18 African and Oceanic Art Highlights

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From its influence on modern artists in the early 20th century to its subsequent entry into museums celebrating a universal history of art, African and Oceanic art has spawned a century of manifestos. The selection for the great auction of works of art from Africa and Oceania, to be held in Paris on 21 June, reflects both the history of the individuals who shaped them – art theorists, critics, artists, collectors and merchants – and of the pieces themselves. Click ahead to see highlights.

Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie
Paris | 21 June 2017

18 African and Oceanic Art Highlights

  • Maori Head, New Zealand (Height 21.5 cm). Estimate €180,000–250,000.
    A primordial element in Maori culture, the head was regarded as the most sacred part of the body, a seat of knowledge and power. Ubiquitous in sculpted decors, particularly large in scale in tiki sculptures, this motif reaches its apex in the standalone heads sculpted in wood. This head was long preserved in the collection of Kenneth Athol Webster and superbly illustrates his refined taste for Polynesian arts, and especially for the works of art emanating from New Zealand.

  • Gope Spirit Board, Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea (Height 137cm). Estimate €50,000–70,000.
    Through the sheer scale of its framework, the dynamics of the patterns and the exquisite skill apparent in the central interpretation of the human figure, this gope board produces a striking visual impact. The representation of the spirit-being, pared down to its eyes, nose, mouth and navel - this last detail bringing the whole figure alive - is transcended by the superb polychromy of ochre and white tints. The figurative inventiveness is compounded by the thickness of the board stone carved and the beautiful patina, which both attest to the great age of this creation.

  • Uli Figure, New Ireland Bismarck Archipelago (Height 115 cm). €200,000–300,000.
    This work is one of 27 Ulis collected by Captain Karl Nauer between 1903 and 1911. It was recorded in the collections of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich in 1912 under the number 12-21-3, before being transferred to Ludwig Bretschneider in 1947 as part of an exchange. In the great tradition of the Uli statuary which required long and complex funeral rites, this ancestor image embodies, in its appearance and attributes, absolute power, strength, authority but also fecundity. The classic cannons - large bearded head topped with a crest, white convex face, eye sockets and contours of the face encasing a carnivorous smile - are heightened by the great rarity of the black facial accent punctuated with small white dots.

  • Greenlandic Mask, Ammassalik (Height 31cm). Estimate €50,000–70,000.
    Collected in 1924 by Captain Janus Srensen, this mask, in line with the Ammassalimiut artistic tradition, evokes a grimacing and asymmetrical face. The poignancy of the almond-shaped eyes with their pierced pupils is emphasized by the shape of the eyebrows and the furrows of the deeply carved tattoos - marks of initiation which would once have adorned women's faces. The torsion of the shapes imposed by the artist, particularly evident in the nose and distended mouth, indicates the necessity for the angakoq (shaman) to make himself unrecognisable whilst among the spirits in order to avoid any vengeance. This work, striking in the aesthetic modernity of its reinvented human face, reveals the creativity of the artist who, whilst making use of traditional codes, asserted the individuality of his talent.

  • Bekom Dance Mask, Cameroon (Height 73cm). Estimate €100,000–150,000.
    Unique within each chiefdom, these masks were the prerogative of royalty and were only seen during great royal funeral ceremonies to pay homage to the deceased king and assert the authority of his successor. Like the panther or the elephant, which are more frequently represented, the symbolism of the buffalo is associated with the image of royal power and with the protective force of life. The preciousness of the materials, their emblematic power and the virtuosity of their layout all attest to the eminent importance of the work and its great antiquity.

  • Yaure Mask, Côte d’ivoire (Height 44 cm). Estimate €200,000–300,000.
    Among the ancient Yaure masks, often topped with an animal attribute, the combination of horns with a person standing between them, grasping one horn in each hand is very rare. Only four have ever been recorded, including one acquired in Paris in 1935 by Louis Carré (cf. Sotheby’s, Paris, 30 November 2010, No. 36) and this masterpiece of the corpus, hailed in many a reference book and exhibition.

  • Hemba Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Height 73 cm). Estimate €280,000–350,000.
    The magnificence of this ancestor is reflected in the commanding presence of the statue, the eurhythmy of its forms, the fluidity of its outlines and the imposing beauty of its head. Princely families at the time of the expansion of the Luba kingdom and of the cultural flourishing of Hemba traditions. It comes from Luika where the Niembo workshops produced some of the most prestigious objects within Hemba aesthetics.

  • Ngbaka Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Height 22 cm). Estimate €200,000–300,000.
    This mask, which Paul Guillaume made into one of the icons of Primitivism, is today one of the most prodigious archetypes of the ancient arts of the Ubangi. The aesthetic modernity that it embodies and its resonances with the work of avant-garde artists are astonishing. There is a precise definition given by Clouzot and Level in the introduction to the catalogue of the First Exhibition of Negro Art and Oceanic Art (Première exposition d’art Nègre et d’art océanien), hosted by Paul Guillaume in 1919 at the Galerie Devambez: "the expression of the masks is defined by their construction, their architecture. Everything is aesthetic. Lines and planes".

  • Tabwa Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Height 31.5cm). Estimate: €250,000–350,000.
    This eloquent archetype of the Tabwa statuary is at the heart of the great sculptural tradition that developed during the eighteenth century in eastern Central Africa. Located between Lake Tanganyika and the Lukuga and Luvua rivers, Tabwa country is at the junction between the Luba, Hemba and Boyo territories, and symbolises the original East of the mythical hero Mbidi Kiluwe, father of the founder of the Luba Empire. Therefore this work is highly significant and forms part of the genesis of a brilliantly original art form which flourished in the middle of the nineteenth century.

  • Lumbu Reliquary Figure, Gabon (Height 56 cm). Estimate €70,000–100,000.
    This mbumba torso, a major piece of the Lumbo corpus, is a majestic illustration of the confluence of two institutions essential to the Kongo civilisations: the cult of ancestors and the matriarchal foundations of power. Sovereign beauty is exalted in its form as an idealised young woman, and the figure’s power as an intermediary is evident in the invisible world through the eyes inset with glass, and the dynamic lines of the body converge at the reliquary beneath the breast.

  • Mangbetu Drum, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Length 122 cm). Estimate: €60,000–90,000.
    The art of forms, that the Mangbetu sculptors excelled at, is at its apex in the nedundu drums, celebrated from the very moment of their discovery for the superb elegance of their lines and their pared down beauty. "As instruments of prestige, these types of slit drums were also offered to prominent dignitaries by Mangbetu chiefs to bestow an authority upon them" (Burssens, Mangbetu. Art de cour africain de collection privées belges, 1992, p. 24).

  • Koro Figure, Nigeria (Height 112cm). Estimate: €180,000–250,000.
    This visually inventive sculpture brilliantly illustrates one of the littlest known corpora in the world of African art. The boldness of the lithe structure is echoed in the purity of the sculptural gesture, which only details the features of the face and the feminine attributes and comes to life in the nuances of the deep patina. The contrast between the modernity of the design and the delicacy of its elaboration, particularly visible in the refined articulation of the knees, reveals a powerful artistic expression capable of surpassing traditional canons to achieve a universal aesthetic.

  • Idoma Ungulali Headdress, Nigeria (Height 32cm). Estimate €60,000–90,000.
    This headdress, with its singular beauty and iconography, is part of a corpus that is as remarkable as it is narrow. The analysis of the corpus reveals the hand of a master sculptor, to whom the most accomplished headdresses can be attributed, including this sculpture which is often selected to illustrate the greatest works of this master of the Cross River.

  • Senufo Figure, Côte d’Ivoire (Height 67cm). Estimate: €90,000–130,000.
    There are works whose significance in their original context equals the prestige of their history in Western collections. This Senufo statue, from the exquisitely refined collection of Parisian gallery owner Louis Carré, was selected in 1935 to be featured in the emblematic African Negro Art exhibition at the MoMA in New York by American photographer Walker Evans for his famous portfolio (1935), and subsequently in 1963 by Robert Goldwater for the first monographic exhibition devoted to Senufo art: Senufo Sculpture from West Africa (Museum of Primitive Art, New York). With its base crafted by Kichizô Inagaki, it embodies the whole history of the discovery and recognition of the Arts of Africa, on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Fang Figure, Gabon (Height 53.5cm). Estimate: €130, 000–180,000.
    A combination of antiquity, originality of composition and subtle balance of form, this figure, from the Jacob Epstein Collection, displays the individuality and skill of a Fang artist whose talent was essential to the protection and survival of the community. Traces of culled fragments and red unguent (ba) made from a mix of padauk wood powder (mbel) and palm oil, reveal the numerous cults devoted, through it, to the protecting ancestor".

  • Kota Reliquary Figure, Gabon (Height 61.5cm). Estimate: €100,000–150,000
    The great rarity of the bifrons reliquary figures, and the commanding craftsmanship displayed in this effigy, reveal the eminence of its status. This previously unseen piece belonged to a powerful lineage and was a reflection of its political importance; in the equal care given to each of the faces it is a superb embodiment of the fundamental notion of gender complementarity.

  • Kongo-Vili Figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Height 40cm). Estimate: €100,000–150,000.
    Although Herbert Baker had made the eclecticism of his choices the driving force behind his collection, its pillars were nonetheless several major pieces, celebrated both for their classicism and for their remarkable sculptural qualities. This nkonde statue was one of the highlights of all the exhibitions, which, from 1960 to 1971, contributed to the renown of their collection in the United States. In this superbly accomplished contrast between the incarnation of power and that of beauty, the artist expresses the complexity of these nkonde statues, "ambivalent and multifunctional (artefacts, which) can attack, yet also protect and heal" (Félix, Art & Kongos, 1995, p. 67).

  • Dogon Figure, Mali (Height 97 cm). Estimate: €120,000–180,000.
    As a representation of a founding ancestor, this statue illustrates both the talent of an artist working in the east of the Bandiagara plateau, and the characteristics of a Dogon style given the name Tintam by Hélène Leloup. This school of sculpture stands out for the originality of its style and iconography, mixing the influences of the communities that have settled there. Typical of the archaic Tintam style - with its honey tint nuanced by the patina of use and light sacrificial patina - this statue constitutes a very beautiful exemplar of the original corpus.

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