The art of the Verre peoples of Northeast Nigeria finally has gotten the scholarly attention it deserves. Three passionate researchers, Richard Fardon, Tim Chappel and Klaus Piepel, have just published a comprehensive study on their material culture. The study “Surviving Works: context in Verre arts“, is based on early collections of Verre artifacts by the German explorer Leo Frobenius (1912), collections of such objects by Tim Chappel for the Nigerian museum in Jos (1966 – illustrated above), collections of Danish missionaries and objects in private collections. The focus of the study lies on the numerous brass items the Verre have produced for ritual purposes and adornment for themselves and for neighbours, and includes a catalogue raisonnée. The study is freely available online and can be downloaded here – kudos to the authors for making it available free of charge!
Concerning their collaboration the three authors wrote:
Our collaboration was initiated by Klaus Piepel (Nigeria-Desk Officer at Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops’ Organization for Development Cooperation, from 2005-13) who, as a collector of Verre art, had contacted Tim Chappel to ask about the Verre artworks he had bought locally in the mid-1960s on behalf of the Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities, then his employer. This enquiry encouraged Chappel to return to and begin to write up the partial copies of collection notes and images he had retained since that time, and to explore the literature on the area. Piepel had simultaneously reached out to Richard Fardon (now Emeritus Professor at SOAS University of London) who had carried out fieldwork among the Chamba, southern neighbours south of the Verre, intermittently since the mid-1970s. The sites of Fardon’s longest main fieldwork in the Alantika Mountains had been nodes in the regional circuits through which Verre products had once moved, and he had met Verre smiths there producing for a Chamba clientele, so was eager to collaborate towards understanding this wider regional set of connections.As authors we have shared the research while trying to bring to the collaboration whatever complementary skills we have. Hence, Piepel undertook the bulk of primary research in German archives and in the contemporary art market, Chappel analysed aspects of the various types of objects he collected, and Fardon has considered their ethnographic and historical contexts. But we have not worked on any of these aspects exclusively, and we have exchanged ideas and reading notes extensively. Fardon synthesised the research materials and wrote the text for Chappel and Piepel to comment upon.
A book which I have been enjoying very much recently is Broad sunlight: Early West African photography by Michael Graham-Stewart and Francis McWhannell. You can download an extract of it here. This labor of love is the result of a decade of collecting pre-1920 photographs taken in West Africa. The book is full of previously unpublished images and contains a most useful register with all photographers Graham-Stewart and McWhannell were able to track down. The captions to the photos and biographies of the photographers are a true treasure trove of information. Among others they put me on track of Herzekiah Andrew Shanu – of which you can see a portrait above.
Shanu (1858-1905) was among the pioneers photographing in West Africa, and his exceptional life story is worth remembering. Shanu was born in Lagos in 1858 and for a few years was a teacher at the Lagos Primary School. In 1884, he travelled to the Congo Free State’s capital Boma entering the service of the regime of Leopold II of Belgium as a clerk and translator. He helped recruit soldiers from English-speaking areas for the Force Publique, eventually rising to the position of assistant commissioner of the district of Boma. His photographs – depictions of Africans in and around Boma – were published in the Belgian colonial magazine Congo illustré from 1892 on.
In 1893, Shanu left the administration to devote himself to his business which quickly prospered thanks to various activities such as the hotel industry, photography, the sale of food products, ready-to-wear clothing and even laundry services. Shanu travelled through Europe and visited Belgium, France, Germany and England, a rare feat for an African at that time. In 1894 he apparently visited the Universal Exhibition in Antwerp. He was invited by the Belgian Association for Colonial Studies and gave several lectures, mainly in Brussels to the Royal African Circle and in Tirlemont.
In 1900, the colonial administration employed him to help to quell unrest among West African personnel in the Force Publique. In 1903, Shanu supplied the British Consul Roger Casement with information concerning the abuse of West African workers in the Congo, who in turn referred him to Edmund Morel and the Congo Reform Association, working to end slavery and other humanitarian abuses in the Congo Free State. Morel and Shanu corresponded for several years; Shanu forwarding, among other things, transcripts of trials against low-ranking Congo Free State officials which proved to be most revealing. While trying to acquire information from the police chief of Boma, Shanu was found out and as a consequence beleaguered by state officials. After it was discovered that Shanu had provided the Congo Reform Association with evidence of atrocities in the Congo, government employees were officially ordered to boycott his businesses. His business ruined, and himself reduced to despair, Shanu committed suicide in July 1905.
Some sixty of his negatives and prints are held by the Royal Museum for Central Africa; you can explore them here. “Broad sunlight” is full of exceptional personalities you have never heard from before. The cover image below, for example, is a self-portrait by W.J. Sawyer, who would also take some haunting photographs of Ovenramwen, the exiled Oba of Benin. Another self-made photographer worth getting to know.
I would like to bring your attention to a new book by David Zemanek, “Transitional Art of the Tikar from Cameroon”. This monograph studies a single type of statuary made by the Tikar as a response to Western demand. This publication must be one of the very first ever to focus on the production of art works solely made with the reason to be sold to early tourists and colonial administrators. While the response of African artists to the emergence of a new clientele has been widely documented, the art itself has rarely been the subject of much research (with the exception of the so-called “colons”). Through his work as an expert for his family’s auction house David Zemanek often came across these Tikar statues and was intrigued about their origin. Examples could already be found in German collections before 1914. Western modernist artists might have been influenced by African art, but as this book shows the inverse was also true, with Tikar sculptors being influenced by Western ideas. The Tikar figures under discussion are a good example to show how local sculptors responded to the increased demand for their art by freely combining traditional elements and adding new stylistic features and thus developing a transitional type of art. Artists were able to break free of the traditional patronage system and create a new type of sculpture. This newly acquired stylistic freedom is easily distinguishable in the variety of the 25 presented statues.
The book also documents the shifting perception of these figures; while mid-century experts in their ignorance might still have considered them authentic, or dealers unscrupulous presented them as such, through time it became very evident they lacked any traditional use and were merely made to be sold. The typical African art collector hence will not waste his time on them, yet they do play a role in African art history in the proces of emancipation of African artists. While these statues still are anonymous works, and lack a signature, they did buy individual and financial freedom for their makers by creating a new form of livelihood.
In the tense current debates about restitution the agency of African artists and dealers remains a neglected topic. In that sense I find it very praiseworthy for Zemanek to add a new layer to the ongoing discussions. These Tikar statues were clearly manufactured as commercial goods, and never looted or stolen – should they also be returned?
You can order the book here, or read more about it on Imo Dara here.
In case you missed it, African art made it to the main page of BBC News last weekend, you can read the article “The art dealer, the £10m Benin Bronze and the Holocaust” here.
This article was published on the occasion of the publication of the forthcoming book “Loot. Britain and the Benin Bronzes” by Barnaby Phillips – a former BBC correspondent, hence the big coverage on the website. The book will be out on April 1st, and you can order it here. But back to that article first. Phillips prosaically starts the story..
One morning in April 2016, a woman walked into Barclays Bank on London’s exclusive Park Lane, to retrieve a mysterious object that had been locked in the vaults for 63 years.
Attendants ushered her downstairs. Three men waited upstairs, perched anxiously on an uncomfortable sofa, watching customers go about their business.
Twenty minutes later the woman appeared, carrying something covered in an old dishcloth. She unwrapped it, and everyone gasped.
A youthful face cast in bronze or brass stared out at them. He had a beaded collar around his neck and a gourd on his head.
The men, an art dealer called Lance Entwistle and two experts from the auctioneers Woolley and Wallis, recognised it as an early Benin Bronze head, perhaps depicting an oba, or king, from the 16th Century.
It was in near-immaculate condition, with the dark grey patina of old bronze, much like a contemporary piece from the Italian Renaissance. They suspected it was worth millions of pounds. The bank staff quickly led them into a panelled room, where they placed the head on a table.
The woman who went down into the vaults is a daughter of an art dealer called Ernest Ohly, who died in 2008.
I have chosen to call her Frieda and not reveal her married name to protect her privacy.
Ernest’s father, William Ohly, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany and was prominent in London’s mid-century art scene.
As you might recall, the extensive collection of African and Oceanic art from Ernest Ohly was put up at auction by the family at Woolley and Wallis in 2011 and 2013.
And that, dealers assumed, was that.
But his children knew otherwise. In old age, he had told them he had one more sculpture. It was in a Barclays safe box and not to be sold, he specified, unless there was another Holocaust.
In 2016 matters were taken out of the children’s hands. Barclays on Park Lane was closing its safe boxes; it told customers to collect their belongings.
Woolley and Wallis were contacted for their appraisal services, and they brought in Lance Entwistle, the most experienced dealer in African art in the UK, with a talent for bringing rediscovered masterpieces to the market. The gallery advertised with the head in Tribal Art Magazine in 2016, and some of you might have seen it in their Parisian gallery at the time. However, Entwistle remembered who had bought the $4,7m Benin head sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2007 and contacted the collector – who acquired the “Ohly head” for £10m – a figure not previously disclosed (!). Obviously the heirs did not get that full sum, after the commissions for the auction house and the art dealer, surely the taxman will have taken a large chunk of it. Yet, it was still a very substantial amount.
Interestingly, from Phillips we learn more about the heir, Ohly’s daughter..
She is a grandmother, with grey close-cropped hair and glasses. She used to work in children’s nurseries, but is retired. “My family is riddled with secrets,” she said. “My father refused to speak about his Jewish ancestry.” She did her own research on relatives who were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Ernest Ohly was haunted, “paranoid”, says Frieda, by the prospect of another catastrophe engulfing the Jews.
Ernest Ohly distrusted strangers and lived in a world of cash and secret objects. He kept a suitcase of £50 notes under the bed. “Ernie the Dealer” was the family nickname. The children grew up surrounded by art. But by the end he was tired of life.
Ernest Ohly listed his buys in ledger books. That’s how Entwistle found what he was looking for: “Benin Bronze head… Dec 51, £230” from Glendining’s – a London auctioneers where he also bought coins and stamps. In today’s money, that is just over £7,000. In other words, a substantial purchase. But Ernest Ohly knew what he was doing. He had a steal. He put the head in the safe box in 1953, and it stayed there until 2016.
“It was like a lump of gold,” said Frieda. The windfall was not quite as large as it might have been. Ernest Ohly’s affairs were a mess, and the taxman took a substantial amount. Still, Frieda says, she can sleep easy now. The Benin head bought care for her family, and property for her children.
“Part of me will always feel guilty for not giving it to the Nigerians… It’s a murky past, tied up with colonialism and exploitation.” Her voice trailed off. “But that’s in the past, lots of governments aren’t stable and things have been destroyed. I’m afraid I took the decision to sell. I stand by it. I wanted my family to be secure.”
Sometimes, she said, she wished her father had sold that head when he was still alive.
A dilemma would have been taken out of her hands. “It was difficult for me,” she said again. “Part of me felt we should have given it back.” Then she was gone.
That’s quite the ethical conflict there. If you would have been in Ms. Ohly’s shoes, what would you have done? I would perhaps have suggested to use part of the sum to help build up educational infrastructure in Nigeria. Let’s not forget in 2007 history was removed from the teaching curriculum in Nigeria by the Federal Government, only to be reintroduced in 2019.
This remarkable article, in anticipation of the book, gives a fascinating inside about this art deal which’s proceedings otherwise would have stayed limited to the in-crowd of the African art trade. I wonder if Entwistle could have thought the BBC would pick up this specific story from the book. Yet, we do know that journalists always do love to focus on only the major financial transactions in the art world – think of the $69m NFT work by Beeple that sold last week and made headlines throughout the world. The focus goes to the financial wins, yet the art historical importance of the art works remains undiscussed. In my humble opinion art has been taken hostage in much larger discussions about the post-colonial guilt many Western nations face.
ps a second, almost identical, head was sold by Sotheby’s in London in 1971 (see below, with the bowl on top still complete). This specific head was acquired in Nigeria by Eugen Fischer, who had a trading company in Nigeria between 1880 and 1890. Fischer was given this head by the King of Mahin between 1880 and 1884, 13 years before the British punitive expedition. So this head is the perfect example not all Benin bronzes were looted..
While virtually visiting the 35th annual San Francisco Tribal and Textile Art online show last week, I was delighted to learn about the publication of a new book on the super cool ‘phantom’ shield of the New Guinea Highlands. Published by art dealers Chris Boylan of Sydney, and Jessica Lindsay Phillips of Toronto, this publication contains several essays on the subject, and a catalog section illustrating 105 examples from public and private collections. I discussed these amazing shields already on this blog in 2014, see that post here. You can order the new book online here, below the blurb:
In the second half of the twentieth century, an artistic tradition arose in the Wahgi Valley of the highlands of Papua New Guinea of painting traditional war shields with the image of the comic book superhero The Phantom. This derived from some seemingly inexplicable intersection of the age-old bellicose traditions of one of the most culturally remote areas of the world and twentieth-century comic book illustration, if not pop art — a phenomenon that art historian N. F. Karlins has referred to as pop tribal. The frequent text in English or in Tok Pisin on other examples — man ino save dai (man who cannot die) or man bilong pait (man of war) — only adds to the multicultural depth. Though these appear to be curiously syncretic objects to the Western eye, to the people of the Wahgi Valley they held deep meaning to the martial power of moral rectitude and the guidance of ancestral spirits.
The Africa Center in New York (previously the Museum for African Art), has made the exhibition catalog for the Bamana show from 20 years ago available online for free; you can discover this reference work on the material culture of the Bamana here.
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.
Some weekend reading: I recently discovered this hard to find and out-of-print exhibition catalog available for free online. You can browse it below, or find it here.
Published in 1997, it documents 180 objects gathered over forty years by the well-known French artist/collector. The book includes a nice introduction by Jacques Kerchache, as well as interesting interviews of the man by both Alain Nicolas and Monique Barbier-Mueller. As the collection was mostly dispersed after the artist’s death, you’ll find many objects that have been circulating on the art market in the catalog; I sold the Kwele mask at Christie’s two years ago for example. Especially the group of Gabonese objects truly stands out within this collection; the quantity and quality of figures the artist was able to bring together is quite impressive, and, which collector hasn’t yet dreamt of building his own wall of Kota figures as illustrated below. As in his art, Arman was the ultimate accumulator. From Derain, Vlaminck, Epstein, Picasso and up to Baselitz, Arman was without doubt the artist who accorded the most of his time, effort and energy to his collection of African art, and the result is here for us to be admired.
Great news on the book front: Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Department Head for the Arts of Africa and Oceania at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, just published her eagerly awaited research on Benin plaques as a book. As her academic publisher is not really making any promotion for it (which it rightfully deserves), I thought I gave a little feature here. The blurb reads:
The 16th century bronze plaques from the kingdom of Benin are among the most recognized masterpieces of African art, and yet many details of their commission and installation in the palace in Benin City, Nigeria, are little understood. The Benin Plaques, A 16th Century Imperial Monument is a detailed analysis of a corpus of nearly 850 bronze plaques that were installed in the court of the Benin kingdom at the moment of its greatest political power and geographic reach. By examining European accounts, Benin oral histories, and the physical evidence of the extant plaques, Gunsch is the first to propose an installation pattern for the series.
Gunsch spend more than four years on the subject, traveling the world to handle as many plaques as possible. If you are as obsessed as me with these, this is a must-read. I thought I’d do a small interview with her to tell us more about this research project.
What brought you to Benin plaques ?
I began studying Renaissance art history when I began my masters/PhD program at the Institute of Fine Arts, at NYU. I thought I would minor in African art history, because I had spent a lot of time in Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda in my former career in international development. I was surprised at how anthropological the discourse in African art history was, especially compared to Renaissance art, and I realized I had more to contribute in this field, so I made African art history my main subject in my second year and never looked back. I have always loved 16th century bronzes — first in Italy and then in Nigeria — and so the Benin bronzes were a natural fit for a topic.
There’s already a lot of literature of the art of the Benin Kingdom, when did you realize you could add something to the existing scholarship?
I had a pit in my stomach when I walked into my first meeting about the project with Susan Vogel, who supervised my dissertation with Jonathan Hay. I had done a preliminary literature survey and couldn’t find the installation proposal for the plaques — I was sure I had somehow missed a major publication. When Susan said there hadn’t been any installation proposal, I knew I had something to offer. It still boggles my mind that no one has tried to reconstruct the 16th century audience hall before — but then again, it is a lot easier to do now that I can organize images of this 850+ corpus on Flickr!
What do you see as the biggest revelation in your book ?
My biggest revelation in the research was that when you look at the entire series, there are overlooked clues to dating and workshop method, as well as the original installation plan. I saw more than 640 plaques in person and another 100 by photograph, and looking at so many helped me find new insights. For example, all of the wide plaques have one of three patterns on their flanges, the small collar of brass perpendicular to the left and right sides of the plaque surface. In the book, I explain how these flange patterns are likely a signature of the head of the brass-casting guild, and that they certainly mark a progression in time. You can see how plaques with one pattern are in lower relief and show less daring use of the medium than the plaques with other patterns, a sign that the brass-casting guild is learning as it completes the commission. Looking at the reverse of the plaques, and the way the river-leaf pattern is applied to the front, I believe we have evidence for a guild production method that shrinks the dating of the corpus to less than 60 years. This is the more objective ‘new news’.
I’m curious to see what readers have to say about my more hypothetical proposal, that pairs and near-identical series can support a theory of which plaques were installed on the same pillar as each other, and why. It turns out that 36% of the known plaques have a near-identical pair. That’s not easy to achieve in lost-wax casting, where the clay mold is destroyed in the casting process. My installation proposal argues that the pairs and sets structure the corpus, giving the installation a framework within the enormous architectural space of the court. I’m trying to explain why the brass-casters would have gone to the extreme effort to make these pairs and sets, and what the Obas reigning at the time — Esigie and Orhogbua — could have achieved with this monumental commission.
Did you get to answer all the questions you had ?
No! We never get to answer all our questions, right? I am still not sure why the first set of plaques has a strict width of 30cm, and the narrow plaques are nearly all 19cm wide, but the later sets are more variable in their width. But if I had answered all my questions, what would I do next?
How was the experience of going to Benin City yourself ?
I loved visiting Benin City. I had spent a lot of time in Abuja and had visited Lagos before, but coming back to Nigeria and spending time in Benin City made me appreciate the importance of the kingdom’s art history today. This isn’t a dead subject — Oba Ewuare II reigns over a thriving court, with all the politics that entails. Seeing his father, Oba Erediauwa, during a title ceremony really brought that home. Thinking about Oba Erediauwa’s commissions in the Ring Road at the city center helped me focus on what kings achieve with the art works they sponsor. I didn’t have an audience with the Oba, but his brothers and other high court officials were gracious and patient with my questions, as was the then-new head of the brass-casting guild, Kingsley Inneh, and his uncle Daniel Inneh. I wish I could go back more often.
What are your future plans ? Is there already another book/project in the pipeline ?
I’m currently working on a theory that the altar figures are paired, just as the plaques are — and I mean paired to the centimeter, not just having similar iconography. It seems that triadic symmetry is a main feature of Benin aesthetics, and I wonder what we can learn about the heads and the altar figures if we apply that idea. I’m not sure it will be enough material for a book, but we’ll see!
I’m looking forward to that; thanks for the interview Kathryn.
If you want to learn more, you have to buy the book; you can can order it here !
It’s the time of the year to vote! Not only on your president (if you’re American), but also on your favorite English and French tribal art book. I’m very proud to announce that my book ‘Baule Monkeys’, co-authored with Jean-Louis Danis, made it on the shortlist for the Tribal Art Book Prize (PILAT) 2016. Its one of the three preselected titles in English (the language the book was written in). An independent jury will select the winner early December and takes into account the readers’ vote. So if you could help my monkeys to get as many votes as possible, they surely will not be able to ignore them – you know how monkeys are. So, please do vote for my book Baule MonkeysHERE ! Quit monkeying around, vote now! Thanks.