Couple de figurines tugubélé.

Maître du dos camber (Master of the Arched Back), “Tugubélé pair of Figurines from the Côte d’Ivoire/Senoufo Territory” (circa 1920) H. 17 cm, Private Collection (© Photo by Rainer Wolfsberger, Museum Rietberg) (all images courtesy Musée du quai Branly)

PARIS — One can easily mistake ghosts of the past for the modern. Most of us have only a vague and superficial idea that West African sculpture’s symbolic force has an crucial place in the history of Modern Art.

Partial exhibition view of Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast (photographed by Gautier Deblonde)

Paul Guillaume, the French art dealer of Amedeo Modigliani, was one of the first to organize African art exhibitions in Paris that came to the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn introduced them to many artists. Guillaume organized important exhibitions such as the Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien in 1919 with a catalogue essay by Apollinaire (who had collaborated with Guillaume on the pioneering study Sculptures Nègres in 1917). Drawn from Guillaume’s private collection, the show placed African sculpture at the heart of modernism to the extent that when Picasso had discovered African sculpture, he came to the realization that painting itself was a kind of magic — and a source of mediation between the artist and a hostile world of fear and desire.

Partial exhibition view of Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast photographed by Gautier Deblonde

Indeed many African art objects are mystical in function as they provide a place of contact with the spirit world, a quality many could argue that they share with much of the world’s art. African spiritual beliefs are often related to local deities and so they can change from one ethnic group to another, but they have many common traits, such as the belief in a creator.

Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast) at the Musée du quai Branly invites discovery and allows you to explore the aesthetic power and the sculptural masters of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the Côte d’Ivoire (Baoulé, Senufo, Lobi, Guro, Dan, We, Yaouré). Côte d’Ivoire — along with neighboring Liberia, Guinea, and Burkina Faso — was one of the most important sources for African art in early 20th century Paris. Apparently animated by a concern for pedagogy, the Musée du Quai Branly — working with the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and the Kunstund Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn — have managed to bring to light a much more precise and constructive clarity to this complex and variegated magical art.

Maître de Kamer (Master de Kamer), “Mask” (circa 1920) H. 20 cm, Côte d’Ivoire/Baoulé © Frédéric Dehaen – Studio Asselberghs. Private Collection (Provenance Hans Röthlingshöfer (Bâle) acquired in 1958)

Some sculptors here, such as The Essankro Master and The Master of the Arched Back, are designated only by their region or style, but many others (Uopié, Kuakudili, Nkpasopi, Tame, Sra, Tompieme, and Si, who for decades circumcised boys and initiated them into the art of carving) now have names and stories (one, Kuakudili, has a face) and so they are slowly becoming known as individuals. Regardless of the predominantly geographical structure of the exhibition, this individuality is sometimes established by careful interpretation of the stylistic standards of the ethnic group to which the artist belong.

While each artist’s production (designed for spiritual ceremonies) is of course influenced by tribal affiliation and the techniques associated with it, their vision and personal sensitivity expressed through deliberate aesthetic choices allows them to differ significantly from their peers. Thus Ivorian statuary no longer appears as only a straightforward assortment of resident artisans. The exhibition asserts the position that Ivorian statuary is created by individual artists by affirming the artistic identity of the master sculptors whenever possible. Not having this problem are the contemporary artists that close the exhibition: Koffi Kouadou, Nicholas Damas, Emile Guebehi, and Jems Robert Koko Bi (born 1966 in Sinfra and now well-known from the 2013 Venice Biennale). But mostly Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast is about looking for clues of lost precedent by carving out a new passage through unidentified statuary.

Jems Robert Koko Bi, “Diaspora II” (2013) (left) & “Ancestors” (2011) (right) Private Collection © Jems Robert Koko Bi

We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the symbolism in African art, wherein each element carries multiple allusions. Often a whole ritual complex or dance cycle performed over a period of time must be seen in order to grasp the profound cosmological references it contains. Unfortunately, our understanding of African art must remain incomplete because most African art is made of wood and other perishable materials, and the objects that remain are mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. The earlier stages of African art’s long fruition will probably remain forever unknown to us. The study of African art is thus usually not a chronological study of a sequence of artists and styles in time, but a geographical study of styles spread over space.

Pushing back on this trend, curators Eberhard Fischer, director emeritus ethnologist from the Rietberg Museum, and Lorenz Homberger, the Rietberg’s curator of African and Oceanian Art, have brought together over 300 works of the greatest sculptors and schools of sculpture in Côte d’Ivoire. The works are explored from the perspective of their aesthetic power along with the individuality of the artist (or studio) who created it, rather than from the perspective of their typology or functionality.

Though the show has only one specific face to show us, that of Kuakudili from Yaouré (who, to my eye, curiously resembled a Baoulé sculpture of a male figure in another room), this show is a big step forward in introducing specific men’s names and their workshops while still keeping them within the tribal context. This approach renders a bit more specificity to the geographical markers in which West African sculpture has usually been lumped. Often this work is considered as artisanal/magical/ritual activity (and it is), but this show stresses that African art (like Western art) is produced by individual artists whose works display personal skill, even while most African art was made not for mere admiration, but in the service of spirits and kings. It is functional, not decorative, made to express and support fundamental spiritual values that are perceived as essential to the survival of the community. For this reason, African sculpture is seldom concerned with anecdote, but rather seeks to portray a timeless essence.

Côte d’Ivoire/Gouro, “Masque avec animal (bélier)” (Mask with animal (ram)) (circa 19th century) H. 35.7 cm, © Museum Rietberg Zürich. Provenance Don de Eduard von der Heydt acquired before 1927. Photo by Rainer Wolfsberger

Still sometimes a location’s aesthetic codes and the work’s formal beauty are all there is to go on, as with the particularly lovely Gouroian “Masque avec animal (bélier)” (circa 19th century). It is a handsome object stuck in the general context of anonymous tribal art. In cases like this, an ethnographical documentary film informed me about the social sacred context in which the work was made and used.

Zlan (a.k.a. Sra), “Maternité” (circa 1915) 63 x 20.5 cm, Dan/Côte d’Ivoire © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre

At first, I was confronted by the work of Dan artists (generally commissioned by individuals who keep them for their prestige value and display them to friends) with a focus on seven master sculptors from the villages of Belewale and Nyor Diaple. From the Dan tribe in the region of Touba I experienced the work of Zlan (aka Sra, the creator) who was born circa 1880 and died in 1955. Sra was the most famous sculptor of Western Côte d’Ivoire, according to the curators, creating prestige objects and masks for many Dan and Mano chieftains in Liberia and for important members of the general Dan and We community. Sra’s biographer Hans Himmelheber states that Zlan’s dreams revealed not only his vocation to him, but also what forms to create, such as his outstanding piece “Maternité” (Maternity) (c.1915). It is a carving of a strong female whose eyes are disguised with kaolin and whose mouth reveals metal teeth. The metal-mouth mother stands powerfully, carrying her child on her back, her face and chest marked with striking ornate scarifications. Her head is topped off by a headdress of two shells extended by strands of woven plant fibers.

Zlan (a.k.a. Sra), “Maternité” (circa 1915) 63 x 20.5 cm, Dan/Côte d’Ivoire © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre

Next, I came across the art of the Senufo, Lobi, Guro, We, and Yaure tribes — and the generally stunning figures and masks of Baoulé artists. Such as the Maître de Himmelheber’s distinctively upwardly tilted headed “Seated Male Figure Holding Cup” (circa 19th century) and Maître de Kamer’s elegantly sober “Mask” (circa 1920).

Maître de Himmelheber (The Himmelheber Master), “Figurine masculine assise avec une coupe” (Seated Male Figure Holding Cup” (circa 19th century) H. 38.4 cm, Côte d’Ivoire/Baoulé (© DR Private Collection, provenance Hans Himmelheber collected in 1933)

Baoulé figures like “Seated Male Figure Holding Cup” were made to serve one of two kinds of traditional spirits and never to commemorate ancestors. While the ancestors are a potent force in the Baoulé world, they are never represented in sculpture but receive sacrifices on stools and chairs. This Baoulé carved figure is a blolo bian (spirit husband), as he represents an ideal spouse from the other world. The carving is the locus for this spirit spouse and becomes the center of a shrine where a jealous or vengeful spirit spouse can be appeased.

Other Baoulé figures are carved for asie usu (nature spirits) that possess or follow a person and disrupt his or her life until a shrine has been made and a private cult established. Nature spirits often require their human companion to become a komien (a professional spirit medium) and to do divinations for clients while in trance. The nature spirits or the spirit spouse for whom a figure is made will indicate to the sculptor, the client, or the diviner how the figure should be carved, and sometimes which tree in the forest should be used as the source material.

When individual names are lost to the curators, the exhibition places the sculptures in the local supernatural and stylistic context of workshops, particularly amongst the Senufo, Lobi, Dan, and Baoulé, by considering them from the perspective of their aesthetic power. Some sculptors are designated only by their region but many others do have names that are now becoming known, albeit if only by description such as from Baoulé the Maître de Himmelheber (Himmelheber Master) and Maître de Kamer (Master de Kamer), works renowned for their refinement within formal diversity. Maître de Kamer’s Baoulé’s “Mask” (circa 1920) was worn for dances where masks represented natural forces, animals or general human types, such as slave, prostitute, or dandy.

Nkpasopi a.k.a. Maître des volumes arrondis (Master of the Rounded Volumes), “Figurine Féminine” (Female Figure) (circa 1900) H. 25 cm, Côte d’Ivoire/Kyaman (© Musée Barbier-Mueller, Genève. Provenance Josef Muller acquired before 1939, photo by Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet)

From Senoufo, I encountered the Maître des Duonou (Master of Duonu) and the Maître du dos camber (Master of the Arched Back), named in that manner because the sculptors did not sign their works and their names have fallen into oblivion. We do not know for certain whether the sculptures attributed to the Master of the Rounded Volumes were all done by the same person or not, even though all “his” female figures stand perfectly upright and have muscular symmetrical legs and arms and rather rounded buttocks.

Maître des Duonou (Master of Duonu), “Zuhu Mask with Bird Head” (circa 1920) H. 44 cm, Côte d’Ivoire/Gouro, Provenance Hans Himmelheber acquired before 1934 © Museum der Kulturen, Basel

The exhibition closes with its insistence on an historical consciousness of the individual artist. This insistence drives a stake in the heart of a once widespread eschatological rhetoric: that personal orientation within the time-space of modernity has evaporated into a myriad of cultural amnesia that hovers behind post-historical reality. This post-historical reality is usually described as an implosion of avant-garde into post-avant-garde positioning within the framework of a post-modernity that has been dominated by the end of history. The end of the traditional artist, notably via the famous death of painting, has been a familiar slogan of the artistic avant-gardes since the 1920s, when artists like Kazimir Malevich proclaimed that painting had lived out its life, and the painter is nothing but a prejudice of the past. This anti-art(ist) position was reiterated by some proponents of Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art — and amplified by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault when they proclaimed the “death of the author” as creator and guarantor of meaning. To be replaced with the author function. Call in the stealth infrastructure of anonymous algorithms.

Maître d’Essankro (The Essankro Master), “Figure masculine debout” (Standing Male Figure) (circa 1880) H. 43.5 cm © DR – Private Collection. Provenance Paul Guillaume collected in 1935

This show strives to clarify the singular creators behind forever-mysterious masterpieces, thus helping us take note of the exhaustion of that speculative eschatological discourse, one that tried to displace legitimacy from the private aesthetic realm to the social-political. (Duh, it takes both.) Even as the question of regional style is still a thorny one, this show manages to cut against the always threatening anonymous (one might say corporate) urge so as to attach and highlight particular names and community workshops of the artists/magicians who made these charmed objects. Objects whose task was to reveal universal Spirit in particular sensuous form.

Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast is at the Musée du quai Branly (37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris) continues until 26 July 2015

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7 replies on “Reframing Ivory Coast’s Long-Anonymous Master Sculptors”

  1. The genius and creativity of the black race never ceases to amaze me! – so it was in the beginning so it shall be in the end!. The plundering and raping of Africa was not only in human trafficking, but in our arts & culture. Our works now sit in Paris, London, New York, Bonn and other parasitic European capitals. Is there any thing more spiritually connected and beautiful than Africentric sculptures?,especially Zimbabwe Stone Sculptures. Black is TRULY beautiful baby!!. But we have to get our treasures back into black man hands!..we will never be whole as a people – our ancestors will never rest in peace until we bring them back home into black hands in Africa or the African diaspora.

  2. Interesting article, however its too easy to use the term “African Art” in regards to “Sub-Saharan Africa”. We often forget that great nations came out of contemporary North African countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Sudan. All of which produced archival artifacts…especially Egypt. The deliberate separation of “Arab Africa” and “Black Africa” is geographically racist and a whole different discussion on to itself. I don’t think history is dead and we’re far from a utopia, we’re just all hypnotized by the fog storm of diluted accessible media. There is way too many language barriers, imperialism is very much a live, and global finance is way to ugly and complex to be “universal”.

    1. Agree.. a few years ago the whiteman’s so called schools of higher learning like Harvard, Princeton, Yale Oxford University in UK did not have African Studies departments. Egyptian ( kemet) studies was called “Oriental Studies” in order to confuse people…they did not want the world to know that Egypt was a originally a black African country before the Greeks, Persians, Romans and Arabs blood suckers came in an hijacked the country and its black heritage and culture. The Neanderthals from Europe and Asia did to Egypt what they did to R& B or Blues Music …they stole it and put a white face on it and crowned Elvis the King of Rock’Roll. Since they control the media and so-called academic institutions they can tell any lie they wanted and the LIE becomes the TRUTH . Israel is part of Africa but the white man calls it the “Middle East” to delude himself an confuse people, Israel its part of the African continental plate- you can walk from Egypt -Kemet across the Sinai desert into Israel. The Real original Jews are Black…Jesus Christ, Moses, they were all black people. Ramses, Ikhnaton and ALL the Pre-invasion Greek Pharaohs was black. They had more Pyramids in Sudan that they were in Kemet it self. Sudan , Ethiopia and all of East of Africa and was part of the Egyptian Empire. Hannibal the Great the Greatest Military General who they still study at West Point was Black. He occupied Italy and had Rome cornered for 10 years, thats why you see some of those Eyetalians with curly hair to this day ( see Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York) . The white man lives in his owns fantasy world of make believe. Every thing he has from gun powder to music to the sciences he stole from the black man and other races..He is the worlds greatest thief and parasite. From identity theft to human trafficking you name it.,… at the end of the day he is the master of bull$hit, lies and deception. He will do any thing to get that blood money in order to stay relevant. Even Picasso art form was stolen from the Black man.

  3. I think your article is well written and detailed but I still felt something was missing…. These pieces exhibited at Branly’s were once branded fetish idols and those practising these religions called heathens. I cannot imagine anyone who is devout today giving up their sacred religious artefacts so they can be displayed in a foreign land in a foreign way unless that concept of their religion was undermined. We know there was a systematic campaign to christianise the ‘savages’ so it is no surprise that these pieces, now considered to be hot property by the likes of Sotheby’s, were stolen or given. So this need to name the nameless becomes moot. These artefacts were never meant to sit on a mantelpiece, they were made to honour the dead. So why is it important to name the creator? I came across your article after visiting the exhibition and wrote my own blog on the display here

  4. However prestigious the source of this pubication may be, it’s a pity the beautiful Baule mask seems to show a fake origin. The caption pretends the mask comes from a “Private Collection (Provenance Hans Röthlingshöfer (Bâle) acquired in 1958”. However, there seems to be evidence that this mask was collected in situ by Jacques Dulhoste in 2002, then sold to Dartevelle in 2008, then to De Grune. For more information on the subject you may get in touch with Jacques Dulhoste through his Facebook account

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