Selling and Celebrating African Aesthetics at Sotheby’s

May 20, 2014


“The spell of Africa is upon me. The ancient witchery of her medicine is burning my drowsy, dreamy blood. This is not a country, it is a world—a universe of itself and for itself, a thing Different, Immense, Menacing, Alluring. It is a great black bosom where the Spirit longs to die. It is a life so burning, so fire encircled that one bursts with terrible soul inflaming life.”  “Little Portraits of Africa” published in 1924 by W.E.B. Du Bois.

By Tod Roulette

Like many people who own art I like to purchase works that do not necessarily ‘fit’ with other things I already own in my collection. I have some African art and a couple of books on African art. I have seen African art in museums, but usually as an aside while I am viewing contemporary art elsewhere in the museum. My knowledge of contemporary African geography and its social-political life is limited. My awareness of pre-colonial and post-colonial events in countries such as Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Burkina Faso or Benin is very very finite.

So, I own some African art, am intrigued by it and appreciate if for the many roles it played in African societies as religious and everyday household objects, and in contracts, among other tribal walks of life. I find it beautiful and mystical and full of layers of stories of the people who carved it, traded it, used it as a means of divining spirits and as an emblem of the intellectual and aesthetic priorities of dark peoples. My cab door is opened and I am greeted by a tall, older white gloved and top hatted man with a Caribbean inflected voice who welcomes me to Sotheby’s as I stand under the international flags billowing from its exterior.

I am greeted enthusiastically by Henrich Schweizer the Vice President of African and Oceanic Art. He is tall, lithe, good looking and becomes animated as he speaks about the selected works in a private viewing room with the utmost of politeness and matter-of-factness.

The African sculptures were powerfully silent on their high pedestals in the room, looking out past and through the viewers—a bit like the Beefeaters do in London or the Swiss guards at the Vatican. These are exemplary works from pre-colonial and post-colonial Africa from two stellar collectors estates—namely, the high profile art dealers Allan Stone and Jan Krugier. I met Schweizer prior to the Friday May 16th sale that featured at 10AM Allen Stone’s collection and at 2PM the collections of two educators–not art dealers–the Lasansky collection. Sotheby’s sold thirty-seven works of Jan Krugier and his wife Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski in an evening sale of Impressionist & Modern Art on February 5, followed by another 82 Krugier lots in the firm’s day sale this past February 6. Volume One of the Stone estate was sold in November 2013.

Schweizer began telling me of Stone’s incredible connection to the works from the Congo—once a Belgium colony. “This collection is unique because nothing he collected is beautiful. They are aggressive and very powerful, frightening,” he says. Schweizer says not many people could live with the works in their homes.

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It was clear after the first 12 minutes of speaking with Schweizer that his landing the post in 2006 at Sotheby’s has everything to do with his ability to interest the potential collector curious, not in the simple monetary value of the works, but in the detailed history of the peoples and the effects of those changes on cultural adaptation.

In the next 19 minutes Mr. Schweizer candidly discussed the fact that the majority of these rare African works were the prized possessions of white Americans, not African Americans. And he himself early on was puzzled by this fact. Because he was so genuine and forthright, as well as incredibly sensitive to this subject, I was drawn into exchanging my own thoughts and personal feelings with him.

Legendary dealers such as the late Merton D. Simpson, Richard Hamilton in Harlem and later Eric Robertson, a Jamaican waded into this vast unknown area when most African Americans (then called Negroes) had to picket in order to attend state colleges and, even after gaining advanced degrees, often waited tables, or served in menial positions in order to survive. As a consequence, there was little disposable income among African Americans for dealing in art. These Black art dealers had to contend with frosty, all white academics and the stuffy gallery markets of the 1950’s and ’60’s.

The fact that most African Americans had no income to buy African art or had little exposure to its significance and relevance to their own cultural continuity takes nothing away from the visceral and visual allure of the works in Schweizer’s private viewing room. They sit full of mystery and primordial energy unedited by commercial restrictions or considerations. The approximately 12 sculptures in the viewing room were top quality representations of African craftsmanship, of religious practice and of communal and domestic life.

The Sotheby’s sale included a number of objects called minkisi— nkisi is singular form. Schweizer pointed out defining elements and markers on one nkisi called the Kongo Nati Power Figure, lot 47 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It represents a truly remarkable and genuine example of Congo religious objects used in the ritual process of currying favor or attempting to influence supernatural and ancestral forces.

Kongo-Yombe Nail Power FigureAttesting to its age and use over time are the many nails and iron pieces embedded into the wooden object. Schweizer pointed out that the handmade nails demonstrate that the Power Figure was used by the Kongolese before the Europeans arrived in Central Africa while the nails clearly manufactured by Europeans (and other objects) that also puncture the nkisi point to the Belgium colonialists contact with tribal religious practitioners, making this object a perfect figure for study.

This nkisi presents an aggressive stance with an upraised arm associated with a now missing spear indicative of its power to kill supernaturally. Inserted in the center of the Kogo Nati Power figure is a very large clay brick within which are embedded four tusks. More characteristically, it is a figure covered with nails, each one representative of a contract between persons, a promise to a god or an event associated with one of the four mystical cosmologies: earth, fire, water, and air. There are also the four moments of the sun: birth, life, death and rebirth. I ask Schweizer about empty areas on the object where it seems as if nails had been removed. He told me that it could be that the promise was fulfilled or that the request of the gods had been retracted, etc.

Unfortunately, the highest bid he received on May 16th at Sotheby’s for this object was $420,000. Sotheby’s expected a minimum of $700,000-1,000,000. So I guess he will go back into storage or continue to be enjoyed by the Stone estate. I actually hope he travels to museums until he finds a permanent home.

Another figure that Schweizer showed me in the back rooms of Sotheby’s that captivated me and which did well at auction was lot #66. It was named Eastern Congolese Power Figure. The spelling of the name indicates a change that took place after Belgian’s contact with the Kongo—this being its former spelling—along with Belgian’s subsequent change of the Kongo’s geographical and political characteristics. The older the African object—and its minimum contact with the West and Europeans–the more it is prized and valued. Schweizer showed me how several delicate strands of hair were intricately sown through tiny holes and looped onto the power figure in order to influence the forces to favor one’s request. “If you have a really important prayer or need a really large favor, you want to do it correctly, it has to be exact” says Schweizer.

Sitting in the audience during the auction, I am anxious to see how much the figure garners. Its high estimate is $25,000. Bidding picks up steadily at around 15k, and it finally sells while three people in an ultra-VIP curtained balcony box watch over the bulk of the attendees below. The object I had viewed just two days before, marveling then at what I assumed must have been the intense hope and longing of the Congo person who sewed these hairs one by one into the itsy bitsy circle in order to have their child return from war or their mother regain full health—sold for $75k, well above the $25k value assigned by Sotheby’s.

66 EASTERN CONGOLESE POWER FIGURE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO  Schweizer reminds me that tribal religious ceremonies and objects are used and practiced today throughout the continent of Africa. But they are not the same as they were 150 years ago when there was much less influence from, and awareness of the West and Christian worship. And that is the optimum and true litmus test of a top-notch object. Today the region is also influenced by the practice of Islam to refers to images of gods or people as “haram” or as forbidden—influencing contemporary Congolese and their appreciation of these expressions of their national heritage.

You can educate yourself by simply viewing the academic online database at Yale with over 200,000 laboriously studied examples of African sculpture from all over the continent. You can purchase and read scholarly books on the subject and yes, even accumulate and familiarize yourself with auction catalogues. As the few and large collections of good African works come to market there is a chance to buy this still very undervalued bridge to cultural expression from the Dark Continent that influenced European artists who formed the avant-garde of early Modern Art—Klee, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Gauguin and that continues to inspire artists today.

See Allan Stone in motion here at these link provided by Sotheby’s.

Tod Roulette writes on art and culture for Harlem World Magazine and other publications and is an Adjunct Professor in Women’s Studies. His first book titled, “Rowing Not Drifting – Bryant Women in Kansas, 1795-1908: The Expansion of the West and the Participation by Women of Color,” will be published this 2014 by Mammoth Publications.

Photo credit: 1) Henrich Schweizer the Vice President of African and Oceanic Art 2) 47 KONGO-YOMBE NAIL POWER FIGURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO Height: 36 inches (91.4 cm), Est. 700,000-1,000,000 3) 66 EASTERN CONGOLESE POWER FIGURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO Height: 24 in (61 cm) Estimate15,000 — 25,000 USD LOT SOLD. 75,000 USD.

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