Culinary journeys inspired by an African mask

Feuilles à feuilles of beef, manioc and sweet potatoes by Mory Sacko. Image courtesy of Chris Saunders.

To promote their last African Art sale in Paris, the team of Sotheby’s Paris came up with the innovative idea to invite the hot French chef Mory Sacko to create a dish inspired by one of the objects in their auction – a first, I believe.

The chef selected the above Dogon mask from Mali. Inspired by the raw and sculptural quality of the mask as well as the lightness of the object itself, Sacko created a dish that relied on ingredients native to the African continent, a Feuilles à Feuilles of beef, manioc and sweet potatoes. The dish was composed of slices of manioc and sweet potato that have been lacquered over coal, and dehydrated slices of lightly seared beef and cream sauce of white and black voatsiperifery, and penja pepper from Madagascar and Africa. It is ok if your mouth is watering by now.

The idea for this creation was inspired by the mask – raw and yet sculptural – hence the use of ingredients from Africa (with the exception of the beef), the same provenance as the mask. These ingredients were used in their most natural form while preserving the same impression of lightness that one feels when holding the mask.

You can read the full story of this collaboration here. And, next time you are in Paris don’t forget to reserve a table at Sacko’s new restaurant MoSuke, a place inspired by his passion for both Japanese and African cultures.

And let me hereby also wish you ‘bon appetit’ during the hopefully mesmerising dinners in the company of your loved ones in these special times.. happy holidays!

Mory Sacko. Image courtesy of Chris Saunders.

Explore the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) online

A new addition to my growing list of online databases to bookmark: you can now explore the collection of Saint Petersburg’s Kunstkamera museum here (in English!). As this collection is not very well documented, and publications about it are scarce, this online database is even more valuable – it’s not that we are allowed to travel there these days anyway.

The collection could use some vetting as there are a few questionable objects (such as a group of “Kongo” power figures, or a Luba headrest in the style of the Master of the Cascade Coiffure), and the majority of the material is ethnographic in nature, yet there are enough gems in there to take the time to scroll through the 1984 African items (here). Noteworthy is the group of objects collected by Alfred Mansfeld (including some very early Cross River headdresses), and a group of archaic chiwara headdresses from the Bamana people from Mali collected by Leo Frobenius. There’s also a group of Benin bronzes, and an important batch of early Zande & Mangbetu objects collected by Wilhelm Junker. What’s cool about the database is that you can search on these collectors and immediately get to see all objects in the museum’s possession.

Don’t forget to also take the time to scroll through the Oceanic holdings, including some early Hawaii and Easter Islands collections – among other treasures. But maybe the collection that has the most art-historical importance is the group of 18th century Tlingit masks.. the stuff of dreams!

Discoveries Objects

Fake of the day: a Mangbetu vessel made in Cameroon

Image courtesy of Lorenz Homburger, 2 March 2006. Published in: Homberger (Lorenz) and Christine Stelzig, “Contrary to the Temptation!. An Appeal for New Dialogue Among Museums and Collectors, Scholars, and Dealers” in African Arts, Vol.XXXIX, #2, Summer 2006, p. 6, #2

I haven’t often touched on the subject of authenticity and fakes on this blog in the past, yet the above picture was too interesting not to share. It is an image of a “Mangbetu” vessel photographed by Lorenz Homberger fourteen years ago in Machutvi, Bamoum province, Cameroon. While this type of vessels originally was created a century ago in Northern Congo, this well-executed example was made by the Bamum potter Kotu Idrissou Mache! The potter was transparant enough to reveal the source of his work: a black&white picture copied from an old publication (which I was unable to identify). It is impressive to discover that such a small image was sufficient to create this elaborate copy – nonetheless, it explains why many such works often show mistakes in areas of which the craftsman did not have a picture (for example, the top of the head). Unfortunately the potter picked a later a-typical Mangbetu vessel as a model, with an European-style hat. Additionally, most of those original Mangbetu anthropomorphic vessels were already created to be sold to Western visitors – without having any local use, as described in “African Reflections” (Schildkrout, 1990). If the potter would have had a bit more market intel, he probably would have picked a different object. Yet, it is fascinating to study how these workshops in Cameroon respond to the demands of the art market. Caveat emptor!

Objects Research

Help needed deciphering inscriptions on a Mahdist knife

Yours truly is currently studying a Mahdist knife from Sudan and would love to decipher the acid-etched inscriptions. I’m hoping one of you knows someone who can read this Arabic script known as thuluth ? Additionally, I am most curious to find out the origin of the hunting scene depicted on the above blade. While this weapon (of which for now I can only share a detail) dates from the late 19th century, the style of this scene feels much older. Does anybody has a suggestion for a possible source? It feels copied from something.. Many thanks in advance!

In case you were wondering about the origin of this remarkable type of African knives, below a short introduction on them by Ethan Rider:

“Sudan was governed by foreign powers for most of the nineteenth century – first by Egypt in 1822 and then by Great Britain in 1873. The hardship experienced by the Sudanese population during this time produced widespread support for Muhammed Ibn Ahmad, who promised liberation alongside a renewal of faith. In 1881, Ahmad was proclaimed “the Mahdi” – the messiah and revolutionary leader – and he would go on to lead his Mahdist followers to military victories and the establishment of a vast Islamic state. The Mahdist regime came to an end after a defeat by the British at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and Sudan was again placed under British and Egyptian control until 1956. Most Mahdist blades were covered with acid-etched Arabic script known as thuluth, in which exhortations to the faithful from the Koran are written. Sometimes, thuluth script also included personal messages from the artisan, praising the person for whom the knife was made. This specific knife imitates a throwing knife of the Fur and dates from the 1880s.”

The Mahdist state was effectively dissolved in 1898. Indeed, many of these weapons were found on the battlefield after the British victory.  In his discussion of the two similar replica knifes in the Manchester Museum, Christopher Spring wrote (in Phillips, Art of a Continent, 1995, p. 134) notes:

“The increasing unrest among the peoples of central and eastern Sudanic Africa during the 19th century culminated in the rebellion of 1881 in Kordofan Province, Sudan, led by Muhammad Ahmad, who declared himself Mahdi (‘The Rightly Guided One’). By 1885 he had overthrown the corrupt Turco-Egyptian government in Khartoum and had established the Mahdist state. Peoples from a vast area of north-eastern and central Africa joined the Mahdist armies, either of their own free will or as slaves. Workshops set up in towns such as Omdurman produced a range of artefacts, including regalia, weaponry and armor, which in one way or another reflected the Mahdist ideology, but which occasionally also displayed stylistic influences from much more diverse sources. Among such objects were these non-functional, replica throwing knives, cut out of sheet metal and covered with the acid-etched Arabic script known as thuluth, in which exhortations to the faithful from the Koran are written. Most likely they were given as Islamicised (though still potent) status symbols to the leaders of those elements of the Mahdist armies that consisted mainly of central African slaves.”

Discoveries Museums

Photo of the day: Josephine Baker at the Trocadéro Museum (1933)

Joséphine Baker and Georges Henri Rivière in front of a display with musical instruments, collected during the Dakar-Djibouti mission, at the Trocadéro museum in Paris in 1933. Such a beautiful pictures of these two legends.


Stuttgart’s Linden Museum launches its online database

A bit late to the party perhaps, but earlier this week the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart (Germany) has launched an online database of its holdings. Before you get all excited, please be aware that for now the ‘Sampling digital’, as it is called, only contains 2,000 records. With more than 160,000 objects in storage, they are only getting started and probably will need another 10-15 years to finish the whole project. As the museum is famous for its early collections of material of the former German colonies, it is a true treasure trove. Personally, I can’t wait for more objects to be made available online. As for Africa is concerned, for now it are mostly items from Namibia that are already accessible. As with the pipe below, collectors might recognise the typical Linden Museum label, which can be still be found on many objects the museum sold or traded that now circulate on the art market.

Stone pipe; click here for more info.

Notwithstanding the fact that only a fraction of the objects are already online, it must be said the website presents one of the best museum databases around in our field. It is packed with information. Especially on the precise provenance of the objects the database is very strong, and goes much further than merely having the classical single line of provenance. Indeed, in the press conference for the launch of the website, it was explicitly stated that it wishes to create transparency in questions of provenance. You can explore the database here.

As you’ll see the website is easy to navigate, and lets visitors even download free HD images of the objects. In a twist of German humor it also features a DAY & NIGHT version, I’ll let you discover yourself what that functionality does. I do love the ‘World Map’ option to geographically search on the globe to find the objects you are looking for – how intuitive and innovative! I’m delighted to see such an old school ethnological museum leading the way digitally.



PS a good example of the thorough provenance research the museum is doing, is this story about the below enigmatic figure from Cameroon. A must read!

Image courtesy of Dominik Drasdow, Linden-Museum Stuttgart. CC BY‑NC‑SA 4.0.

Hear the voice of Guillaume Apollinaire (“Le Voyageur”, 1913)

Guillaume Apollinaire in the atelier of Picasso, 1910.

Synonymous with the advent of African art in Paris in the early decades of the 20th century is the name of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918, as a victim of the Spanish flu, a previous pandemic). The ‘Archives de la parole‘ of the French National Library has made a recording available of his famous poem “Le Voyageur” (info). Recorded in December 1913 by the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, I personally find it magical to hear the famed avant-garde poet read his own writings. Appolinaire would write about the experience.. “I didn’t recognise my voice at all” (a familiar feeling still), and these mixed feelings about advancing modernity and technology were exactly the subject of this poem too. Click on the video below to hear his voice (the poem starts at 1:05).

The full text in French

Ouvrez-moi cette porte où je frappe en pleurant

La vie est variable aussi bien que l’Euripe

Tu regardais un banc de nuages descendre
Avec le paquebot orphelin vers les fièvres futures
Et de tous ces regrets de tous ces repentirs
Te souviens-tu

Vagues poisons arqués fleurs surmarines
Une nuit c’était la mer
Et les fleuves s’y répandaient

Je m’en souviens je m’en souviens encore

Un soir je descendis dans une auberge triste
Auprès de Luxembourg
Dans le fond de la sale il s’envolait un Christ
Quelqu’un avait un furet
Un autre un hérisson
L’on jouait aux cartes
Et toi tu m’avais oublié

Te souviens-tu du long orphelinat des gares
Nous traversâmes des villes qui tout le jour tournaient
Et vomissaient la nuit le soleil des journées
Ô matelots ô femmes sombres et vous mes compagnons
Souvenez-vous en

Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais quittés
Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais parlé
Le plus jeune en mourant tomba sur le coté

Ô vous chers compagnons
Sonneries électriques des gares chants des moissonneuses
Traîneau d’un boucher régiment des rues sans nombre
Cavalerie des ponts nuits livides de l’alcool
Les villes que j’ai vues vivaient comme des folles

Te souviens-tu des banlieues et du troupeau plaintif des paysages

Les cyprès projetaient sous la lune leurs ombres
J’écoutais cette nuit au déclin de l’été
Un oiseau langoureux et toujours irrité
Et le bruit éternel d’un fleuve large et sombre

Mais tandis que mourants roulaient vers l’estuaire
Tous les regards tous les regards de tous les yeux
Les bords étaient déserts herbus silencieux
Et la montagne a l’autre rive était très claire

Alors sans bruit sans qu’on put voir rien de vivant
Contre le mont passèrent des ombres vivaces
De profil ou soudain tournant leurs vagues faces
Et tenant l’ombre de leurs lances en avant

Les ombres contre le mont perpendiculaire
Grandissaient ou parfois s’abaissaient brusquement
Et ces ombres barbues pleuraient humainement
En glissant pas à pas sur la montagne Claire

Qui donc reconnais-tu sur ces vieilles photographies
Te souviens-tu du jour ou une abeille tomba dans le feu
C’était tu t’en souviens à la fin de l’été
Deux matelots qui ne s’étaient jamais quittés
L’aîné portait au cou une chaîne de fer
Le plus jeune mettait ses cheveux blonds en tresse

Ouvrez-moi cette porte ou je frappe en pleurant

La vie est variable aussi bien que l’Euripe

And its English translation:

Open that door I knock crying

Life is variable as well as Euripus

You were gazing at a cloudbank going down
With the orphan liner to future fever
And all the regrets and all the repentances
Do you remember

Vague arched fishes surmarine flowers
One night it was the sea
And rivers fled to it

I remember I remember

One evening I put up at a gloomy inn
Near Luxembourg-City
At the back of the room a Christ was flying away
Someone had a ferret
An other a hedgehog
Cards were played there
And you you had forgotten me

Do you remember of the stations the long orphanage
We went across towns that all the day were going-round
And on night were vomiting the days’ sun
O seamen o dark women and you my companions
Remember it

Two seamen who never leaved each other
Two seamen who never spoke to each other
The younger when dying felt down sideway

O you dear companions
Electric rings of stations songs of harvesters
Sledge of a butcher regiment of countless streets
Bridges’ cavalry livid nights of alcohol
Cities I saw they had mad lives

Do you remember the suburbs and the doleful landscapes’ herd

Cypresses were graphing their shadows under the moon
I lessened to the night as summer was setting
A languorous and ever upset bird
And the perpetual noise of a wide and dark river

While yet dying were rolling to estuary
The entire eye the entire eye of all the eyes
Deserted grassy and silent were sides
And the mountain over the opposite bank was very clear

Then silent with no life around
Vivid shades passed by against the mount
In profile or suddenly turning their vague faces
And holding forward the shadow of their spears

Shadows against the perpendicular mount
Were widening or sometimes abruptly sloped down
And the bearded shadows were crying with a human tune
While step by step sliding along the clear mountain

Who then do you recognize on those old photography
Do you remember the day when a bee fell down in the fire
It was you remember at the end of summer
Two seamen who never leaved each other
The eldest was wearing an iron chain
The younger was making plaits with his blond hair

Open that door I knock crying

Life is variable as well as Euripus