of Evans-Pritchard’s students and has published on the Azande, have teamed together to produce the film Witchcraft among the Azande for Granada Television’s Disappearing World series. Singer wanted to learn for himself the accuracy of Evans-Pritchard’s analysis and to note the changes since the original fieldwork carried out between 1926 and 1930.

Among the Azande, witchcraft is considered to be a major danger. They believe that witchcraft can be inherited and that a person can be a witch, causing others harm, without realising her or his influence. Because of this danger, effective means of diagnosing witchcraft are, for them, vital. One method is through the use of an oracle. Several kinds of oracles are explored in the film, the most important being benge, a poison which is fed to baby chickens. The chick’s death or survival provides the oracle’s answer. Azande also use benge to judge other evidence in a court before a chief.

Anthropologists have long argued about the nature and significance of beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery and, more generally, about the similarities and differences between `traditional’ thought and Western science. This film treads a delicate path, exploring an explanation of reality incomprehensible to a majority of Westerners and, at the same time, trying to portray the Azande as a clear-thinking, and almost familiar group of people. In this aim the film succeeds by creating a tension whereby the oracle’s answers are important to the viewers because they have become involved and are forming their own opinions about the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

Zande is not a static society and much has changed since Evans-Pritchard’s original fieldwork. The area filmed is influenced by Catholicism; people are Christian, but the church cannot give answers to many of the questions of the Azande people. The older people see their children abandoning traditional moral and other values. For this schism, the older people seem to blame the government more than the church as the church teaches a value system consonant with the traditional one. Yet, alongside the Christian influence and changes among the younger generation, the power of beliefs in witchcraft and oracles remains. If Singer wanted to give support to Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, he has done so with Witchcraft among the Azande.

Another documentary which centres on the work of Evans-Pritchard below.

Publications Research

Hugo Bernatzik’s The Dark Continent (1931)

Banjom Chief Cameroon Bernatzik THe Dark Continent


Thanks to the efforts of the New York Public Library, you can now browse Hugo Bernatzik‘s The Dark Continent (published in 1931) online here. It features tons of beautiful field-photos; above a Bandjom chief in North West Cameroon, below the wife of a Mangbetu chief.


wife of a Mangbetu chief bernatzik the dark continent 1931

Museums Objects

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum 1

Dreaming about my next holiday, I reminded I still had to post some pictures of my previous field-trip. I had already discussed the African art on view at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum (here), but still had to show their incredible ensemble of Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago.

They were collected during the winter of 1872-1873 by the then 20 year old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart. He traveled the Kodiak archipelago by kayak, assembling the largest set of traditionally crafted Alutiiq ceremonial masks in the world; 87 in total. Pinart recognized both the artistic and cultural value of these unique pieces, collecting the names and songs associated with many. When he died in 1911, Pinart bequeathed the masks to the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum. You can discover 65 masks more in detail here.

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum Pinart

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum 2

Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum Pinart mask

In 2008, the Alutiiq Museum and the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum partnered to create an exhibition of 34 masks from Pinart’s Kodiak collection. After 136 years, the masks returned to Alaska for nine months, visiting Kodiak and then Anchorage. An online presentation of that exhibition can be found here.

Trivia of the day: the crystal skull at the Musée du quai Branly once was owned by Pinart (info) !


Richard Mosse’s “The Enclave” at the FotoMuseum, Antwerp


Antwerp’s Photo Museum is currently showing one of the highlights of last year’s Venice Biennale: The Enclave by Richard Mosse. This multimedia installation documents armed rebel groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and was shot entirely using a discontinued 16mm surveillance film that registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light. Originally used by the U.S. military in the 1940s for camouflage detection, it renders the most lurid jungle war zone in a pink palette that is both gorgeous and surreal. It sheds a very special light on a conflict and region that unfortunately has remained largely unseen.

The piece comprises six large screens with twelve point surround sound, creating a layered and kaleidoscopic experience, highly aestheticized yet firmly grounded in harsh reality. It is a looping, non-linear narrative which documents civilians fleeing massacre, Mai Mai militia preparing for battle (in a rather ‘tribal’ manner), as well as M23 rebels moving on, fighting for, and finally taking the city of Goma. This humanitarian disaster unfolds in a landscape of extraordinary beauty, on the shores of Lake Kivu.

Richard Mosse The Enclave




Exhibtions News

Ghent University’s ‘Cabinet of Wonder’ exhibition

Wonderkabinet Universiteit Gent

Something for the locals. Curated by Frank Herreman and artist Tom Liekens, Ghent University is currently presenting the most curious objects from their holdings distributed among its many museums. One of them (the Ethnographic collections) has a lot of African and Oceanic art, so there are some ‘exotic’ objects mixed in too. Inspired by the historical Wunderkammer , there’s a very wide scope of objects and all are categories are presented mixed-up. More than 50 contemporary art works have successfully been blended in. The lack of any labeling makes visiting this exhibition an intriguing experience. If you are in the neighborhood, definitely a must-visit. The exhibition is located in a beautiful 17th century Dominican library (Het Pand, Onderbergen 1, Gent) and is open daily (11AM-6PM), from 16 until 27 July and in the weekends of 2-3, 9-10 and 15-17 August. More info here.

Update: some footage here.

Cabinet of WOnders Ghent University

Frank Hereman Wonderkabinet

Ivoorkust Wonderkabinet Vandenhoute


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.)


Günther Tessmann’s memoirs

Günther Tessmann Gabon Fang Lübeck The German Günther Tessmann was one of the first to seriously study the Fang, resulting in his magnus opus Die Pangwe from 1913. Although he was not a trained anthropologist, he nevertheless may be considered one of the pioneers of ethnographic field research. The Museum of Lübeck recently has digitalized his handwritten memoirs. You can read them here – especially band 2 and 3 are of interest; they are of course written in German. More bands are following later this year, read more about the project here. All the objects that Tessmann donated to the Ethnological Collections of the City of Lübeck unfortunately still aren’t available online.

Günter Tessmann was born in Lübeck in 1884. After finishing school he did an apprenticeship on tropical gardening at the colonial school in Witzenhausen. Eventually Tessman went to Cameron and Spanish-Guinea (now: Equatorial Guinea), where he did botanical and zoological research. Moreover, Tessman developed a growing interest in Anthropology and began to collect ethnographic material and data. Between 1907 and 1909 Tessman conducted field research in Cameron and Spanish-Guinea on behalf of his hometown Lübeck, to which he donated his complete ethnographic collection (now: Ethnological Collection of the City of Lübeck). Tessmann furthermore published a two-volume monograph on the Pangwe (Fang) people in 1913, including many aspects of their culture, history, religion and arts. Due to the success of his work, he started another field research the same year, this time in Eastern Cameron on behalf of the German Colonial Department. Due to the difficult circumstances during World War I Tessmann had to interrupt his field work several times. After 1918 he more and more shifted his focus on South America. Between 1921 and 1926 he did a number of researches on the ethnic groups in Peru. After his return to Germany completed his doctorate in 1928. In 1923 Tessman had published another monograph, this time on the Bubi people. This publications was followed by his work on the different people and languages of Cameron in 1932, his monograph on the Bafia in 1934 and his two-volume monograph on the Baja people in 1934/37. Tessmann´s intense long term stationary field work was at high standard for his time. After the Nazi regime banned him from teaching at the university in Halle, Tessmann migrated to Brazil in 1936. There he worked as a botanist at the Museu Paranaense and the Instituto de Biologia in Curitiba. Tessmann retired in 1958. Günter Tessmann died in Curibita in 1969.

UPDATE: a reader informed me that while Tessmann’s Pangwe book sells for more than € 1,000 these days, one can buy a fascimile for € 146 here (vol. 1) & here (vol. 2).


Caveat emptor: a Pende mask from Picasso’s collection ?

UPDATE: pictures removed on request of involved party.

EDIT: I was forced to remove my personal opinion, but you can read the story (with pictureshere (in German, but you can use Google Translate).

UPDATE: for the German court’s decision, click here.