The above Vili drum was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum by Captain William T. Julio in 1843. Julio was the captain of a vessel from Salem and active in the slave trade. Drums of this kind are rather rare. All known examples were collected during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Loango, a region at the mouth of the Congo river (here another example which the Metropolitan acquired in 1897). There is no certainty about the use and significance of these drums. According to some authors, they were a status symbol for the ruler of the Vili, the Ma-Loango.
This drum is supported by a European man seated on a stool. Possibly this is one of the earliest documented ‘colon’-figures in wood. The man is wearing a black jacket, white pants, black boots, a black, brimmed hat and a hoop earring in his left ear. Possibly it’s a portrait of its collector, made as a souvenir. The figure holds a cup in one hand and a (gin?) bottle in the other. His reddish lower eyelids and squinted eyes do suggest he has already emptied the bottle. I wonder what this says about how the Vili (more specific the carver of this drum) regarded their European visitors ?
ps The British Museum has a very similar Vili drum in their collection – which they received from Henry Christy after his death in 1865. Christy himself had acquired it from the Haslar Hospital Museum – founded in 1827 and containing artefacts collected by men serving in the British Royal Navy. In my view this example misses the charisma of the above drum, the face being less expressionistic and more rigid in its rendering. It could be a copy or reinterpretation by another Vili carver, but that’s speculation.
In two weeks more than 60 dealers will reunite in Paris for the 13th annual edition of Parcours des Mondes which will again present an unsurpassed scope of offerings. Earlier this month the organization launched their new website where you can already find a preview.
Last year, while everybody and their mother was gossiping about the Hampatong figure at Galerie Schoffel de Fabry (info), art history was in the making when a New Jersey based collector acquired the male pendant of an important female Urhobo figure already in his collection. They were carved by the same artist around 1850 and previously were separated for at least four decades. You can read all about this reunion in an excellent article by Urhobo specialist Perkins Foss in the latest issue of Tribal Art Magazine (No. 73, pp. 130-135).
Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will run from January 31, 2015 to July 5, 2015 and presents 120 pieces from the collection of Richard H. Scheller. It will be composed of classic and iconic sculptures as well as more unusual examples that challenge commonly held assumptions about African art; approximately 110 cultural groups will be represented. From this interview with Mr. Scheller we learn that he has already given certain pieces to the de Young (as the Nkundu figure above), and that it is his intent that the pieces of the exhibition will be given to the de Young in the future. The collection was assembled over nearly 30 years and many of the objects have never been exhibited before – so it’s certainly something to look forward too. Turns out that the Hemba figure on the front cover of Alisa LaGamma’s Heroic Ancestors is also in the Scheller collection.
In January 1938, two feet below the ground of the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, a cache of bronze heads was uncovered while a foundation for a house was being dug. It would become one of the most important chance finds in the history of African art. Unfortunately no photos of the excavations exist. Shown above are some of the heads unpacked at the British Museum, where the Ooni had sent them in 1948. It’s quite a remarkable scene to see such an important part of Nigeria’s art history placed arbitrary on that table.
The Wunmonije compound, then just behind the palace of the Ooni of Ife, formerly was located within the enclosing palace wall. While clearing away the topsoil the workmen had struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads. Thirteen life-size heads and a half-lifesize half figure were unearthed. Soon after, the same site yielded additional finds of five more works: a life-size head, three smaller heads, and a torso. The identification and function of these heads remain uncertain. It remains a mystery why this cache was ever buried; possibly this hoard once formed part of a royal altar.
Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria. One is now in the collections of the British Museum – the head far left on the above picture. It was purchased in Ife by Mr. Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum in 1939. Two heads that were purchased by William Bascom (a research student from Northwestern University, Illiniois, who was based in Ife at the time) in 1938 were later returned to Nigeria as a gift in 1950 – a story documented in an article by Simon Ottenberg (Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes, in Africa, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1994: pp. 561-568).
The upcoming exhibition Warriors and Mothers: Epic Mbembe Art will present 17 Mbembe figures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and runs from December 9, 2014 to September 7, 2015. The exhibition is organized by Alisa LaGamma and Yaëlle Biro and will focus on the two most frequent themes of this type of sculpture: mothers nurturing their offspring and male warriors – originally these figures were sitting at the end of large communal drums.
The catalyst for this exhibition is the above mother and child figure, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 2010 (info). In December 2009, this maternity figure was unsuccessfully offered for sale by Christie’s Paris (estimated € 500,000 – 700,000). It was later bought through Christie’s from its Japanese consignor, Hiroshi Ogawa, who himself had acquired it from Hélène Kamer (now Leloup) in 1974. It was Kamer who introduced the art world to Mbembe sculpture that same year with her landmark exhibition Ancêtres M’Bembe. The eleven figures of monumental stature featured in that inaugural show presented an at that time completely unknown sculptural tradition to connoisseurs of African art. The catalogue of this exhibition remains the sole monograph on the subject. Dispersed internationally among private and institutional collections, these works will be reunited in New York for the first time since 1974.
There will be no exhibition catalogue, but last year Alisa LaGamma wrote an excellent article on the subject, called Silenced Mbembe Muses in the Metropolitan Museum Journal – which is freely available here. It contains a very interesting chapter on the these objects’ discovery:
The international recognition of Mbembe sculpture resulted from field collecting by the African dealer named O. Traoré in dialogue with the eye and instincts of Hélène Kamer. Already established internationally as a leading dealer in African art, Kamer had undertaken extensive collecting on the ground in Mali, Guinea, and Ivory Coast earlier in her career. She recalls that during the 1970s West Africans regularly traveled to Paris with works that they had imported into France, and active collectors and dealers perused them in the hotel rooms of the sixth arrondissement that the Africans used as their base of operation. Through these channels, an influx of artifacts from the Nigerian-Cameroonian border region commenced, as a result of two phenomena: European art dealers were not traveling to this area because of the Biafran War, and Malians engaged in the art trade during the 1950s and 1960s, having exhausted sources for material closer to home, had continued to seek out artifacts far ther and farther east. Kamer first became aware of Mbembe sculpture on September 29, 1972, when she encountered Traoré, a dealer from an established Malian family, at the hotel where he was staying on the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. Among the works she saw that afternoon, a massive statue from Nigeria with broken arms immediately caught her attention. In acquiring that work, Kamer inquired about its origins. In order to protect his source, Traoré declined to discuss specifics of where it had been collected but promised to return with other examples as well as information on their use, significance, and subject matter, which he would gather from an elder on his next visit to the region. From his base in lomé, Togo, close to the Nigerian border, Traoré made two further forays to obtain additional works for Kamer. He returned to Paris from the first trip on February 6, 1973. At that time he provided the provenance of the works he brought with him, relating them to a small group known as the Mbembe, located east of the town of Abakaliki in the former Anambra State in the Cross River region. By the time these objects were collected by Traoré, they had long become a relic of past practices in the community that commissioned it several centuries earlier.
The above bark box was collected by the Dutch explorer Juan Maria Schuver in South Sudan between 1881 and 1883. Unfortunately Schuver didn’t make any notes about this and the three other similar boxes (#2668-25, #2668-26 & #2668-27 – the last one being oval) he collected. We do know for certain that he himself never visited the Mangbetu and Zande region. Possibly he acquired these containers from Zande mercenaries in Sudan or on the market in Khartoum. The early collection date of this example makes it one of the oldest known Zande bark boxes. In the past, these were often described erroneously as honey containers or receptacles for ancestral relics. In fact, they were most often used for holding trinkets, clothing, charms and other personal treasures. Herbert Lang wrote in his field notes about a similar container: ‘A sort of box (nembandi) made of bark and two pieces of wood for a bottom and a cover. They are used to carry the smaller effects of men during voyages and also to store them away in their huts. Most of the objects stored are ornaments, charms, or clothing’. (note 591)
What is interesting about the bark box illustrated above, is the fact that it lacks figurative elements. Most examples in the literature include lids with carved heads on top. There is thus reason to believe that these boxes, like many other forms of Mangbetu and Zande household art, were undergoing changes during the turn of the century. As Schildkrout & Keim demonstrated in African reflections. Art in Northeastern Zaire (University of Washington Press, 1990), the European presence in the region greatly expanded the market for certain types of art. Many chiefs used art to win favor with colonial officials and this new patronage did have consequences for the local material culture. One was that it encouraged the development and spread of certain types of art already present in the region. Artists more and more produced the kinds of works that European and American visitors admired, preferably in the much-loved “Mangbetu style”: an elongated wrapped head and halo-like coiffure which depicted a distinctive turn-of-the-century fashion of upper-class Mangbetu women.
All these objects depicting a Mangbetu-style head were – and unfortunately often still are – called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. In many instances works regarded by collectors and museums as most typically Mangbetu were in fact made by Barambo, Bangba, or Zande artists. The art known as Mangbetu was not the exclusive work of Mangbetu artists, but is rather an expression of the political and cultural preeminence of that group at the time it was created.
This Western influence thus transformed certain kinds of traditional objects: for the first time they became vehicles for anthropomorphic sculpture. Pottery is the prime example – sculpted heads were added to the rich inventory of existing shapes – but bark boxes too underwent a redesign. The above example shows the archetype for this type of object. Below another box with a wooden lid and (stool-like) base added. Next a classic example with the typical Mangbetu-style head. Lastly, a container representing a full figure – where the actual box still only makes up a small segment at the center. In a very short period of time – ca. 30 years – this object type thus was subject of a major adjustment due to external influences. The case of the Uele region is well documented thanks to the findings of the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition (1909-1915), and makes one wonder what happened in many other parts of the D.R. Congo.
In the above lecture, given at Brown University on 3 October 2013, Christopher Steiner explores the history of collecting African art and examines how early patterns of collecting gave rise to the discipline of African art history and the related formation of a rigid and highly selective canon of authenticity. Steiner discusses how the continuous recirculation of the so-called “masterworks” of African art in museum exhibitions has led to the reproduction of accepted styles in the form of tourist art and neo-traditional copies. The lecture starts at minute 3:40 with the story of Gaston de Havenon and offers a refreshing view on African art and its appreciation in the West.
A book which can’t be celebrated enough, Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit is a must read for anyone with an interest in the African art market. In it, Steiner gives an absorbing account of the commodification and circulation of African art in Africa itself. While so much attention currently focuses on an objects’ provenance or history in the West, this study documents the African side of the story. When the book came out in 1994, it was reviewed numerous times (for example here, here & here – with Sidney Kasfir adding her own interesting experiences) and better than I ever could – so I don’t wish to repeat the exercise myself.
Quoting Denis Dutton in his review: “African Art in Transit presents a wealth of useful information for anyone who wants to learn how contemporary artifacts are marketed, how genres (like slingshots) can be virtually invented, and how the preconceptions of Westerners are exploited by clever salesmen.” All six chapters of the book are most revealing. Chapter 1 describes the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, more specifically Abidjan, where Steiner did his field-research. Chapter 2 describes the organization and basic business practices among traders and between them and their suppliers in upcountry villages. Chapter 3 describes the main features of trading in terms of bargaining, reckoning prices, determining strategies for profit and survival against competitors. Chapter 4 discusses how the ethnicity and religion of traders usually insulate them from both their African suppliers and European buyers, as well as from the objects which they sell. Chapter 5 discusses the notion of authenticity which pervades nearly all thinking about what is or is not good (marketable) art – a very illuminating section. Lastly, chapter 6 examines the sociological concept of cultural broker as it may apply to African art dealers as middlemen between the different cultural spheres of creators, purveyors, and consumers. The text is enriched by numerous telling photos, find some of them below.
After a short holiday in Portugal, I’m back at my office. I wanted to visit the Museu de Ethnologia in Lissabon but learned the storage room with African art unfortunately isn’t visitable. In the meantime, the world did not stop turning; some African art related news stories below:
Kathryn Gunsch has been appointed as Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She starts on Sept 22, 2014, and will oversee the MFA’s growing collection of art from Africa and Oceania, which is displayed in the new Benin Kingdom Gallery, as well as the recently re-installed Arts of Africa Gallery and the upcoming Arts of the Pacific Gallery, opening on Nov 12th. Gunsch comes to the MFA from the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she served as Department Head for the Arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific Islands. She completed her Ph.D. at New York University in 2012, with a dissertation on the bronze plaques from the ancient Kingdom of Benin – complementing the MFA’s recent acquisition of 32 Benin objects from the Robert Owen Lehman Collection (info). Gunsch replaces long-time curator Christraud Geary, who retired in 2013 after 10 very productiveyears at the Museum. Geary was the Museum’s first Curator of African and Oceanic Art, and is now Teel Senior Curator Emerita.
Sotheby’s New York announced that it will be selling the Myron Kunin collection this November (info, often listed as ‘Curtis Galleries’ in catalogues). This single owner sale will number approximately 190 lots, estimated to fetch $ 20-30 million – a record for an African art auction in the US! The collection includes several lots acquired fairly recent at Sotheby’s, for example the Yombe maternity figure from the Robert Rubin collection, bought by Kunin in 2011 for 1,874,500 $ (now estimated $ 1,5-2 million) and the cover lot from the 2009 Chaim Gross sale, a Ngbaka figure which sold for 1,258,500 $ (now estimated $ 1,2-1,8 million). Both objects were hammered down at record prices – I wonder if it’s not too soon to redo this incredible achievement. The same applies to a small Vili figure which Kunin acquired in 2008 for 289,000 $ (estimated $ 30-50,000) – will the underbidder be back for this little gem? A Fang head bought in 2002 for 449,500 $ and published in Carl Einstein’s groundbreaking publication Negerplastik in 1915, is estimated $ 600-900,000 and will certainly receive a lot of attention. Most recently this head was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Yaëlle Biro’s exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde. There are much more blue-chip artworks in the Kunin collection; the guy definitely had taste, and the means to pursue it. As always, the best budget is no budget – let’s hope for Sotheby’s the same will apply to their bidders. Highlights will be on view in Paris from 9-22 September.
Lastly, I was threatened with a lawsuit for posting a story about a fake mask – the first time I did that by the way. Last year, I had already written about the growing reluctance of art experts of expressing their opinion freely – read more about it here. I now experienced first hand how far people wish to go to silence somebody.