‘There’s an expression: “Time is the greatest sculptor,”’ says Bruno Claessens, Head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s in Paris. ‘Being outside, exposed to tough climatic conditions for more than three centuries, this wood Mbembe figure from Nigeria became weathered,’ he explains. ‘Time sculpted it further, revealing the grain of the wood. The facial expressions are softer, and there’s a sense of timelessness to it.’
Offered on 27 June at Christie’s in Paris, the female figure comes from the Cross River region, near the Cameroonian border. When it was first crafted, it would have sat on the edge of an enormous slit drum made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. ‘If you look at the grain of the sculpture you can see exactly how it used to be attached,’ Claessens says.
In this corner of Nigeria, these vast slit drums were central to community life. Housed in a dedicated sanctuary, the drums served as an altar, and were also the means by which the community was apprised of important developments. Their sound could be heard more than 10 kilometres away, so they were also used to communicate with neighbouring villages.
‘Either end of the drum would feature a carved figure, male on one end, female on the other,’ explains the specialist. ‘While the male figure alluded to the heroism of the community's defenders, the female would have been one of the village’s key ancestors and represented prosperity through offspring.’
Claessens and other African Art specialists have an idea of what a complete drum would have looked like because two exist intact — more than 3 metres long, dated to circa 1550, and weighing around 1,000 kg. (Both are held in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.) The figures that decorated them are similarly rare: in total, fewer than 20 are known to exist.
‘These figures have a weathered aesthetic that sets them apart from what we consider canonical African art from other countries’
By the beginning of the 20th century, the massive drums had fallen into disuse. ‘Communities moved on and discarded them, but the figures were deemed important enough to be preserved because they represented the ancestors and history of these groups,’ says Claessens.
But if the figures were preserved, significant erosion occurred over the centuries. ‘They have a weathered, almost archaic aesthetic that sets them apart from the art of other African countries — from what we consider canonical African art, such as Fang and Dan works,’ the specialist explains. ‘As a result they were initially not particularly appreciated.’
This began to change in 1974, with a seminal exhibition in Paris curated by art dealer Hélène Kamer, now Hélène Leloup. Working with a Malian dealer called O. Traoré, she was able to bring together 12 of these figures, including this one (pictured fifth from the right, above), and presented them to the Parisian art scene in an exhibition called Ancêtres M’Bembe. Before 1974, none of these figures had been seen in Europe.
Ahead of her show, Kamer sold one figure to the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens (now part of the Musée du Quai Branly), which is today exhibited in the Pavillon des Sessions in the Louvre. This piece was almost certainly by the same sculptor as the figure to be offered at Christie’s. Of the works in the 1974 exhibition, two others were also attributed to this artist, one of which is currently held in the Beyeler Foundation in Basel.
‘That means that four works in total can be attributed to the same master sculptor who was active 300 years ago in southeastern Nigeria,’ says Claessens. ‘This is very rare in African art, particularly of this period.’
The collectors who subsequently gravitated to these figures, such as Liliane and Michel Durand-Dessert, who acquired the piece, were avant-garde in their outlook. ‘They bought objects that came on the market straight from Nigeria, and which nobody in Europe had seen before,’ explains Claessens. ‘It’s only now that we’re starting to see many of these works being offered for perhaps the second time. And now we have the benefit of a couple of decades of field research, publications and key exhibitions that have made clear their significance.’
One such exhibition, in 2014, was a complete recreation of the seminal 1974 Paris show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was staged to celebrate the fact that The Met had recently acquired a Mbembe statue — purchased through Christie’s. This was an important moment, the specialist explains, since it indicated an appetite for these works on the part of major institutions.
‘Compared to art from other African countries, Nigerian art is still immensely underappreciated. But it is now having a moment,’ he says. ‘Today, we have a better idea of what’s out there, what exists, which works are excellent and which are just average. Interest will only grow. Never before has there been so much good Nigerian material in just one sale at Christie’s, and it's really a market-making moment. We want to put these works on the map and give them the attention and the platform they deserve.’