The most beautiful exhibition of Lobi statuary I personally ever visited, Whispering Woods (even more poetic in French: Les bois qui murmurent), was held in the Ancienne Nonciature in Brussels during Bruneaf 2016. It was organised by Serge Schoffel and featured art from the François & Marie Christiaens Collection. Unfortunately it lasted only a week and stayed a bit under the radar. Luckily, it lives on in its exhibition catalog. Enriched with beautiful field-photos, and a text by Viviane Baeke, the good people of Bruneaf have made it available online for free here (click right to download the pdf). You’ll notice that the selection of statues is outstanding, and perfectly illustrates how good Lobi art can be.
ps on this page on the Bruneaf’s website, you can also freely download their other exhibition catalogs.
Ten years in the making, the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, organised by the Block Museum of Art and curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, just had a virtual opening at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Perfect for a rainy sunday, the online opening event was made available online. Below, Kevin Dumouchelle, curator at the Smithsonian gives a virtual tour (intermitted by speeches).
As did Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition explorers the pre-colonial kingdoms and trade networks on the African continent. You can discover much more about the Caravans of Gold exhibition on its dedicated website here. Both of these shows worked with several African museums, bringing several iconic masterpieces to the US for the first time ever.
ps as a reminder, in case you missed Sahel due to travel restrictions (like most of us), you can find a virtual tour of the exhibition below.
After the Pernod advertisement, another liquor including African Art in an ad. Here we find the musician Herbie Hancock enjoying a glass of Chivas Regal with a collection of African Art in the background. I spot a janus Hemba kabeja statue, a Bembe statue from Congo Brazzaville, a Luba rattle, and a Gabonese Vuvi mask. Searching on the photographer’s name, Bobby Holland, I found two other images from the same photo session, see below. I haven’t been able to find out who’s house was used for the photo shoot, but I did discover that the big red Chokwe figure would later be sold by Bonhams, and once was in the Bronson collection (info).
Could it be Hancock’s private collection? He did use an image of a Baule mask for the famous cover of his Head Hunters album. Read more about his album art here.
The British architect Sir David Adjaye has revealed his plans for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. Blog readers might remember how a Yoruba post inspired his design for the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C. (as written about here). Princeton University also just announced the architect designed their new Art Museum (info).
In this article in The New York Times, Adjaye explains how the project for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art is very close to his heart.
On November 13th, the architect, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities already had announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls (info here). This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City. In the interview, Adjaye explains how they play an integral part in this story:
I’ve been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so we can make them visible. With the (museum) building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’d have encountered if you came precolonization. It’s trying to make a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.
Adjaye intents the museum to be completed in five years (while the Smithsonian took nine, and the money to build it still needs to be raised (!). The building is intended to house some 300 items on loan from European museums and aims ” to house the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes, alongside other collections”. Please note that although the museum has “West African Art” in its title all press releases only talk about its holdings of Nigerian Art (but I did spot two giant Baule statues from Ivory Coast in the front garden).
Creating a state-of-the-art conservation context for those objets will indeed take away the argument that Nigeria doesn’t have the resources to properly care for the objects it wishes to see returned. However it remains to be seen what will happen with the about 50 government owned museums across Nigeria, which are all heavily underfunded, as spelled out in this article from 2018 in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. Let’s not forget a Federal Government-Ford Foundation project aimed at remodelling the existing National Museum in Lagos, worth $2 million dollar was recently suspended by the foreign donor due to the inability of the government to provide N500 million counterpart funding. With the underfunding of the existing museums, it remains to be seen if the funding for the EMOWAA can be found.
The local apathy for cultural heritage indeed is a factor rarely taken into consideration in the current restitution debate. Don’t forget that between 2007 and 2019 the Nigerian government even removed history from the primary and secondary school curriculum (info). This interview with Ibironke Ashaye, who worked for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), is very enlightening on this subject and highly recommended to get a better view on the local agency for such projects. It is clear that building a museum can only be a first step, and I hope a long-term vision will be developed. As museum professionals know well enough, a museum has to be much more than just a fancy building.
However, it is Adjaye’s profound wish to stimulate a cultural revival in Nigeria with the help of the planned Edo Museum. “It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said, and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.” “It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and an international site second.” Adjaye’s further elaborates on this in the NYT interview.
Exciting news from Paris, where the above Yaka comb was sold for € 24,472 (buyer’s premium incl.) by the French auction house Binoche & Giquello. Notwithstanding the global pandemic, and in a Paris under lockdown again, this small masterpiece established a new world record for an object of this type. Its estimate, € 10,000-15,000, was already at a very serious level – as it did pass through the hands of two respected dealers (Pierre Dartevelle & Jacques Germain), and was published in the reference book on the subject by Arthur Bourgeois. With a beautiful oily patina, and in a perfect condition this small gem combined several of the classical Yaka physiognomic features; first and foremost the typical massive nose. A cute little bird on top was the cherry on the cake. This comb is probably one of the best still in private hands, and with this ‘masterpiece’-status it clearly attracted the attention of some well-informed collectors. To quote the famous art dealer Joseph Duveen (who’s biography I just read): “when you pay high for the priceless, you’re getting it cheap“, so congrats to its new owner.
Courageously, the french auction house had maintained their fall sale, although surely nobody would have blamed them if it would have been postponed. With foreign collectors unable to come preview the objects, and with the fact that the sale was held behind closed doors (with only the auctioneer and experts in the room), the auction still performed ok seen the circumstances – selling more than half of the sale. Early on, the eleven kachina dolls from the A.F. collection all sold, most above the high estimate – once more confirming the current vogue for these. A big Maori hei tiki, previously on long term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, sold for a solid € 117,798.
In the African art section, savy buyers could find some great opportunities: this ancient Dan mask, unsold in a previous B&G sale, was hammered below the low estimate and sold for € 10,304, a great buy. Among the Dan sculptors there was a strong competition to come up with new inventive variations within the set guidelines, and the artist who created this mask clearly was pushing these boundaries. Furthermore, the ridges on the upper eyelids make it possible to situate it probably in the area of Flanpleu. An important janus Kota reliquary figure , attributed to Semangoy of Zokolunga, was sold just below the high estimate for € 148,120. Two years ago, I sold an almost identical one for double that price at Christie’s (info). In this case I do think the object might have suffered from the fact it was impossible to come see it in real life; 67 cm high and very voluminous, these are very impressive Kota with tons of wallpower. Surely interest should have been higher in a normal world. Another great buy was the hermaphrodite Djennenké bowl-bearer, selling under the low estimate for € 135,400. It was acquired by the consignor 31 years ago, at Sotheby’s NY in 1989 for $ 60,000, and unsold at a previous B&G sale in 2017 with an estimate of € 350,000-450,000. Obviously the condition was not perfect, missing its nose and left arm, but here you have a 13th century wooden statue from Mali – contemporary with the Notre Dame cathedral, as is stated eloquently in its catalog entry. A very fair price for an important piece of African Art history. Unsold was this 18th century Dogon fragment of a stool formerly in the Goldet collection – I did not find that estimate unreasonable.
A small miss by the catalogers of the sale was the Bamileke pipe bowl; they failed to mention it was already exhibited in New York in 1935 at the Museum of Modern Art during the famed African Negro Art exhibition.. A bit of sleuthing would also have revealed this particular pipe bowl is featured on the famous group shot by Soichi Sunami! Click on the above picture to check for yourself. I do wonder if the buyer knew 🙂 It also looks to be standing on an Inagaki base.
Two fine Mangbetu items (a harp, lot 62, and a knife, lot 72) failed to sell, confirming the decreased appetite for the art of this culture. A rare Tsonga staff finial sold for € 186,775 (while in 2016 it remained unsold at an estimate of € 300,000-450,000) – under its low estimate but still a very good price for a South African work of art of only 30 centimeters. I do regret not having seen it in reality, as I’m sure it is real gem. Also worth mentioning was a very rare and beautifully stylised Banda figure from the Central African Republic, selling for € 135,400. So, all in all, I do think this was definitely an ok sale – especially seen the tough circumstances, and I’m sure all the buyers are delighted with their new acquisitions.
As it looks like we’re all be spending much more time at home again (here in Belgium going into lockdown again until at least mid December), I thought it would be a good moment to share this classic documentary. In these times of restricted travel, what’s not better to join a young David Attenborough on his travels through Australia’s Northern Territory anno 1963.
Episode 1 (below), Desert Gods, starts at Uluru. From minute 19, Attenborough explores Aboriginal rock paintings, before being introduced to churingas and their symbolism. Please do keep watching as it is followed with rare scenes of some of the traditional initiation ceremonies (you want to hear those bullroarer sounds!).
Attenborough’s four month stay in the region would result in a series of six programmes, and the fourth of them, The Artists of Arnhem Land (below), is also a must watch if you are interested in Aboriginal Art.
Please do let me know if you have any other documentary tips (as long as they are available online) for us armchair travellers.