This superb brass and copper-covered Kota wooden sculpture from the Collection of Edwin and Cherie Silver belongs to a very small corpus of works carved by one of the most extraordinarily gifted Kota master sculptor-metalsmiths from pre-colonial Gabon, named by Dr. Louis Perrois the Maître à la tête de mort – “Sébé River Master of the Skull Head”.1
His attribution was included in an essay published on the occasion of Mains des Maîtres, my 2001 exhibition identifying artists and ateliers from fourteen different tribes covering the entire field of sub-Saharan statuary from the Soninke in Mali to the Nguni in South Africa.2 African art history could now follow methodologies similar to those used in Greek, Medieval to early Renaissance art history to identify the hand of an individual master carver and assemble an oeuvre based on stylistic evidence, identifying the artist by a name of convenience, generally the name of a village where some of his work was collected.
For the arts of Gabon, I selected and exhibited a group of six Kota reliquary figures which I considered aesthetically the most perfect and art historically the most prototypical.
Since my 2001 exhibition, I have included four more works by this artist and his workshop. Starting from left to right in my photo of the six sculptures gathered together for the Mains des Maîtres exhibition, here is the complete list:
Alain et Alexia Freylich Collection, Brussels
Height : 55 cm
Collected in 1928 by a Colonial Officer
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 156, cat. no. 41)
Felix Collection, Brussels
Height : 53 cm
Collection of colonial officer A. Baudon, acquired in the Oubangui-Chari region before 1914.
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 156, cat. no. 40)
Sidney and Bernice Clyman Collection, New York
Height: 53 cm
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 152, cat. no. 37)
Height: 50 cm
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 154, cat. no. 39)
Fondation Dapper, Paris
Height: 52 cm
Paul Eluard, Paris, before 1929
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 157, cat. no. 42)
Height: 51.8 cm
Collected by French Colonial Officer before 1920
(Mains de Maîtres, p. 153, cat. no. 38)
Based on my research, the first illustration of a work by the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head was published in 1929 in André Portier and François Poncetton’s Les Arts Sauvages. Afrique, in which the authors illustrated a detail of a Kota which was then the property of French poet Paul Eluard. Thus, he was the first amateur to recognize the aesthetic importance of works by the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head.
We have very little information on Paul Eluard’s African art collection but we do know that he worked closely with André Breton, and started to chase some sculptures nègres as early as 1919.3 Both Eluard and Breton were buying and selling actively before 1935.4 Since Helena Rubinstein purchased the famous Nias Island seated figure belonging to Breton included at the Eluard-Breton auction in Paris in July 1931,5 there is a strong possibility that she may have also purchased directly from Eluard his famous Kota figure at the time.
Sébé River Master of the Skull Head, active probably between circa AD 1750 and 1800, was a master of convexity in a sculptural universe in which concavity and two-dimensional or bas-relief quality were more the norm. Perrois located his workshop in the northern part of Kota territory in the region of the Sébé River in the southeast corner of Gabon, somewhere between the villages of Doume, Okondja, and Masuku. The fact that this style may have originated in southern Gabon becomes logical since some of these groups were the first to migrate from the north into the rainforest region as they were pushed further and further inland by new waves coming from Cameroon. This hypothesis is coherent with the concept of a very early style which evolved into the baroque flourishes we are familiar with in the more elaborate styles.
The Sébé River Master of the Skull Head produced very few works, but these are of exceptional quality and his oeuvre has now been recognized as one of the most desirable styles among the large corpus of Kota sculpture.
The sculptor dramatized his subject by carving his reliquaries with an emaciated and relatively naturalistic head with eyes retreating into their sockets and an emphasis on the impressive relief of the forehead. The Sébé River Master of the Skull Head masterfully plays off of a full volumetric face with a profusion of curved contours against the flat two dimensional lower half of the lozenge base. The face is also elegantly framed by a raised band covered by red copper strips that circumscribe its perimeter and set it apart from the decorative coiffure made of crescents on the sides and the summit. The broad convex forehead is enhanced by the concavity of the eye sockets and the chin. Indeed if one visually isolated the face of the figures by Sébé River Master of the Skull Head from the top of the forehead to the end of the neck, one can visualize a byeri Fang head with its heart-shaped face, as both Perrois and Chaffin have suggested.6
The eyes are rendered open using bone or metal discs set in deep orbits which give them a severe and intense quality suggestive of the skull that is at the core of the reliquary ensemble. A protruding vertical line divides the forehead into two parts and reinforces the gravity of the expression.
All figures in this corpus are decorated with a small demi-lune crescent protruding from the top of the cranium. This crescent shows a variety of subtle decoration on each figure with small rows of punched dots on the edges on the best ones and sometimes rows of parallel striated lines on others. In the most accomplished works of the corpus, the sculptor manages to strike a perfect balance between the voluptuous volumes of the skull and the elegant simple tow-dimensional lower lozenge.
According to research carried out on exhaustive stylistic analysis of the Kota style by Frédéric Cloth, there are more than 2,000 published Kota figures.7 Of this known universe, one finds fewer than ten figures by the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head. These numbers are, of course, relative since Perrois estimated that for the Mahongwe style alone there were probably close to 2,000 figures at the end of the nineteenth century, of which roughly 150 survived in museums and private collections.8
Frédéric Cloth has also suggested that for each of the great convex Kota which is considered to be male, this Kota artist carved at least two concave ones to be understood as female. He proposed to expand the corpus of the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head by attributing to him a series of simple concave Kota which would enlarge the corpus to thirty works. I am not sure to fully grasp the subtleties of his method based on complex statistical analysis but what is certain is that what makes this artist unique and remarkable is his total mastering of the interplay of concave and convex forms, an essential stylistic trait which is completely absence in the simple concave ones.
The Sébé River Master of the Skull Head group and related works could represent a prototypical or archaic Kota style from which all the other varieties emerged. The fully three-dimensional convex head then became, in the eye of these first gifted Kota artists, powerfully suggestive of the human skull of the ancestor that they were meant to protect, and could also relate to the byeri heads from the neighboring Fang.
The Kota Figure by the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head from the Collection of Edwin and Cherie Silver must then be understood as a one of the few surviving prototypes of the Kota style, and a superb testimony of the complexity of the interpenetration of styles and historical depth to this art form. This work shows the great imagination of the Sébé River Master of the Skull Head, an artist who played so well the concave and convex, the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, as well as the chromatic possibilities of various metals. William Fagg paid homage to this great artist, connecting his works as exercises in abstraction based on very subtle planes in low relief comparable in modern art to the work of the British artist Ben Nicholson.9 The surrounding forms are still flat but serve as a contrasting surface from which the massive three-dimensional head projects, rendered with a coolness which gives way to the warmth and energy of the human form.
Dr. Bernard de Grunne
1. Perrois, ‘Le Maître de la Sébé: les figures de reliquaire kota “à tête de mort” de l’est du Gabon’, in de Grunne, ed., Mains de Maîtres: A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique, 2001, pp. 141-159
2. de Grunne, ed., Mains de Maîtres: A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique, 2001
3. Amrouche, ‘Les arts primitfs dans Collection Breton’, in Breton, Arts Primitifs, Auction Catalogue, Paris Drouot-Richelieu, Etude Calmels-Cohen, April 17, 2003, p. 15
4. A first auction of works of art owned by Eluard took place in 1924. See Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Collection Paul Eluard, July 3, 1928, lot 58, nine “bois nègres”. I would like to thank Professeur Jean-Louis Paudrat for this information. Also of course, see Paris, Hôtel Drouot, Collection André Breton et Paul Eluard: Sculptures d’Afrique, d’Amérique, d’Océanie, July 2 & 3, 1931, with 30 lots from Africa and 134 lots from Oceania. A mediocre Kota (lot 16) which also belonged to Paul Eluard was purchased with numerous other lots by a mysterious Mr. de la Rancheraye, who may have been a transitaire used by Mrs. Titus (a.k.a. Mrs. H. Rubinstein)
5. The Nias sculpture, lot 173, was originally purchased at the auction by Paul Chadourne perhaps as a front for Mrs. Rubinstein. It is now in the collections of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Cfr. Kerchache and Bouloré, Sculptures: Africa, Asia, Oceania, Americas, 2001, p. 228
6. Chaffin and Chaffin, L’Art Kota: les figures de reliquaire, 1979, p. 322 and Perrois, ‘Le Maître de la Sébé: les figures de reliquaire kota “à tête de mort” de l’est du Gabon’, in de Grunne, ed., Mains de Maîtres: A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique, 2001, p. 151.
7. Cloth and van Dyke, Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art, 2016
8. Perrois, ‘L’art Kota-Mahongwe’, Arts d’Afrique Noire, No. 20, Winter 1976, p. 25
9. Fagg, African Majesty: From Grassland and Forest, The Barbara and Murray Frum Collection, 1981, p. 142
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