PARIS — In his prescient book Black Sculpture (1915), Carl Einstein describes certain transcendent examples of African sculpture as a form of “fixed ecstasy.” That interpretation suits the awe-inspiring poise of “The Black Venus” (aka “eyema byeri” and “Pahouin Venus”), an inscrutable, brightly varnished, 19th-century reliquary carving from the Fang (Betsi) tribe. The sculpture aesthetically dominates Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique (“Masterpieces from Africa”), an exhibition of more than 100 pieces from the Musée Dapper’s collection of sub-Saharan African art. It is a stunningly beautiful object that projects grace and dark luminosity through the figure’s face and body. The figure sits strongly or, rather, floats in an ineffable radiance, transmitting an emotion of effortless, stoic tenderness. The sculpture’s color is that of shiny, soft tar, like one might see on country roads in the heat of summer.
Looking at this sculpture, with its magical elegance, helps explain how and why African art came to be such an inspiration to rich bohemians like Nancy Cunard and early 20th-century avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Matisse. As far back as 1912 the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc included African artifacts (as art) in their Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, which was funded by the collector Bernhard Koehler. In 1916, the year that Dada sprang to life, artist-writer-gallerist Marius de Zayas published African Negro Art: Its Influence on Modern Art, exploring a subject that had already occupied Tristan Tzara deeply.
As part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of Dada, the Museum Rietberg in Zurich is presenting Dada Afrika, the first show to focus on the Dadaists’ craze for the art of Africa — a craze that Barry Schwabsky has characterized as riddled with sketchy politics and poetics of race. Even before Dada, de Zayas first saw African art in Paris and recognized its influences on the development of Modern art there. Subsequently, he proposed an exhibition of African art to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who once owned the 19th-centuty Kota (or Ndassa) “Reliquary Figure” piece featured in the Musée Dapper show. In 1914, one of the first shows of African art framed in the context of modern art was held at Stieglitz’s New York City gallery 291. Other pieces in the Dapper show previously belonged to Tzara, Charles Ratton, Paul Guillaume (the French art dealer who brought African art to the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn organized the Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien in 1919), and sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Curated by Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique follows in this long tradition of Europeans’ fascination with the formal aspects of African art. She has divided it into two large sections, with art from Central Africa on the ground level and West Africa on the second floor. The pieces are generously arrayed throughout, providing plenty of room to move around the well-lit sculptures so as to concentrate on their multifaceted forms. Among the highlights are the wood figures carved by Fang, Baoulé, and Dogon artists, like the Dogon masterwork “Equestrian Figure” (circa 17th/18th century), but also the 18th-century disk of wax-cast gold, “Pectoral disk akrafokonmu,” from the Ashanti people of Ivory Coast.
The Musée Dapper exhibition follows on the heels of another outstanding show of African art in Paris, last year’s Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte-d’Ivoire (“Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast”) at the Musée du Quai Branly. But this show is personal. Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique honors the Musée Dapper’s founding connoisseur, Michel Leveau, who died in 2012 on the island of Gorée, off Dakar (Senegal), as he was preparing an exhibition. Long passionate about Africa after working in mining industries throughout the continent, including in Mali, Senegal, and Gabon, Leveau created the Dapper Foundation for African Arts in 1983 in Amsterdam. The name of both the foundation and the museum is a reference to the 17th century Dutch humanist writer Olfert Dapper, who wrote Description of Africa in 1668.
Leveau never acquired anything while in Africa, but bought exclusively in the West, especially at Sotheby’s and from Rive Gauche galleries and private collectors, including Robert Visser, Carlo Monzino, André Fourquet, and Hubert Goldet. Leveau opened the Musée Dapper in Paris in May 1986 and it is now led by Leveau’s widow, who also curated this show. Her selection includes countless unique pieces, like the sculptures from Gabon by the Fang, Kota, and Punu tribes; by the Bangwa tribe in Cameroon; the Fon tribe of Benin; and Mali’s Dogon and Soninke people. Evidently, Leveau appreciated provenance, as evidenced by the fact that some of the pieces in the collection were formerly owned by Helena Rubinstein, Lester Wunderman, Louis Carré, and Georges de Miré. “The Black Venus” once belonged to Epstein.
The other carving that I found outstanding, aesthetically striking, and genuinely delightful for its synthesis of introspective contemplation and formal detail, is the Baoulé “Statuette de conjoint mystique blolo bian” (“Spouse Statuette Mystical Blolo Bian,” circa 19th century) from Ivory Coast. This intensely detailed piece is terrific in terms of its magical presence, even as it does not appear to be a work by the renowned Baoulé Himmelheber Master (it lacks the distinctive upwardly tilted head). As with many Baoulé figures, “Statuette de conjoint mystique blolo bian” is a blolo bian (spirit husband), representing a magical supreme spouse from the netherworld. This debonair carving was once the center of a magical shrine where a jealous or vengeful spirit spouse could be appeased.
Also grabbing my attention was the lugubrious, magical-religious “Nkisi Statuette” (late 18th century) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was made by the Bakongo people. During the colonial period, these types of amalgamated, hybrid statuettes were called “fetishes” or “nail fetishes,” as some of them are covered with nails from head to toe. But nkisi also refers to an invisible world of personalized power that can be controlled by means of ritual practices. Carved often as a human or a dog, the statuettes’ eyes are usually inlaid pieces of glass or mirrors. They also include a receptacle containing different substances that is frequently attached to the skull or affixed to the abdomen. The stuff inside is what magically activates the statue. For me, this object’s look of spectacular, spirited defiance is salutary.
Bakongo figures’ commanding appearance, which some see as threatening, makes them a popular symbol of African witchcraft, but they are produced with a wide variety of soothsayer intentions. With them, perhaps, we can understand why the European Modernists’ engagement with African art was primarily limited to its formal qualities, as the meaning and function of the art’s devotional magic remains relatively mysterious even now, not least of all because the objects were often intended to serve multiple functions. For example, the Soninke “Altar Figure” (circa 10th century) from Mali has a strange sculptural quality that is beguilling. Was it used in initiation rituals for those developing esoteric knowledge? Was it employed in a ceremony that worshipped the ancestors? Did it ensure the fertility of women and the land? Was it used for purposes of curing the sad or ill? Or was it all the above?
In an art world overshadowed by the supposed clarity of celebrity branding and market valuations, studying Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique reveals a plethora of genuine mysteries behind the spiritual and social imperatives that greatly shaped and inspired what we now call Modern art.