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Auctions Discoveries Objects

Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893-1898

Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.
Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.

The above Boa figure was collected by Camille D’Heygere. D’Heygere was stationed in the Congo Free State between 1893 and 1898, first as a deputy prosecutor in Boma, later as a judge in New Antwerp. His collection was sold last week at a small auction in Brussels; all objects were heavily underestimated – which of course attracted a lot of attention. The above Boa figure was sold for € 61,000. Only a handful Boa figure are known, among which three by the same hand as this one. Two other objects with this same provenance were sold: a Mbole figure (which made € 68,000) and a Hungana pendant – sold for € 26,000. All three objects were never published before. The early provenance makes this Mbole figure possibly the first to arrive in the West.

UPDATE: the Mbole figure was bought by Pierre Dartevelle (who exhibited it during Parcours des Mondes 2014) and the Boa figure was acquired by Bernard de Grunne (who showed it during the Biennale des Antiquaires, also in Paris).

Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.
Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.
Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.
Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.
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Auctions Discoveries Objects

A newly discovered royal Luba-Kalundwe cup

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 1

The above royal Luba cup probably can be crowned as the discovery of 2013. It was sold at a small European auction at the end of last year. The estimate being € 7,5-10K, it was hammered down for € 130.000 ! Not suprisingly, since cups shaped like human heads with twin drinking receptacles on their underside are among the rarest of Luba royal insignia. This example is very close to a cup sold by Sotheby’s in 2010 for € 161K (info). A third is in the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (purchased from Hermann Haberer in 1925) and a fourth cup was published in Utotombo (Brussels, 1988: p. 232, #219). Most cups of this type have emanated from Kanyok people and perhaps related groups to the west of the Luba heartland. The Sotheby’s cup has been attributed to a workshop in the Kalundwe region (Felix 1987: 48-49; Neyt 1993: 212), not far from the Luba heartland, as evidenced by certain formal attributes. Some additional pictures:

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 2

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 3

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 4

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 5

In the Sotheby’s catalogue, Mary Nooter Roberts made some interesting remarks about the function of these cups:

Luba cups of this sort were documented by the late Albert Maesen, former Head of the Ethnography Section at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, who conducted research and a collecting mission in southern Belgian Congo in the 1950s. Maesen reports that among the Kanyok, royal drinking vessels were the only objects he was not permitted to see in a storeroom in which the ruler’s emblems were guarded, including thrones and scepters. He was allowed to view the rectangular box in which the cups were kept, but he was informed that they were only used during a ruler’s investiture and for other sacred occasions (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1987).

Maesen found that royal cups called musenge were also used in a ceremony to honor paternal ancestral spirits, when a titleholder made an offering of cooked cassava while the ruler communed with his ancestors. The chief counselor named Shinga Hemb drank palm wine from one side of the cup and then passed it to the participants who drank from the other side. Similar acts were performed after divination or at the rising of a new moon (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1982).

The secrecy associated with these royal cups and their limited number suggests another possible association: Early colonial sources and oral traditions point to the importance of the skull of the previous ruler to the investiture of his successor. The skull was the vehicle through which the new ruler obtained power, blessing, and wisdom from his predecessor and validated his own link in the chain of political and moral authority. Quiet contemplation with the skull was essential to investiture, and some writers assert that the king consumed human blood from the cranium, to effect his transformation from an ordinary human being to a semi-divine ruler (Verbeke 1937: 59; Van Avermaet and Mbuya 1954: 709-711; Theuws 1962:216). Indeed, the Luba word for royalty, bulopwe,” refers to “the status of the blood” (Roberts and Roberts 2007:32). It has been asserted that carved wooden cups might have replaced and symbolized the use of skulls in important rituals (Huguette Van Geluwe, personal communication, 1982). Such an assertion remains a hypothetical explanation for the existence of these beautifully carved and carefully concealed cups.

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Discoveries Objects Publications

Field-photo of the day: a Songye figure

Image courtesy of Boris Kegel-Konietzko, 1959.
Image courtesy of Boris Kegel-Konietzko, 1959.

A few years ago, when I was still actively contributing to the Yale University – Van Rijn – Archive of African art, the German dealer Boris Kegel-Konietzko allowed us to include the field-photos from his travels through Songye-land in the database. The above picture, taken at Kabinda in 1959, was included in the batch. Of course, I did not hesitate to browse through the thousands of Songye figures in the archive to check if I could find this figure back. Great was my suprise, when I discovered this statue was now, in a slightly different state, in Yale’s own collection. Being part of the Benenson collection, it was donated to the Yale University Art Gallery in 2006 – without the Kegel-Konietzko provenance! Thanks to this picture of the figure at its time of collection, we now know it was originally dressed with an animal skin and partly wrapped in a cotton cloth. The attached smaller figures were also original to the figure. Both field-photo and figure are published in Frederick J. Lamp’s catalogue of the Benenson collection, Accumulating Histories (p. 149).

Songye figure. Height: 124,5 cm. Image courtesy of the  Yale University Art Gallery (#2006.51.148).
Songye figure. Height: 124,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery (#2006.51.148). (info)
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Discoveries

Field-photo of the day: Efé children of the Ituri Forest

Image courtesy of Jean-Pierre Hallet.
Photo by Jean-Pierre Hallet, 1960s. Image courtesy of Susan Fassberg.

This beautiful field-photo was taken by Jean-Pierre Hallet in the the 1960’s. Efé children of the Ituri Forest in D.R. Congo begin the osani game sitting in a circle, feet touching, all connected. Each child in turn names a round object like the sun (oi), the moon (tiba), a star (bibi) an eye (ue) and then goes on to name a figurative expression of “round” like the circle of the family, togetherness, a baby in the womb, or the cycle of the moon. As players fail to come up with a term that is “circular” they are eliminated from the game. Eventually, only one remains. Tradition has it that this player will live a long and prosperous life. Susan Fassberg currently holds the rights and is selling posters and cards of it here.

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Discoveries Objects Publications Research

Ivory spoons from the Boa revisited

Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704)
Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).

The Winter issue of Tribal Art Magazine (No. 70) features a very interesting article (The Concave and the Convex. Ivory Spoons of the Northeastern Congo, pp. 102-109) which reassesses the origin of a spoon type commonly attributed to the Boa (or Ababua). Author Julien Volper (assistant curator in the ethnography section of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren) writes:

While at first glance this attribution may appear to have a sound scientific basis, the “Boa” designation actually rests on very limited information. In truth, the designation has become credible only because it has been so constantly repeated and accepted throughout the field of African art.

The Ababua attribution of Tervuren’s examples in particular relates to a connection between poorly documented ivory spoons and ethnographic information published by A. de Calonne-Beaufaict (1909, pp. 330-331). This author was one of the few to mention the large spatulate spoons, epapwa, of the Ababua, although he characterizes them as sculptural objects. Because of this, it was easy to attribute delicately crafted ivory spoons to the same ethnic group, even though epapwa are actually made of wood and their large size is not at all comparable to smaller ivory spoons.

In any case, In Tervuren, as elsewhere, real research on the little-discussed topic was conveniently replaced by the credo: “except among the Boa and the Lega, no one has ever seen an ivory spoon in Congo”. Even a cursory examination of the Tervuren collection allows for refinement of this restrictive classification. In studying the files and technical records for the approximately fifty “Boa-type” ivory spoons in the museum’s collection, it becomes apparent that, counter to assertions, none of them can be attributed to the Boa with any real certainty, although the accounts and/or biographies of certain field collectors do tend to suggest this ethno-geographic identification could be correct.

Following, Volper illustrates three spoons of this specific type (now in the British Museum) that were in fact collected among the neighboring Bango ! Five spoons of this type were collected by the English officer G. Burrows, who wrote that these spoons were of a utilitarian nature, intended for domestic use (like eating meat). Burrows (The Curse of Central Africa, 1903) makes a point of stating the Bango were gifted ivory workers but that they appear to use it exclusively to make the bracelets and spoons he mentions. And where the use of the spoons is concerned, Burrows sees it as a “Bango cultural exception”, one that distinguishes the group from its close neighbors. Volper contradicts this last statement by showing that a stylistic analysis of the spoons of the north-eastern Congo reveals that the handles of Bango spoons have many sculptural similarities to wooden examples collected in that same region. This tradition thus might be more widespread than previously thought.

I was quite suprised to learn that the attribution of these spoons to the Boa was based on so little scientific evidence. While in the past many of these spoons were often thought to be Lega, in the last decades almost everybody described them as Boa. The spoon illustrated here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in its turn typically labeled as “Lega or Boa”. Thanks to Julien Volper’s meticulous research, we now know we’ve all been wrong. Exit Boa, enter Bango!

Update: in the upcoming Sotheby’s sale in Paris, we find another ivory spoon incorrectly attributed to the Boa here.

Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).
Bango spoon. Ivory. Height: 19,8 cm. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1978.412.704).
Categories
Auctions Discoveries Objects

A Lwena staff from Angola

(image courtesy of Native)
(image courtesy of Native)

Another interesting find in the next Native auction in Brussels: a beautiful Lwena staff from Angola. Such staffs were associated with the power and authority vested in chiefs. Staffs like this one are said to have represented female ancestors whose status as fulfilled women was signaled by, on the one hand, their elaborate coiffures, and, on the other, their body scarifications. Scarifications identified mature women as having undergone various forms of female initiation.

In their object description, Native refers to a Lwena lance sold by Sotheby’s in 2012 (for € 21K):

(image courtesy of Sotheby's)
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

which is most likely from the same hand. Three other staffs from this artist are known: one in a Belgian private collection (YVRA 0026700), one in a British private collection (YVRA 0097335) and a last in the Terence J. Pethica collection (UK), published in The Art of Southern Africa. The Terence Pethica Collection (p. 85, #29). More research will probably reveal additional works from this master carver, which we for now will call “The Lwena master of the center parting coiffure”.

UPDATE: the research on this artist continues here: A Chokwe carver named Itangui Itangui.

(image courtesy of Terence J. Pethica, Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, UK)
(image courtesy of Terence J. Pethica, Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, UK)
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Auctions Discoveries Objects

A Ga’anda shrine vessel from Nigeria

(image courtesy of Native)
(image courtesy of Native)

The next Native auction in Brussels features a rare Ga’anda shrine vessel from Nigeria.

This terracotta vessel came on the market in NY in 1999 together with a very similar example. The current owner acquired this one and suggested Robert Rubin to acquire the other*, which he did. (*sold by Sotheby’s in 2010)

(image courtesy of Sotheby's)
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Possibly, both figures thus once belonged to the same shrine. Marla C. Berns in 1989 wrote an excellent article on these vessels and the ceramic art in the Gongola valley. This article contains some wonderful field-photos of such shrines.

Ga'anda shrine interior with two mbirhlen'nda (front) and sambarca, all elevated in broken pottery necks, February 1981. Image courtesy of Marla Berns.
Ga’anda shrine interior with two mbirhlen’nda (front) and sambarca, all elevated in broken pottery necks, February 1981. Image courtesy of Marla Berns.

Mbirhlen’nda is the spirit, regarded as best able to protect and sustain health and prosperity. The dense application of small clay pellets on mbirhlen’nda may be sculptural equivalents of the rows of raises “dots” resulting from scarification incisions. However they may more literally refer to the skin diseases the spirit is said to inflict on those who disobey codes of Ga’anda behaviour and morality. Like ngum-ngumi, mbirhlen’nda protects Ga’anda civilisation.

Part three of Central Nigeria Unmasked. Arts of the Benue River Valley goes into more detail on the sculptural ceramic vessels of this region. Read more about it here or watch a slideshow with more fieldphotos of Marla C. Berns here.

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Auctions Discoveries Objects Research

The Kanda-Kanda workshop of the Kanyok

The next Zemanek sale features a rare Kanyok bowl bearer from the Kanda-Kanda workshop.

Zemanek Kanyok bowlbearer
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

This seated bowl bearer (kabila mboko) can be compared to similar examples in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin (collected by Frobenius in 1904) and MRAC (acquired before 1918).
Kanioka Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin
(image courtesy of SMPK)
Kanyok Tervuren
(image courtesy of MRAC)

In November 2006, Sotheby’s NY sold a a rare couple from the Kanda-Kanda workshop from the William Brill collection for $ 273K. The auction catalogue featured a very interesting analysis of this particular style by Rik Ceyssens:

The style of the Brill Kanyok couple historically has been categorized as a ‘substyle’ largely concerning wood sculpture coming from Kanda-Kanda, a colonial administrative post situated in the northern outskirts of the Kanyok kingdom. This assumption was based primarily on some of the early writings of Frans Olbrechts who saw Kanyok works of art as a regional offshoot of the large-scale and far-reaching Luba style. However, his conclusions were based on a morphological analysis, rather than actual field information. Later, in 1955, Bert Maesen, Olbrecht’s former assistant, and by this time curator at the Tervuren Museum, was one of the first to do substantial field work in Mulund and in Kaatshisung, two political centers in Kanyok territory.

The earliest first-hand 19 century information on Kanyok art is based on the Michaux expedition (February–August 1896). After visiting the Luba and Ruund capitals successively, he traveled north, traversing Kanyok land and acquiring artifacts. The members of the expedition stayed in Kanda-Kanda for four days (May 22 until May 26). At this time, Oscar Michaux collected some of the most cherished Kanyok treasures in the Tervuren Museum, but none in the so-called Kanda-Kanda style.

In 1902, the Tervuren Museum received the first Kanda-Kanda style artefact, a ‘chaise pliante sculptée par les natifs de Kanda-Kanda (tribu des Bena-Kanioka)’ sent by Alexandre Pimpurniaux, commissaire de district in Lusambo (accession number EO.0.0.16168) (D.E. 13). Works in the Kanda-Kanda style could pre-date 1902, but this date together with the 1896 Michaux expedition date and collecting information give a relatively strong argument for the beginning timeframe of the Kanda-Kanda style: it was not yet operational in 1896 and fully operational before 1902. Although Maesen did not work in Kanda-Kanda, most of what we know today about Kanda-Kanda art is due to his fieldwork. During lectures on the radio (1967), he mentioned ‘tourist art’ offered at the Kanda-Kanda market, as indicated by archives (Tervuren Museum: R.T.B./Interview). I tried in vain to recover these precious document(s). Possibly, Maesen alluded to a 1950 article in L’éventail about a newly acquired wooden bowl in the Kanda-Kanda fashion (EO.1948.3.1) said to initially have been purchased in 1918 at the Kanda-Kanda market. However, this bowl was clearly used and could have been in the market place in the personal possession of its owner, and not for sale. Informed by Maesen’s research, Cornet dates the Kanda-Kanda “pseudo-style”, as he calls it, to the end of the 19th century (1972: 236–237; 1974: 132–134; 1975: 55). In 1987, Koloss learned from Maesen about a ‘workshop operating in the vicinity of Kandakanda in the first two decades of this [20th] century’ (Nooter and Koloss in Koloss 1990: 64).

Finally, in 1985, I myself twice interviewed several dignitaries at the court of Kanda-Kanda when I learned of Kadyaat-Kalool(-aa-Bineen) (d. 1920), the Manindak and titular wood carver of the Kanda-Kanda chief Kabw-Mukalang(-aa-Seey) (1894/96 – 1941/42) (Ceyssens 1990: 16–17).

Contrary to what may have been supposed based on the thematic choices and stylistic qualities of his work, Kadyaat was not a Chokwe migrant, neither a slave, nor a wandering trader. He was an ordinary indigenous Kanyok, installed as Manindak at a regional court, as a minor dignitary or technician, who never made it to one of the central Kanyok courts such as Mulund or Kaatshisung. He was able to develop his talents in combination with what were already multicultural surroundings in 1897 at Kanda-Kanda and its open market conditions. In addition, the open-mindedness of his first and formal employer, chief Kabw-Mukalang(aa-Seey) stimulated his work. Kadyaat, who died around 1920. His successor at the court of Kabw-Mukalang–Kabuya-wa-Biyombo (Bakwa Tembo, Myabi zone), though good enough as a Manindak, did not excel as a wood carver.

Brill Kanioka figures Kanda-Kanda
(image courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Brill ‘couple’ is fully representative of Kadyaat’s personal style, and there is nothing “pseudo” about it! The particular bearing, resting in a squatting position, in real life, a relatively frequent one. As seen in Kadyaat’s œuvre, he has an anecdotal mind and in this case, the Brill couple, in the same posture, with their heads tilted at the exact angle and their eyes likewise fixed on the same point, Kadyaat indeed seems to be borrowing from the natural human interactions of his surroundings. At the same time, however, the couple here could be perceived as standing upright, the lower limbs being telescoped, as if seen from above, which is a common device in the canon of Central-African art. Moreover, the unisex coiffure is the Kanda-Kanda version of the traditional mafwifw hair style. The woman’s scarifications on the lower abdomen show that Kadyaat’s œuvre is still rooted in classic Kanyok art: I refer to the splendid caryatid stool collected by Michaux in 1896 (EO.0.0.23478) (Ceyssens 2001: cat. 87). Could it be that the smirking open mouth is Kadyaat’s personal trademark? In fact, some would say, the grin somehow echoes the mouth of Songye sculpture. In my opinion, the wide-open mouth can be retraced more closely to southeastern Kete and even Salampasu influence. In Kadyaat, we see an artist who is working within the artistic canons of Kanyok art, and Central African art in general, but he has chosen to incorporate his own perspective and idiosyncrasies to create a unique artistic sensibility.

Kanioka 376 Zemanek
(image courtesy of Zemanek)

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Auctions Discoveries Objects

Auction find: a Koro ngamdak headdress from Nigeria

Koro Ngamdak
Image courtesy of Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou

 

An interesting discovery in a small auction in Paris, a Koro ngamdak headdress from Nigeria.

The Koro make these headdresses for themselves and for the Ham (Jaba), and probably also for the Kagoro, Kaje and Kamantam, as their religion and art are rather similar. The mask is the principal one, representing the ‘mother spirit’ of the tribe, in the dances held on the occasion of the spring sowing and the autumn harvest. An eyewitness account of the autumn celebration of 1949 at the Ham village of Nok (after which the ancient terracotta culture is named) follows.

The ceremonies began with some fearsome, faceless bush spirits to frighten and warm up the populace, then the warriors danced with long obsolete shields and the hunters mimed a hunt (including a man wearing the burtu hornbill headdress and crouching on all fours); finally, a troupe of dancers representing the able-bodied young men of the tribe with abstract headpieces danced vigorously around two tall figures, the mother spirits with turreted headdresses and dressed in great tent-like painted fibre growns. They would twirl around so that the gowns filled out majestically, and every few minutes would envelop one of the young men in a motherly embrace. Thus was the benevolence of the ancestors sought for the work of the year.

Source: William Fagg in Christie’s, London, 8 November 1977. Lot 218.

Copyright William Fagg - RAI, London (021.WBF.49.50.12.11.0.12.4)
Copyright William Fagg – RAI, London (021.WBF.49.50.12.11.0.12.4)

UPDATE: In the next Zemanek sale another type of Koro dance crest (labeled nyamfaik) can be found: lot 257.
Koro nyamfaik Zemanek
(image courtesy of Zemanek)