The Mapungubwe golden rhinoceros

Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.
Image courtesy of Tim Hauf/Corbis.

The above golden rhino is the best known remnant of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, the first major urban centre in southern African history, which went into decline around the 1300s. Since the end of apartheid regime in 1994, the stunning object — just 15 cm long and more than 700 years old — has become a defining symbol of precolonial civilization in South Africa. Originally nailed on to a wooden carving, nothing is known about its function – but it is clearly the product of great workmanship.

Described as southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask, the golden foil rhino could be displayed overseas for the first time in the British Museum at an exhibition of South African art late 2016. ‘Could’, since the South Afrian government already rejected a proposal for the rhino to be displayed in Paris in 2001. You can read all about the new request here. It would make a dramatic world debut for the rhino, which is currently on display in a little-known gallery at the University of Pretoria (which holds about 9 kg of gold treasures from the Mapungubwe). To date, the South African government has declined to say whether the object will feature as a star exhibit at the London show – although its absence obviously would be a great shame in an exhibition on the history of South African art.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe hill

Learn more about the discovery of the site here.

The site was rediscovered in December, 1932, by five white adventurers who had heard rumours of a great treasure. They persuaded the reluctant and frightened locals to show them a secret stairway to the top of Mapungubwe’s steep sandstone cliffs. Even 700 years after the kingdom’s disappearance, the local residents revered the hill so much that they would not gaze directly at it. But the treasure hunters quickly climbed up and dug out the gold artifacts. At first, they decided to split their loot, including the fabulous rhino. But one of the five – a young guilt-riddled university student – had a change of heart. He sent some of the fragments to a University of Pretoria professor, and the hill was soon purchased for archeological research.


Happy Holidays !

I’d like to wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a joyful New Year! 2015 was a great year for African art and I’m confident 2016 will be even better. For me personally, it will see the publication of my second book – on Baule monkey figures.

Best wishes,



Exhibtions Research

Fraught signifiers in African art: “Kota”

Detail of a Sango reliquary figure. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Detail of a Sango reliquary figure from Gabon. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In the exhibition catalogue for his exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Kota – Digital Excavations in African Art, Frédéric Cloth makes an interesting comment on the usage of the attribution ‘Kota’ for the well-known reliquary guardians covered with metal from Gabon. He writes:

The word ‘Kota’ refers to a small ethnic group living in northeastern Gabon (estimated between 14,000 and 40,000 peoples by the mid-twentieth century), but one might be surprised to learn that there are no works in this exhibition created by the Kota people themselves.

Yes, you read that right. The Kota did not make any reliquary figures ! Cloth continues:

The reason for this is the result of a complex history. When, in the nineteenth century, Europeans started to explore eastern Gabon along the course of the Ogooué River, one of the first people they met were the Kota. Only later, the European explorers encountered the peoples who produced the art we refer to as ‘Kota’; groups such as the Shamaye, Sango, Obamba, Wumbu, and Ndassa. Oversimplification over time led Westerners unfortunately to refer to all reliquary guardians from this region as ‘Kota’.

This imprecise nomenclature now is so embedded that even Cloth remained obliged to use it for the title of his exhibition. Such fraught signifiers unfortunately tend to be hard to eradicate. Other examples previously mentioned on my blog are the so-called ‘Boa’ (info) and ‘Kulango’ spoons (info) – notwithstanding recent scholarship proved them incorrect, both designations are still widely used.

Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), "l'Art Funéraire au Gabon", Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.
Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), “l’Art Funéraire au Gabon”, Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.
Auctions Museums News

An Oceanic masterpiece moving between museums via Christie’s

Mask. Saibai Island, Torres Strait (Northern Islands, Australia), pre 1870, wood, human hair, shell, seedpod, fiber, pigment, melo shell and coix seeds. Collection Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 2015.
Mask. Saibai Island, Torres Strait (Northern Islands, Australia), pre 1870, wood, human hair, shell, seedpod, fiber, pigment, melo shell and coix seeds. Collection Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 2015.

The Toledo Museum of Art has just announced they purchased the rare Saibai Island mask that was sold at Christie’s in Paris on December 3, 2015. Estimated €750,000 – €1,200,000, the mask was hammered down for € 1,665,500 (buyer’s premium included, info) – making it the most expensive Oceanic mask ever sold at auction. Deaccessioned by the de Young Museum (where it was part of the Jolika Collection), the mask was collected by Samuel MacFarlane circa 1870 and had already spend some time (from 1886 to 1974) in another museum before (the Staatlichen Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, Germany). I’m happy to learn it will stay on public view.

In the press release Dr. Brian Kennedy, president, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, commented that “This is an extraordinary, spectacular example of the sculptural tradition of mask making in the Torres Strait Islands. We have rarely seen such a striking and memorable mask. We are thrilled to have acquired an object of such rarity which expands the global range of the Toledo Museum of Art’s celebrated art collections.” You can learn more about the mask here.

ps the Toledo Museum does have a small collection of African art (search on ‘Africahere; and they also possess Modigliani’s iconic portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Paul Guillaume by Amedeo Modigliani, 1915. Image courtesy of the Toledo Museum (1951.382).
Paul Guillaume by Amedeo Modigliani, 1915. Image courtesy of the Toledo Museum (1951.382).

The future of online object presentation

Marc Ghysels, always on the edge of new technologic progress, just released a first so-called ‘photoscan‘ of an African art object, see below (or here). It is a 3D view of a Djenne terracotta figure from Mali, which can be admired from all angles (and zoomed upon). I think it’s extraordinary and can’t stop playing with it. This imaging technique seems very natural (and in fact is very easy to use), but does require “a lot photographic and post processing work/time… as well as huge computer horsepower”, to quote Ghysels. The beauty of the technique is also that its final result can be easily displayed on an iPhone or an iPad without time-lag. In my humble opinion, it’s the future of online object presentation – especially for very three dimensional objects, such as this terracotta figure. The only thing that is still missing is a ‘PRINT’-option, but with 3D printing technology advancing rapidly that’s just a matter of a few more years.

Djenne terracotta figure
by Marc Ghysels • Scantix
on Sketchfab



Update: the future is here ! A reader informed me about 3D scans taken at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, see them here – the used software (TRNIO) even runs on an Iphone.

Update 2: the Indianapolis Museum of Art is already using this technology on their website, click here for a 3D view of a Songye figure from their collection.


A James Bond villain collecting African Art

Roger Moore The Man with the Golden Gun African art

Last night, I discovered that Francisco Scaramanga, the antagonist of James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun, was an African art collector. When 007 gets invited for lunch at Scaramanga’s island hideaway, the two first cross the living quarters where two big African works of art are on display. First, we see a big Senufo bird figure (sejen) from Ivory Coast, followed by a classic Yoruba epa mask from Nigeria. Unfortunately I could not track down neither of the works – no surprise since the island explodes at the end of the movie 🙂  Anyhow, I guess the set designers wanted to illustrate the sophisticated nature of this villain, portraying him as an non-Western art collector.

the man with the golden gun ivory coast senufo bird figure sejen

yoruba epa mask nigeria james bond 007 scaramanga

ps apologies for the blurry image quality, these are snapshots from my tv.

Museums News

Lyon’s African Art Museum threatened with closure

Musée Africain de Lyon Kru Grebo masks

Sad tidings from France: the Musée Africain de Lyon (founded in 1860 and holding about 6,000 objects) is threatened with closure. The museum (which receives no public subsidy and relies on income from entrance tickets and private donations) has created an online fundraiser to collect €20,000 to keep the museum open (info). Formerly run by missionaries, the museum ‘professionalized’ in 2012 by hiring two full-time employees. They welcome about 10,000 visitors a year, but need the double to break even. The yearly budget is not that high, with only €60,000 the museum can remain open and program two or three temporary exhibitions. The extra funds would be used to improve the educational activities, step up its public relations, and for the installation of the planned exhibitions for 2016 (Children’s games–ritual figurines; Migrants from African and West Indies in Lyon; and a show about the representation of African women in photography of the 20th and 21st centuries). Unfortunately the crowd funding’s start was launched the morning of the attacks in Paris, so not surprisingly failed to attract much attention. So far it has only reached a mere 5% of its goal – while more than ever we want children to learn about the world’s diversity. You can support the museum here.

fundraiser Musée Africain de Lyon France


ps for a virtual visit of the museum, click here.

Objects Research

A rediscovered Senufo staff

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.
Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

In 1969, Anita J. Glaze took the above field-photo of a Senufo staff in Ivory Coast. It was published recently in Bernard de Grunne’s catalogue on the subject, Senufo Champion Cultivator Staffs – which is freely available online here (p. 32). Unfortunately no additional information about the place, owner or carver is mentioned.

Last week, the above staff was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris (info). Apparently the staff left Ivory Coast not long after Anita J. Glaze photographed it, since according to Sotheby’s it was already owned by Harvery T. Menist ca. 1968. Although the field-photo is a bit blurry, details such as the red fibers and presence of cowrie strings make it clear this is one and the same staff.

telafpitya senufo staff sotheby's anita glaze


I discovered two more staffs that are possibly carved by the same sculptor – only the angle between the upper and lower arm is different. A nice detail is how the carver omitted the two front legs of the stool the woman is sitting on, carving only the legs of the figure while maintaining the balance of the stool.


Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.
Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.


ps the elaborate hairdo of the female figure crowning this staff in facts reflects an existing Senufo hairstyle – as can be seen on the beautiful field-photo below.


Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), "Negerkunst und Negerkünstler", Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), “Negerkunst und Negerkünstler”, Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).

10 years Détours Des Mondes

Congratulations to Martine Pinard, who’s African and Oceanic art blog Détours des Mondes has just celebrated its tenth anniversary! 1400 blog posts later, the website is still going strong and steady with several updates each week – truly a labor of love. Since 2013, this section of the blog is dedicated to the tribal art market, signaling local auctions and events. You can find a short biography and interview with Mrs. Pinard here. She presides the association under the same moniker as the blog, which frequently organizes conferences and debates in Paris (info) – for example last year on the theme of ‘The collection: a work of art?‘, see below for the introductory video (and then click through).