Publications Research

New publication on the artworks of the Verre people of Nigeria

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.


Field-photo of the day: likishi Iya radio (Zambia, 2016)

Photo by Martin Vorwaerts, 2016.

This is a likishi (singular), an ancestral spirit from the vaka chinyama communities (Luvale, Mbunda, Luchazi & Chokwe people) from Zambia.. Makishi (plural) appear and perform usually around the mukanda boy initiation. There are more than one hundred different characters, each with its own role, history, and symbols. The one above, photographed in 2016, depicts a radio/cassette player, honouring the important role, mobile radios have played since their introduction to the Zambian people. The photographer, Martin Vorwaerts, documented the whole creation process and performance of this masquerade in 2016 during his field-research for his Ph.D. on these makishi masquerades.


Help needed deciphering an old inscription

Dear friends, I hope someone of you could help me out deciphering this old inscription on a metal band – above a poor ‘panorama’ view of the whole – more pictures can be found below. I read:

Nimrod en Jägare War J Skoug ock marck han migh ?ar 1699
Nu är Jagh Hökens i ähl Drick uth det är en godh skähl 5/1

That ‘skähl’ very much sounds like the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish word for “cheers”, so I assume it is written in an old Scandinavian language, which would be affirmed by the date 1699. Nimrod on the other hand is Hebrew-Aramaic for ‘big hunter’, while ‘jägare’ is Swedish for hunter.

I would be most grateful if someone could make sense out of this inscription, or could point me towards a person who could be of help..

Below detail views of the whole. I’m not so sure about that capital J – could be something else as well. Thanks in advance.

My best, Bruno

ps bonus points can be gained by pointing out the origin of this scene.. the ‘hökens’ in the description might be referring to the old Swedish word ‘höker’ derived from the old Norse ‘haukr’ word for hawk!


Gallica, a digital library to bookmark

A site to bookmark for the home-working researchers without access to a decent library: the French digital library Gallica. Search for example on ‘Charles Ratton’ and you’ll get a good number of old auction catalogs he was the expert for (here the one illustrated above). The library of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac also has made 500 documents freely available online – you can browse them here. Let me know if you come across anything else of interest, I’m sure there’s much more to be found among the +6 million documents made available online.

Publications Research

New book: “Transitional art of the Tikar from Cameroon” (David Zemanek, 2021)

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.

Eleven different types of faces. Illustrations by Adam Fisher.

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.



Help needed tracking down a Djenne head

37 years ago, in 1984, this Djenne head in terracotta from Mali was exhibited in Antwerp during the exhibition Ancient terra-cotta statuary and pottery from Djenne. It was published in the show’s catalog by Adriaan Claerhout as no. 37. This rare head with a miniature figure on top was sold not long after the exhibition, and has not been seen ever since. 13,5 cm high, it should reside somewhere in a private collection, and I was wondering if anyone recognises it or knows where it now lives? Please do get in touch if that would be the case; thanks!

Discoveries Research

[Re:]Entanglements – Re-engaging with Colonial Archives in Postcolonial Times (MAA, Cambridge, 2021)

[Re:]Entanglements is an exhibition to open at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge later this year. It will be the fourth major exhibition of this project, previous ones having taken place in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka, as well as many smaller ‘pop up’ exhibitions in towns and villages in Nigeria and Sierra Leone where the British colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas, who’s archives are the subject of the project, worked. The above door graphic is taken from the Faces|Voices film, and articulates the curator’s hope that the exhibition will provide an opportunity to confront/interrogate/debate colonial collections and archives in our decolonial times.

Funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, the [Re:]Entanglements project has been re-engaging with a unique ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. As well as better understanding the historical context in which these materials were gathered, the project seeks to examine their significance in the present. What do these archives and collections mean for different communities today? What actions do they make possible? How might we creatively explore their latent possibilities? The answers to those questions can be found on the project’s website here. A beautiful and very relevant endeavour if you ask me.

The blog features interesting posts about an Igbo alusi statue collected by Thomas here, the restoration of an ikenga statue (here), and a most interesting article on sacred stone axes on Benin altars (here) – and there’s much more to discover on the blog! Below a short clip as an introduction to the wealth of the Thomas archives.


Museums Research

Munich’s Museum Fünf Kontinente stepping up its provenance research game

In terms of provenance research of their holdings, German museums historically have always been one step ahead. The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich leads by example again, by making scans of the original inventory books of its ethnological collections available on their website. You can find them here (in chronological order on the left of the page). Funded by the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art, the museum with this projects wishes to make these important historical sources freely available to researchers who wish to study the museum’s collecting activities and acquisitions.

ps thanks Ingo Barlovic for the tip!

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.”


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