D r. Murray Frum was a Canadian businessman based in Toronto. While visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1950s, Murray Frum discovered Egyptian antiquities which unlocked his great passion for art. Ever since, and for fifty years, during the course of his travels to Europe and the United States, he began the creation of an extraordinary collection of African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, as well as Renaissance and decorative arts.
A passionate and rigorous collector, he distinguished himself also as a philanthropist, donating parts of his collection of African art to the Art Gallery of Ontario, strongly affirming in this choice of a fine arts museum the legitimacy of primitive art in the universal history of art. His architect-designed gallery was created in the new Frank Gehry-designed museum to be in juxtaposition to the infamous collection of Henry Moore sculptures.
Headrests have long been an essential part of African culture, helping to preserve the fragile and elaborate coiffures of the ruling class. Each hairstyle carried an important social and ceremonial significance however the aesthetic dimension was also integral to their creation; traditional coiffures were a source of enormous creativity, and this creativity is also reflected in the craftsmanship of the headrests carved to protect them.
In the field of African art, it is exceptional to be able to attribute an African sculpture to a specific artist. This Luba Shankadi sculptor was first identified as the “Master of the Cascade Coiffure” thanks to a neckrest from the Ratton collection in the 1960s by the great scholar William Fagg. Of the known neckrests attributed to the Luba-Shakandi, those created by the “Master of the Cascade Coiffure” are the most refined and remarkable.
Only eighteen works are known to by this hand and only eleven are single caryatid figures. The Frum Shankadi neckrest is one of the few left in private hands. This individualist carver was first identified by William Fagg and Margaret Plass in their 1966 book African Sculpture when discussing this exact headrest, formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton; they write: “a headrest […] by a great but anonymous miniaturist of the Baluba Shakandi in the south-east Congo whom we may call the Master of the Cascade Coiffure; a dozen or more of his carvings are known, all of them brilliant asymmetrical compositions” (Fagg and Plass, p.88).
Scholars of African art there today agree there were likely two master carvers, whose carvings are characterised by the exaggerated coiffure with two delicate fins layered in a pagoda style, each incised with parallel vertical lines. Francois Neyt identified the location of these master carvers as the small kingdom of Kinkondia, close to Lake Kisale in the Shaba region.
This headrest is remarkable in the dynamism of the pose of the kneeling figure. With one knee raised, the left leg sweeps around behind the back in an almost acrobatic form. The right horizontal foot is characteristic of carvers from the Kinkondja region, according to Neyt, and the body is poised and taut.
The characteristic almond-shaped eyes are narrowed and focused and the mouth pursed in to a pout. Both hands grasp a pipe that is balanced upon the knee; only two other headrests from the corpus depict the figure in an asymmetric pose with a pipe : one in the MET, New York and one in the British Museum, London.
Another highlight of Frum’s exceptional collection is a Kota Obamba Reliquary Figure by the Master of Sébé from Gabon. Featuring less than a dozen known pieces to this day, the corpus created by the Master of Sébé is not only one of the rarest within African art, but also one of the most archaic .
Whilst abiding by the expressionist standards specific to Kota sculpture, the Master of Sébé, the most talented of master sculptors, has gone beyond the classical canons of Kota art and created a unique corpus. Held for more than thirty years in the Frum Collection, this Kota reliquary figure brilliantly illustrates both the exceptional technical know-how of the Master of Sébé and his individual artistic genius.