“Cod is love”, a unique pearl shell ornament from Western Australia

I recently came across this special pearl shell ornament (locally called riji or jakoli) from Western Australia, and it is so unique I just had to share it here. You might have heard that ‘god is love’, but the indigenous maker of this shell pendant unknowingly gave a most funny twist to this well-known bible verse. Perhaps the local missionary was more obsessed with fishing than preaching indeed. This jewel was collected circa 1927 by Professor Elkin on Sunday Island in the Kimberly Region (don’t google that island unless you are prepared to start dreaming away about currently impossible trips). This pendant is part of the Macleay collections (future Chau Chak Wing Museum) at the University of Sydney (#ETA.2014). It is published in “Adorned. Traditional Jewellery and Body Decoration from Australia and the Pacific” by Anna Edmundson and Chris Boylan (Sydney, 1999).

Prior to 1920, the most common patterns applied to such pearl shell pendants included more abstract designs such as zigzags, meanders and mazes with the interlocking key design the most common. From the mid-1920s European themes and more realistic imagery started to appear more frequently. Here we find a male figure wearing shorts and a broad brimmed hat, who is holding a dugong in one hand and a dolphin in the other – no cods. Prized as ornaments and ceremonial objects, they were exchanged along a vast system of trade routes that extended as far as Australia’s southern coast. Pearl shell was associated with water, the essence of life, especially in Australia’s arid interior. They were predominantly worn by men as a cache sexe, suspended from a belt of human hair worn around the waist and, in some instances, as pendants.


A visit to the Tellem caves (1964)

In these months of armchair-travelling, it is fascinating to see the below documentary of a famous Dutch expedition to the Tellem caves in Bandiagara, Mali. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, yet the views alone are worth a look.

This expedition was led by Herman Haan (1914-1996), an architect and amateur archeologist, together with Rogier Bedaux, Gerard Jansen, and Ton Hosemans. Haan had first visited the famous Dogon cliffs in 1960 and saw the potential for exploration. Through his contacts with Dutch television network NCRV, the expedition got weekly coverage on Dutch national television and millions of people would follow the journey (which would take 4 weeks instead of the ten days originally planned). It’s goal was to examine the links between the Dogon people, living at the feet of the cliffs, and the culture they had encountered when they arrived at the location in the 15th century: the Tellem (Dogon for “we found them”).

To explore the higher located caves, Haan himself had designed a metal cage that could be lowered down the cliffs. The team did numerous archaeological excavations, finding all kinds of grave gifts, like iron bracelets, quarts lip-plugs, and wooden neck-rests. One cave was used as a graveyard and held about 1,000 skeletons from the 11th and 12th century. The results of the Tellem expedition would result in several scientific publications, and the television series would inspire a whole generation of African art amateurs in The Netherlands.


Jacques Kerchache presents his new book “L’Art africain” (Mazenod) on French television in 1988

Unfortunately only in French, but how wonderful to see Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001) presenting his new book “L’Art africain” on French television in 1988 – see below, or click this link (the interview starts at 08:44). This publication would become a reference book on the subject, and is still consulted by all professionals in our field – so it’s very charming to see Kerchache, who was responsible for the selection, present it.

After the book presentation, three objects are highlighted in detail in the television studio: an incredible Mumuye statue, a janus Fon figure from the Republic of Benin, and an ivory Woyo staff finial from D.R. Congo. As Kerchache played a big role in the discovery and promotion of the art of the Mumuye, it is special to look at this statue together with him.

Kerchache jokes “Watch out ! It’s dangerous” when the host touches this Fon statue 🙂

At the end of the interview Kerchache informs about his plans to bring African and Oceanic Art into the Louvre – a mission he would later accomplish successfully!


Ethnografiska Museet (Stockholm) collection available online

Young Bwende men on their way to the missionary station of Kingyi to give in their ‘minkisi’ power statues in order to convert to Christianity. Photographed by Edvard Karlman in 1912. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0025).

Stockholm’s Ethnografiska Museet recently has made its archives accessible online. The database is called Carlotta and you can access it here. As many Swedish missionaries, explorers and soldiers donated their collections and archives to the museum, the database truly is a treasure-trove of never published material! One can easily browse away a day. The whole thing is in Swedish, so you might want to translate a country’s name before entering it in your query. Search for ‘Kongo figur‘, or names of field collectors like Bolinger or Karlman, and you are bound to find some interesting objects and images. Below some random examples of discoveries of mine.

Public display of Igbo wooden ancestral figures called alusi. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.g.0072).
Gbandi/Toma/Loma mask performance, Liberia. Photographed by Gustaf Wilhelm Bolinder, 1930-31. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0221.a.0033).
Early tourist art from Congo-Brazzaville. Acquired by Edvard Karlman in 1926. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (0177.0040).
Bangu-Bangu figure, D.R. Congo. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1917.01.0104).
Mask, Cameroon – culture unknown. Pre 1893. Collection Statens museer för världskultur – Etnografiska museet, Stockholm (1893.04.0092).

I can’t applaud this kind of digitalisation initiatives enough. As a reminder, I’ve created a page on my website documenting all museum databases available online here. If something is missing, please do let me know – thanks. Also, if you know any museums that haven’t started digitalising yet, I’ll happily put them on the wall of shame 🙂


“African Faces, African Figures – the Arman Collection” available online for free

Some weekend reading: I recently discovered this hard to find and out-of-print exhibition catalog available for free online. You can browse it below, or find it here.

Published in 1997, it documents 180 objects gathered over forty years by the well-known French artist/collector. The book includes a nice introduction by Jacques Kerchache, as well as interesting interviews of the man by both Alain Nicolas and Monique Barbier-Mueller. As the collection was mostly dispersed after the artist’s death, you’ll find many objects that have been circulating on the art market in the catalog; I sold the Kwele mask at Christie’s two years ago for example. Especially the group of Gabonese objects truly stands out within this collection; the quantity and quality of figures the artist was able to bring together is quite impressive, and, which collector hasn’t yet dreamt of building his own wall of Kota figures as illustrated below. As in his art, Arman was the ultimate accumulator. From Derain, Vlaminck, Epstein, Picasso and up to Baselitz, Arman was without doubt the artist who accorded the most of his time, effort and energy to his collection of African art, and the result is here for us to be admired.

Let me know what your favourite object is ?!


African art on a Boeing 747

A reader of this blog was kind enough to mail me this (now historical) image of South African Ndebele designs gracing the livery of a British Airways Boeing 747 in the late 1990s. The twin sisters Emmly and Martha Masanabo from the village of Wolwekraai in the Mpumalanga district of South Africa each got to paint a livery as part of a re-branding operation of British Airways to appear more ‘global and caring’. The campaign wasn’t received as positive as expected, and already a few years (and £60M) later British Airways would return to the Union Flag to decorate its tail fins – you can read the full story here.

The women of the Ndebele people of Southern African indeed are famed for having developed this highly original, colourful and vibrant design style. Every four years it is traditional for them to replaster the outside walls of their homes and paint on them bold geometric patterns, using images drawn from Ndebele beadwork, which featured intricate designs in coloured beads.

Ndebele women standing in front of a painted rondavel, Loopspruit, South Africa.

Earlier this year, the Brussels-Based Galerie Mestdagh organised an exhibition with works on paper by two other Ndebele artists, Francine Ndimande and her daughter Angelina. On the instigation of the famed Belgian dealer Alain Guisson (who left us too early last year), they transferred their traditional paintings to paper a few years before the British Airways campaign. A selection of these vibrant works was exhibited at the Mestdagh gallery. You can download their catalog and read the full story here.


An African Art inspired bottle : Vudu liquor

I recently came across this cool liquor bottle from the Morey distillery based in Binissalem, Mallorca (Balearic Islands). Its black ceramic bottle clearly was inspired by African statues, and vaguely reminds of some Baule and/or Luba figures. This Spanish liquor was branded as ‘the sorcerer drink’ (El trago hechicero). Unfortunately I’ve never tasted it, so I can’t write about the special powers of this potion. The box also included a great promotional keychain as an extra gift, or talisman if you want.

A true collector’s item. The box is pretty cool too, with at its side the stylised drawing of a Sepik mask from Papua New Guinea. I couldn’t discover when exactly these were produced, but probably it can be placed within the context of the Tiki culture of the 1940s and 1950s.


African art in a Pernod advertisement

I recently came across this old advertisement for the French liqueur Pernod in the Belgian magazine HUMO. Looking at the interior and outfits I would guess it is from the late 1970s? The tagline (in dutch) reads: “Real luxury is not to have money but to be able to enjoy it” and we see a collector proudly showing his latest purchase (a Pende kiwoyo-muyombo mask from D.R. Congo). His friend is not really looking directly at the mask, and I don’t really know how to interpret the facial expression of the woman, but I guess the most important is that they are all enjoying a glass of pastis. That tagline does not make much sense either as one does first need money to be able to enjoy it. But, anyhow, we can all agree that having the pleasure of owning a collection of African Art indeed is a luxury to celebrate.

Those were the days marketeers clearly were convinced collecting African art was a sophisticated activity with which their target audience wished to be associated. I wonder if this was a real interior (it does look like it) and who the owner was? Besides the Pende mask, one can also spot (from left to right) a seated Luba bowl-bearer, a Binji helmet mask (a rare thing), a Grassfields mask from Cameroon, a kifwebe mask from the Songye, a Suku hemba mask, a Ngombe sword, and part of a Zande throwing knife. I think the sword is the one recently exhibited at the Musée du quai Branly (see below), but I could be mistaken as they all look rather alike. Is any of you sleuths able to identify any of the other objects ?

Ngombe sword, D.R. Congo. Private Collection. Published in: “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths”, ed. by Allen F. Roberts, Tom Joyce & Marla C. Berns, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019, p. 229, #II.13.
Objects Research

Collecting Makonde masks in Mozambique in the mid 1950s

After my previous blog posts about Kiloko of Busangu and Mutisya Munge, a last story I wish to share from Robert Dick-Read’s book Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art concerns his search for Makonde masks in Mozambique in the mid 1950s:

One of the first places I visited was a small village called Mboo, a few miles from Lipelwa. When I came to Mboo I left my car on the road, and walked up the path to the village at the far end. This consisted of two concentric circles of well-built rectangular thatched huts around an open space planted with mango, orange, and lime trees. Like most other Makonde villages it was spotlessly clean and in the centre of the open space was a small grass shelter where the villagers could meet to smoke and chat. Beneath the shelter several men were busily at work, carving. One had an elephant’s tusk on which he was incising miniature scenes from Makonde life in high relief. Another was chipping at a chunk of ebony with an adze, forming a beautiful head with a tall, mitre-like headdress. The babble of excitement caused by my arrival brought people running from their huts, to the shelter, where most of them stood in silence staring at me curiously as though I was some strange wild animal. Their spokesman was one of the carvers, a fearsome-looking man named Gogo whose incisor teeth were filed to a point, and whose face and torso were covered in cicatrised tribal markings. I told him why I had come, and that I wanted above all to buy some masks – “mpiko”, as they are called.

At the mention of mpiko a deathly hush fell over the crowd. Gogo looked around him nervously, then all of a sudden he jumped up and with a frightening yell chased all the women and boys away from the hut. One or two of the men looked at me reproachfully, nodding their heads and clicking their teeth, saying that it is no good to mention mpiko in front of women or small children who may only see or hear about masks when they are being used in a tribal dance. But their anger was short-lived, and after a few minutes they led me away to where the mpiko were kept. The mask-house was a small thatched hut hidden in a dense piece of bush two minutes’ walk from the village. At the entrance to the path leading up to it were two sticks, signifying that only full-grown men were allowed beyond this point. Yet, despite this rule, which no one would dare to break, voices were lowered when we neared the hut, and the mpiko were mentioned in hushed awe-stricken tones. Now that we were going to look at the masks, Gogo, who seemed to be a man of some authority in the village, posted a guard by the path to make doubly sure that no unauthorised person followed us in. Then he led me inside. Though there were no windows, sufficient light filtered through the doorway for me to see that the hut appeared to be quite empty. I had expected to see racks, or pegs, with masks hanging from them; but no – the place was absolutely bare.

For a moment I wondered whether I was being fooled, or thought perhaps that I had misunderstood them. But then Gogo, reaching up under the darkened eaves brought down a bundle wrapped in several layers of bark cloth, and unravelling this with great care, he revealed a mask. It was an extraordinary, helmet-shaped object, rather terrifying, and ugly beyond belief. It represented a man obviously of Gogo’s own tribe, for its yellow-ochre face was overlaid with ribs of black wax depicting the elaborate patterns of the Makonde tribal markings; and its hair was human hair, pressed into the soft white wood from which the mpiko was made.

As their masks appeared so sacred to the Makonde I wondered whether or not they would be willing to sell them. Though most of them were so gruesome that I could not imagine that any European or American would want them to hang up as wall decorations, I wanted to buy quite a large number for All and Nat to distribute to various museums in the United States. But when I suggested buying them to Gogo, he willingly agreed. Furthermore, after consultations with the other men, the price he asked was astonishingly cheap – only five shillings per mask. The reason for this was that, being made of very soft “njala” wood – the wood of the cotton tree – they were easy to make, and their antiquity was of no importance to the Makonde. They were hidden away not for the sake of preservation, but to keep uninitiated people from seeing them. Indeed sometimes they did not hide them in huts at all, but in particularly dense patches of undergrowth. There was an occasion later on when we were looking for a mask hidden in the bush when it took the man who hid it twenty-five minutes to find it. So I bought that mask at Mboo, and several others beside.

Makonde helmet mask. Collection British Museum (1957.Af.3.70).

In the end Dick-Read would collect almost fifty Makonde masks before returning home. Ironically, the best mpiko he would ever come across, he found in London..

Two or three years later, in London, I was browsing round the shelves of one of the leading primitive art dealers in England when, high up a shelf, almost out of sight, I suddenly noticed a very unusual mask. To me it was unmistakably Makonde, for it had the same facial markings and other characteristics. It was particularly unusual in that it was neither a face mask such as those worn by the northern Makonde, nor a full helmet mask worn by the southern Makonde. It was what is called a “half-helmet mask” which covers the face but has a piece extending backwards over the crown of the head; and it was the only one like it I had ever seen. I asked the dealer if he knew anything about it, but until he had checked his lists he was not even sure it was Makonde. In any event he had no idea it was particularly unusual, and as, like most Makonde masks, it was not particularly beautiful to Western eyes, it had been sitting up there on the shelf for years, unsold. The price head on it was rather high, but after a bit of bargaining I persuaded him to let me have it for rather less than half the list price – just to get it out of his way. He wrapped it; I thanked him and, jumping into a taxi, drove straight round to the British Museum. Within half ann hour I had sold it to them (at a handsome profit) and a few weeks later it was published as the frontispice of the Royal Anthropological Insitute’s magazine Man – of of the finest and most unusual Makonde masks known.

That must have been one of the quickest sales to a museum ever! With a bit of sleuthing I was able to discover which mask Dick-Read is talking about. In volume 57, July 1957, of MAN, we indeed find a Makonde mask published as plate 1. With the listed inventory number, I quickly found it in the online database of the British Museum here. However, Dick-Read is not mentioned in the provenance or article, and it is stated that the mask was donated to the museum by Margaret Plass. A close friend of the curator William Fagg, she in all likelihood bought the mask for the museum.

ps lets see if any of you sleuths can find one of the masks Dick-Read bought from Gogo !


My first Roman coin

I’m happy to share my first Roman coin. Do not worry, this blog is still about African art and I did have a very good reason to track down an example of this ancient coin. Minted in Rome around AD 130-133, this imperial silver denarius in fact commemorates Roman Emperor Hadrian’s travels to Africa. As a trained historian, seeing the word ‘AFRICA’ on an almost 2,000 year old coin obviously blows my mind. On the backside of this coin, we see an elegant representation of the province Africa, which is personified as a woman reclining seductively. In the details of the composition we find emblems of the region: she wears an elephant headdress and holds a scorpion in her hand. At her feet we find a basket filled with an agricultural produce – the great agricultural estates of Africa did indeed generate enormous profits that sponsored many a senatorial career in imperial Rome.

Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117 to 138, was known as perennial traveler, spending more than half of his reign outside Italy. Perhaps the most well-known series of coins he issued is the so-called ‘Travel series’, various types struck bearing the names and personifications of the provinces visited by the emperor. However, as famous as they became, Hadrians travels are poorly documented, and scholars have had to reconstruct them through many different kinds of evidence. It is clear that his first trip occupied the years 121 to 125, that his second occurred from 128 to 132, and that his third and final voyage was staged from 134 to 136. Hadrian seems to have visited Africa proconsularis in 123 on his first voyage, and again in 128 on his second, so this coin was only minted after his return. Africa proconsularis was the region of North Africa directly below the length of the Italian peninsula. It was bordered in the east by Mauretania/Numidia and on the west by Cyrenaica, and it included the important centers of Leptis Magna and Carthage. Sub-Saharan Africa was yet to be explored.

Besides the mention of the word ‘Africa’, what is even more fascinating is that the province in fact is wearing an elephant headdress. We thus have one of the oldest depictions of the tradition of mask-wearing on the continent. Indeed, elephant headdresses can be found in many different African cultures – see Doran Ross’s book Elephant. The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture” (Los Angeles, 1992) for an in-dept exploration of the subject. Below two examples of elephant headdresses from Cameroon.

Duala elephant headdress. Collection Basler Mission, Basel (#591). Collected by Jakob Keller from a Duala village in Aboland in 1898.
Bamileke elephant headdress, Cameroon. Collection High Museum of Art (#2011.1), acquired from Maureen Zarember – Tambaran Gallery.


PS I recommend checking out Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian, published in 1951, about the life of the emperor written from his own perspective – emulating the lost autobiography he presumably authored.