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Thumbs up for ......
Tribal and Pre-Columbian Art
Throughout human history the head has been hunted, preserved, venerated, offered as sacrifice and even eaten. The uppermost part of the body, it contains the brain, eyes, ears, nose and mouth, all essential elements of human awareness, inspiration and expression. Most ancient peoples located soul, vitality, power and a daimon or ģenius (divine spirit) in the head. Heads are universally believed to contain the essential spirit of a person or deity. The Egyptian goddess Hathor was often portrayed as a beautiful golden head, connoting the divinity and soul of the maternal principle. In the language of images and the unconscious the head still symbolizes vital forces, essence and the immortal soul.
The Adan are a small group of people who live in south-east Ghana. If there is one thing that characterises Adan figurative carving, then it is its diversity. In a previous article I described three basic types of figurative carvings. These are - figures having two arms and two legs, figures lacking one or more limbs, and figures carrying something on their heads. In some cases Adan carvings can be very similar to some carvings, such as the one shown below, made by their neighbours, the Ewe.
My own interests lie mainly with African art, but, over the years, I have also been drawn to objects from other parts of the world. Some years ago the London based New Zealand dealer Ben Hunter showed my two objects that had been collected towards the end of the 19th century from the Naga People. The first is a small wooden mask that would have once been worn around the neck. It measures 9 cms in height, is black in colour, and has four coloured beads attached to holes in each ear-lobe. (The beads may have been added at a later date.) I presume that, originally, there would have been bone or glass eyes attached to the eye-sockets, though these are now missing.
There can be few collectors of African art who have not heard about the British Benin expedition of 1897. Benin City, in Nigeria, was sacked by a British led force, following an attack on a group of British administrators and their African bearers. Hundreds of bronze artworks were removed from the Oba’s palace. Today many of these beautiful objects are to be found in the British Museum in London, and in other European and American museums and private collections. The Government of Nigeria has called for the return of these items.
On November 6th, 2005, the Volkerkundemuseum der Josefine und Eduard von Portheim-Stiftung in Heidelberg, Germany, opened its doors to an exhibition of African art. This was “Mit dem Auge des Astheten. Kunst aus Gabun” (“With the Eye of the Aesthete: Art from Gabon”). According to the catalogue, the seventy-odd items on show were ancient, and of great importance. However, according to Lorenz Homberger and Christine Stelzig, “it appears to us that many of the objects shown in Heidelberg are contemporary reproductions and therefore problematic to the trained eye”. They belonged to, “the many thousands of copies flooding the market (that) are produced in abundance not only in Gabon, but also, and primarily, in workshops in Cameroon, where they are laboriously ‘aged’”.
According to Allen F. Roberts, “Leopards are one of the most commonly portrayed animals in African art. Throughout Africa, the leopard is symbolically associated with political authority. As extraordinarily intelligent and courageous animals, leopards readily lend themselves to the production of politically useful metaphors. As predators of humans, leopards are associated with individuals and organisations that have the authority to take human life. Leopards are often considered the animal-others of chiefs, kings, and members of the governing bodies charged with maintaining law and order.”
Are art collections the result of the enthusiasm of people who, for whatever reason, follow their primeval urge to hunt and gather, an impulse that in prehistoric times was necessary for survival? But then great collections are not an essential necessity and seldom make a profit. Perhaps it would be better to regard the collection of works of art as a significant result of taking pleasure in possessions.
Walter Potter was born in the Sussex village of Bramber in 1835. As a boy he was fascinated by nature and the world of taxidermy. Walter’s parents kept the White Lion (now the Castle) in Bramber and Walter, who had started to practice taxidermy, moved his specimens into the pub’s stable loft. In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in London’s Hyde Park and one exhibitor, Hermann Plouquet, displayed “The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg”, a selection of stuffed animals in human situations. This style of presentation became highly popular and may have inspired the young Walter Potter, who soon began producing similar tableaux. There is no evidence that Potter actually attended the Great Exhibition, but he would almost certainly have seen Plouquet’s book, also titled “The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg”, which sold well in England. One visitor who did attend the Great Exhibition was Queen Victoria, who found Plouquet’s display “very impressive”.
It is strange fact, but I can claim a link to the aristocracy! Not through blood, I hasten to add, but through ownership of a small New Guinea miniature mask that once belonged to the Earl of Kintore, of Keith hall, Inverurie, Scotland. Unfortunately, there have been quite a few Earls of Kintore and so I am not too certain as to which Earl actually once owned this delightful object, although Algernon Hawkins Thomond Keith-Falconer (1852 – 1930), the 9th Earl of Kintore, served as Governor-General of South Australia between the years 1889 – 1895, and it is possible that he acquired the mask whilst in Australia. During his stay there he travelled, widely visiting such coastal towns as Brisbane and Darwin, where he may have come into contact with people from New Guinea. But, in truth, this is speculation.
Although I have been interested in the study of African art for over thirty years, I only came across figurative carvings made by the Adan people of south eastern Ghana some ten years ago. One London dealer, Owen Hargreaves, began to import and sell such carvings, which he described as “ancestor figures”. He also added that the figures were kept in the eaves of houses and that they were brought out once a year to be ceremonially washed and, if appropriate, dusted with white kaolin powder before being returned to the eaves. I must say that I am always a little suspicious when I hear African carvings being described as “ancestor figures”.