Opinions Research

A newly identified Mangbetu sculptor: “The Master of the T-shaped brow”

Image courtesy of Lempertz.
Image courtesy of Lempertz.

Another African artist who’s name is forever lost, while his style is so personal he at least deserves a “pseudo-name”. For me, the trademark of this artist’s work is the T-shaped brow which links the nose, nasal bone and eyebrows, a feature present in all his works – hence the nickname. All faces also have the same type of scarification (two small parallel lines) next to the (deeply incised) circle-dot eyes and nostrils. On the neck there is an incised necklace, formed by a continious circle of small carved crosses (sometimes rectangles). Other typical features of the work of this carver are the typical ‘halo-like’ coiffure, the pointed breasts with large exagerated nipples, the position of the hands enclosing the navel, the protruding belly button, and the pentagonal base.

From left to right: 1. Ex Alain Naoum & Ex Christie's, Paris, 16 June 2009. Lot 302; 2. Collection Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (#6356-2). Collected in 1925; 3. Published & exhibited in Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen, Brussels, KB, 1992: 87, #16; 4. Ex Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2003. Lot 56. Collected before 1913; 5. Private Collection, collected before 1902.
From left to right: 1. Ex Alain Naoum & Ex Christie’s, Paris, 16 June 2009. Lot 302; 2. Collection Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (#6356-2). Collected in 1925; 3. Private Collection. Published & exhibited in “Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen”, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 87, #16; 4. Ex Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2003. Lot 56. Collected before 1913; 5. Private Collection, collected before 1902.

Figural art depicting a Mangbetu-style head is still called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. Although we can not be sure if “The Master of the T-shaped brow” in fact was Mangbetu or Zande, we do know he was very active in the first decade of the twentieth century. Five figures of this artist are known. One of these figures was brought to Europe in 1925 by E. Lefevre, a Belgian prospector and geologist, and thus carved before this date. A second figure was collected by Ernest Shreiber, magistrate in the Belgian Congo, between 1890 and 1913. One of the three pedestals illustrated below was collected in the 1920s. Another figure was already in Europe in 1902. All other objects by this carver have no information about their date of collection. It is thus plausible that this sculptor started carving in the last decade of the 19th century, when Europeans first entered the region, and developed a more homogenous style throughout the years. This corresponds with the fact that the majority of the figurative sculpture in the Uele region was created between 1908 and 1925.

Three other objects are also part of this artist’s corpus; their function is uncertain. A pedestal surmounted by a classic Mangbetu head, they were most likely prestige objects.

From left to right: 1. Ex Sotheby's, New York, 6 May 1998. Lot 207; 2. Private Collection; 3. Published & exhibited in Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 61, #15.
From left to right: 1. Ex Sotheby’s, New York, 6 May 1998. Lot 207; 2. Private Collection; 3. Published & exhibited in “Mangbetu. Afrikaanse Hofkunst uit Belgische prive-verzamelingen”, Brussels, KB, 1992: p. 61, #15.

Like most anthromorphic carvings from the Northeastern Congo, the head shows the typical elongation, strenghtened by the receding hairline. Since the Mangbetu spent a great deal of their time on personal appearence, new hairdresses developed all the time. Hairstyles varied considerably throughout time and according to the status, the occasion and even the mood of the wearer. Wealthier people could afford the time to prepare elaborate coiffures. At the end of the 19th century the practice emerged to strenghten this elongating effect of the forehead by embellishing the coiffure with a sort of funnel-shaped conceived halo. The hair was pulled back, sometimes supplemented with hair from other people, and tied into a open chignon at the back, with the help of a disk- shaped framework of reeds that had been woven into the hair. Originally this coiffure indicated a high social position, worn by the ruling lineage. Afterwards it became an ideal of beauty for all those who wanted to make the effort – preparing such a coiffure was very time-consuming. The halo-shaped basketry frame covered with hair only became common and widespread by 1910. For even more elegance, the Mangbetu wrapped the forehead and the front half of the skull with a wide band of carefully juxtaposed, blackened fiber strings – as can be seen on the field-photo below. The horizontal bands of parallel lines on the wooden statues possibly represent these strings.

Mangbetu coiffure halo-like Herbert Lang Congo AMNH


The function of these figures is highly interesting since it exemplifies the ongoing difficulty to define authenticity in African art. We know that in the colonial period, the European presence greatly expanded the market for certain types of art in the Uele region. Local chiefs commissioned objects for the Western visitors; they mediated between the new patrons and local artists and encouraged artists to produced the kinds of works that Europeans admired. Chiefs of northeastern Congo thus employed artists to carve anthropomorphic figures, some of which were given as gifts to other leaders, both African and European. These gifts were all the more necessary in uncertain times, as in the period of Arab and European contact. The era of colonial rule threatened the continued operation of the traditional Mangbetu court system. This practice of using art as a form of tribute encouraged the development of workshops in which rulers employed carvers who worked in distinctive styles – such as the one under discussion here. These statues thus were made for secular rather than religious purposes, and in a way are early Congolese examples of sculpture carved intentionally to be a works of art. As Schildkrout and Keim wrote in their excellent book on the subject (African Reflections, American Museum of Natural History, 1990), many of the arts that flourished in the very early colonial period gradually died out in the years after the death of chief Okondo (in 1915) and other rulers. Administrative changes were rapidly reducing the formal power of chiefs. Once the system of colonial rule became firmly established, chiefs were less inclined to use art to win the favor of colonial officials. With the Belgian bureaucratization of colonial administration, gifts of art became less useful as a means of communicating with the colonial authorities. Once the patronage of chiefs was gone, the quantity and quality of anthropomorphic art decreased dramatically. Depending on one’s definition of ‘authenticity’, one can thus place this type of sculpture in one or the other category. Surely these statues were employed in a post-contact environment and did not have any religious or magical use, still, as we have seen above, they served a very specific use to their commissioners…

Fairs News

BRUNEAF XXV (10-14 June 2015)

Bruneaf 25 Brussels African Art Fair sablon zavel

Please mark your agenda for the 25th edition of BRUNEAF, the Brussels Non European Art Fair: it opens Wednesday June 10 at 3pm and runs until Sunday June 14th at the Sablon in Brussels. This edition counts 47 participants; you can download the fair’s catalogue here.

For the quarter-century anniversary, there will be a special exhibition, called Uzuri Wa Dunia* – Belgian Treasures, curated by Didier Claes and presenting 100 objects from Belgian collections (*Swahili for ‘The Beauty of the World’). A selection of the finest pieces sold by its participants at BRUNEAF in past years (the show’s working title was Found@BRUNEAF), it is intended to be an homage to and a gesture of appreciation toward the collectors who have made BRUNEAF. Below a teaser. Let’s hope there are some treasures to be found this year too!

Two lectures also have been announced: the first, on Chokwe art, will be presented by Julien Volper of the Musée Royal d’Afrique in Tervuren and Félix Kaputu on Friday 12 June at 6PM. The second, titled L’Art Africain d’Hier à Aujourd’hui (African Art from Yesterday to Today) will be given by Marc Leo Félix and Roger Pierre Turine. Its title and subject resonate with the mission of this year’s guest of honor, the Sindika Dokolo Foundation, headquartered in Luanda (Angola). This lecture takes place Saturday 13 June at 6PM, also at the NH Hotel on the Sablon.

Julien Volper also curated the not-to-be-missed exhibition Giant Masks from the Congo (info), which is still running during BRUNEAF and only a 5-minute walk from the Sablon.

Exhibtions News Research

“Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art” – an upcoming exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (October 2015)

Kota digital excvations Frederic Cloth Pulitzer

This October, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation will present Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art, an exhibition that examines new ways to study and reveal the hidden histories of antique Kota reliquaries from Gabon. The exhibition, co-curated by Frederic Cloth (a Belgian computer engineer and independent researcher) and Kristina Van Dyke, will present more than 50 reliquary guardian figures from both public as private collections. Cloth (who also designed the software of the Yale University – van Rijn Archive of African art) developed a custom-build database and search engine exclusively used to analyze Kota statues. Using a series of algorithms, he was able to detect unprecedented patterns in his sample of over 2,000 reliquaries. I’ve witnessed this database first hand and must say it is very exciting to finally see somebody using digital tools properly to gain new insights in otherwise ‘silent’ objects. This new kind of approach presents exciting possibilities for groups of African objects that lack deep provenance and contextual data, although not all types of art obviously are as suitable to work with. The exhibition will explore both the algorithmic tool and the fascinating African sculptural tradition; you can read more about it here.

Earlier this year, Frederic Cloth already gave a sneak peek of his findings during a lecture, called Algorithms and Mathematics Applied to the Reconstitution of Lost Traditions, at the de Young Museum in conjunction with the opening day celebration of Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture. You can see it below, it’s highly recommended:

Auctions News Opinions

Auction review: Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2015

Sotheby's New York Luba figure Warua Master 15 May 2015

Apologies for the lack of posts these last weeks, I was working on Sotheby’s May 15th auction of African, Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art in New York – although it is hard to consider the week spend in summery Manhattan as ‘working’ 🙂 So, how did the sale do ? Just for the African lots (lots 95-189), the total result (inclusive of buyers premium) was $9,139,125 against a total estimate for this section of $6,188,500 – 9,888,500, in other words just a bit under the high estimate. The sale total was $3 million higher, $12,144,375 (including premium) – the African half of the auction thus performed much better than the Pre-Columbian art. The 13 Oceanic lots were dominated by the monumental Bismarck head, which was sold for $ 1 million.

From the 95 African lots, 67 sold and 28 were passed (29,5 %). The African part of the sale sold 70,5 % by lot and 90 % by value. Including the buyer’s premium, 25 of the 67 objects sold above the high estimate (37 %), 36 (54 %) at or between estimates and 6 lots (9 %) under the low estimate. Note that if you deduct the buyer’s premium, 30 lots (or 45 %) sold below the low estimate (!); once again suggesting that the estimates in many cases were just too high.

Star of the sale was the cover lot, the Luba figure from the Warua Master. As seen above it was presented in a separated “black cube” (opposed to the white cubes ubiquitous in the contemporary art world?) under a very strong light – which unfortunately attracted a lot of attention to the huge amount of dust accumulated in its sticky surface (a restorer surely will have to spend an extended period of time with it!). Bidding started at $ 1,5 million (half of the low estimate). There was one bidder in the room and two others on the telephone; the first got it: the statue was hammered down at $ 3 million – $ 3,610,000 adding the buyer’s premium, becoming the most expensive Luba figure ever sold at auction. The previous holder of that record was the Luba statue from the Alan Mann collection, sold by Christie’s in December 2008 (lot 328) for $ 703K. Notwithstanding this remarkable result, selling at the low estimate (without premium), it is clear that Sotheby’s had expected of course a bit more from this statue. The interest limited to 3 collectors, the number of interested parties ideally would have been higher. In my view, the high estimate certainly played a role, but that in turn might have been necessary to persuade the consignor to let Sotheby’s sell the object. Remarkable was the fact that the statue itself was absent at the cocktail party Sotheby’s had organized the evening before the sale. It had moved to another floor for a private viewing. I thought that was a shame, but I can understand Sotheby’s had to accommodate the wishes of an interested party.

Back to the auction, the first African lot, an a-typical Kota reliquary (lot 95), did surprisingly well selling for almost double its high estimate at $ 47,5K. The next lot, a Vuvi mask was snapped up by a dealer at $ 32,5K, just above the low estimate. The “Dali”- Kota attracted only a single bid (notwithstanding its four pages in the catalogue) and sold for €100K. The next reliquary (lot 98) sold within its estimate for $ 27,5K; while a last, extremely shiny, example (lot 99) was bought by a NY dealer for $ 81,5K. Predicting the results of these Kota figures is an art form in itself. The next lot, the “Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan Fang ngil mask” (info) performed very well, more than tripling the low estimate at $ 970K. Funny detail, for the preview the beard was detached. The Fang figure in its turn failed to sell, notwithstanding the description by Louis Perrois. Petite histoire: the famous Billy Jamieson originally discovered this statue in a small sale in Toronto.

The next big lot, the Kasai helmet mask (lot 111), sold for $ 490K to a telephone bidder. It’s origin is still heavily discussed, during the preview nobody came forward with a definitive attribution – for me it is a Biombo mask (yours truly is even cited in the catalogue). Anyhow, I must say this mask looked even better in reality: it is something special – without wishing to comment on its value – which, as always, is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody did a good deal with lot 113: selling for $ 20K, this Kuba drum was sold a couple of months ago for peanuts at a small US auction – I had passed on it since I didn’t fancy the idea of paying the shipping costs, my mistake. The Lwena mask, estimated $ 300-500K, did not sell – although the final bid ($ 280K) would already have been a record price for such a mask. The Chokwe bird mask (lot 115) sold for $ 75K, just above the low estimate. It had already been unsuccessfully offered by Sotheby’s last year, at a much higher estimate.

From the Segy collection, a small Fang figure from a known hand, estimated $ 12-18K, sold for $ 75K. A Belgian dealer bought the Yombe maternity figure (lot 133) for $ 30K. A nice pair of Dogon dogs should have done better and sold within the estimate for $ 21,250. The fragmentary Mossi mask (lot 152) failed to sell (estimated $ 60-90K). That rarity alone isn’t sufficient to generate interest was proved by the Attie ladder figure (info), which remained unsold at $12-18K. A Chinese collector bought the Senufo helmet mask for $ 27,5K – he was also the underbidder of the Baga mask (lot 165) – which sold for $ 47,5K. This Senufo mask, also known as a firespitter, somehow does resemble Chinese dragon iconography. I did not understand why somebody paid $ 21,250 for a standard Asante doll. One of my favorite objects in the sale was a Baule buffalo mask (lot 177), with sold below its estimate at a mere $ 6,875. It had an incredible usage patina (with the typical egg shells) and was carved with an eye for detail (check those molars!) – it might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but that’s how they should be. Another steal was the Yoruba epa helmet mask, which sold just above the low estimate for $ 31,250 – no money for such a museum quality object by one of the best known Yoruba carvers. I also liked the rare Ijo rattle (incorrectly listed as a headcrest in the catalogue), which was bought by a French dealer for $ 9,375.

The biggest surprise of this auction might have been the Edo terracotta head from Benin which sold for $1,930,000, almost five times the low estimate – and even that low estimate would have been a record price. It did get 8 pages in the catalogue of course, and it was hard to hate that beautiful picture of the open mouth in profile. I guess it is now the most expensive terracotta object from Africa ever sold at auction. Perhaps the most coveted object of the whole auction was the last object, a copper alloy head attributed to the Udo Kingdom (lot 189). Intensely pursued by multiple bidders both in the room and on the telephone, it was sold for seven times its low estimate for $ 730K. The very low estimate of this enigmatic head, $ 100-150K, surely had awakened a lot of interest; one can only wonder if this would also have been the case if the estimate would have been higher. Surely, estimating an object like this is not easy – it is not a classic Benin head and very naturalistically rendered. Personally I have more the feeling that it represents a young princess, instead of a ruler (as stated in the catalogue). Also the attribution to the Udo Kingdom for me is based on too little facts (the presence of related figures at Udo in the 1940s). However, with only three of the sixteenth heads of this style in private hands, this was obviously an unique opportunity (note that the head from the Schnackenberg collection now is in the collection of the Museum for African Art, NY – so it current whereabouts are no longer unknown, as stated in the catalogue). This head is what they call a treasure and many will regret not getting it after starting to dream due to that low estimate – well played by Sotheby’s!

As a final remark, I would like to note that only 4 of the African objects (the Fang mask, Luba figure and two Benin heads) were responsible for 80 % of the sale total of the African half of the auction. A lot of the “smaller” objects did not do well or did not sell at all. This raises questions about the current state of the so-called middle market of authentic objects that just miss that extra bit. The Sotheby’s sale did not prove to be very forgiving for them, especially if the reserve price was too high (which was often the case). It shows once again how selective this market has become. However, in their own summary of the auction Sotheby’s stated that “this auction result confirmed the continued strength of the market and solidified the status of this field as a major collecting category.” – that wouldn’t be my conclusion. Obviously, the luster of the top lots did not translate to the adjacent lots and the market is becoming more and more segregated, but that’s a discussion for another time.


Museums News

The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquires a Hemba figure (DRC)

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Great news from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; they just acquired one of the most important Hemba ancestor figures (singiti) still in private hands (all details here). While they already had a great Boyo figure, a Hemba was surprisingly still missing from their collection – not anymore.

Height: 78 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2015.119).
Height: 78 cm. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2015.119).

You might recognize this majestic statue, as it was the back cover of François Neyt’s classic study La Grande Statuaire Hemba du Zaire (1977) – also published on pages 258-259 (Luika River region).

The provenance of this singiti (as with many Hemba figures) starts with Pierre Dartevelle, who bought it in the 1970s in Lubumbashi – the time most of them came out. He sold it to the Belgian collector/dealer Jacques Blanckaert around 1977, who kept it about a decade and then sold it to the Italian collector Luciano Lanfranchi. In 2004, US collector Jane Katcher acquired it via Entwistle, who now also mediated in the purchase by the Metropolitan. It was bought with the financial help of the same Jane and Gerald Katcher, Lila Acheson Wallace, the Gulton Foundation, Hamilton E. James, and Steven Kossak – cheers to them.

As you can see on the picture below, the statue already got installed in gallery 352 of the museum – just in time for the happenings next week. You can see another recent acquisition of the museum, the Bamileke throne of Njouteu* (info), leaving the scene – it is being moved to a new spot and will remain on view.

*another fascinating story; the female figure standing on top only was acquired and reattached to the stool 15 years after the owner had bought the throne.

Photo by Yaëlle Biro.
Photo by Yaëlle Biro via her Twitter account.

If you want to learn more about Hemba figures, I recommend chapter VI, “Sublime Chiefs and the Persistence of Memory: The Hemba” (pp. 224-270), of Heroic Africans – Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculpture, the catalogue of Alisa LaGamma’s 2011 exhibition on the subject that brought together the best Hemba figures in existence – except for this new purchase (!) and the one from the Vanderstraete collection.

Museums News Objects

The Jay T. Last collection of Lega art at the Fowler available online

Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
Image courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The Fowler Museum recently launched an online presentation of the collection of Lega art they received from Jay T. Last (info). You can find it here; if you click through you get each object’s details and a larger picture. Excellent study material now available for everyone. Some more info:

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa highlights the impressive collection of Lega art amassed by physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously donated these holdings to the Fowler Museum. When Dr. Last started collecting Lega art in 1962, his passion for aesthetics developed into a life-long pursuit of the meaning and history of the beautiful works he sought. In discussing his interests, Dr. Last has commented, “This linking of art with moral culture, the use of art objects to serve as a teaching and inspirational device during Lega ceremonies added a great deal of meaning to my collection.” By gifting his collection to the Fowler Museum, he ensures its access, study, and preservation for decades to come. Most works date to the 19th century and were collected during the 20th century. All the works are in the permanent collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, gift of Dr. Jay T. Last.

ps Jonathan Fogel wrote about the Jay T. Last collection in the Autumn 2013 issue of Tribal Art Magazine (here).