Objects Research

Songuifolo Silué carves a Senufo statue

After the two previous blog posts about African sculptors, I thought it would be interesting to share a rare video of an African woodcarver at work. Two years ago the heirs of Karl-Heinz Krieg made a whole series of digitalised Super 8 films available online (which can be found here), including a incredible video of the Senufo carver Songuifolo Silué (c. 1914-1986) carving a wooden statue in 1978 in the village of Sirasso, Ivory Coast. The website doesn’t let me directly link to the video on Vimeo, but if you click on the link in the below box you’ll be able to view it.

Or you can just click here to view it. The confidence with which Silué handles his adze shows his genius as a wood carver, and it’s just incredible to witness the whole process from raw block of wood to the finished statue. The video of course is only from 1978, but one can assume there wouldn’t have been much difference with the sculpting process 100 years ago, or anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some years ago, I took sculpting classes myself and I can assure you that, although Silué makes it look rather easy, the craftsmanship he displays only comes with years and years of practice. Once the statue is finished, we as well get to witness how it is given a patina: the red wood of the root of a certain tree is used to give the statue a first reddish layer (starting at minute 14), before being covered in a ferrous mud (minute 17) to give the statue its final blackish color. Videos like this only give you more respect for the creative geniuses that sculpted the art we love so much!

ps Karl-Heinz Krieg documented several other Senufo artists; you can learn about them here. Compliments to his heirs for making these valuable archives available online.


Objects Research

A rediscovered Senufo staff

Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.
Image courtesy of Anita J. Glaze, 1969.

In 1969, Anita J. Glaze took the above field-photo of a Senufo staff in Ivory Coast. It was published recently in Bernard de Grunne’s catalogue on the subject, Senufo Champion Cultivator Staffs – which is freely available online here (p. 32). Unfortunately no additional information about the place, owner or carver is mentioned.

Last week, the above staff was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris (info). Apparently the staff left Ivory Coast not long after Anita J. Glaze photographed it, since according to Sotheby’s it was already owned by Harvery T. Menist ca. 1968. Although the field-photo is a bit blurry, details such as the red fibers and presence of cowrie strings make it clear this is one and the same staff.

telafpitya senufo staff sotheby's anita glaze


I discovered two more staffs that are possibly carved by the same sculptor – only the angle between the upper and lower arm is different. A nice detail is how the carver omitted the two front legs of the stool the woman is sitting on, carving only the legs of the figure while maintaining the balance of the stool.


Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.
Left: published in Afrikanische Kunst. Düsseldorf: Galerie Simonis, n.d. & right: published in: Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 1995. Lot 64.


ps the elaborate hairdo of the female figure crowning this staff in facts reflects an existing Senufo hairstyle – as can be seen on the beautiful field-photo below.


Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), "Negerkunst und Negerkünstler", Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).
Senufo woman. Published in: Himmelheber (Hans), “Negerkunst und Negerkünstler”, Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1960:64, #53 (top left).

A rediscovered Senufo figure from the Helena Rubinstein collection

Helena Rubinstein Senufo Paris 1951

An important momentum in the appreciation of African art was the sale of the Helena Rubinstein collection by Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc. in April 1966. The unprecedented prices paid for the objects from her collection would radically alter the commercial value of African art. Ever since, and even more since the 2014 exhibition dedicated to her (info here & here), objects coming from her collection have been highly sought after. Last weekend, one of them popped up in an small US estate auction. An attentive collector discovered it on the above interior photo and was able to acquire it at a fair price. A wonderful detail is that after being cherished so long by the most important female collector of the 20th century, it will now be treasured again by another female collector, a species of which there are far too few.

Senufo figure Ivory Coast Rubinstein 1966

Objects Research

Object of the day: a rediscovered Senufo staff from the Master of the spade-shaped hands

Senufo ceremonial staff. Height: 90,5 cm. Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.
Senufo ceremonial staff. Height: 90,5 cm. Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.

Last year I had the pleasure to see the above staff while visiting a private collection in The Netherlands. The current owner acquired this masterpiece early 2014. Only a few weeks later he encountered an old black/white picture of his staff in the new exhibition catalogue of the Rietberg Museum: Afrikanische Meister – Kunst der Elfenbeinkuste (p. 168, fig. 218). I don’t need to explain the collector suddenly was even more happy with his last acquisition. Listed as ‘current location unknown’, the staff was last ‘seen’ when Schädler published it in 1973 (Afrikanische Kunst in Deutschen Privatesammlungen, p. 74) – it was his picture that was used in the 2014 catalogue.

After having spend more than 30 years hidden away, the staff will be on view to the public from 14 April until 26 July 2015, at the last stop of the traveling exhibition, now dubbed Les Maïtres de la Sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire, at the Musée du quai Brainly in Paris. I’m happy to already share some pictures of it here.

Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.
Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.

Clearly this staff from the Korhogo district doesn’t resemble the more common Senufo staffs handed out to most productive farmers; possibly it served as an emblem of dignity. The zoomorphic figures on top most likely represent a chameleon and a bird. The group of figures, which is equally fascinating seen from any angle, is held in tension buy a skillful balance of surface areas, an intriguing interplay of lines and an elusive air of mystery. Frequent use has left a shiny, deep, reddish-brown patina at the centre of the staff, and the group of figures is covered with the remains of numerous sacrifices.

Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.
Photo by Ferry Herrebrugh. Image courtesy of Rutger & Irene der Kinderen, The Netherlands.

As the above profile of the figure shows this staff was sculpted by a master carver. Due to the specific shape of his hands, he was nicknamed the ‘Master of the Spade-Shaped Hands’. A helmet mask (at least it looks like one) from a private Belgian collection can also be attributed to this artist – who is also sometimes called ‘The shovel shaped hands Master’. An interesting detail is that they share their earliest European provenance: Robert Duperrier. A third object from this sculptor is a small figure in the collection of the Rietberg Museum – also illustrated below. In my humble opinion the style of this artist is quintessentially Senufo; I don’t think it can get much better than this.

Helmet mask. Height: 45,9 cm. Image courtesy of Musée Dapper.
Helmet mask. Height: 45,9 cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of Musée Dapper.
Senufo figure. Height: 18 cm. Image courtesy of the Rietberg Museum.
Senufo figure. Height: 18 cm. Image courtesy of the Rietberg Museum.
Museums News

“Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa” at The Cleveland Museum of Art: the app

Images courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Images courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Talking about innovative curatorial practices, the Cleveland Museum of Art has just announced the release of its first special exhibition mobile application: “CMA Senufo”, designed for the upcoming Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa, opening Feb. 22.

Through the presentation of insightful commentary, high-resolution imagery and video, “CMA Senufo” encourages a closer look at some of the exhibition’s individual objects and the story behind Senufo-speaking artists and patrons. The app is free and now available for iPhones through the Apple iTunes App Store. From home, you can enjoy a video preview with the museum’s Curator of African Art, Constantine Petridis, and find information for planning a museum visit. When you visit the exhibition and connect with the museum’s wifi network, the app will become your tour guide and offer other information (such as a multimedia tour featuring interviews with the curator, African art scholars and artists). The app also provides an interactive list of related events, gallery tours and information about the Cleveland Museum of Art. You need an Iphone of course; however, the museum will provide a limited number of iPod Touches free of charge for visitors without one.

You can read more about the development of this app here. To quote CMA’s director William M. Griswold: “The Cleveland Museum of Art takes the development of cutting-edge technologies and interpretive materials to the next level with this exhibition app”. “The new technology behind our ‘CMA Senufo’ app provides visitors exclusive content, and allows visitors to experience this exhibition in ways not possible before.”  We can only applaud the introduction of new technologies into the museum experience – however, I still prefer to spend my time looking at the display cases instead of staring at my phone.

ps below the preview of the exhibition that is featured on the app.

Auctions News

Sotheby’s “In Pursuit of Beauty: The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art” catalogue online

Senufo figure (lot 48). Height: 92 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.
Senufo figure (lot 48). Height: 92 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The long anticipated catalogue of Sotheby’s sale of the Myron Kunin collection is now available online here. For the occasion, Sotheby’s also has created two short videos, discussing both the man as his collection; you can view them here. The pre-sale exhibition opens in New York on 8 November; the sale is on 11 November 2014.

Exhibtions Museums News

“Senufo: Art, History, and Style in West Africa” at The Cleveland Museum of Art (2015)

Senufo bird. Height: 40,6 cm. Image courtesy of the Africarium Collection.
Senufo bird. Height: 40,6 cm. Image courtesy of the Africarium Collection.

Coming up February next year at the The Cleveland Museum of Art, Senufo: Art, History, and Style in West Africa will examine how individuals such as dealers, collectors and artists and the circulation of objects among continents contributed to the emergence and definition of the Senufo style as we know it. It will also examine how the creativity of artists and the sponsorship of patrons in different times and places have varied, thereby resulting in a rich, dynamic, and diverse corpus.

Artists and patrons in Korhogo and nearby Senufo communities, as well as in towns and cities peripheral to that center, have long produced visually engaging forms that do not necessarily fit within the canonical Senufo style. The exhibition will demonstrate that innovative artistic production takes place in an artistic center as well as in areas deemed peripheral to and less significant than that center.

The exhibition will reconsider previous exhibitions of Senufo art by tracing 20th-century development of the Senufo style. It will broaden the visual scope of Senufo art and explore multiple possibilities for referring to the art as “Senufo” rather than contribute to a history of efforts to fine-tune the parameters of a singular and seemingly unchanging style. Historical documentation and research conducted in the last two decades by scholars of Africa, Europe, and North America will inform the exhibition by highlighting how the art of Senufo artists and Senufo patrons vary.

The exhibition will run from February 22 to Sunday, May 31, 2015. The accompanying catalogue will be written by Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi – who did her Ph.D. on the Senufo at the University of California. The selection of objects was made by Constantine Petridis, curator of African Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Petridis himself is currently in the process of transforming his dissertation on the arts of the Luluwa into a book on the subject – something else to look forward to.


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


Auction review: Christie’s Paris – June 19, 2013

Senufo bird Bartos Christie's

The June 19, 2013 auction at Christie’s had a couple of major museum quality objects, such as the Baga snake on the front cover, but it also has a wide range of interesting and good works that carried very reasonable estimates. 79 of the 132 objects (or 60 %) were sold. With a sale total (including buyer’s premium) of € 4,723.755,- for the 79 sold lots, it equalled Sotheby’s with a total of € 3,475.050,- for 56 lots with the average price/lot (ca. € 60K). Seen the intensified competition between the two auction houses, a praiseworthy result – but not a success.

Objects from the Celeste and Armand Bartos collection offered a couple of great opportunities for connoisseurs with a bit of money. My personal favourite was the Senufo bird (pictured above). Estimated at € 20-30K, it sold to a private collector for only € 32K. Its strong lines and abstraction for me made it the best example of the Bartos’s refined taste. In the catalogue we read:

In the assemblage of the pure forms seen on the Bartos Senufo bird – the oval in high relief upon a square – surmounted by the curved, tapering head offers the essential spirit of the gliding bird. It is clear in this sculpture the inspiration of modern artists, like Brancusi or Jean Arp, in the realization of many of their sculptures.

Clearly appealing to their sophisticated feeling for line and form, the Senufo bird held a prominent place for many years in the Bartos’s collection. In the early 1960’s we see it near Miro’s Le Port (1945) which they acquired from Pierre Matisse and juxtaposed to Arp’s polished bronze (x) tbc. Later, the Senufo bird could be found prominently in their foyer, next to Noguchi’s Untitled (1968) in stone and wood – always the first piece they saw when they entered their home.

The biggest suprise from the Bartos collection (and in the sale alltogether) was the squatting Dogon figure. Estimated between € 30-50K, it realized a record price of € 601K selling to a collector from Qatar. Everybody predicted a strong result for this exquisite miniature, but this result was clearly beyond expectations. Other highlights from the Bartos collection were a Kongo figure selling for € 97K (though mainly covered with European nails), a rare Bamana staff (€ 16K) and a Fang head exhibited in New York in 1935 (€ 337K). The centerpiece of their small collection was of course the Baga snake, which tripled its lower estimate, selling for € 2,337.500,-. In a recent mailing Christie’s advertised this result as a “world auction record for a Baga work”, apparently forgetting the Baga serpent from the Dinhofer collection that was sold by Sotheby’s NY for 3,3 million dollars in 2008 (currently € 2,5 million). Nevertheless, they do mention it in the catalogue note:

The majority of exceptional examples among these sculptures, the Bartos serpent among them, were collected by Hélène and Henri Kamer in the 1950s, and are now held in the greatest museums in the world. Among the eight snakes collected by the Kamers are: one belonging to the Musée du Quai Branly, now exhibited in the Pavillon des Sessions (Louvre, Paris, 71.1989.49.1), it was given to the museum by Jacques Lazard under Hélène (Kamer) Leloup’s instigation; another one from the Menil Collection in Houston (V9009), two other examples from the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1978.206.101 and 1978.412.339) formerly in the Rockefeller collection, another snake sold by Leloup to the American director, John Huston, and finally, the one formerly part of the Pierre Matisse collection, now in a private collection (see Sotheby’s, 16 May 2008, lot 58). For other similar snakes, see: the Geneva Barbier-Mueller Museum figure; the Cleveland Museum of Art example (1960.37) published in Robbins and Nooter (1989 fig.247); and the Rietberg Museum figure in Zurich, acquired from Emil Storrer.

Hélène Leloup recently recalled the specific circumstances under which she collected the Bartos serpent: When she arrived in Guinea in 1957, she and Henri Kamer settled in Boke. Over the course of 10 days she visited the Baga and Nalu territories. Searching for snakes. The Bartos snake was found toward the end of 1957 in a Guinea village then referred to as Victoria, today Kanfarandé. At the time, because it is situated at the mouth of the Rio Nuez River, this village had different names depending of the ethnical origin of the speakers. At low tide, she went via canoe up the river, which was bordered by mangroves, and she could see frightened crocodiles were escaping and dashing into the water. The return was very dangerous as the tide was high, and the waves became stronger causing the canoe to heave to and fro as it was very heavy with passengers – both objects and people (Leloup, personal communication, Paris, March 27, 2013).

A second private collection offered in this sale, from the American performer Andy Williams, didn’t bring as much suprises. The Igbo couple for example was sold for half the estimate (€ 47K) – probably due to its post-1920 creation date. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago a Baga headdress (lot 61), estimated at € 400-800K, failed to sell. Both objects illustrate that the dedication of several pages in the auction catalogue to one specific lot (eight for the Baga!) doesn’t always pay off. The six pages praising the Epstein Dogon figure (lot 93, est. € 300-500K) also didn’t help. Two last important objects that remained unsold were the Bahan royal commemorative group (lot 122, est. € 250-350K) and the Ndengse figure (lot 127, est. € 150-250K). For me, this indicates the current markets concentration on esthetics rather than history and provenance.

Dogon figure Bartos Christie's

(all images courtesy of Christie’s)