A Fang throwing knife sells for 200 times its estimate

There was lots of excitement in the community of African weapons collectors a couple of days ago. A small auction house in France (Dupont-Morlaix) was offering an extremely rare Gabonese throwing knife with an early provenance. In the same French family since the 1920s, this Fang knife was previously unknown and never published before. Besides the fact it was misattributed to the Nsakara, its estimate of 60-80 € created quite a fuzz before the sale. Many collectors and dealers were hoping the knife would stay under everybody’s radar. But, as we know, the era of the sleeper is long gone – especially now that everybody is spending so much time behind his/her computer at home – and the beautiful weapon was hammered down for 9300 € – with premium 12000 €, or 200 times the low estimate! Once more a confirmation that quality always makes its price, be it in small auction or a big sale. By the way, a similar knife was sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2012 for only 5000 € (info), so the excitement for a supposed sleeper sometimes indeed can generate inflated prices. A very similar throwing knife can be found in the collection of the Pitt Rivers museum and was acquired in 1899, attesting the old age of the type. It needs some cleaning, but I’m sure its new owner will be delighted with the purchase as the opportunity to find a knife like this is extremely rare.

ps thanks to Luc Lefebvre for sharing this news on the Facebook page ‘Tribal Ethnographic Weapons and Primitive Currencies’.


African art in “A New Leaf” (1971) & À gauche en sortant de l’ascenseur (1981)

A blog reader was so kind to signal me the presence of two Bamana masks in the cult classic A New Leaf, directed by Elaine May (1971). Two Bamana masks from Mali can be observed in the living room of the main character, Henry Graham. Walther Matthau plays this wealthy playboy and I assume the set designers found it appropriate that such a character had African art in his living quarters!

In another comedy, À gauche en sortant de l’ascenseur (1988), the apartment of the lead actor, the shy painter Yann (played by Pierre Richard) is also packed with African art – below an Afikpo mask from Nigeria. A must see if you are in for a laugh…


“Man Who Cannot Die” – a new book on phantom shields of the New Guinea Highlands

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.


Explore the collection of the Vienna Weltmuseum online

San petroglyph, South Africa. Image courtesy of the Weltmuseum (inv. no. 57585, info).

Another online museum database to bookmark and discover, is  the one from the Weltmuseum (former Museum of Ethnology) in Vienna – the largest anthropological museum in Austria, which was already established in 1876. The museum’s collections comprise more than 200,000 ethnographic objects, 100,000 photographs and 146,000 printed works from all over the world, including part of James Cook’s collection of Polynesian and Northwest Coast art (purchased in 1806) and an important group of Benin bronzes from Nigeria. The intuitive online database is a work in progress and already includes 6646 records – you can explore them here.

Worth your attention is a group of early Liberian material collected by the museum’s former director Etta Becker-Donner (1911-1975), or the 117 San rock engravings collected by the Czech explorer Emil Holub (1847-1902) in Olifantsfontein – such as the one illustrated above. There are many more treasures to be discovered, such as the below Luba bow stand collected by Alfred Sigl in 1896, or the killer Chokwe staff in the celebrated Moxico style, collected by Antoon Erwin Lux in 1875. It does not get much better than these…

Luba bowstand, image courtesy of the Weltmuseum (inv. no. 56626, info).
Chokwe staff, Angola. Image courtesy of the Weltmuseum. (inv. no. 132.130, info).

Rihanna dancing with a chiwara headdress in a galaxy far away

It was only two seconds, and it is in a sci-fi movie, so there’s a big chance you missed it, but I found it very cool to see the international pop star Rihanna dance wearing a chiwara headdress from Mali in the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, written and directed by Luc Besson (2017).

Situated in the 28th century, Rihanna stars as Bubble, a shapeshifting Glamopod entertainer. Valerian, the main protagonist, needs her help rescuing his love interest Cara Delevingne from the Boulan Bathors. He meets her in a cabaret in Paradise Alley, the red-light district of Alpha, a space-traveling city inhabited by millions of species from thousands of planets. Valerian is treated to a performance by the enslaved shapeshifting alien by Jolly the Pimp. Got to love sci-fi!

What follows is a stunningly CG-assisted dance sequence in which Rihanna changes outfits about 25 times! One of the identities Bubble takes on is a bikini-clad amazone-like dancer wearing a chiwara headdress! Below is a behind the scenes look of this moment in the movie (which happens to have been the most expensive film ever made in France!)..

Kuddos to costume designer Olivier Bériot for incorporating a bit of African art in this futuristic space epic. In traditional Bamana society, women obviously wouldn’t be dancing with this headdress, and those feathers rather originate from Brazilian carnival than Africa 🙂


“Between the Earth and Sky” at Kasmin Gallery (New York) until February 27th, 2021

Installation view. Image courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.

A show I hate to miss due to current travel ban is “Between the Earth and Sky” as Kasmin Gallery, running until February 27th, 2021 at their New York City gallery. Luckily the online presentation of the exhibition is on point and can be explored here. This cool show brings together 22 “monolithic” sculptures from across times and cultures. The core is formed by contemporary artists such as Udo Rondinone and Bosco Sodi, with additional works by modern masters such as Ernst and Noguchi, but what interest us more is the fitting presence of a “selection of premodern sculptures”, “that embrace the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds”. Personally, I remain unconvinced if the term “premodern” is a proper nomenclature, but that’s another discussion – most of these cultures in their sustainable way of living within their environment were much more modern than us!

From Africa, we find a classic funerary post from Madagascar and a nice Kota from Gabon, while Oceania is represented by a couple of aripa hook figures from Papua New Guinea and an Abelam ancestor figure. Concerning the installation we read:

Guided by the architectural logic of the space, Between the Earth and Sky consists of an immersive installation of a field of vertical sculptures, highlighting both the universality and the diversity of the form in contemporary, modern, and premodern works of art. The poured concrete ceiling of the gallery is divided by 20 frustum-shaped skylights, forming a grid of 10 x 10 ft squares on the polished concrete floor below. Each square hosts one sculpture that draws a line of sight from the ground up toward the sky, creating connections between the object and the viewer, heaven and earth, and the cardinal directions.

Through the above link it is possible to make a virtual visit of the show. Personally, I think the juxtaposition works very well and the selection is neat. For the “premodern” selection Kasmin Gallery collaborated with Damon Brandt, art dealer and curatorial consultant – and son of the famous gentleman-dealer Alan Brandt (1923-2002). In 2015 Jonathan Fogel wrote about the latter:

Alan had a varied career. Born in Brooklyn, early on he ran a public relations firm that worked with Harry Belafonte, Mike Wallace, and television programs such as Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. He was a prolific lyricist who wrote songs that were recorded by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and Tony Bennett, among many others, and he had a brief onstage acting career in the late 1960s. In 1960 he began managing Henri Kamer’s gallery at 965 Madison Avenue. By the late 1960s, he began dealing with African art in his own right from his apartment at 44 West 77th Street, and became an important source for major works of African and Oceanic art in New York City. In 1998, when he was seventy-five, his first play was produced Off-Broadway.


African art in Game of Thrones

A bit late to catch the hype about this television series, but attentive viewers surely must have spotted that the Dothraki warriors from Essos in Game of Thrones put blankets on their horses that do look very Congolese! In fact, the costume designers were clearly inspired by the famous textiles from the Shoowa & Bushoong peoples, who were part of the Kuba Kingdom in D.R. Congo.


Explore the collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) online

Karagwe quadruped. Image courtesy of the UMMA (#1985/2.91).

A public African Art collection in the US that had stayed under my radar, but does have quite some gems in it, is located at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. You can explore it
here. The museum especially benefited from a large donation by Candis and Helmut Stern of mostly Congolese art in 2005. In 2014, through a $1.5 million gift, the Sterns also helped create a new curatorial position at UMMA: the Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator of African Art (info), now held by Laura De Becker – a fellow Belgian! De Becker is currently working on a reinstallation and doubling of the Museum’s space dedicated to African art, a project called “I Write To You About Africa” – read more about this exciting prospect here; it is scheduled to open somewhere this year.

Unibrow Vili nail figure (nkisi nkondi). Image courtesy of the UMMA, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, #2005/1.192)

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.