Possibly Frank Burty Haviland (1880-1950), Paris
Pierre Peissi, Paris
Private Collection, Buenos Aires, by the 1960s
Sotheby's New York, May 16, 2008, lot 139
Acquired by the present owner at the above auction
This beautiful Punu mask was published in 1915 by the German poet and art critic Carl Einstein (1885-1940) in his influential book Negerplastik. A friend of the artists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, as well as of the prominent modern art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (for Einstein's correspondence with the latter see Dimanche 1993: passim), Einstein had discovered African and Oceanic art during his studies in Berlin (1904-1907) in the rooms of the Museum für Völkerkunde (today: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz). Negerplastik is credited as being the first monograph presenting African and Oceanic sculptures as art and highlighting its inspirational relationship to Cubism. It was widely read by the European avant-garde and several early 20th century artists are known to have owned a copy, including Gris, Braque, Picasso and Moore, to name just a few. Einstein's life achievements were most recently celebrated by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid with the exhibition The Invention of the 20th Century: Carl Einstein and the Avant-Gardes (November 12, 2008 – February 16, 2009).
In the following essay Dr. Louis Perrois, noted scholar and author of numerous books on the art of Gabon, discusses the "Einstein Punu Mask" in light of its origin and art historical context.
A Punu mask published by Carl Einstein in 1915
Documented Punu masks are rare; rarer still are those with secure, "historical" pedigree. This is one of them. Chosen by Carl Einstein as one of the photographic illustrations of his famous book Negerplastik published in 1915 in Leipzig (pl. 102), it probably belonged to the American painter Frank Burty Haviland, a friend of Picasso, around 1910, and dates to the second half of the 19th century. This is an okuyi mask of the Punu of southern Gabon, which despite the ravages of time has remained in a remarkable state of preservation, allowing us to appreciate all the better the exceptional quality of its construction, evident in both the face and the coiffure.
In the land of the White Masks
The famous white masks of equatorial Africa, their faces whitened with kaolin, have been used for centuries by the Punu and Lumbo peoples - who arrived in southern Gabon by successive migrations from the Lower Congo regions in the 18th century - and also by some other related groups in the regions of the Ngounié River and the Nyanga River (Shira, Varama, Ngove, Pindji, Tsangi). These are the masks of the okuyi dance (also called mukudj' by LaGamma 1995), one of the rites of mwiri, an important male initiation society spread throughout southern and central Gabon. The Franco-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu was the first European to discover this type of mask, identified to him as "Ocuya" in June 1865 in the village of Mokaba (which later became part of greater Mouila) in Punu-Ngounié territory (cf . Chaillu 1868). This dance is still practiced in the 21st century, although obviously in a modernized form which is closer to folklore than ritual (cf. L. Perrois & C. Grand-Dufay, Punu, Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2008).
The masks of the okuyi once appeared during community rituals linked to important events of village life (funerals, end of mourning, youth initiation, transgressions of clan orders, birth, epidemics, etc). Sometimes on the occasion of political or religious "parlay" between rival villages, masked dancers perched on wood stilts (varying in height according to regions and circumstances, cf. Perrois & Grand-Dufay 2008: 48) would compete in a variety of quasi-athletic "games", each assisted by his team and its supporters. These simulated "battles", which were not without danger, were intended to uphold the point of view of one group over another on the sole basis of acrobatic talent: the most skilled dancer in the eyes of the audience was "champion" of his village, winning the "match" against an adversary who would lose face until the next challenge.
Punu-Lumbo tradition dictates that masks featuring a face covered in white clay (pemba) and a carefully delineated crested black coiffure represent female entities from the world of spirits or the dead. Varying by region, some masks have lozenge-shaped scars on the front and quadrangular patterns on the sides, punctuated by thick "scales" painted in bright red. These nine scales in relief evoke not only the nine mythical primordial clans from which all Punu-Lumbo groups derive, known in oral traditions by the name Bayaka, but also the crocodile as a totemic animal. Punu and Lumbo artists, particularly skilled at wood carving (masks, statues, canes, etc) and very active, then as now, have always sought to capture beauté idéale with these anthropomorphic masks, which are most frequently characterized by a face with youthful features, heavy, finely-carved, half-closed eyelids under slightly raised arching eyebrows, a fine realistically-rendered nose, a mouth pursed forward with full lips, painted red, and an ample crested coiffure, systematically blackened, braided, layered, and sometimes embellished with curled tresses that meet under the chin.
In this symbolic scheme, the color white evokes the ethereal spirits and the dead, and the entire world of the beyond, both in the decoration of the masks and that of the dancers' bodies. Some authors report that during the preparation of pemba, Mwiri initiates secretly added a powder made of pulverized human bones, in order to strengthen the magical "charge". The apparent serenity of these masks hides a much more somber spiritual reality... and the color red, a sacred mark, symbolizes life.
A Punu mask from southern Gabon
The Einstein Punu Mask, at 26.8 cm in height, is of a small size, i.e. less than 30 cm. It is of a style that can be located, by studying and comparing a large number of specimens, at the very heart of Punu territory, i.e. southern Mouila towards Ndendé and Tchibanga, and the mountainous region of the massif of Mayombe (cf. Perrois & Grand-Dufay 2008). It is a "face mask" (unlike many other Gabonese masks, masques-heaumes of the Kota, masques-casques of the Fang), which the dancer would attach to his face with connective fibers, hidden by a cloak of raffia or cotton, the device leaving the hands free to shake a fly-whisk and also keep his balance. Examination of the interior of the object (with its large top portion and openings for the eyes at the bottom) shows that the mask was worn obliquely angled down, which is logical as the dancer would be elevated more than two or three meters above the ground, watching the audience. It represents a youthful female face, that of a deceased female with fine features, mysterious and timeless, and a delicate and poignant beauty. Despite their apparent realism, these masks were never portraits of identifiable people.
Triangular in structure, the expressively modeled face has a grand sculptural quality, both in the perfectly balanced and harmonious arrangement of the composition (although slightly asymmetric, an opportune reminder that the sculptor was working "freehand" and without a model) and in the attention to morphological details (in the carving and smoothing of surfaces): the half-closed eyes (pierced), with heavy eyelids, are wide and delicately incised with a curved slot. These curves are subtly highlighted by an engraved line, occupying ample recessed orbits, these being delimited by thin eyebrows in shallow relief, tinged with an elegant black curve. Under the base of the nose, the closed mouth is pursed forward, seeming to suggest a sort of smile, presenting the fleshy lips (the lower lip thicker and fringed), tinted with red pigment. The lower part of the face is of a strong triangular shape, with hollow cheeks slightly curved under the cheekbones, ending in a pointed chin. As custom dictates, the forehead and temples of the mask are patterned with the "scale" motif, these being painted bright red, forming a deliberate chromatic contrast with the pallor of the face. The pattern is lozenge-shaped at the center of the forehead, just touching the double arch of the eyebrows, and square on each temple, with nine large scales each instance.
The coiffure, completely blackened with a coating of charcoal, palm oil, and copal resin - with a beautiful satin patina developed over time - is formed with a high arched longitudinal central hull (decorated with a sort of axial band), flanked by thick braided tresses leading back into a bun behind the ears, with large lateral wings. These braids, on either side of the face, extend along the lateral matted groups, in carefully carved oblique bands extending into long drooping curls which meet under the chin forming a chin strap. The hairstyle, tilted back in a large posterior projection, rises above a double headband on the forehead, totally enveloping the face, and is of a form considered to be archaic (comparable to a very old mask in the Liverpool Museum, inv. no. "188.8.131.52.", collected in situ before 1896 by Arnold Ridyard, and another in the Historisches Museum Bern, inv. no. "1889.332.0002", published in 1898 by Leo Frobenius - cf. Perrois & Grand-Dufay 2008: pls. 8 and 9, pp. 136-137). It realistically evokes the traditional Punu coiffure, formed of thin braids mounted over vegetable-fiber padding. Here these braids are represented by a set of fine, deeply etched diagonal lines. With regard to the surface and patina, one notes that the original pemba (visible in the photograph published in the 1915 book) has been partially lost on the flat surfaces including the front, from handling and rubbing. The recessed areas are less vulnerable and have retained the accumulations (around the eyes, scale reliefs, under the nose and chin, and on the lower cheeks). Thus we realize why the masks were repainted from time to time, particularly to refresh the white clay pemba.
The Einstein mask is one of the most iconic examples of classical Punu sculpture, both for its exceptional aesthetic qualities, the delicacy of its finishing, the great age of its patina - attesting to long ritual use – and its state of preservation. This is a masterpiece, noted in the early 20th century by the discoverers of l'Art Negre, and a tribute to the talent of the Punu master sculptors of a long lost age.
Dr. Louis Perrois
Saint-Gely-du-Fesc, March 17, 2011
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