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…


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 🙂


Read “Bamana. The art of existence in Mali” freely online

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.


Explore the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) online

A new addition to my growing list of online databases to bookmark: you can now explore the collection of Saint Petersburg’s Kunstkamera museum here (in English!). As this collection is not very well documented, and publications about it are scarce, this online database is even more valuable – it’s not that we are allowed to travel there these days anyway.

The collection could use some vetting as there are a few questionable objects (such as a group of “Kongo” power figures, or a Luba headrest in the style of the Master of the Cascade Coiffure), and the majority of the material is ethnographic in nature, yet there are enough gems in there to take the time to scroll through the 1984 African items (here). Noteworthy is the group of objects collected by Alfred Mansfeld (including some very early Cross River headdresses), and a group of archaic chiwara headdresses from the Bamana people from Mali collected by Leo Frobenius. There’s also a group of Benin bronzes, and an important batch of early Zande & Mangbetu objects collected by Wilhelm Junker. What’s cool about the database is that you can search on these collectors and immediately get to see all objects in the museum’s possession.

Don’t forget to also take the time to scroll through the Oceanic holdings, including some early Hawaii and Easter Islands collections – among other treasures. But maybe the collection that has the most art-historical importance is the group of 18th century Tlingit masks.. the stuff of dreams!

Museums News

The MET acquires the best Bamana antelope headdress ever

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Associate Curator of African Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yaëlle Biro, just broke the news on twitter that the museum acquired the above Bamana antelope headdress (ci wara) from Mali. In my humble opinion this is the best ci wara in existence. It has been in my African art top 10 since a very long time. The stylization of the antelope is spot on and the artists’ use of negative space is pure genius. I’m so happy that this headdress will soon go on public display after having been out of view for so long. The last time it could be seen was 15 years ago, when it was included in Bernard de Grunne’s Masterhands exhibition (Brussels, 2001: p. 54, #11). In 1966, it was shown in New York’s Museum of Primitive Art during the exhibition Masks and Sculptures from the Collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler (#46). In 1989 it was published in Warren Robbins & Nancy Nooter’s African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989 (p. 73, #59); and from the Schindler collection it went on to a private NY collection until last month. The news is still fresh so this ci wara isn’t listed on the Met’s website just yet and neither do we know the kind benefactors who have made this exceptional purchase possible, but what a great addition again for the Met’s African art collection! It will be on view soon..

UPDATE: it was also published in Alisa Lagamma’s Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture (p. 92, #47), which is freely available for download here. The catalog note eloquently describes the headdress as follows:

This headdress suggests a symphony of interwoven concave and convex elements. The horns, with their powerful outward and upward thrust, harmonize with the elongated and hollowed triangular ears, and prominent negative spaces are distributed throughout as visual highlights. The reductive sculptural form, a striking departure from convention, is an essentialized, skeletal structure that frames empty volumes in the area of the head, neck and lower body. The demarcation of these interior areas is accentuated by finely carved surface patterns that include a chain of diamonds along the ridge of the nose and the sides of the mane and neck; dense cross-hatching along the front of the neck and surface of the ears; and spiraling lines that travel up the length of the horns. In this interpretation, the antelope’s transparent being appears as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with life force.


Theaster Gates’ Boli at the Fondazione Prada, Milan (2015)

Theaster Gates, "Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven", 2014.
Theaster Gates, “Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven”, 2014.

Last year, I wrote how Theaster Gates won the Artes Mundi 2014 prize (info) with a work incorporating a Bamana boli figure. For his current exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, Gates has again used the image of a Bamana boli figure in an installation. Boli, a Portion of the Team Lives in Heaven shows a group of Mumuye-like standing figure surrounding a magnificent boli figure on a large black pedestal – a very remarkable view. Gates first exhibition in Milan (info) runs until 25 September 2016. Let me know if you find out the meaning of this installation.

A reader reacts..

If you feel that any religion or belief system “works” just as well as any other, as long as its’ followers believe in it, then this installation illustrates that quite well. The artist could have made up a God and his followers, and for the average viewer the Boli and Mumuyes might seem to be just that, but for those of us in the African art world the tribal images add another layer to the art work while preserving the enigma for everyone due to the “otherness” of the objects.


Theaster Gates Boli Fondazione Prada é


Parcours des Mondes 2014 review

A rare anthropomorphic Bamana boli figure. Height: 40 cm. Published in Schaedler's "African Art in Private German Collections" (#37). Shown at Galerie Frank Van Craen. Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.
A rare anthropomorphic Bamana boli figure. Height: 40 cm. Published in Schaedler’s “African Art in Private German Collections” (#37). Shown at Galerie Frank Van Craen. Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

Apologies for the radio silence; my excuse: the 13th annual edition of Parcours des Mondes. This year, 67, yes 67, participants, of which half from abroad, again did their utmost best to impress. More than ever, there were many curated exhibitions; often dedicated to the arts of a single culture. For example the Teke at Alain Lecomte, the Baule at Maine Durieu, the different Ekoi peoples at Alain Dufour and the Senufo at Olivier Castellano. Though from a dealer’s perspective a bit of a gamble (one excludes all collectors not interested in the culture you’re exhibiting), each of them presented an impressive and varied selection. Many other thematic exhibitions took place, 37 in total. Two personal favorites were the African jewelry show at Galerie Noir d’Ivoire and Serge Le Guennan’s musical instruments exhibition. A small, but beautiful collection of Sapi & Kissi stone figures from Sierra Leona was shown by Alain Bovis – a type of art still unrightfully underappreciated in my humble opinion. On a different level, Arte Y Ritual presented a selection of objects they sold in the last 30 years, many of them well established masterpieces; maybe even too much of them to fill a single room. It was a bit crowded, but the quality level was unsurpassed. Anyhow, I returned so many times that a week later I still have the piano-loop that was playing continuously in the background in my head. Across the street, as a first time participant, Martin Doustar made quite the introduction with his skull exhibition. All these ancestors from all over the world concentrated in one gallery was a very powerful and unique experience. Apparently the show took four years to make, and one could tell. You can download a preview of the catalogue here. Clearly, a dealer to keep an eye on. However, I was happy that not everybody had organized a thematic exhibition. While very didactic, it’s still fun to enter galleries with no idea whatsoever about what you’re about to see. Discovery remains key, as is the excitement of seeing an unknown object for the very first time. For many foreign collectors Parcours des Mondes has become an annual tradition; being the only time a year they visit the Parisian galleries. In so much there’s this festive atmosphere, this year helped by the wonderful weather. One runs into old and new friends from all over the world and stories and gossip are shared over coffee, lunch or dinner in the beautiful surroundings of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Each visitor has its own background and life at home, but in Paris we’re all the same passionate aficionados of tribal art. For me, it’s this temporary microcosmos that Parcours creates which makes it such a successful event – where else in the world can you discuss with random strangers how that one Bamana boli figure left you speechless…


ps  The New York Times’ Scott Reyburn also wrote an interesting review, you can read it here.

Update: another review (discussing sales & Cafe Tribal – a praiseworthy initiative I unfortunately failed to attend due to a busy schedule).


Bernard de Grunne’s Senufo champion cultivator staffs at TEFAF, 2014

Bernard de Grunne Senufo Champion Cultivator staffs

As always, Bernard de Grunne had made the effort to prepare a special themed exhibition for TEFAF. This year a presentation of 13 Senufo tefalipitya or ‘champion cultivator staffs’ took place. You can view the catalogue on de Grunne’s recently redesigned website, here. Highlights of his booth at Tefaf was the Bamana chiwara illustrated below. Extremely interesting was a big bronze antelope. Clearly an archeological find, this important piece was listed as “Djenne” (Inland Niger Delta), but with such ancient objects that just seems an arbitrary classification to me. Click here for a related example sold by Sotheby’s in 2010.

Bernard de grunnen bamana chiwara

Bernard de Grunne Bronze antelope Djenne Gan


Appraisal Detroit Institute of Arts

Yombe nkisi nkondi collected by Robert Visser in 1903. (image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)
Yombe nkisi nkondi collected by Robert Visser in 1903. (image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

Alarming news from Detroit, where the city’s $15 billion debt has led to the entire contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts being seen as a disposable asset by the city’s emergency manager. More details here and here.

Right now no one knows exactly how much the collection is worth. A rough estimate is approximately $3 billion. It is somewhat taboo to appraise publicly owned art, as there is the belief it should not be put on the market.

A statement released by the emergency manager’s spokesperson said, “While there is no plan to sell any assets, it is possible that the city’s creditors could demand the city use its assets to settle its debts. The emergency manager has alerted certain assets, including the DIA, that they might face exposure to creditors should the city be forced to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. This is a precautionary measure.”

In the meantime, choose which piece of African Art you would buy in the presentation of the Africa, Oceanica & Indigenous Americas collection here. I love their Yaka figure, but my final decision would be this Bamana figure.

(image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)
(image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

UPDATE: please take note that Christie’s (Paris) is selling 14 African objects from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago next month; see lot 61-74 here – with a special mention for this important Baga headdress. Many of them were only recently donated to the museum, so I guess there were given without restrictions that would prevent a sale.

UPDATE 2: more recent news here. The objects illustrated in this post were or bought by the DIA itself or donated to the museum and thus can not be sold.


LACMA purchases Bamana gwan figure

"Gwan" mother and child figure. (Museum Associates / LACMA, 2013)
“Gwan” mother and child figure. (Museum Associates / LACMA, 2013)

Last April, the L.A. County Museum of Art purchased a Bamana gwan figure from James Willis for $ 1 million (coming down from the original asking price of $ 1.6 million). The maternity figure will be welcoming visitors at the entrance of the museum’s new African Art galleries.

According to Polly Nooter Roberts, the newly hired curator of African Art at LACMA and professor at UCLA:

It’s a very symbolic acquisition for the museum, as LACMA is conceiving and giving birth to a new area of collecting and display.

The new galleries open July 7 with an exhibition of Luba sculptures on loan from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

“Of course, a figure of this age would sustain some losses,” Roberts said as she presented the sculpture, referred to as Mother and Child Figure for the Gwan Association because it would have been presented at the Day of Gwan, an annual celebration to greet the agricultural season. It still has a rich, almost glossy sheen, even though the woman’s braids have fallen off and she sits on a stool that now has three instead of four legs. The child has lost its head, too, but these omissions leave “us with fragments of the sublime,” as Roberts put it.

Read more about it here and here.