Sunday, May 03, 2015

Bruno Claessens Spring 2015

I have picked a few of Bruno's recent blog entries that should give you an idea of  how interesting his view is on recent issues of interest in the ethnographic field. Many are intrigued by Sothebys efforts on Ebay. In my opinion Sothebys realizes that they have both reinvigorated and destroyed the African market with their recent marketing efforts. Yes the entire market is not just made up of the top 1 percent of objects available for sale. By refusing to sell only the top of the food chain the auction house must realize that they were leaving a lot of money on the table. Clearly the solution is online but is Ebay the answer? Finally Bruno's piece on Sothebys marketing of the Warua Master Luba figure should stir some juices among the art historians. Note in previous issues we have covered Amazon's effort to market art. I strongly recommend that you subscribe at

1. PARIS - Social MediaTalking about innovative curatorial practices: I just came across the above image taken at the newly opened Ivory Coast exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly Les Maïtres de la Sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (info). Visitors are suggested to use the hashtag #sculpturecotedivoire to discover more about the exhibition on their favorite social media. Any avid user of Twitter or Instagram at once knows which hashtag to use when posting pictures of the exhibition online. The success of this idea becomes clear when searching on #sculpturecotedivoire on Twitter here or on
I’m happy to notice the Musée du quai Branly is letting people freely photograph the exhibition. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures at the Sepik show in Berlin and photography isn’t allowed either at the Senufo exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art – although they did develop an app for smartphones. The launch of this app will definitely have increased the usage of smartphones by visitors, but they thus can’t use it at the same time for photographing interesting details or the exhibition installation.
In my experience the gallery assistants never really know why photographing isn’t allowed and what the main objections are*. The availability of postcard reproductions of the highlights at the museum shop is often claimed as an excuse – but those you can’t share online. It is of course a complex discussion. Taking photographs of everything of interest for most young people is a way to experience and enjoy art (and life). As long as it goes together with properly looking at objects (and is done quietly and considerably) I have no problem with that. Museum curators should realize that younger generations ‘consume’ art in a whole new way. Part of the fun now is to share your photos online with friends via social media. Establishing a hashtag, like the Musée du quai Branly did, is a clever way to actively encourage visitors to share images of the exhibition online – and those can only generate additional interest in the art on view.
*There’s of course the widespread belief that flash photography can damage an art object. As this paper shows it’s not more harmful than normal light exposure. Dr Martin Evans explains that the problem is even less of a concern for smartphones, which, no doubt, is how most museum visitors are taking photos (or selfies) these days. He writes:
Many ‘smartphones’ include an illuminator that may be a tiny xenon flash, or a light-emitting diode (LED) that briefly flashes light onto the subject. It is hard to estimate the power of these little illuminators in terms of strict guide numbers, but the consensus is that they can be rated at GN 2 to GN 4. Clearly, flashes from ‘smartphones’ cannot be regarded as a conservation threat in any properly lit gallery.
Anyhow, mobile phones take much better photos without a flash.
UPDATE: Kathryn Gunsch, Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was kind enough to share a curator’s perspective:
The ban on photography is rarely related to conservation concerns. It is about image rights. Not every lender will allow visitors to photograph the objects on loan to a show. Many museums that allow photography in the permanent collection cannot offer photography in the special exhibitions for this reason. I don’t know of any museum that has tried to allow photography in a special exhibition of some objects but not others -that would likely be an enforcement nightmare!- and so if even one lender declines photography, the whole show can’t be snapped. I hope that helps explain it. I know many of us wish it were otherwise, there’s nothing better than seeing gallery images on pinterest, instagram and elsewhere!
I wonder how many private lenders wouldn’t allow their objects to be photographed, and for what reasons. Maybe an easy solution would be to make the right to be photographed a condition to include an object in an exhibition in the loan contract. A reader also informed me that at the quai Branly’s exhibition visitors are not allowed to photogaph the objects that come from the Musée National de Côte d’Ivoire – there is a pictogram on the info label that states “NO PHOTO”. So it are not just the private lenders – also note that the Sepik exhibition (where photography also was prohibited) only had objects from public collections. Lastly, another reader wrote that photography wasn’t allowed at the previous stop at the Ivory Coast exhibition at the Rietberg Museum. Seems like, for now, each museum has its own approach.

2. NEW YORK - The results of Sotheby’s eBay adventure... As I reported here last week, Sotheby’s is now selling African art via eBay. Now that the auction is over, it’s time to have a look at the results. Several objects apparently were removed from eBay (the website states: This listing was ended by the seller because the item is no longer available) – either that or they were not sold.
*It’s interesting to note that during the second Allan Stone sale, this Makonde mask was passed; the last bid being $ 3,750. It was indeed overlooked during the sale itself and deserved a second chance.
The 3 objects from the Segy estate were not sold (a Bamana headdress, a Bamana mask, and a Fon staff). A Guro antelope mask and a Mossi container also remained unsold, while a Dan miniature mask made $ 2,000 and a Dan mask $ 6,500 (est. $7-8K). I thus wouldn’t call this sale a huge success. From the 15 objects, 7 were sold – (except from the Makonde mask) all under or around the low estimate, in total generating $ 24,850 (I guess without the buyer’s premium). I wonder if that $ 25K was worth the damage to their carefully created image of no. 1 auction house for African art?
I guess the decision was made higher than the individual departments in Sotheby’s corporate structure.
Among them the Songye kifwebe mask, Mambila figure, and a Dogon figure. Strangely enough the Allan Stone provenance is no longer listed. Five objects from his estate were sold: a great Makonde mask, estimated at $ 3-5K and starting at $ 1,500 (which was estimated $ 8-12K last year) was sold for $ 6,500*; a Chokwe (?) mask, estimated $ 6-9K (originally $ 15-25K here), sold for $ 4,800; an Akan head was sold for $ 1,800 (est. $ 2-3K); a second Makonde helmet mask sold for $ 2,400 (est. $ 3-5K); and a Sudanese throwing club sold for $ 850 (estimated $ 800-1,200).

Instagram here. #sculpturecotedivoire quai branly

3. NEW YORK The highlight of the next Sotheby’s sale obviously is the cover lot, a Luba statue from D.R. Congo, attributed to the so-called Warua Master (info). Fourteen (!) pages of the catalogue are dedicated to this lot – Myron Kunin’s Senufo statue got 18. Heinrich Schweizer’s catalogue note contains a very interesting paragraph about the “strong adherence to geometric principles” of the Warua Master. He writes:
The tangent connecting the upmost point of the eyebrows is a horizontal line dividing the face from the apex of the forehead to the chin into two exact halves (see the below drawing). While the upper half is plain, featuring only the forehead, the lower half is visually dense as it contains all facial features – the Warua Master uses the juxtaposition of visual void and density to create tension. Furthermore, the face is inscribed into a perfect ellipse of vertical orientation. The upper half of the ellipse follows exactly the outline of the forehead from its apex to about the line dividing the face into upper and lower half. In the lower half the outline of the face withdraws subtly to the inside. However, it is the lowest point of the beard that falls with mathematical precision onto the nadir of the ellipse. Inside the face, eyebrows and jawbones create two nearly elliptical shapes of horizontal position which follow the same length and width ratio as the vertical ellipse into which the face is inscribed. 
Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing b
Schweizer continues (and here it gets really interesting):
In light of these strong inherent tensions it is surprising that the face overall exudes so much tranquility and serenity. How does the artist do this? The answer has to do with the position of the eyes and is mesmerizingly mathematical (see below drawing): inscribed in the two smaller, horizontally positioned quasi-ellipses are laterally wide and medially narrow eyes. The virtual horizontal line connecting their inner corners of these eyes (i.e., running right through their middle) bisects the length of the face such that the distance from this line to the bottom of the neck is equal to the distance from this line to the top of the forehead, is equal to the distance between the outer points of the two horizontal quasi-ellipses. We may define this distance as b.
However, it is the relation of the lowest point of the beard to the virtual line connecting the eyes that renders the composition in such “perfect balance”. We may define this distance as a. As shown, a and b are measures relating the apex and nadir of the vertical ellipse defining the face to the virtual line connecting the eyes.
The ratio of the distances measured by a and b corresponds to a formula which is well-known in aesthetic studies and art history as the golden ratio of proportion. It has been observed in ancient Egyptian sculpture, Greek architecture, early medieval painting and was propagated widely during the Italian Renaissance, most famously in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1492) as manifestation of the divine spark visible in the greatest masterpieces of creation. This ideal proportion is mathematically defined by an irrational number that is approximately 1.618 and most often replaced by the Greek letter Φ.
As the drawings and the above show, a number of the aesthetic choices made by the Warua Master follow the golden ratio with an uncanny mathematical precision – although we don’t know whether this is a result of intuition or calculation.
Luba figure Warua Master Golden ratio Congo drawing

To my knowledge (and do correct me if I’m wrong*), this is the first time the golden ratio has been applied in the analysis of an African art object. I’m confident that once you start looking you can find it in a lot of other objects too. For example, have a look at this Mende mask in the same catalogue. It is possible to see the golden ratio in anything, really. While the relation between the golden ratio and aesthetics remains highly debated in academic circles (for example here), this analysis certainly helps to better understand and appreciate the beauty of this Luba figure, or African art in general.
*UPDATE: a reader informed me about Jean-Pierre Fournier’s analysis of an Akan comb (“Le peigne ashanti et ses mystères”), published Arts d’Afrique Noire” in 1985 (no. 56, pp. 11-14), where Fournier applies the section dorée and rectangle d’or to a comb from his collection.
la section dorée le rectangle d’or fournier comb Akan
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