longside its Contemporary Art auctions in Paris, Sotheby’s presents Splendeurs: Chefs-d’oeuvre des Arts d’Afrique, a sale of 18 works belonging to the anthology of African art. This selection, from the greatest private European collections, offers an overview of some of the most important pieces produced by the artists of sub-Saharan Africa. These remarkable pieces have been chosen for their rarity, their historical importance and their aesthetic qualities, in order to address the aspirations of today’s art lovers and collectors. This auction of the “Splendeurs” of African art will unquestionably attract the attention of the most eminent collectors in this discipline from all over the world.
Congo Basin Art History Research Center, Brussels
I gained a real appreciation for the Lega people and their philosophy, which honors human values rather than material wealth, during my various research trips to Lega country in the 1970s and 1980s. I greatly admire Lega sculpture because, like the Lega people, there is no showiness, no pretension or ostentatious production, everything about it is based on subtlety, sensitivity and minimalism. While Lega art may be modest in size, it often makes up in greatness what it lacks in height.
It has been a long time since I last saw Lega ritual artifacts of such quality appear on the market. The honey-colored ivory head on its stand, whilst abiding by the artistic canons of the Lega, is surprisingly realistic and highly expressive. A tremendous sense of pathos emanates from the heavily eroded wooden statuette. You can feel the despair of this man who is missing an arm and whose second arm is mutilated. It was sculpted to strike fear into the hearts of initiates, so that they would not transgress the prohibitions imposed by the ethical codes of the Bwami association. As for the mascaron, despite its moderate size, I have rarely seen such archaic power. Its huge eye sockets suggest an influence from the neighboring Wabembe. The multiple layers of once-white kaolin, as well as the wear and tear on the exposed wood, reveal a prolonged ritual use. The protruding sagittal crest extends vertically to create a surprisingly slender nose, while dividing the face, and the open mouth seeks to convey a powerful message.
The large anthropozoomorphic Kayamba mask is highly self-contained, its elongated face and very long thin nose set between the small, close-set eyes and the modest, arched mouth are all set within a subtle concave heart shape. The whole mask is crowned with two powerful horns that contrast with the elegance of the face, proving that the antelope, as harmless as it may appear, can be a formidable opponent.
I will end with the amber ivory anthropomorphic perforated spoon, which is probably the most beautiful and complex Lega spoon I have ever seen. Deciphering its icons is a task only intiates can perform. Since four eyes have been pierced, we know that two characters are represented, one is female, the other male, since the Lega are an egalitarian people, who grant the same rights to women as to men. References to the genitalia of both genders are minimal but present, which is in keeping with the modesty of this discreet yet formidable woodland people of the eastern Congo.