“I can’t say I decided to get into it. I sort of got sucked into it like a heroin addict…” – Allen Stone, The Collector
For fifty years, the late art dealer Allen Stone was one of the most influential gallerists of contemporary art in the United States and a leading specialist in the Abstract Expressionists. These artists sought to express the core universal experiences which they believed to be manifest in the artwork of “primary cultures” from Africa and Asia (though today many would view these sentiments as naive and a form of cultural appropriation). Stone also developed an interest in such pieces, but went far beyond his peers. Between 1955 and 2006 he amassed one of the most important private collections of African, Oceanic, and Indonesian art ever assembled, including many rare and historically significant pieces. Today, June 15, Sotheby’s New York will hold the first half of the two-part sale of Stone’s collection. Below, twelve evocative pieces of African art from the collection.
The Bamana Empire ruled parts of what is now Mali during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Among the most sacred objects in Bamana belief is the boli (pl. boliw), a spiritually endowed object which, according to Conrad (in Colleyn 2001: 28) “receive[s] sacrifices in order to call upon and influence the vital spiritual force known as nyama. Boliw can be fashioned of virtually any kind of material including wood, bark, stones, tree roots, leather, metal, cloth, bone, hair, animal tails and claws, and human ingredients including blood, excrement, placentas, and pieces of corpse. [... The] bolihas been described on a cosmological level as both a symbol of the universe and a receptacle of the forces that animate the universe. It is, moreover, an intermediary that permits communication with the ancestor or supernatural power whose force permeates it. [...] As repositories of enormous spiritual power or nyama, boliw are viewed with awe and fear. They were traditionally the most essential instruments of communication between earthly mortals and the supernatural powers that controlnyama, and as such, according to Sarah Brett-Smith, they are an important part of the Bamana judicial structure, inanimate objects to which the Bamana community entrusts its decision making. (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)
The Brooklyn Museum holds another example of a boli.
The Nguni culture comprises a large portion of the population of southern Africa, and includes, among others, the Swazi, Zulu, and Xhosa peoples (as a Xhosa, Nelson Mandela is a member of the Nguni). For more combs, see my post The Origins of the Afro Comb.
The Akan are the largest ethnic group in the Ivory Coast and Ghana and are noted for their craft traditions, particularly the making of elaborate goldweights. (see also this JSTOR article on Akan goldweights).
The Ndebele are another subset of the Nguni people of southern Africa. They are divided into two groups by region, and the Southern Ndebele are famous for their beadwork and colourfully painted homes.
The shrouded kafigeledjo figures created and used by Senufo diviners are among the most visually poetic of all African figural sculpture. Discussing the example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, LaGamma (2000:26) notes, “this oracle figure deliberately provokes anxiety through its shrouded anonymity and the sense of suffocation and entrapment it suggests. Such works and the ritual practice in which they are used are both known as kafigeledjo, a term that is variously translated as “he who speaks the truth”, “tell the truth”, or “saying true things”. The figures give a visual representation to invisible bush spirits and function as divination devices. In contrast to the sublime humanism of works of Senufo Sando divination [...] they clearly embody a wild and unsettling anti-aesthetic.”
She continues (ibid.): “Kafigeledjo divination is used to uncover misdeeds, false testimony, and culpability. [...] this pursuit of truth ultimately seeks to preserve and uphold Senufo social guidelines concerning descent. It does so by unveiling illicit behavior and by punishing with supernatural sanctions those who violate rules pertaining to forbidden sexual relations and exogamous marriage. The kafigeledjo figure is concealed within a small hut, and although it has the potential to affect all members of a Senufo community, access to this oracle figure is restricted to the most enlightened senior male and, occasionally, female members. ” (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)
The Dogon live among the Badiagara Cliffs in Mali and make extensive use of such carved wooden ladders. The top step of this very old ladder eroded and was replaced with a compatible stone, in keeping with the ladder’s aesthetic qualities. There is at least one example of a Dogon ladder at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, which has a wonderful African collection, but unfortunately the ladder isn’t online.
According to the catalogue note, Batie masks are “exceedingly rare”.
A feature of the art of the Cross River region is the use of the technique – unique in Africa – of covering a sculpted wooden armature with animal skin, mainly for head crests and helmet masks. The tanned pelt, when stretched over the wood, imitates the grain, brilliance and volume of human flesh and renders these works surprisingly lifelike… Ethnographic accounts report that this hairstyle was worn by young women during initiation and the period of reclusion prior to marriage. (Musée Barbier-Mueller).
Only a handful of similar headcrests exist, and this one is perhaps the last remaining in private hands.
Kongo power figures are “among the most impressive sculptural creations from sub-Saharan Africa—sought to inspire awe, to intimidate, and to evoke a power without bounds. Conceived to house specific mystical forces, Kongo power figures were the collaborative creations of sculptors and ritual specialists” (Metropolitan Museum of Art). For more information see other well-catalogued examples from from the Met; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Brooklyn Museum.
According to Neyt (2004: 361 et seq.) the iconography of Songye kifwebe masks is highly symbolic and contains numerous references to Songye mythology and cosmology. The deep striations painted with various colors recall the metaphysical labyrinth the initiates have to stride during their initiation. The kifwebe mask from the Allan Stone Collection is distinguished by its great age and archaic style. (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)
The Bamileke of Cameroon are noted craftspeople, and the elephant is a common motif for masks. The Virginia Museum of Art holds a complete beaded ensemble.