African masks and the selfie-test

Dan mask selfie test Ivory Coast

One of the first things I ever learned to check if an African face mask is authentic (or not) was to try it on. This might sound silly, but there’s no easier way to see if a mask is wearable and if you can look through the eye holes – if not, you have a problem. This is of course only a first stage in the process of authentication, but further steps have no use if a face mask fails this simple test. In the age of smartphones and selfies, a friend recently coined a name for such a test: “the selfie-test” 🙂 If you’re not able to make a good selfie wearing the mask, you might have a problem!


2 years

shoowa textile Congo Bruno Claessens

Today this website turns two! 372 blog posts later, this blog in the meantime gets 10,000 visits per month. I hereby sincerely want to thank every one of you for the interest (and for putting up with my faulty English).

I would also like to take the opportunity to thank all readers who have enthusiastically been sharing, tweeting and liking my posts. Because this website is all about sharing knowledge and increasing the interest in African art, I am happy to see my writings getting spread via the www – it is much appreciated.

Please do remember this remains a personal website and all expressed opinions are solely my own. If you disagree or wish to add something, do not hesitate to get in touch. Interesting news items, exciting discoveries, auction surprises or others scoops of course are always welcome too.

Best regards,


ps you can follow this blog via email, if you subscribe here.

Auctions Opinions Research

African art and the golden ratio

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

The highlight of the next Sotheby’s sale obviously is the cover lot, a Luba statue from D.R. Congo, attributed to the so-called Warua Master (info). Fourteen (!) pages of the catalogue are dedicated to this lot – Myron Kunin’s Senufo statue got 18. Heinrich Schweizer’s catalogue note contains a very interesting paragraph about the “strong adherence to geometric principles” of the Warua Master. He writes:

The tangent connecting the upmost point of the eyebrows is a horizontal line dividing the face from the apex of the forehead to the chin into two exact halves (see the below drawing). While the upper half is plain, featuring only the forehead, the lower half is visually dense as it contains all facial features – the Warua Master uses the juxtaposition of visual void and density to create tension. Furthermore, the face is inscribed into a perfect ellipse of vertical orientation. The upper half of the ellipse follows exactly the outline of the forehead from its apex to about the line dividing the face into upper and lower half. In the lower half the outline of the face withdraws subtly to the inside. However, it is the lowest point of the beard that falls with mathematical precision onto the nadir of the ellipse. Inside the face, eyebrows and jawbones create two nearly elliptical shapes of horizontal position which follow the same length and width ratio as the vertical ellipse into which the face is inscribed. 

Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing b

Schweizer continues (and here it gets really interesting):

In light of these strong inherent tensions it is surprising that the face overall exudes so much tranquility and serenity. How does the artist do this? The answer has to do with the position of the eyes and is mesmerizingly mathematical (see below drawing): inscribed in the two smaller, horizontally positioned quasi-ellipses are laterally wide and medially narrow eyes. The virtual horizontal line connecting their inner corners of these eyes (i.e., running right through their middle) bisects the length of the face such that the distance from this line to the bottom of the neck is equal to the distance from this line to the top of the forehead, is equal to the distance between the outer points of the two horizontal quasi-ellipses. We may define this distance as b.

However, it is the relation of the lowest point of the beard to the virtual line connecting the eyes that renders the composition in such “perfect balance”. We may define this distance as a. As shown, a and b are measures relating the apex and nadir of the vertical ellipse defining the face to the virtual line connecting the eyes.

The ratio of the distances measured by a and b corresponds to a formula which is well-known in aesthetic studies and art history as the golden ratio of proportion. It has been observed in ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, early medieval painting and was propagated widely during the Italian Renaissance, most famously in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) as manifestation of the divine spark visible in the greatest masterpieces of creation. This ideal proportion is mathematically defined by an irrational number that is approximately 1.618 and most often replaced by the Greek letter Φ.

As the drawings and the above show, a number of the aesthetic choices made by the Warua Master follow the golden ratio with an uncanny mathematical precision – although we don’t know whether this is a result of intuition or calculation.

Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing


To my knowledge (and do correct me if I’m wrong*), this is the first time the golden ratio has been applied in the analysis of an African art object. I’m confident that once you start looking you can find it in a lot of other objects too. For example, have a look at this Mende mask in the same catalogue. It is possible to see the golden ratio in anything, really. While the relation between the golden ratio and aesthetics remains highly debated in academic circles (for example here), this analysis certainly helps to better understand and appreciate the beauty of this Luba figure, or African art in general.

*UPDATE: a reader informed me about Jean-Pierre Fournier’s analysis of an Akan comb (“Le peigne ashanti et ses mystères”), published Arts d’Afrique Noire” in 1985 (no. 56, pp. 11-14), where Fournier applies the section dorée and rectangle d’or to a comb from his collection.

la section dorée le rectangle d’or fournier comb Akan

Auctions News Objects

Auction surprise of the month: a Bembe figure from Congo Brazzaville

Bembe Congo Brazzaville

A new surprise at auction, in France this time, where the above Bembe figure (height: 14,5 cm) sold for € 117,800 (buyer’s premium included). It was estimated at € 12-18K and has no provenance. Compliments for the buyer because it is indeed a gem.

Raoul Lehuard in his magnus opus Art Bakongo. Les Centres de style classified this as style G-16, “a style in which Bembe art realized perfection” (1989, Vol. II, pp. 371-377). He eloquently writes: “Admirables d’élégance, de finesse et de préciosité, les productions de ce centre de style témoignent d’un art élaboré ayant abouti là à sa perfection mais, peut-être aussi, sa fin. Tant de raffinement et de délicatesse pourraient être l’opposite de l’archétype”.

This muscular style was later identified and attributed to the Bembe Gangala by Marc Felix (Art & Kongos, 1995: p. 199), north of Mindouli at the Loukoumi River. Another example in this style, held by the British Museum, below.

Image courtesy of the British Museum (14623).
Image courtesy of the British Museum (14623). Height: 14 cm.

At first glance, the result of this statue might seem remarkable, but it is in fact not that surprising. Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Sotheby’s NY already sold a statue in this style for $ 55,000 (pictured below). For now, it is the most expensive standing male Bembe figure ever sold at auction, but squatting Bembe figures have already passed the €100K mark for some years – Christie’s sold one in 2014 for €145K (info) and Sotheby’s sold one for €384K in 2007 (info).

Image courtesy of Sotheby's NY (16 November 2002. Lot 42.). Height: 19,7 cm.
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s NY (16 November 2002. Lot 42.). Height: 19,7 cm.

ps another gem in the same sale was the Kongo fly-whisk below. Mounted on an Inagaki base and estimated €3,5-5K, it sold for €20,460.

Kongo Flywhisk Inagaki base

Auctions News

New Sotheby’s catalogue online (New York, 15 May 2015)

Sotheby's New York African Art 15 May 2015

Just a quick note to inform you that the new Sotheby’s catalogue is online here. It features 95 objects from Africa, including 21 objects from the Ladislas & Helena Segy estate. I’ll review the sale afterwards – say hello if you see me running around in New York next month.

Museums Opinions

Exhibiting African art & social media: the power of a hashtag

African art exhibitions and social media quai Branly

Talking about innovative curatorial practices: I just came across the above image taken at the newly opened Ivory Coast exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly Les Maïtres de la Sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (info). Visitors are suggested to use the hashtag #sculpturecotedivoire to discover more about the exhibition on their favorite social media. Any avid user of Twitter or Instagram at once knows which hashtag to use when posting pictures of the exhibition online. The success of this idea becomes clear when searching on #sculpturecotedivoire on Twitter here or on Instagram here.

#sculpturecotedivoire quai branly


I’m happy to notice the Musée du quai Branly is letting people freely photograph the exhibition. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures at the Sepik show in Berlin and photography isn’t allowed either at the Senufo exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art – although they did develop an app for smartphones. The launch of this app will definitely have increased the usage of smartphones by visitors, but they thus can’t use it at the same time for photographing interesting details or the exhibition installation.

In my experience the gallery assistants never really know why photographing isn’t allowed and what the main objections are*. The availability of postcard reproductions of the highlights at the museum shop is often claimed as an excuse – but those you can’t share online. It is of course a complex discussion. Taking photographs of everything of interest for most young people is a way to experience and enjoy art (and life). As long as it goes together with properly looking at objects (and is done quietly and considerably) I have no problem with that. Museum curators should realize that younger generations ‘consume’ art in a whole new way. Part of the fun now is to share your photos online with friends via social media. Establishing a hashtag, like the Musée du quai Branly did, is a clever way to actively encourage visitors to share images of the exhibition online – and those can only generate additional interest in the art on view.

*There’s of course the widespread belief that flash photography can damage an art object. As this paper shows it’s not more harmful than normal light exposure. Dr Martin Evans explains that the problem is even less of a concern for smartphones, which, no doubt, is how most museum visitors are taking photos (or selfies) these days. He writes:

Many ‘smartphones’ include an illuminator that may be a tiny xenon flash, or a light-emitting diode (LED) that briefly flashes light onto the subject. It is hard to estimate the power of these little illuminators in terms of strict guide numbers, but the consensus is that they can be rated at GN 2 to GN 4. Clearly, flashes from ‘smartphones’ cannot be regarded as a conservation threat in any properly lit gallery.

Anyhow, mobile phones take much better photos without a flash.


UPDATE: Kathryn Gunsch, Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was kind enough to share a curator’s perspective:

The ban on photography is rarely related to conservation concerns. It is about image rights. Not every lender will allow visitors to photograph the objects on loan to a show. Many museums that allow photography in the permanent collection cannot offer photography in the special exhibitions for this reason. I don’t know of any museum that has tried to allow photography in a special exhibition of some objects but not others -that would likely be an enforcement nightmare!- and so if even one lender declines photography, the whole show can’t be snapped. I hope that helps explain it. I know many of us wish it were otherwise, there’s nothing better than seeing gallery images on pinterest, instagram and elsewhere!

I wonder how many private lenders wouldn’t allow their objects to be photographed, and for what reasons. Maybe an easy solution would be to make the right to be photographed a condition to include an object in an exhibition in the loan contract. A reader also informed me that at the quai Branly’s exhibition visitors are not allowed to photogaph the objects that come from the Musée National de Côte d’Ivoire – there is a pictogram on the info label that states “NO PHOTO”. So it are not just the private lenders – also note that the Sepik exhibition (where photography also was prohibited) only had objects from public collections. Lastly, another reader wrote that photography wasn’t allowed at the previous stop at the Ivory Coast exhibition at the Rietberg Museum. Seems like, for now, each museum has its own approach.


UPDATE2: As Détours des Mondes‘ Martine Belliard-Pinard reports here, photography also isn’t allowed at Milan’s MUDEC.

Auctions News

The results of Sotheby’s eBay adventure

As I reported here last week, Sotheby’s is now selling African art via eBay. Now that the auction is over, it’s time to have a look at the results.

Several objects apparently were removed from eBay (the website states: This listing was ended by the seller because the item is no longer available) – either that or they were not sold. Among them the Songye kifwebe mask, Mambila figure, and a Dogon figure. Strangely enough the Allan Stone provenance is no longer listed. Five objects from his estate were sold: a great Makonde mask, estimated at $ 3-5K and starting at $ 1,500 (which was estimated $ 8-12K last year) was sold for $ 6,500*; a Chokwe (?) mask, estimated $ 6-9K (originally $ 15-25K here), sold for $ 4,800; an Akan head was sold for $ 1,800 (est. $ 2-3K); a second Makonde helmet mask sold for $ 2,400 (est. $ 3-5K); and a Sudanese throwing club sold for $ 850 (estimated $ 800-1,200).

*It’s interesting to note that during the second Allan Stone sale, this Makonde mask was passed; the last bid being $ 3,750. It was indeed overlooked during the sale itself and deserved a second chance.

The 3 objects from the Segy estate were not sold (a Bamana headdress, a Bamana mask, and a Fon staff). A Guro antelope mask and a Mossi container also remained unsold, while a Dan miniature mask made $ 2,000 and a Dan mask $ 6,500 (est. $7-8K). I thus wouldn’t call this sale a huge success. From the 15 objects, 7 were sold – (except from the Makonde mask) all under or around the low estimate, in total generating $ 24,850 (I guess without the buyer’s premium).

I wonder if that $ 25K was worth the damage to their carefully created image of no. 1 auction house for African art?

I guess the decision was made higher than the individual departments in Sotheby’s corporate structure.

Exhibtions Museums News

“Dance of the Ancestors – Art from the Sepik of Papua New Guinea” at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau

Tanz der Ahnene kunst vom Sepik in Papua-Neuguinea

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Berlin was the new Sepik exhibition that had just opened at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (info). Tanz der Ahnen – Kunst com Sepik in Papua-Neuguinea brings together 220 objects – all from European museums, with the largest number coming from the former museums of ethnology in Basel and Berlin. There are no objects from private collections and additional items come from the museums of Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Cologne, Bremen, St Augustin, Dresden, Lübeck, Rome, Paris, Cambridge and Leiden. The majority of the exhibited objects was collected before the first World War, so this is obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so much ancient Sepik art in one place. The exhibition is curated by Markus Schindlbeck, from the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum and Philippe Peltier, of the Musée du quai Branly. It runs in Berlin until 14 June 2015, travels to Zürich’s Rietberg Museum from 10 July to 4 October 2015 and has its last stop at the quai Branly museum in Paris. Everything you want to know about this exhibition you can find in the press release here.

Image courtesy of Jirka Jansch.
Image courtesy of Jirka Jansch.

Besides the objects on view, I also loved the structure of the exhibition itself: the tour starts with the Sepik river (being projected behind two magnificent giant canoes – see below), from where you continue to the village with dwellings and the presentation of the latter’s inventory of utensils featured in the life of women, children and uninitiated men. Then a dance ground opens up before the visitors, dominated by the men’s house. The tour explores the inside the house and the ritual objects kept there. Masks and musical instruments used at initiations mark the transition to the world of initiated men, who formerly did not become full-fledged members of society until they had become warriors. The ancestors finally manifest themselves in diverse shapes. Every villager could transform himself into an ancestor and they appeared on the dance ground with the adornments worn by the forebears, recreating and re-enacting mythical times.

A fitting end for this tour would have been the display of some of the beautiful over-modeled ancestor skulls known from the Sepik region, but these unfortunately remained absent from the exhibition – I missed them. Although they will certainly be present in the featured museum’s collections, I guess the curators chose not to display ‘human remains’ out of political correctness. Personally, I find this rather peculiar, since all the old reports from the region make it clear that the Sepik themselves often had no problems selling these skulls – paradoxical the exhibition even shows an old field-photo of a Sepik man offering two over-modeled skulls for barter. I now regret not having photographed it – but visitors were not allowed to make photographs anyhow ! I made the photograph below at the entrance and then got stopped.. so if you’re interested, you’ll have to visit the show yourself – it is highly recommended. 

ps simultaneously, there’s also a great ZERO exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau – and there one can take as many photograph as one wants 🙂

Dance of the Ancestors - Art from the Sepik of Papua New Guinea



Field-photo of the day: the Mossi wood carver Raogo Sawadogo

The Mossi wood carver Roago Sawadogo, photographed in Sini in 1984. Published in Roy (C. D.) & Wheelock (T. G.B.), "Land of the Flying Masks. Art and Culture in Burkina Faso. The Thomas G.B. Wheelock Collection", Munich, 2007: p. 41, fig. 10. Image courtesy of Thomas Wheelock.
The Mossi wood carver Roago Sawadogo, photographed in Sini in 1984. Image courtesy of Thomas G.B. Wheelock.

This must be one of my favorite photos of a traditional African sculptor at work. Casually supporting the unfinished block of wood by holding one of the graciously curving horns, Raogo is about to strike his sharp iron adze. The determination and confidence that radiates from his face tell about his mastery of his tools and skills as a sculptor.

This photo was published in Thomas Wheelock’s book on his private collection, Land of the Flying Masks. Art and Culture in Burkina Faso (Munich, 2007: p. 41, fig. 10) – a must read for anyone interested in the art of the country. In a paragraph about “artists” Wheelock for example reveals the following interesting bit of information:

My experience in the art market in Burkina Faso has been that the deeper the scars are carved, and the higher the relief, the more likely it is that the mask was carved for an African patron and not for the tourist trade. Deeper scars are the product of greater time and care committed to the carving.

Something to remember !


Nigerian’s Cross River monoliths: in critical danger of total destruction

Nlul monolith site, January 2015. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.
Nlul monolith site, January 2015. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.

Not much African art is left in Africa. Unfortunately, the few objects still in their original environment are often not preserved in the best conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet (both at the Department of History and International Studies, University of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria) reported about the precarious state of most of the circa 450 ancient stone monoliths (known as akwanshi) still remaining in Nigeria’s Cross River State.

During an expedition to the region in January, Miller and Edet discovered that most of the monoliths are in critical danger of total destruction, either by fire damage caused by local communities or by theft. You can find more details and pictures in their article Cross River Monoliths: in critical danger of total destruction (available here).

Especially fires started by farmers cultivating cash crops, using slash and burn methods, cause a lot of irreparable damage. At the Edamkono site, Miller and Edet witnessed the absolute destruction of the monoliths. Although all of them once were standing upright, most had fallen. One was lying along the road, partially buried in the ground and cars were driving over it! Others were completely cracked from fire damage, as can be seen below.

Edamkono monolith site (January 2015): left, monolith buried in the road; right, fire damaged. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.
Edamkono monolith site (January 2015): left, monolith buried in the road; right, fire damaged. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.

In March 2015, Miller and Edet inspected several other monolith sites in Nta, Nselle, and Nde areas of Ikom L.G.A. While there remained some carved monoliths in their original locations, the majority of monoliths were broken at the base with their tops missing, suggesting fire damage and theft for commercial sale. Click here to see some dramatic pictures.

Ntetakor monolith site: monolith in 1960s (Allison) and in 2015 with missing top. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.
Ntetakor monolith site: monolith in 1960s (Allison) and in 2015 with missing top. Image courtesy of Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet.

After Philip Allison’s pioneering documentation of the carved monoliths of the middle Cross River region in the 1960s, selected monolith sites were declared as National Monuments under the Nigerian Department of Antiquities. Clearly, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, which is currently responsible for the preservation of the monolith sites, has not been able to cope with this crisis. Therefore Miller and Edet hope to appeal to the international community for assistance for better documentation, preservation and conservation of these sites. Let’s hope the right people get to read their reports.

For now, only  individuals (such as Margaret Agbor Ella) or local communities are making an effort to preserve these ancient monoliths; read more about it in Cross River monoliths: community efforts to salvage their heritage (available here). As Ella stated the most important tool for preservation of the monoliths is to educate the local communities, especially the youths. This is because Nigerian pastors in local churches, particularly Pentecostal, have played a destructive role by dissuading the people from appreciating and preserving their heritage, by labeling the monoliths and any form of traditional culture as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sinful’.

UPDATE: a reader informed me that the top of the Ntetakor monolith (illustrated above) is currently held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was a bequest from the collection of Nina and Gordon Bunshaft, who had acquired it from Fatou Touba M’Backe Gallery (New York) in 1985.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995.64.18).
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995.64.18).