For the armchair traveller and those of us who will not have the chance to travel to New York, some professional installation shots from Kongo: Power & Majesty – click on the pictures to zoom. With thanks to the Department of Arts of Africa at the Met for providing the pictures.
With its new exhibition Kongo: Power & Majesty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art once again continues to leave other museums in its wake when it comes to online presence. For starters, all 148 objects in the exhibition can be studied in detail on this special webpage. Here you can find an interview the exhibition’s curator, Alisa Lagamma, and a fantastic initiative is the exhibition blog, which regularly presents additional information about the presented objects, such as:
- a fascinating article about The Materials That Make Mangaaka;
- A Historian’s Perspective on Kongo and Loango Art, by Phyllis M. Martin;
- or the journey one statue made from Rome to New York, documented in much detail here.
One month after the opening, Kongo has already received numerous raving reviews; for example in The New York Times, The New Yorker here and here, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times also has a special web page (here) about the Met’s mangaaka statue.
Visitors of the exhibition are suggested to use the hashtag #KongoPower to share and discover more about the exhibition on their favorite social media, such as Twitter and Instagram – especially the latter holds many pictures of the installation.
Kongo: Power and Majesty runs through January 3, 2016. Since there’s no auction at Sotheby’s New York in November, I unfortunately will not cross the ocean this fall and will miss the chance to see this exhibition – but its online presence certainly succeeded in giving me a satisfying virtual visit. I hope the descendants of these rich cultures, wherever they might be in the world, will experience the same – the Met certainly made it possible. Obviously nothing will beat the pleasure of being face to face with the exquisite selection, so do make the visit if you get the chance yourself.
Looking back at 2014
The top 10 (out of 174) of the most popular blog posts of 2014:
- Postcard of the day: a Loango market stall with Kongo-derived art for tourists, ca. 1910
- R.I.P. Jean Willy Mestach (1926-2014)
- Ethnographic Museum Antwerp Collection Online
- “In Pursuit of Record Prices”: The Myron Kunin Collection at Sotheby’s New York (11 November 2014)
- Parcours des Mondes 2014 review
- Caveat emptor: a Pende mask from Picasso’s collection ?
- Tweeting about African art
- Parcours des Mondes 2014
- Back at the office
- Three Dutch ethnographic museums merge
My favorite book published last year was Claude-Henri Pirat’s Du Fleuve Niger Au Fleuve Congo – Une Aventure Africaine and the strongest exhibition I personally visited was Martin Doustar‘s Golgotha. What are your picks ?
In 2008, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s African Art department made a landmark acquisition: a highly important Kongo nkisi nkondi power figure, attributed to the Chiloango River Master, previously in the Kegel-Konietzko collection (info). Ever since, its commanding presence welcomes visitors entering the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty, running from September 2015 to January 2016, will for the first time assemble twenty Kongo figures attributed to this artist. These nineteenth-century works will be historically grounded in relation to some 100 other Kongo masterpieces from both private and public collections. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue; for now, you can already read Alisa Lagamma’s interesting article about this figure and its maker in the Metropolitan Museum Journal here. A room full of these power figures surely will be an epic experience; many compliments to the Metropolitan for making the effort to temporarily reunite them.
Continuing on the theme of an earlier post about a Loango market stall with Kongo-derived art for tourists, a reader informed me about an interesting article by Ezio Bassani in African Arts (vol. 12, 1979: pp. 34-35). It discusses seven figures in the collection of the Museo Civici, Reggio Emilia. They belonged to a larger group of ethnographic objects assembled by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Corona in 1887 near the mouth of the Congo River. These objects, stored in Antwerp, were bought on the basis of photographs, and later declared unsatisfactory by their buyer, Luigi Pigorini, founder and director of the Museo Pigorini in Rome. Bassani unveiled a letter dated July 12, 1889, where Pigorini asked the Minister of Public Instruction to interrupt negotiations on the museum’s behalf and oblige the seller to either refund expenses or reduce the price that had been fixed for the acquisition. Pigorini stated the situation as follows:
Since there was no possibility of examining the collection before we agreed to buy it, when asked whether I considered it suitable to acquire it for the museum I direct, I answered in the affirmative, on the condition, of course, that we receive all the objects documented by the photographs presented by the Cav. Corona, and on condition that each object bear unequivocal signs of having been used by the natives from whom it originated, thus excluding the possibility that it [the collection] might consist of materials produced along the coast to be sold to those who hunt for curios … Of such objects, which the Cav. Corona had guaranteed the number given and the condition of having been used, only a few reached us, or the items appear utterly new.
Clearly, already in 1889, signs of ritual usage were considered an important element to consider an object authentic. The seven figures illustrated in the article (shown above) were most likely made by the same anonymous sculptor. Most of the figures appear to represent Europeans. Bassani rightfully concludes that this artist must have worked on order, creating sculptures for sale to foreign sailors and travelers. Even in the 1880s, the production of objects “to be sold to those who hunt for curios” was already flourishing along the African coast.
Figures in this easily recognizable style sometimes pop up at auction, for example recently at Zemanek-Münster here or at Neumeister here (all three illustrated below).
Since J. F. G. Umlauff acquired another figure by this sculptor in Banana (illustrated below) , it’s likely this sculptor was based at this important port on the Kongo coast. The “Banana atelier” therefore seems an appropriate name to label his production.
To finish, a letter from Romolo Gessi, an Italian explorer who traveled in the southern Sudan in 1874-1880, quoted by Bassani, which illustrates the liveliness of the hunt for African “objects” on the part of explorers and merchants. In a letter, dated October 21, 1876, to a friend in Cairo, Gessi wrote:
You suggest that I should bring you curiosities. Is there a good market for them in Cairo? I made a collection but it is still incomplete. It is very difficult to find these objects. Everybody here wants to buy them, and the prices have been spoiled, especially by Englishmen who pay for this rubbish at its weight in gold. There are also many Greeks, Jews, etc. who buy up everything. I have sent orders to the chiefs of our military stations to find objects. There is a Russian doctor* here who for 20,000 francs, has already bought utensils, lances, arrows, etc. from the savages. You will easily understand that I cannot rival the prices offered by these people, who are ready to pay whatever price is demanded so as not to return to Europe without a collection. Therefore, let me know whether it is possible to sell these objects at a good price in Cairo because, believe me, it is difficult to find any.
* This was W. Yunker, the Russian explorer, whose collection is one of the oldest and important in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Academy of Sciences, Leningrad.
The history of art is the history of what survives. One can only wonder of all the marvels that went lost. The above illustration, made in Sogno in the Kingdom of Kongo in the 1740s, illustrates how early the destruction of the so-called African idols started. Written and illustrated by Bernardino Ignazio di Vezza d’Asti in about 1750, this vignette was published in an early manual for Capuchin missionaries (Missione in prattica: Padri cappucini ne Regni di Congo, Angola, et adiacenti). Two other images of this manuscript are published in the exhibition catalogue of Kongo across the Waters (pp. 32-33).
A perfect example to show how early on objects were intentionally carved for passing tourists, the above postcard from around 1910, shows a Loango market stall with Kongo-inspired masks and figures made for sale. Already from the 2nd quarter of the 19th century the Northwestern Kongo people produced decorative art (some of it derived from ritual art) for export, alongside ritual and decorative art for their own use. By the end of the 19th century making art for outsiders had become an additional source of income for Kongo artists and during the first half of the 20th century, making art for colonials was their main occupation because traditional clients had almost disappeared. Just to say, that age alone, can never be a sufficient parameter to classify an object as authentic.
On May 16, 2014 Sotheby’s NY will auction the second (and last) part of the collection of Allan Stone. Following the success of volume one in November 2013 (reviewed here), volume two will feature a selection of African, Pre-Columbian, and American Indian Art of comparable quality, number and variety to the first offering. Highlights will be on exhibition at Sotheby’s Paris from April 9-17, and the entire Volume Two sale will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from May 10-15, in advance of the May 16 auction (info). Click here to learn more about Allan Stone.
Below and above a selection of the featured Kongo power figures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo featured in the sale.
The variations in African art never fail to suprise. By coincidence I just found this funny Kongo-Vili figure with its head turned slightly sidewards. It was donated to the Musée de l’Homme by Stéphan Chauvet in 1930. I had never encountered this particular position of the hands before; it certainly had a meaning. I would guess this figure was never used, though the face got painted, there’s one metal nail inserted in the chest and traces of a round fetish box on the torso remain?
The Musée du quai Branly holds 267.417 objects (236.509 from the old Musée de l’Homme and 22 740 from the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) – not only African of course. Additionally, since 1998 the museum has acquired 8168 objects. It’s not clear how many items are already in their online database, but surely enough to have lots of fun. You can search the digital collections of the Musée du quai Branly here. Type a keyword in the Saisir la recherche box below the Sélectionner un critère de recherche tab. The acquisition date itself is never listed, but one can deduce it from the inventory number.
Trivia of the day: Stéphan Chauvet was the author of the first illustrated compendium of information about Easter Island, L’Île de Pâques et Ses Mystères (1935), you can find a translation of it here, a must read for the armchair traveller.
Sleeper of the year
Sleeper. When an item is sold at auction without the auctioneers having an appreciation of the true nature of the object.
The biggest sleeper of the year might have been sold this week in Liège, Belgium (info). This cross-legged Kongo figure, with the hand supporting the chin, turned up at a small auction but apparently failed to go unnoticed, being sold for € 198.000 (premium included). The original estimate isn’t listed on the website anymore, but I suspect it being a couple of thousand euros. This figure is from the same hand as the paternity figure from the Vérité collection (Paris, 17-18 June 2006, lot 236) and from the same workshop as numerous known other examples. Unfortunately, the right cheek and hand are a bit damaged. It shows that even at the smallest auctions, the time of being the only interested party lays far behind us – this result equals the price one would pay in Paris or New York. In the same sale, a small Songye figure was hammered for € 31.200 (info). In my opinion, both prices are a bit too high and I suspect bidders got carried away since they were so enthusiast about their discovery.
Update: a reader informed the estimate was € 1800-2000.
Update II: another reader writes:
The piece might have been a sleeper, the Brussels dealers who were competing for it were definitely very awake !