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!
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.”
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.
Thanks to Guy van Rijn for the tip!
The above field-photo presented a nice discovery in the archives of the Cambridge museum (discussed yesterday here). Photographed by G.I. Jones in the 1930s among the Anang (Ibibio) in South Eastern Nigeria’s Ikot Ekpene district, it illustrated the Anang’s shift from skin covered masks and sculpture to a more naturalistic approach resulting in a new style of free-standing, painted figures in a soft wood. In 1984, Jones wrote about this art-historical transition in The Art of Eastern Nigeria (Cambridge, pp. 184-185):
“The Modern Anang (Ibibio) style diffused into a ‘naturalistic style’ in which the hair, eyes and lips were painted in natural colours and in place of the covering of skin the face and neck were painted with clear varnish. The associated masquerade, which received different names in different areas, was spread widely to their Ibibio and Ibo neighbours. During the colonial period there was an increasing demand for Anang sculpture but primarily for masks, heads and figures in this modern naturalistic style. For it was a very successful compromise between the Traditional Anang (Ibibio) and the ‘traditional European’ style, meaning by the latter term Victorian naturalism and the classical Greek sculpture which inspired it. Europeans bought this sculpture because it looked sufficiently African but not too African. Nigerians bought it because it looked sufficiently modern and European. In response to this demand Anang carvers developed a minor local industry in the Ikot Ekpene district mass-producing inferior masks, heads, and dolls. The inferiority was due primarily for the buyers’ reluctance to pay for something better.
It is this kind of stories that are missing in the restitution debate; the agency of local actors is often completely ignored – unrightfully so, as this example shows.
PS you can find the obituary of Gwilym Iwan (known as G.I.) Jones (1904-1995), who had a most interesting life, here.
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.
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.
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 !
After the two previous blog posts about African sculptors, I thought it would be interesting to share a rare video of an African woodcarver at work. Two years ago the heirs of Karl-Heinz Krieg made a whole series of digitalised Super 8 films available online (which can be found here), including a incredible video of the Senufo carver Songuifolo Silué (c. 1914-1986) carving a wooden statue in 1978 in the village of Sirasso, Ivory Coast. The website doesn’t let me directly link to the video on Vimeo, but if you click on the link in the below box you’ll be able to view it.
Or you can just click here to view it. The confidence with which Silué handles his adze shows his genius as a wood carver, and it’s just incredible to witness the whole process from raw block of wood to the finished statue. The video of course is only from 1978, but one can assume there wouldn’t have been much difference with the sculpting process 100 years ago, or anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some years ago, I took sculpting classes myself and I can assure you that, although Silué makes it look rather easy, the craftsmanship he displays only comes with years and years of practice. Once the statue is finished, we as well get to witness how it is given a patina: the red wood of the root of a certain tree is used to give the statue a first reddish layer (starting at minute 14), before being covered in a ferrous mud (minute 17) to give the statue its final blackish color. Videos like this only give you more respect for the creative geniuses that sculpted the art we love so much!
ps Karl-Heinz Krieg documented several other Senufo artists; you can learn about them here. Compliments to his heirs for making these valuable archives available online.
Another interesting story I came across while reading Robert Dick-Read’s book “Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art”. When he set up his art gallery in Mombasa in the early 1950s, ninety percent of the works he bought for export came from the Wakamba carvers of the Kenya’s Machakos district. Dick-Read relates:
The history of the Kamba curio carving industry is one of the most phenomenal success stories of modern Africa. Before the first world war, apart from several types of stools, ceremonial staffs, and household utensils, the Wakamba showed no propensity for creative arts and crafts whatsoever. However, in 1958, an economist (Walter Elkan) investigating the then blooming Kamba carving trade estimated that in the peak years of 1954 and 1955, the people of one Kamba village alone (Wamunyu) grossed at least £ 150,000 and possible as much as £ 250,000 from the sale of woodcarvings! The beginning of commercial carving among the Wakamba is attributed to a man named Mutisya Munge who, before the first world war, was known throughout Ukamba for his excellence as a craftsman. Before the war his work was confided to traditional objects such as stools; but whilst serving with the armed forces away from home he began to occupy his idle hours by carving ‘pictures’ from his imagination, for his own amusement. He found that his officers and other Europeans were intrigued by his carvings, and after the war he devoted more and more of his time to producing them for sale. For the first year or two, reluctant to let others in on his idea, he used to hide himself away in the bush and carve in secret. Inevitably, however, his secret was discovered and before long a number of other carvers in his village had copied his patterns and begun to sell their work in Nairobi. The market among white men seemed inexhaustible; and between the wars the number of carvers increased. The trade received its first big fillip during the second world war, when large numbers of British soldiers came to Kenya. Then after 1945, with the rapid increase of tourism to Kenya, it expanded yet again. By now firms abroad were beginning to take an interest, and the export trade began to develop. The number of carvers was continuously increasing, and the street corners of Nairobi and other main towns became crowded with vendors, all of whom did brisk business. There seemed no end to the expansion, and in the fifties the industry continued to grow. By 1954-55 there were up to 3,000 part-time or full-time carvers, almost all of whom came from Wamunyu village and the surrounding area.
Dick-Read goes on to describe his many visits to Wamunyu to buy basket-loads of sculptures (p. 22 and continued) and how Mutisya’s son, Mwambetu Munge would end up in London, carving African curios in English oak. My additional research on Mutisya Munge revealed he did indeed serve with the British Carrier Corps in Tanganyika.While on a visit to a Lutheran mission near Dar-es-Salaam, he encountered the commercial and innovative potential of carving in a Lutheran mission and learned new forms of practice from Zaramo sculptors in the hardwoods of ebony and mahogany. Once back in Wamunyu, Mutisya would start the family business that would mean the start of the Kamba export art market. Below an example of the type of statue he was famous for.
Such small, delicately carved wooden sculptures were known as askari figures, becoming typical of colonial production by Kamba craftsmen between the World Wars, and produced before the influences of nationalism and mass tourism. Askari in fact is a Swahili word with an Arabic root that refers to an armed attendant or guard. The key characteristics of these figures are a frontal pose, schematic representation of features, a relatively large head, often with shining eyes and protuberant ears; fine execution and finish; subtle colouring, and strong attention to detail in clothing and other aspects of adornment. Such details are observed in the depiction of askari uniforms, replete with chord lanyard, shoulder epaulets, leggings and even further definition in the accessories (badge, hat shape, arm stripes) to specify status. The sculpted subjects soon would be expanded dramatically into a thriving industry, producing all kinds of wooden sculptures going from depictions of Masaai warriors to all types of animals.
However, the story is not finished. Later in the book Dick-Read relates his contacts with two Americans, Al Kizner and Nat Karwell, who ran a store in the Bronx named ‘African Modern’. In the mail one morning Dick-Read received a gift from Al – a book on African art with a large number of photographs of magnificent pieces of traditional African sculptures. He writes: “Though unquestionably a generous gift, there was no doubt in my mind that there was a secondary motive in Al’s choice of this present for in an accompanying note he remarked that it would be good to receive a few consignments of the type of work shown in the book. What I believe he had in mind was that I should have the photographs copied by Kenya craftsmen..” – and so, my dear friends, we have a first-hand explanation why so many fakes going around are clearly copies of known masterpieces.
A book I’ve been enjoying this summer is “Sanamu. Adventures in search of African Art” by Robert Dick-Read and published in 1964. In the early 1960s, Dick-Read traveled to the Luba in D.R. Congo in search for art. He stayed with Harold Womersley on the outskirts of Kamina. This English missionary had been in the region since 1924. Attracted to the region by the fame of Luba sculpture, Dick-Read inquired with Womersley where the best places to search for it would be. The missionary’s reply is rather interesting:
“I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed. I know of not one single Luba artist in the whole of this huge territory. In the olden days, of course, there were certainly some excellent artists and craftsmen. But I fear that since the coming of this civilisation of ours, all that sort of thing has gone. In fact, let me tell you the story of a thing that happened to me when I was running our mission at Kabango. Kabongo was then the capital of the Luba king of the same name (who died in 1948), so if there were any artists anywhere in Lubaland, that is where they would have been living. The great chiefs, the paramount especially, were always the one who sponsored the arts, as you know. Well, there was one artist, an old man who is dead now, who used to live and work in a small village near Kabongo. One day he came to see me at the mission in a dreadful panic. Some people, he said, had tried to kill him, and he wanted me to protect him. The old chap was very distraught, and I thought he was exaggerating his story, so I quietened him down, and send him back to his village. I couldn’t really see any reason why anyone would want to kill him. But not long after that, exactly the same thing happened again; but this time he resolutely refused to leave the mission. He said he was lucky to have escaped as it was, and if he went back to his village he would surely be killed. So I gave him a bed, and over the next few days made some enquiries as to why anyone should want to kill him. What I heard was this. A number of young men in his and a neighbouring village, seeing him sitting outside his hut whittling away at his wood, began to wonder where this man got his knowledge and skill. The only conclusion they could come to was that he must be in league with the devil; and those in league with the devil deserved to die. We kept him in the mission for several years, and he did some excellent work … ” Mr. Womersley went over to a cupboard and took out a headrest, some combs, and several elaborate hatpins such as the Luba men used to wear. They were beautifully carved in the old tribal style. “But as far as I know”, he went on, “he was the last Luba artist or craftsman in the country”.
The name of this artist unfortunately remains unmentioned. However, next to this paragraph in Dick-Read’s book we find a schematic drawing of a Luba hairpin. Yours truly was able to find an almost identical hairpin in the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (cf. infra). In fact, very little wooden hairpins of the Luba are known, and, almost all of them appear to have been sculpted by the same artist – our master! The few hairpins by him I’ve come across through the years never had any patina, with the wood untouched. The above anecdote by Womersley thus finally explains the context of their creation!
And a more complex example, also without any signs of usage:
Womersley thus firsthand witnessed the changing attitudes towards traditional artists in the Congo of the 1940s. If it wasn’t for his protection, our dear old sculptor surely wouldn’t have survived a third attempt on his life. The mission station of the Womersleys was a popular rest stop for many travellers in the region, so the wood carver surely had a clientele for his sculptures in the later years of his career.
But wait, this anecdote gets even more interesting. In fact, in his book “Luba. To the sources of the Zaire”, François Neyt identifies this artist as Kiloko, who lived in Busangu, fifty miles from Kamina – so we do have his name! Typical morphological features are the complex coiffure (which for Neyt corresponds to the fashion of the 1920s), the double vertical line of keloid scarifications on the forehead, the coffee bean-shaped eyes, the triangular shaped nose and the oval mouth. Womersley’s statement that the artist sculpted different types of objects can be confirmed as indeed headrests, friction oracles, and bowl bearers, can be identified that can be positively attributed to this master carver. Below some examples of works in his easily recognisable style.
So, you wonder, what happened to our dear treasure hunter, Robert Dick-Read ? Well, he continues.. “I stayed with the Womersleys for a day or two; then, feeling very depressed, once again got back on the road and headed north toward the land of the Bushongo where I hoped my luck would be better..”
The US based dealer Ethan Rider, specialized in African knives, had a fun afternoon of experimental ethnology recently when he decided to actually for once try out the Congolese throwing knives he’d been selling for years. The pictures and videos that he produced that day are worth a look and can be found here. Especially the last video, with the Banda knife, is very impressive. It’s amazing to see these flying through the air. Don’t try this at home!
ps in the last issue of Tribal Art Magazine, Ethan also wrote a great expose about fake African knives made by the Austrian blacksmith Tilman Hebeisen together with Wolf-Dieter Miersch; you can read it here.