Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Scholarly interest in the reception – rather than production - of African art has grown steadily since the mid-1950s. While many African art historians continue to map the histories and meanings of ritual and other artifacts, now they are increasingly concerned about understanding the collecting practices of both public institutions and passionately committed – in some cases, totally obsessive – private individuals. This interest in exploring the motivations of collectors has also encouraged a growing focus on shifting patterns in collecting practices.

Active, widespread collecting of African art dates to the second half of the nineteenth century, when ethnographic collections first began to be formed in response to the emergence of Anthropology as a discipline. While the majority of these ethnographic collections have remained in the public domain, most of the artifacts acquired by colonial administrators, missionaries and explorers have ended up on the open market. Originally bought as souvenirs, this material is surprisingly diverse, ranging from figurative works and masks associated with ritual practices, to utilitarian items like baskets and weapons, and various forms of adornment and dress.

Because early collectors of African art – including artists like Picasso and Matisse - had a preference for figurative works that challenged the aesthetic norms of European sculptural traditions, much of the nonfigurative material languished for generations in the attics and dusty storerooms of private homes. Only interested in acquiring anthropomorphic works, early collectors generally confined their efforts to acquiring carvings from West and Central Africa, blindly accepting the then widespread assumption that southern African communities produced only utilitarian artifacts like headrests and meat plates. The internationally acclaimed South African artist, Irma Stern, shared the prejudices of these early twentieth-century European collectors; for although she traveled throughout South Africa to paint local subjects living in outlying rural areas, she nurtured her interest in African art by going to the Congo in the 1940s, visiting groups like the Kuba and Mangbetu, and exchanging tinned food and other goods for ritual figures and initiation masks. It is not surprising, then, that the carvings and other art forms produced by southern African communities are conspicuously absent from an exhibition of Stern’s collection of African and European ‘Christian’ art held at the South African National Gallery in the mid-1950s.

It is only in the last two to three decades that there has been a dramatic growth in interest in traditionalist art from southern African. While it would certainly not be possible to attribute this interest to a single intervention, Roy Sieber’s 1980 decision to exhibit African household objects at the Indianapolis Museum and elsewhere, and his publication of both African Household Furniture and Goods (1980) and, earlier, African Textiles and Decorative Arts (1972), undoubtedly made a significant contribution to shifting African art collectors’ attitudes to, and perceptions of, the nonfigurative, so-called ‘minor’ arts of Africa. As Sieber pointed out in his introduction to African Textiles and Decorative Arts, the study of forms such as textiles, costume and jewelry had until then “been neglected by the West, where attention has been focused primarily on the sculpture of Africa.” As he noted further: “This attitude not only stems from Western aesthetic values but results in a geographical emphasis on West Africa where most traditional sculpture is to be found” (Sieber 1972:10). In a preview to his 1980 exhibition of household objects, Sieber confronted this bias again, noting that “Our Western view of African traditional household objects has been warped by our passion for the figurative, the decorative, and the unique.” In the face of this bias, Sieber affirmed the importance of studying household objects and encouraged his audience to develop an appreciation of the aesthetic concerns that informed their production. He noted, for example, that “Tools such as knives, hoes, and mortars tend towards functional simplicity; furniture such as beds, neckrests, and stools and containers of wood, clay, or calabash may be simple,
even stark, or they may be richly varied in form or highly decorated” (Sieber African Arts vol 12,no 4,1979:29).

Collectors who showed an interest in southern African art before the 1980s have pointed out – rightly - that both the figurative works and household artifacts produced in this region were virtually absent from books and museum displays in the 1970s and earlier. The widespread conviction that southern Africa was particularly lacking in sculptural traditions was also actively reinforced by African Arts, the only scholarly journal then devoted to the study of art from Africa, which failed to publish a single article on southern African carving traditions before the mid-1980s. As late as 1988, when Anitra Nettelton published an article on southern African figurative works in this journal, she devoted her discussion to questioning the then still widespread myth that all carving traditions from the region could be ascribed to the ‘Zulu’.

This lack of understanding of southern African traditionalist art was to change dramatically following the decision by South African born Jonathan Lowen to allow part of his collection of southern African work to be repatriated in the late 1980s. When the private collector who bought part of Lowen’s collection decided to house it in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, several African art historians were invited to write essays for an exhibition catalogue titled Art and Ambiguity, Perspectives on The Brenthurst Collection of Southern African Art, which completely transformed our understanding of art from the region. Apart from introducing other scholars and African art collectors to a wealth of previously unpublished material, notably various headrest styles, Art and Ambiguity finally laid to rest the erroneous conviction that southern African communities lacked traditions of figuration. Building on her earlier work for African Arts, Anitra Nettleton used the opportunity to discuss figurative carving traditions associated with initiation practices among groups like the Tsonga and Venda, as well as other sculptural traditions from the region, while Sandra Klopper explored the history and function of figurative staffs and small statuettes from south-east Africa, identifying for the first time the hand of the Baboon Master, a carver who appears to have worked for indigenous as well as external patrons in the Durban-Pietermaritzburg area at the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, several other master carvers have been identified, including the Master of the Small Hands, and considerable research has been done to make sense of the informal workshops in which these artists seem to have worked.

Written for by:
Sandra Klopper
Vice Dean: Arts
University of Stellenbosch

Saturday, February 23, 2008

African Dream Machines - A Book Review

I recently received a copy of the soft cover book African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests. The book was written by Anitra Nettleton, a professor of the Wits School of Art in Johannesburg and the author of many influential books on the material culture of southern Africa.

Below is an excerpt from the press release:

African headrests have been moved out of the category of functional objects and into the more rarefied category of ‘art’ objects. Styles in African headrests are usually defined in terms of western art and archaeological discourses, but this book interrogates these definitions of style through a case study of headrests of the ‘Tellem’ of Mali, and demonstrates the shortcomings of defining a single formal style model as exclusive to a single ethnic group.

African Dream Machines questions the assumed one-to-one relationship between formal styles and ethnic identities or classifications by tracing the distribution of a single formal headrest type – those with a single column support and round, conical base. The notion of ‘authenticity’ as a fixed value in relation to African art is de-stabilised, while historical factors are used to demonstrate that ‘authenticity’, in the form sought by collectors of antique African art, is largely a construct, which has no basis in historical reality. The final chapter seeks to understand the significance of African headrests in relation to a number of different perspectives: the western fascination with the headrest as a synecdoche for “otherness”; their iconography in terms of subject matter (human and animal figures); and the ways in which headrests are used as support to the head of a sleeping person.

The book is published by the University of the Witwatersrand Press . It is available now in the U.S. at Transaction Publications and will be available in March, 2008 at

Daniel Rootenberg

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Art of Southern Africa - A Book Review

It was with much excitement that I awaited the publication of The Art of Southern Africa. Following closely on the heels of The Art of Southeast Africa, The Art of Southern Africa is a selection of objects from the Terence Pethica collection. The book is an essential buy for any collector of art from the region. The book is richly illustrated, with text by leading South African scholars Sandra Klopper and Anitra Nettleton.

The text includes research on the style and iconography of headrests and the figurative works associated with initiation school, indigenous patrons and new foreign markets.

The art of Southern Africa, unlike the better-known traditions of central and western Africa, has been long overlooked. This book calls close attention to the art of this region through 140 objects, reproduced in full-colour plates. The pieces come from Southern African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Angola and Zambia.

Featuring objects ranging from ornamental adornments, kitchen implements, prestige staffs, dance wands, figures for initiation ceremonies, figures for secret stages of personal growth, objects for battle, and objects for dance and spirits, this book brings together a magnificent compilation of works, many of which have never been seen before, made of wood, metal, bone and rhinoceros horn. My only minor gripe was that I would like to have seen more beadwork objects save. My favorite objects included a wonderful figurative prestige staff (#72) and a very rare initiation figure (#70).

The book is published by 5 Continents and is available at most ethnographic bookstores and online at

Daniel Rootenberg

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2008 San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts Show

On Monday I returned to New York after a four day trip to San Francisco. The purpose of the trip was to attend the 2008 Tribal and Textile Arts Show.

The Gala Preview opening night of the show was well attended. Before the show, there was a certain amount of trepidation among the 108 dealers in attendance about the economy and the potential impact on the show. The fears generally turned out to be unfounded and most dealers reported doing respectable to good business.

As far as southeast African art, there was a fair amount of material to be seen. Patrick and Ondine Mestdagh had a number of good pieces including a large Swazi shield (pictured above) and a rhino horn club ex Bonhams (both sold). Tribal Gathering had a number of fine east African objects. Ben Hunter of Tribal Hunter had some Tsonga neckrests and Jean-Baptiste Bacquart of London had a fine old Shona/Tsonga neckrest. Clive Loveless (pictured top), as usual, had one of the most aesthetically pleasing booths with some very fine material from Rwanda and Uganda.

I also attended an event at the de Young Museum for dealers and lenders of Tribal art. John Friede gave a few remarks and then led an trip upstairs to discuss some of his pieces in the permanent collection. The museum is always a treat - lots of new pieces were on display including a great Lulua figure and a powerful and exceptionally rare Nukuoro figure loaned by Ed and Mina Smith.

All in all, it was a great trip and I look forward to returning next year.


African Beaded Art Exhibition at Smith College, Massachussets

On February 1, 2008 I attended the opening of the beadwork exhibition titled African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment. The show runs through June 15, 2008 and is a must-see exhibition for any beadwork enthusiast.

Curated by noted Yoruba scholar, Jack Pemberton (pictured above with lender, Holly Ross, in background), the exhibition was many years in the making. Initially intended to encompass beadwork from North America as well, the sheer size of the undertaking required that the exhibition be scaled back to its present format. The exhibition focuses on beadwork from the following regions:
  • the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria;
  • the Bamum and Bamileke peoples of the Cameroon Grasslands;
  • the Kuba, with reference also to the Luba, Yaka, and Pende peoples of the Kasai region of the Congo;
  • and the North Nguni (Zulu-speaking), South Nguni (Xhosa-speaking), and Ndebele peoples of Southeast Africa.

This exhibition and its catalogue examine how the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa responded to imported beads, both in aesthetic terms and in the ways beads reflected their changing social and political situation in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. It specifically challenges uncritical assumptions that African art is essentially—or only—sculptural.

The exhibition draws from a number of public and private collections in the USA, including the Field Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The southern African pieces were largely drawn from private collections including those of Gary van Wyk and Lisa Brittan, Toby Kasper and Susan Priebatsch. I was very honored to have a number of pieces from my personal collection included as well.

The catalogue, in soft cover only, is also well worth getting - it is available online at the Smith College Museum Store at $40. I also have a number on hand as well, signed by Mr. Pemberton, so feel free to email me for a copy.