Abrus precatorius seeds in African Art

Abrus precatorius (commonly known as jequirity bean or rosary pea) is a plant best known for its red seeds; these are valued throughout Africa for their bright red coloration and used as a decorative element on masks and statues, in jewellery, and in percussion instruments. While the leaves of the Abrus precatorius are consumed as a vegetable in central and east Africa, its seeds are very poisonous. Ingestion of a single seed, well chewed, can be fatal to both adults and children. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and death, usually after several days. The seeds contain a toxin called abrin which is closely related to ricin (and twice as toxic). However, these seeds can pass undigested through the gastrointestinal tract because of their hard shell. So, if you were given one during a poison ordeal, the key was not to nervously start chewing!

Such seeds where often attached with resin or wax on the masks of several African cultures, among which the Bobo and Bwa (Burkina Faso), Binji (D.R. Congo), Bozo (Mali) and Wè (Ivory Coast). Especially among Nigerian cultures, the prevalence of the use of these bright red seeds is high: we find them on masks from the Igala, Jukun, Kutep, Angas, Kulere, and Sura; and on Afo, Koro and Hausa headdresses. Several Tiv ritual objects (including skulls) tend to be covered in them as well. It’s less frequent to encounter them on statues, although the famous Senufo deble statues of the Folona Master had large numbers of them attached to the body. Some Koro cups from Nigeria, as well as Chamba statues also feature them, and rare Luluwa, Chokwe and Lega statues exist with few seeds attached to the head.

I have not been able to find much literature on the symbolic meaning of these specific seeds. In his writings about the Leopard society among the Bembe in Eastern Congo, Gossiaux wrote they were called also called ‘eye of the night’, and a pejorative right of Akanga initiates – who were informed about their poisonous properties. Surely, other African cultures must have been well aware of their toxic nature, which must have come with strong symbolic connotations. The color red itself obviously often had a strong ritual meaning. Kuddos to the African artists, as long before Duchamp, they were already working with ‘ready-mades’ to increase the power of their works.

Please do get in touch if you have any more information about the use and symbolism of these seeds in African Art! And, be careful if you have any children running around in your house when you possess objects featuring these seeds, they do look like candy..

Igala helmet mask, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the Lagos National Museum, Nigeria.
Angas headdress, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.2/3157).
Binji helmet mask, D.R. Congo.
Bamana mask, Mali. Image courtesy of the De Young Museum, San Francisco (#1996.12.38).
Afo headdress, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#1956.Af14.5).
Sura mask, Nigeria. Image courtesy of the Jos Museum, Nigeria (#67.J.28).
Senufo statue, Ivory Coast. Collected by F.H.Lem in Sikasso in the Folona district. Image courtesy of Christie’s (New York 5 May 1995, Lot 49).

The South Sudan Museum Network

Part of the Giovanni Miani collection from South Sudan at the Museum of Natural History, Venice (Italy).

A project from a few years ago that stayed a bit under the radar but deserves your attention is the South Sudan Museum Network. Funded by the AHRC, its main mission was to research the holdings of South Sudanese material across European museums “for advancing understandings of South Sudan’s history, global connections and creative arts“.

On top of this page, you find one of the results of this project: the inventory with list of museums, including short contextualisations of the collections of South Sudanese objects in their possession. The reports of the three workshops the network held can be found here, and the resources page holds some interesting pdfs of hard to find publications, such as Georg Schweinfurth’s Artes Africanae (1875) and Robert Joost Willink’s The Fateful Journey the expedition of Alexine Tinne and Theodor von Heuglin in Sudan, 1863-1864 (2011) – with many rarely seen objects illustrated at the end of the publication. In fact, many of the 15 participating museums hold collections with very early collected material – so definitely worth exploring if you want to get a feel of the objects created in this troubled area in the pre-colonial era. Below a lecture by one of the projects’ organizers, Dr. Zoe Cormack (Oxford University) about the Italian collections holding South Sudanese art.


Smelting iron in Africa, a video by Christopher Roy (2005)


Recorded in May 2005 in the Mossi village of Dabo, in northern Burkina Faso, the above video produced by the late Christopher Roy (1947-2019) documents the traditional way of smelting iron. We witness a group of smith elders making charcoal, digging and mining the ore and flux, building the kiln (with clay from a termite mound), firing the kiln, making sacrifices, smelting the iron, and forging the iron into tools. No iron had been smelted in the region for over 50 years, this video being a reenactment of the old ways – as they now buy their iron imported from China. It’s a fascinating documentary that can only enlarge your respect for the makers of the many traditional African iron tools and weapons we encounter in the West. And, you’ll see that ‘pumping iron’ has a meaning outside the gym as well!


Explore the Seattle Art Museum’s collection online

Luba kifwebe mask, D.R. Congo. Image courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum (#81.17.869, info).

A reader of the blog was kind enough to inform me the collection database of the Seattle Art Museum was missing in my list of museum databases; you can explore it here.

The core of the museum’s African Art collection was formed by a transformational gift by Katherine White (1929-1980) in 1981. You can learn more about this donation in Pamela McClusky’s article “Taming Reality: Katherine White and the Seattle Art Museum” (included in the book Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display, University of Washington Press, 2011).

White started collecting in 1960, and died in 1980, leaving 2,000 objects to the Seattle Art Museum – yes, that’s 100 objects each year she avidly acquired! Other noteworthy treasures were donated earlier by the Bombay-born collectors Nasli & Alice Heeramaneck, among which three important Sapi ivories (1, 2, & 3), and this killer Luluwa figure. Unfortunately the images in the database are rather small, but at least they are there. Have fun browsing!


The first Galerie Claes – dealing in African Art at the end of the 19th century

Image courtesy Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. RV-607-A1.

One of the many fascinating stories highlighted in the new exhibition 100xCongo (curated by Els De Palmenaer, Keeper of the Africa collection MAS, in collaboration with Nadia Nsayi, co-curator representation) at the Antwerp MAS Museum is the first World Art Fair held in Antwerp in 1885. This fair presented the ideal occasion for Leopold II to promote his colonial projects in Congo. As with all World Fairs, industry and trade were the principal attractions, and the exhibition breathed the optimism of progress. All participating countries advertised their colonies; the Belgian pavilion displaying Congolese mineral resources, as well as art objects without much attention to their makers or function. To highlight the ‘work of civilisation’, a ‘human zoo’ was erected where 12 Congolese had to reenact daily life in a fictitious village – a forgotten shameful history the exhibition rightfully puts in the picture.

On the above invoice, we find this Teke (?) statue mentioned as ‘Godin der vruchtbaarheid’ (‘Fertility figure’). Image courtesy Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (#RMV 607-4, Info).

After the world fair, king Leopold II donated most of the art objects to the Leiden Ethnographic Museum in the Netherlands – as the Royal Museum for Central Africa did not exist yet! Another group of objects would be sold by the Antwerp firm F. & V. Claes in 1887. The exhibition shows an invoice from that year where the firm (not a true gallery in the current sense of the word) sells a group of objects to the Ethnographic Museum in Leiden. On the invoice we see they were specialised in the ‘Preparation and trade in natural specimens’ (‘Bereiding en handel van natuurkundige voorwerpen’). A bit similar to the Umlauff firm in Hamburg, one of their specialties indeed were stuffed animals. They also sold objects exhibited at the 1885 World Fair to the Berlin Museum, and would play an important role in the trade in African art up until the start of the 20th century. Frans Claes (1860-1933) would later become the curator of the Antwerp Vleeshuis Museum, and his private collection would be sold at auction after his death in 1933. I patiently await until a researcher explores the history of this pioneer dealers.

It is a fun coincidence that a century later, the brothers Didier and Alexandre Claes, while unrelated to Frans & Vincent, continue the tradition of their namesakes! And, if you were wondering, my name, Claessens, is just plural for Claes 🙂


A Nobel Prize-winner on his African Art collection

Image courtesy of the Financial Times.

In their ongoing series ‘How to spend it‘, the Financial Times just interviewed Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka about his African Art collection; you can find the interview here. Soyinka has been collecting art of the Yoruba for the last 60 years. Yoruba himself, the connection with some of the works in his collection is very personal, nonetheless some of his statements will feel very familiar to the Western collector as well.

There’s another piece which I generally call “old man serenity” or “old avatar with the enigmatic smile”. And what is remarkable about this piece is that from the moment I set eyes on it, I said to myself, “This has to be part of my existence.” And it goes with me everywhere, when possible.

I’ve spent time in prison in Nigeria, as a guest of the state, for my political beliefs, and been cut off from my sculptures. I’d written poems about them, so they were with me in a sense. But, of course, there’s nothing to beat the palpable presence of them, when you can actually walk from one to one. You can touch them, rearrange them, and the process of rearranging the pieces constitutes a part of the aesthetic pleasure.

Soyinka also talks about the feelings about his collection by his fellow countrymen..

Two pieces I particularly loved were stolen. These were a monkey, with an unbelievable phallus, and the other a female caryatid, which I used to place on either side of the front door, like gods of the house. People would pass through the field of force, as I used to call it, and I think some Christian fundamentalists stole these pieces and destroyed them. This was many years ago. They were very sizeable pieces and there is no trace of them. I think some people were just sufficiently offended by those pieces as to steal them and destroy them. When I was at the university of Ife in Nigeria, it was under siege by some Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. They despised representations of African spirituality and these sculptures vanished.

Not unimportant to read such sad recollections in the light of the ongoing nuance-lacking debates about restitution of African’s cultural heritage.


Masks & martinis – an Air Afrique advertisement from 1980

Bargain for a beautiful Dan mask in the morning and enjoy a delicious martini in the evening.

How telling for that time period, that such a marketing slogan was considered enticing enough to get more people to fly to West Africa, preferably with Air Afrique.

After seeing the Estée Lauder and Pernod advertisements I posted before, the Boston-based gentleman-collector Lou Wells was kind enough to email me the above advertisement from Air Afrique from 1980. Funnily enough the drawing of the illustrated Dan mask was based on a published photo of a mask that Wells owned at the time (pictured in African Arts magazine, January 1977, X2). The illustrator clearly had no idea as he also included the stand of the mask picture in the below photo in his drawing.

Discoveries Objects

The origins of a Chokwe decorative motif

Image courtesy of the Horniman Museum, London (#10.2.62/34). Height: 27 cm.

You are looking at a rare Chokwe bird trap from Angola, held in the collection of the Horniman Museum in London (info). It is made from a soft wood for the frame, and strips of cane for the bars. Such a trap was composed of two compartments: the upper, with the deadfall lid (weighted with lumps of gum) and seed bait, and the lower, divided from upper by bars and provided with perch (where the live decoy bird would be).

The Chokwe expert Marie-Louise Bastin wrote about these dead-fall traps in 1961:

The Chokwe like to hear birds sing. So they keep the kasakala canary (Serinus mozambicus), a delicious singer, as a cagebird. The little cage, called cisakala (pl. yisakala) is rectangular, of vegetable matter, consisting of a frame and a fine interlocking lattice. They hang the cage with the little Mozambique canary in the shade among the trees, near houses, and feed it with its favourite seeds; on journeys they take it with them as a cheerful companion. All this was related by explorers during the last century, starting with Livingstone in 1873. It is thus that the most widespread Chokwe decorative motif is called maswi a yisakala, “net of cages”: a drawing with symmetrically crossing parallel lines, usually forming a diamond shape or adjacent diamonds. Maswi a yisakala is also the name given to a seed-like keloid tattoo which decorates men’s and women’s skins, in the form of a fine checkered embroidery (Bastin 1961, IV.c.d.7).

Below two examples of this motif. I’m sure you can easily find others yourself and hopefully will never look the same again at such decorations. As always in African art, everything refers to something, and we can only do our best to decipher these visual clues as good as we can.

Chokwe comb (tyimwanya). Collection Musée du quai Branly (#
Chokwe thumb piano (Tuysandzi). Collection Musée du quai Branly (#71.1954.56.11).

Thanks to Guy van Rijn for the tip!


Oceanic and African art in an Estée Lauder advertisement (Fall 1984)

I recently came across this Estée Lauder advertisement from 1984 for their ‘Primitive Worlds’ make-up colors. We see a model posing in a museum-like setting with in the background a large Nafana bedu mask, a fragmentary Korewori spirit figure, an Abelam bark painting, a Vanuatu headdress, an Oro Province tapa from Papua New Guinea and a Fang ngil mask from Gabon. These objects and the model’s jewellery were on loan from the private collection of Maureen Zarember from Tambaran Gallery in New York.

With a bit of sleuthing I discovered the model for this campaign was Willow Bay, who Americans might recognise as she would later become a well-known television anchor of ABC, CNN and NBC, and now is married with the CEO of Disney, Bob Iger. She was a spokesperson for Estée Lauder cosmetics from 1983 to 1989. The photographer for the ‘Primitive Worlds’ campaign was Victor Skrebneski, who died earlier this year, and is most known for his fashion photography and his work for the ad campaigns of Estee Lauder. He and Bay collaborated on many shoots for the make-up company.

Update: Maureen Zarember was kind to react:

It was a 3 page color centre fold in the NYTimes Sunday magazine and other magazines. The other pages showed the model wearing my huge Nagaland necklace, and new cosmetic colors / lipstick same color as the necklace. It was really a daring add, I must have sold dozens of those big necklaces. Estée Lauder walked into my Madison Ave gallery and asked if she could use some of the Naga necklaces in her promotion, it just grew into something bigger. Today, companies hire an army to do that work, not Estée, she was so hands on and a pleasure to work with. Thanks Bruno. Maureen

Exhibtions – have your own design created as a Shoowa textile

A project I love.. the Belgian artist Bren Heymans has just launched the website of Futur-Velours. With this project, Heymans wishes to facilitate an artistic dialogue between female weavers specialised in traditional raffia embroideries working in Ilebo, Kasai (DRC), and Western artists, designers, collectors, and other interested individuals or institutions. Through this website, a group of seven weavers in Ilebo is available to create any design desired in the famed format of the Shoowa textile (‘velours de Kasai’ in French).

Bren Heymans already had 15 works created in collaboration with the weavers in Ilebo, four of which are currently on view at the just opened exhibition 100 X Congo at the MAS Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. On his website you can explore the other works not on view – several documenting Belgium’s problematic colonial history.

Via the Futur-Velours website you can order a unique edition of one of the 15 works Heymans had created, or send in your own personal creation to have made into a raffia weaving! As the whole creation process for these female weavers is a work with a lot of improvisation and creative freedom, the result will not be exactly identical to the requested design but an answer to it. A ‘form of jazz’ between the West and Congo Heymans wishes to stimulate.

Do note the whole process takes a couple of months, as these textiles take a lot of time to create. If you do send in a design, please be sure to send me a picture of the result once it is ready – even if it is just your company’s logo 🙂

Please do share this website with any artists or designers you know that might be interested. Surely this dialogue will result in some very interesting results, and will keep this important artistic tradition alive and kicking into the 21th century.