13 carats Kota-inspired earrings by Graff

In case you would be looking for a beautiful gift for someone special (or yourself), and money is not a problem, please look no further. The upper-end jewellery brand Graff just launched a new set of designs called “The Tribal Collection” – more info here. It’s only too bad their marketing department didn’t do their research, as the rest of the world has been trying to refrain from the use of the denominator ‘tribal’ for a while.

Part of the collection are the above all-diamond earrings – clearly inspired by the reliquary guardian figures of the Kota from Gabon – although the below description on the website fails to mention that inspiration..

A highly evocative design that interprets elemental shapes found in nature, our Night Moon diamond high jewellery earrings frame the face with graphic brilliance. Forming the sculptural Night Moon motif, a perfect half-moon symbolic of clarity and reflection, perfectly proportioned oval diamonds are encircled by double diamond halos. Suspended beneath, invisibly set baguette cut stones trace a striking diamond shape, accompanied by rows of round diamonds that shimmer spectacularly with each movement of the wearer. The Tribal collection captures Graff’s mastery of design and storytelling through diamonds. Three striking motifs unite the collection, which includes petite pendants, earrings and rings alongside hypnotic jewels featuring sleek and sculptural rows of diamonds.

Besides the earrings, the necklace also features a central Kota-inspired diamond motif (see below). Laurence Graff in fact is one of the world’s top 200 art collectors, and previously already created jewellery inspired by the works of Cy Twombly. It’s nice to see his African art also gets to inspire his designs – although it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to not mention the genius anonymous artists that came up with the archetype of the much-celebrated Kota reliquary figures. The diamonds surely are as glittering as the original brass-covered statues once were..

Sara Sampaio wearing the Night Moon pieces shot on location in the Atlantis Dune in South Africa. Image by Mikael Jansson, courtesy of Graff.

A Kota fighting voter apathy

Slightly deviating from the ongoing series about African art featured in advertisements, check out this cool vintage poster from the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation urging the public to do ‘the right thing’ and register to vote. The poster probably dates from around 1980 and was part of ‘Operation Big Vote’ – on which you can read more here. This nationwide effort by 70 black organisations hoped to stem the tide of black voter apathy. How a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon could inspire people to go vote is unclear to me, but it surely made a very graphic poster! Thanks to Ciprian Ilie for the tip.

ps yes, you assume right if you were wondering if I tried to find the Kota that inspired this poster – but I unfortunately was unsuccessful. It is a pretty common type of course.


African art on record covers: Basa Basa

In a previous life I used to be a dj and record collector, so I’m always thrilled when I discover a record with African art on the cover. I recently came across the above lp by Basa Basa, which features this great drawing of a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon. This album was recorded at Decca Studios in Lagos, Nigeria in 1979 and performed by the Basa Basa band which was The Nyaku twins from Ghana and Themba Matebese who played synths and keyboards and also produced it. The connection with a Kota is therefor a bit mysterious. Also note how the empty space between arms and legs is white, so the graphic designer clearly did not know this area was empty on the original thing. The Amsterdam based label Vintage Voudou recently re-released this hard to find album, you can buy the lp here; it’s great. Happy weekend !

Exhibtions Museums

Last days to visit the ‘Les Forêts Natales’ exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly (closing Sunday 21 January)

Tempus fugit! It’s already the last week of the Les Forêts Natales exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (info and pictures here). If you haven’t had the chance to see this must-see show, please don’t sleep and go visit it. I would suggest to reserve at least 3 hours for it, as you’ll need them. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see that much iconic masterpieces of Gabon in one single museum. I don’t think any other curator will ever dare to envision such a comprehensive selection – it did take Yves Le Fur more than 3 years to prepare it. With the closing of the Dapper Museum, he of course had the unique chance to lend about 25 of their top objects, but also the holdings of the MqB itself, the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and numerous private collectors proved indispensable for the success of this exhibition. The catalogue, which unfortunately is only available in French, is also recommended but does not prepare you for the real-life experience. Furthermore, not all exhibited works are included in it. Personally, I saw the show three times, and still I don’t have the feeling I have seen enough of it. Several sections of it (Fang, Kwele, Kota, Tsogho) easily could have been standalone exhibitions and still would be incomparable. I will never forget that wall of Kotas (more than 100 in total!) – see above.

Kuddos as well to the Friends of the Musée du quai Branly for their innovative thinking to include the source communities of this exhibition by organizing several ‘web tours’ (info). Several Mondays (when the museum was closed), they organized live broadcasted guided tours which could be followed in several places in both Gabon and Cameroon:

• Fondation Gacha à Bangoulap au Cameroun
• Musée des civilisations de Dschang au Cameroun
• Musée National de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Galerie Doual’art à Douala au Cameroun
• Galerie MAM à Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Yaoundé au Cameroun
• Institut français de Douala au Cameroun
• Institut Français de Libreville au Gabon
• Etablissement scolaire Le Ruban Vert à Libreville au Gabon
• Lycée français Victor Hugo à Port-Gentil au Gabon

A wonderful initiative, and a first I think. The Gabonese president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, also visited the expo – as can be seen below. He was rightfully very proud.

Auctions News

Christie’s, Paris, 4 April 2017: African, Oceanic and American Indian art from the Laprugne Collection & Various Owners

I’m proud to officially announce our next auction on April 4th 2017. The first part of this sale will be dedicated to the Laprugne collection (comprising 79 lots), and the second section will present objects from various owners. Now at the vanguard of the auction season, Christie’s’ African and Oceanic Art department has shifted its auction calendar to coincide better with the rhythm of the market. Coinciding with the highly anticipated opening of the “Picasso Primitif” exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, it surely will be worth a trip to Paris.

Built over several decades, the Laprugne collection spans all continents and is the lifework of Mr. and Mrs. Laprugne. Starting in the 1970s, Jean-Pierre Laprugne ran the Parisian gallery ‘Mazarine 52’, which specialized in African and Oceanic art. In his early twenties, abandoning his position as a teacher early on, Jean-Pierre Laprugne saw it as his life mission to save these works of art from oblivion and reveal their origins and artistic merits in his gallery. In a classical French tradition, he honed his knowledge through tireless visits to flea markets at dawn and a large network of amateurs which he also frequently met at Hotel Drouot. Over time, this would yield countless treasures. His gallery quickly became a popular meeting spot in the Saint-Germain quarter thanks to Jean-Pierre’s knowledge, open mind and good humor. He inspired a whole generation of likeminded collectors and dealers with his contagious passion. Through the years he was able to build up an exquisite private collection, discretely safeguarding the masterpieces he found for his private sanctuary. At the heart of his collection is a unique group of 7 Kota reliquary figures from Gabon, displaying the unique diversity these guardian figures can show (see the teaser photo above). This exciting collection contains many more unseen and unpublished treasures never before on the market.

The sale of the Laprugne collection continues into the various owners sale, including two dedicated sections. A first group of objects, all miniatures under 20 centimeters, demonstrates the virtuosity of African artists when sculpting small-scale objects. A second section presents a carefully selected group of African and Oceanic masks from the highest quality showing the incredible creativity in the reinvention of the human face. Amongst these masks, a rediscovered archaic Sepik River mask from Papua New Guinea which has remained in the same family since being acquired at the famous auction of the collection of André Lefèvre in 1965. With these focused selections we respond to the current market’s desire to explore categories in-depth. Normally considered in the context of a museum, this comparative approach represents a fresh perspective in the auction model to appeal to seasoned collectors and new audiences alike.

The viewing days are:

Wednesday 29 March: 10am-6pm
Thursday 30 March: 10am-6pm
Friday 31 March: 10am-6pm
Saturday 1 April: 10am-6pm
Sunday 2 April: 2pm-6pm
Monday 3 April: 10am-6pm
Tuesday 4 April: 10am-1pm

The sale will take place on Tuesday April 4th at 4pm. Hope to see you there!

ps click here for an interview with Jean-Pierre Laprugne from 2003.

Exhibtions Research

Fraught signifiers in African art: “Kota”

Detail of a Sango reliquary figure. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Detail of a Sango reliquary figure from Gabon. Africarium Collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In the exhibition catalogue for his exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Kota – Digital Excavations in African Art, Frédéric Cloth makes an interesting comment on the usage of the attribution ‘Kota’ for the well-known reliquary guardians covered with metal from Gabon. He writes:

The word ‘Kota’ refers to a small ethnic group living in northeastern Gabon (estimated between 14,000 and 40,000 peoples by the mid-twentieth century), but one might be surprised to learn that there are no works in this exhibition created by the Kota people themselves.

Yes, you read that right. The Kota did not make any reliquary figures ! Cloth continues:

The reason for this is the result of a complex history. When, in the nineteenth century, Europeans started to explore eastern Gabon along the course of the Ogooué River, one of the first people they met were the Kota. Only later, the European explorers encountered the peoples who produced the art we refer to as ‘Kota’; groups such as the Shamaye, Sango, Obamba, Wumbu, and Ndassa. Oversimplification over time led Westerners unfortunately to refer to all reliquary guardians from this region as ‘Kota’.

This imprecise nomenclature now is so embedded that even Cloth remained obliged to use it for the title of his exhibition. Such fraught signifiers unfortunately tend to be hard to eradicate. Other examples previously mentioned on my blog are the so-called ‘Boa’ (info) and ‘Kulango’ spoons (info) – notwithstanding recent scholarship proved them incorrect, both designations are still widely used.

Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), "l'Art Funéraire au Gabon", Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.
Field-photo published in: Chauvet (Stephen), “l’Art Funéraire au Gabon”, Paris: Maloine, 1933: p. 2, #3.

African and Oceanic art in “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958)

kim novak kota gabon reliquary bell, book and candle

Bell, Book and Candle is a 1958 American romantic comedy Technicolor film directed by Richard Quine, based on the successful Broadway play by John Van Druten, which stars James Stewart and Kim Novak. During the Christmas holiday season, Greenwich Village witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak), a free spirit with a penchant for going barefoot, has been unlucky in love and restless in life. She admires from afar her neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (James Stewart), who one day walks into her gallery of African art to use the telephone..

In the opening title sequence we get a nice view of that gallery..

The African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian objects for the movie set were provided by Julius Carlebach, who at the time had a gallery in New York. I was already able to identify the seated male Baule figure; it was sold by Christie’s Paris on 6 December 2005 (lot 184) and has passed through several dealers ever since. The Kota was last seen at Sotheby’s New York (24 February 1982, lot 437). There’s a lot more African and Oceanic art in that gallery, I’m sure further sleuthing would reveal the present location of other objects.

Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie's.
Height: 64 cm. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

UPDATE: several readers at 1:39 attentively spotted the name of Eliot Elisofon as the ‘special color consultant’. He’s better known as an avid Africa traveler; his photographic archives are kept by the Smithsonian (info).

Auctions News

Photo of the day: Ruby in Hong Kong

Image courtesy of Susan Kloman/Christie's.
Image courtesy of Susan Kloman/Christie’s.

The William Rubin Kota, I nicknamed her Ruby, was in China last week – more specifically in Hong Kong. The preview was also accompanied by a lecture on the connection between the art from the Kota and Western Modern Art. Reaching to new audiences in the east, Christie’s clearly is doing an effort. The first two weeks of May, Ruby had already been on view at the Christie’s headquarters in New York. As you can see below, she was presented next to a painting by Mark Rothko from 1958: a pairing that worked very well. According to some it was the Kota that made the Rothko better, and not the other way around.

Image courtesy of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.
Image courtesy of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.

A nice surprise when walking to Christie’s was the fact that there were a lot of banners featuring Ruby on Fifth Avenue. See one below near Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I loved seeing African art invade the public space, especially at such a busy spot in Manhattan. Kudos to Christie’s African art department for all the promotion.

William Rubin Kota New York Gabon Bruno Claessens

As one of the icons of African art, Ruby not surprisingly got her own 80-page catalogue; you can browse it here. It includes essays by Susan Kloman, Pierre Amrouche, Charles-Wesley Hourdé, Louis Perrois, Frederic Cloth and William Rubin himself. You can also view a short documentary about the Kota’s last owner, William Rubin, on the website of Christie’s here.

The next and final stop of Ruby is Paris, where she will be on view from 18 until 23 June 2015 (info). Ruby will be sold that last day, with an estimate of € 6-9 million – I have a feeling she might break the world record for most expensive African art object ever sold at auction…

Exhibtions News Research

“Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art” – an upcoming exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (October 2015)

Kota digital excvations Frederic Cloth Pulitzer

This October, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation will present Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art, an exhibition that examines new ways to study and reveal the hidden histories of antique Kota reliquaries from Gabon. The exhibition, co-curated by Frederic Cloth (a Belgian computer engineer and independent researcher) and Kristina Van Dyke, will present more than 50 reliquary guardian figures from both public as private collections. Cloth (who also designed the software of the Yale University – van Rijn Archive of African art) developed a custom-build database and search engine exclusively used to analyze Kota statues. Using a series of algorithms, he was able to detect unprecedented patterns in his sample of over 2,000 reliquaries. I’ve witnessed this database first hand and must say it is very exciting to finally see somebody using digital tools properly to gain new insights in otherwise ‘silent’ objects. This new kind of approach presents exciting possibilities for groups of African objects that lack deep provenance and contextual data, although not all types of art obviously are as suitable to work with. The exhibition will explore both the algorithmic tool and the fascinating African sculptural tradition; you can read more about it here.

Earlier this year, Frederic Cloth already gave a sneak peek of his findings during a lecture, called Algorithms and Mathematics Applied to the Reconstitution of Lost Traditions, at the de Young Museum in conjunction with the opening day celebration of Embodiments: Masterworks of African Figurative Sculpture. You can see it below, it’s highly recommended:

Auctions News

Field-photo of the day: a Kota reliquary figure at Stieglitz ‘291’ gallery (1915)

Alfred Stieglitz, ‘The Picasso-Braque Exhibition, “291”’. Platinum print, 19,5 by 24,7 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Alfred Stieglitz, ‘The Picasso-Braque Exhibition, “291”, 1915. Platinum print, 19,5 by 24,7 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A remarkable result earlier this month, was the $ 173,000 for which the above picture sold at Sotheby’s New York (info). It was made by Alfred Stieglitz (who was married to painter Georgia O’Keeffe) in 1915 at Galerie 291 in New York. It’s estimate was even higher: $ 200,000-300,000.

In the catalogue we read:

This well-known photograph of ‘291’ exemplifies the Stieglitz circle’s commitment to the progressive art theories of the time. Modernist drawings, an African sculpture, and a wasps’ nest were an unlikely combination in a Fifth Avenue gallery in 1915, but they demonstrated an approach to art that was bold and new. As Edward Steichen remembered,

‘We had a few drawings by Braque and Picasso, and I determined that they would be fine material for the next exhibition. I bought some bolts of cheesecloth . . . and we covered the dust-darkened walls with it . . .Then I hung the few Braques and Picassos on the walls and several of the more or less related African sculptures with them. The place looked clean, fresh, and alive again, but I felt something was missing . . . When I mentioned this, [Emil] Zoler said he had a big wasp’s nest in fine condition. A wasp’s nest was perfect, especially in relationship to the Cubism we had on the wall, and it was brought in’ (A Life in Photography, Chapter 5, unpaginated).

As Helen Shannon proposes in her essay ‘African Art, 1914: The Root of Modern Art,’ to which this entry is indebted, the photograph offered here functions as a kind of artistic manifesto. Two Picasso drawings—Still Life: Bottle and Glass on Table (1912), and Violin (circa 1912)—flank a Kota reliquary figure, whose shapes are echoed in the drawings and the organic forms of the brass bowl and wasps’ nest. Stieglitz had been among the first in America to promote Picasso’s work, and in 1914, he had mounted a ground-breaking exhibition of African sculpture, an innovation outside of ethnography circles. As Shannon writes, this meshing of cultures, different decades, and the natural world calls into question the traditional distinctions between Western and ‘primitive’ societies, and between high and low art (Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, pp. 178-9).

The photograph offered by Sotheby’s was acquired directly from Stieglitz. Apparently only five other prints of this image are known: at the National Gallery of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and one formerly in the Gilman Paper Company Collection, sold by Sotheby’s in 2006.

UPDATE: While I had first written that the present location of the featured Kota was unknown, Patrik Fröhlich kindly informed me that Stieglitz’s Kota is at the Fisk University in Nashville. His wife Georgia O’Keeffe donated his collection (including three other African objects) to them in 1949 (info).

UPDATE2: Yaëlle Biro informed me that this Kota in fact is co-owned by Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas – read more about it here (where you can also see Stieglitz other African art).

UPDATE3: now, we only still need to try to locate that wasp’s nest 🙂

Kota figure (Gabon). Height:  cm. Ex Stieglitz and featured on the above photo. Image courtesy of Fisk University and Crystal Bridges.
Kota figure (Gabon). Height: 62 cm. Ex Stieglitz and featured on the above photo. Image courtesy of Fisk University and Crystal Bridges.

In February 1916, Stieglitz used another Kota reliquary figure to illustrate the cover of the 12th issue of his 291 magazine (named after his gallery). This example was rediscovered in a New England estate in 1981 and is now in the Dapper Museum in Paris.

Stieglitz Kota Cover 291 magazine