John D. Graham, New York, 1920s-30s
Frank W. Crowninshield, New York, acquired from the above
Chaim and Renee Gross, New York, acquired from the above between 1940 and 1944
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, African Negro Art: The Collection of Frank Crowninshield, March 20 - April 25, 1937
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., African Sculpture, January 29 - March 1, 1970 (additional venues: William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, March 21 - April 26, 1970; The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, May 26 - June 21, 1970)
Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., The Sculptor's Eye: The African Art Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Gross, 1976 (additional venues: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, November 5, 1976 - January 2, 1977; Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, March 27 - May 1, 1977; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, May 17 - July 17, 1977)
Chaim Gross, The Technique of Wood Sculpture, New York, 1957, p. 39, fig. 48
William Fagg and Margaret Plass, African Sculpture, London, 1964, p. 155
William Fagg, African Sculpture, Washington, D.C., 1969, p. 94, cat. 103
Michael Kan, African Sculpture: 31 Masterpieces of African Sculpture, Brooklyn, 1970, p. 42
Arnold Rubin, The Sculptor's Eye, Washington, D.C., 1976, p. 29, fig. 21
Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections, Washington and London, 1989, p. 493, fig. 1277
Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers (ed.), Ubangi, Brussels, 2007, p. 183, fig. 4.60
Until very recently, more precisely not before Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers' important exhibition and encyclopedic 2007 monograph Ubangi: Art and Cultures from the African Heartland, Ubangian sculpture was the last major unstudied area of art from sub-Saharan Africa. Notwithstanding this lack of information and the general rarity of Ubangi art, the inventive and powerful aesthetics particularly of statuary have always enjoyed the interest of collectors, and in particular of the early 20th-century avant-garde. For a Ngbandi figure previously in the collection of Pablo Picasso see Grootaers (2007: 115, fig. 3.5), for another one previously in the collection of his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler see ibid. (29, fig. 1.19; for a photograph taken around 1912-13 showing the same figure in Kahnweiler's appartment on rue George Sand, see Rubin 1984: 301). In this context, it is interesting to note that the offered lot was previously owned by another artist from Chaim Gross's circle of friends, the painter John Graham who also knew Picasso. Gross considered the figure a universal masterpiece and counted it among the favorite pieces in his collection. According to the great African art scholar William Fagg (1970: 94, text to cat. 103), it is "the finest from the area."
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 patina, the Gross Ngbaka Figure is one of the quintessential Ngbaka statues in existence and undoubtedly the most important example from this region to appear at auction in recent history.
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