I came across a remarkable bronze object today. It’s clearly inspired on the famous Mbala statues of a drummer (as illustrated below), but it’s not in wood and much smaller.
The owner of the object was so kind to reveal the object’s function to me: a bottle opener, made for Belgian colonials, to be used during rituals involving beer 🙂 This object had a deep patina indicating extensive ritual use! These could be bought on Kinshasa’s craft market and were probably made far from the Mbala region to be sold as a souvenir of a visit to Congo.
The above Pende pumbu mask was acquired with my assistance at BRAFA in Brussels in January. While inspecting the mask, I spotted the below inventory number on the inside of the mask. While the dealer had missed it, I immediately recognized the style of this inscription..
I had seen this type of labeling before and was pretty sure it was done by Frans M. Olbrechts for his 1937 exhibition in Antwerp’s Stadsfeestzaal. Back home, I consulted the (rare) exhibition catalogue and checked the upper number of the inscription (92), which proved to be a Pende mask! Note that the majority of objects in the catalogue was not illustrated. However, a second confirmation that this mask was in the famed ‘Tentoonstelling van Kongo Kunst‘ came in the form of the lower line of the inscription: it starts with an abbreviation of the consignor (DERA), followed by the number of the object consigned by that collector. As the catalogue listed J.V. De Raadt as the consignor for mask no. 92, it’s certain the above mask was in the 1937 exhibition. I haven’t been able to identify the second inventory number, but it looks even older. So, I (and the masks’s new owner with me) am very happy that after all these years, an important piece of the object’s history was rediscovered.
ps a day of sleuthing later revealed the existence of two more masks from this carver, see below. The mask on the left is in the Collection Museum aan de Stroom (former Ethnographic Museum), Antwerp (AE.0551), and was purchased from Henri Pareyn on 13 April 1920; the mask on the right was sold in Paris by Boisgirard on 19 February 1968 (lot 110) – its current whereabouts are unknown.
I don’t have the time to research it myself, but somebody should write a Ph. D. on the influence of Belgian colonial administrators on the postwar artistic production of Congo and the accompanying establishment of workshops. This largely forgotten episode of Congo’s art history took place near the end of Belgium’s colonial rule. Administrators, like Robert Verly, were instigated to find the last surviving sculptors and set up ateliers to preserve and pass on their craftsmanship. Verly’s intentions were pure, as he wanted to stop the westernization of traditional Congolese art. Commissioned by Belgian amateurs, many carvers had ceased to create masks and figures and invented a whole new body of work suited for the external market – every Belgian family still has pieces like this. Verly wanted to protect the Congolese sculptors from external influences and stimulate the continued development of the indigenous art styles. Verly’s first ‘social workshop for indigenous art’ was founded in 1955 in Tshchikapa (see above). In the following years Verly would open about 20 more of them in the Kasaï region. As the Belgian photographer Carlo Lamote (from the press agency Inforcongo) at the time visited Verly, images of some of these ateliers and their production exist. Half a century later, as the history of these workshops is largely forgotten, many of these masks and statues unfortunately are now sold as the real thing…
UPDATE: I was very happy to learn that there is a scholar working on the subject! Read more about Sarah Van Beurden’s research project Planning a Colonial Cultural Economy: Arts and Crafts in the Belgian Congo (1930-1960)here. Today I also encountered the below sticker on the bottom of a terra-cotta pot lid in a Chokwe style (but made in Katanga) in a private collection.
TEFAF, one of Europe’s biggest and most prestigious fairs devoted to art, antiques and design, is expanding into New York. Collaborating with the New York art advisers Artvest Partners, it is launching two editions a year in New York – something that will certainly shake up the fair circuit!
Tefaf New York Fall will open in late October 2016 to showcase dealers specializing in artworks from antiquity to the 20th century – just two weeks after Frieze Masters in London and clashing with FIAC in Paris. Tefaf New York Spring, scheduled for May 2017, will focus on high-end modern art and design (and will have to compete with Frieze New York). Each fair is to feature about 80 to 90 international exhibitors at Park Avenue Armory – if there will be tribal art for sale is not yet stated. You can find more info here. In the meantime, the 29th edition of the original Tefaf Maastricht fair will open in the Dutch city on March 11 and run though March 20, with a roster of 270 dealers from 20 countries.
Tefaf has been looking to widen its reach for some time. In March 2013, the fair announced that it would collaborate with Sotheby’s to hold an event in China, provisionally titled Tefaf Beijing 2014. Nine months later, Tefaf tersely announced that the fair in China was “not viable at the present time” (more info here). Tefaf’s New York venture — essentially two new boutique fairs — certainly is an audacious move at a time when the art world’s calendar has never been more crowded with high-end fairs.