By Heinrich Schweizer
History of the Kunin Statue
The Kunin Ngbaka Statue is without question the greatest masterpiece surviving from the Ubangi cultural region in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (see already Fagg 1970: 94, text to cat. 103). Previously the centerpiece of the important collection of African artworks assembled by the American sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-1991), it was recently identified by the French scholar Jean-Louis Paudrat as one of the works originally owned by Georges de Miré, a mythical figure among French art collectors. Based on this information, its provenance could subsequently be completed with the names of two other luminaries in the history of African art: Charles Ratton and Pierre Matisse.
The importance and quality of the de Miré collection can hardly be overstated, as Marguerite de Sabran (“The Georges de Miré Collection: ‘Sculptures anciennes d’Afrique’”, in Sotheby’s, Paris, Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, December 11, 2013, pp. 23-24, slightly modified translation, October 2014) has pointed out: “On December 16, 1931, after a fourteen-day-long exhibition at Charles Ratton’s Paris gallery, the Georges de Miré collection of Sculptures anciennes d’Afrique et d’Amérique was sold at the Hôtel Drouot by Maître Bellier with the assistance of Charles Ratton and Louis Carré as experts. Photographs taken during the pre-sale exhibition reveal the astonishing quality of the works collected by Georges de Miré during a pioneering era in France. In his foreword to the catalogue, Georges-Henri Rivière, then Deputy Director of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, mentions his frustration at the idea "that the Trocadéro is not yet rich enough to afford the whole of this magnificent collection [which combines…] so much beauty worthy of such knowledge." To grasp the quality of de Miré’s collection, it is sufficient to mention just a few examples: the Dogon statue in the Bombu-Toro style, subsequently in the collections of Jacop Epstein, Carlo Monzino and James J. Ross (Leloup 1994: pl. 75); the Lega ivory mask subsequently in the collection of Pablo Picasso and today owned by the Musée Picasso, Paris; the Songye ivory neckrest which Christine Falgayrettes chose as the cover image of the catalog of the exhibition Supports de rèves at the Musée Dapper (Falgayrettes 1989); the monumental Fang reliquary statue with disc-shaped eyes and multi-tressed coiffure, subsequently in the collections of Jacop Epstein and Carlo Monzino, today in the Musée Dapper and paublished on the cover of the exhibition catalog Fang by that same institution; etc. etc.
"The resonance of de Miré’s legendary name linked to the beginnings of the great Parisian collections - and auctions - stands in contrast to the lack of documentation surrounding his prodigious collection. A cousin of Roger de La Fresnaye, Georges de Miré, a painter himself at the time, was one of the artist's closest friends. In 1913, a letter by de La Fresnaye to de Miré attests to their shared interest in African art (Piasa, Paris, November 21, 2006, lot 44). However, considering that he was drafted to fight in the first World War, there is little chance that de Miré started collecting before the late 1910s. Three other illustrious names stand out in the history of the de Miré Collection: André Level, André Lefèvre and the Galerie Percier – which they opened together in 1922. In 1923, Georges de Miré lent three pieces to the exhibition Les arts indigènes des colonies françaises, organized by André Level at the Pavillon de Marsan. In 1930, no less than forty-one works of art from Africa and Oceania were lent by de Miré to the Galerie du Théâtre Pigalle for the iconic Exposition d'art africain et océanien. A few months later, a bad investment in the cinema business drove Georges de Miré into bankruptcy and forced him to sell his collection - an episode greatly upsetting the life of this great humanist (cf. Valentine and Philippe de Miré, private interviews). On May 7, 1931, the six major works of Oceanic art that had been lent to the Pigalle gallery (including the famous black uli) were presented anonymously in the auction Sculptures d'Afrique, d'Amérique, d'Océanie, with Charles Ratton and Louis Carré as experts. Level and Lefèvre contributed a dozen of other works, amongst which was a remarkable Luba quiver said to have been acquired from de Miré, who was, in all likelihood, André Lefèvre's advisor in this field. On December 16 of that same year and in compliance with the contractual terms of the advance made to the collector by Carré and Ratton, the final group of works was put up for auction, this time under the name 'G. de Miré'. Such was the significance of the group that it was even discussed in the American press who referred to it as 'the most important aggregation of ancient African Sculpture in existence' and 'one of the most important events of the Paris season', before adding that 'M. de Miré is a cousin of de La Fresnaye, the well known Modern Painter' (The Art News, New York, December 5, 1931).”
The Kunin Ngbaka Ancestor Statue was included as lot 68 in the unillustrated catalog of the de Miré collection and described as "Statuette. Homme debout [...] Congo belge. Oubangui. H. 48 cm." It is also visible in a photograph taken during the pre-sale showing at Charles Ratton’s gallery. At the auction, the figure was acquired by Charles Ratton himself and subsequently entered the inventory of the Ratton Collection as number “7553” which is also painted on the reverse of the figure. The same number is referenced on a consignment listing from Charles Ratton to Pierre Matisse, preserved in the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archive at the Morgan Library in New York (PMG stockbook, B 94-59), where the figure is described as “Statue, Oubanghi, Congo belge, coiffure champignon”. The consignment was made in the context of the exhibition African Sculptures from the Ratton Collection held at Pierre Matisse Gallery from March 30 - April 20, 1935, coinciding with the opening of African Negro Art at MoMA to which Ratton had lent numerous pieces, too. The document at the Morgan library carries the hand-written note “35 Pieces Returned March 5 - 1936” with the Ngbaka statue marked as one of the returns. It is therefore likely that the subsequent owner, Frank Crowninshield, acquired the figure directly from Charles Ratton.
The important role of Charles Ratton in the evolution of African art history has been discussed in countless academic publications, and has recently been the subject of the critically acclaimed exhibition Charles Ratton, l’invention des arts ‘primitifs” at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (June 25 - September 22, 2013). Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse, moved to New York in the late 1920s and would not only establish himself as the foremost representative of the leading contemporary European artists in America but also as early promoter of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art. For a brief discussion of his influential career see Heinrich Schweizer, "African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art from the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, New York”, in Sotheby’s, New York, African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art, New York, May 13, 2011, pp. 56-57). Frank W. Crowninshield (1872-1947), was the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair from 1914 to 1936 and one of the earliest ambassadors of avant-garde art in the United States. Crowninshield’s collection, including the Ngbaka statue was exhibited in the 1937 Brooklyn Museum exhibition African Negro Art from the Collection of Frank Crowninshield - one of the first exhibitions of African Art in the United States in a major institution. For a discussion of Crowninshield’s pioneering role for the reception of African art in America see Paul Lewis, “Frank W. Crowninshield and John D. Graham: Two Pioneers of African Art”, in Sotheby's, New York, African and Oceanic Art from the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, May 15, 2009, pp. 38-39.
American sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-1991) and his wife Renee, who eventually acquired the Ngbaka statue from Crowninshield through John D. Graham, both Crowninshield's advisor and Chaim Gross' close friend and fellow artist, sometime between 1940 and 1944, were among the earliest collectors of African and Oceanic Art in the United States. Chaim Gross was especially known as a wood sculptor, creating a world of playful acrobats, mothers and children. He began drawing at an early age and throughout his life produced a prodigious number of graphic works, many of which were preparatory studies for his sculptures. For more information see Heinrich Schweizer, “The Chaim and Renee Gross Collection”, in Sotheby’s, New York, The Sculptor’s Eye: African and Oceanic Art from the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, May 15, 2009, pp. 8-9. Gross considered the Ngbaka statue a universal masterpiece and counted it among the favorite works in his collection.
The Ubangi region in central Africa spans three different countries: the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. It houses a cluster of societies with strong historical, linguistic, and anthropological interrelations. As Grootaers (2007: 17) notes, the "crossing of a variety of frontiers created a vast melting pot, a Ubangian 'culture area' - however problematic that term may be." According to Meurant (in Grootaers 2007: 178 et seq.), the Ngbaka (Ngbaka-minagende) "are the largest population group in the western Ubangi area, whose centre (Gemena) they occupy. [...] The sculptures usually display the typical scarifications found on Ngbaka faces: a vertical line dividing the face from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, lines (or chevrons) joining the ears to the eyes, and sometimes a horizontal line at the bottom of the forehead."
Among the Ngbaka, male and female human figures were placed at shrines as representations of the mythical ancestor Sètò and his sister-spouse, Nàbo. As Burssens (in Grootaers 2007: 121 et seq., emphasis added) notes: "The Ngbaka call their Supreme Being Gàlè, and the cult dedicated to him was more important than such cults were elsewhere in Ubangi. Gàlè was the source of life and the bringer of fertility among women. At the entrance to a dwelling, a fast growing kapok tree (gìlà) would be planted in his honour. Yet, in spite of his significance, in daily life other supernatural beings were more important. Ngbaka myths reveal the existence of another Great Spirit, Gbògbòsò (also spelled Gbaso), the creator of heaven and earth, water and fire, plants and animals. People owed their existence to yet another being, Sètò or To, who is visible nightly in the constellation Orion and who is also the most important hero in Ngbaka fables. He would have a shrine, a toa to, next to that of the ancestors. Sometimes two wooden statuettes were placed nearby, one male, one female, which represented Sètò and his sister-spouse, Nàbo. Although Sètò was considered the first – albeit mythical ancestor - the ancestors themselves were never depicted."
Henrix (in Grootaers 2007: 296-297) adds: Sètò, a trickster character, "was believed to live in the forest in the shape of a very tall human being. His sister, who was also his wife, was called Nàbo. Sètò managed to steal all creatures away from Gbògbòsò, and for this reason was regarded by the Ngbaka as their ancestor. They would say, 'It's thanks to Sètò that we exist. Without him Gbògbòsò would have eaten us all.' Sètò was invoked during certain ndábà rites.
"As it was dangerous to visit Sètò in the bush, his statuette would be set up in the village. Soft wood would be collected and one or two figurines made, representing Sètò, or Sètò and Nàbo. These were blackened and covered in red kúlà powder from the camwood tree. A cola nut was then chewed and the fibers spat onto the figures. The statuettes were kept in the homes of their owners and sometimes taken out for [the] ndábà rites [...] - the ndábà being an altar in the form of a seat or a table which could be sat on, or where offerings could be placed. The ndábà rite was addressed to either Gàlè, Sètò or the spirits of the dead (bòzo). But often all three were invoked in the course of a single rite, sometimes all at once. [...] If someone had a problem (sickness, sterility, an unsuccessful hunt), they would consult a seer, who would try to find the cause by divination. If necessary the seer would order the ndábà rite to be performed and would prescribe certain aspects to be observed [...]. The presence of other objects or constructions alongside the ndábà would depend on the purpose for which the rite was being performed. [...] As photographs show, kpìkìmà (statuettes) of the mythical couple Sètò and Nàbo were also used."
Artistic Placement of the Gross Ngbaka Statue of Sètò
One of the major examples of its genre and widely published and exhibited throughout the 20th century, the Ngbaka Statue of Sètò from the Gross Collection is a magnificent creation by an unknown artist of outstanding skill. By virtue of its early provenance and deep, multi-layered ritual patina, attesting to decades of ritual practice, it can safely be dated to the middle of the 19th century or earlier. It is a rare example of an archaic, pre-contact style.
The facial features of the Gross Ngbaka, notably the concave eye sockets and the treatment of the half-open mouth, can be compared to another male figure, presumably also a representation of Sètò, with equally early history. Collected in the village of Bogelima (Karawa) by Jacques Perlo in 1912, this figure is today in the collection of the Musée Royale de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren (Grootaers 2007: 126, fig. 3.22).
One of the main stylistic features of Ngbaka statuary is a vertical ridged line on the center of the forehead, leading down from below the hairline, sometimes terminating at the root, sometimes at the tip of the nose. According to Antonin-Marius Vergiat's inscription on the reverse of a 1933 in situ portrait of a Ngbandi (neighbors of the Ngbaka) elder preserved in the Musée Joseph Déchelette, Roanne (inv. no. '992.3.172'), this scarification, ngalo nzapke, symbolizes the cockscomb. Often, the central line of scarification is flanked by two additional lines between the corners of the eyes and the ears, cf. Grootaers (2007: 125, fig. 3.21; 179, fig. 4.55; 183, fig. 4.59). However, one central line flanked by two lines on each side, such as the case in the Gross figure, is exceedingly unusual and has not been observed in any of the other examples known.
Another characteristic feature is the three-faceted treatment of the back, with alternating convex and concave edges running through the shoulder blades. The artist might have chosen this form of representation to allow for both a maximum width of the figure when seen from the front, as well as maximum curvature when seen in the profile and three-quarter back views.
In its superb quality, its regal composition and expression, with its alteration of swelling and constricted forms, and the dry crust of multi-layered surface, the Kunin Ngbaka Statue is one of the quintessential central African masterpieces to remain in private hands.
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