Over a hundred years ago, a tyre salesman called Paul Guillaume was rooting about for a spare wheel at the back of the smart garage where he worked in Paris’s Montparnasse.
Amongst the pieces of rubber shipped from Africa, he found some carvings that had been used as ballast. So interested was he in his findings that he showed them to two of his customers — the artists Derain and Vlaminck — before sending them onto others, including the writer and collector Apollinaire.
Guillaume soon cast himself as art dealer (his first artist being Modigliani), organising important exhibitions such as the Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien — the catalogue of which included a foreword by Apollinaire.
Left: Left: Sra, Large mask with frontal vein and articulated inferior mandible, circa 1930. Côte d’Ivoire, southern region. © DR. Courtesy of a private collection, acquired before 1965. Right: Uopie, Sengle, singing mask, circa 1920. Liberia, eastern region, Nyor Diaple. © Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Don d'Arturo and Paul Realto Ramos
The show marked the beginning of a long relationship between Tribal and Modern European Art, which has flourished in Paris ever since Picasso took a wrong turning in the city’s Musée de Trocadéro, arrived at the African galleries to be astounded, moved, and profoundly influenced by what he saw — as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shows.
The Parisian interest in Tribal art was perpetuated by influential figures such as discerning collector Georges de Miré, and the extraordinarily prescient dealer Charles Ratton. Interest soon spread to New York and, after a show by Alfred Stieglitz in 1914, came to the attention of major collectors and museums.
Paris, however, is still the leader in all things tribal — as proven by a major exhibition at the city’s Musée du Quai Branly, and Christie’s upcoming sale of an extraordinary piece of Tribal art.
First, the exhibition: Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire (Masters of Sculpture from the Ivory Coast).
Left: Left: Dyeponyo, Mask with feminine features (fragment), circa 1910. Côte d’Ivoire, wobe region. © Karob Collection, Boston, USA. Right: Master of Himmelheber, Masculine figurine seated with bowl, 19th. Côte d’Ivoire, Baoulé region © DR. Courtesy of a private collection
It used to be that some sculptors from the region could only be loosely identified by area of production; thanks to exemplary curatorial research, however, many are now known by name.
Over 300 works by the greatest sculptors of the Cote d’Ivoire have been brought together by curator Eberhard Fischer, an ethnologist and former director of the Musée Rietberg, Zürich and Lorenz Homberger, the former curator of African and Oceanic Art at the same institution.
With very little art historical information, the development of many of these masterpieces remains shrouded in mystery. Most of those presented in the exhibition date from the late 19th and early 20th Century; their predecessors, being made of wood, have been lost forever, so we will never know what went before.
With this spectacular exhibition the museum stoutly defends the argument that tribal art is composed by individual artists. The exhibition offers an insight into the workshops of master sculptors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, questioning how Tribal art came to have a global influence
The exhibition also touches on the works’ geographical, religious and social contexts, initiating an eye more habituated to Western art history to the beauty and aesthetic codes of the region that inspired Picasso to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and gave Cubism its momentum.
Masters of Sculpture from the Ivory Coast is at the Musée du Quai Branly until 26 July.
The Numinous Kota
The William Rubin Kota, Master artist, Gabon, 19th century. Wood, brass, copper, iron. Height: 26 in. (66 cm.) © 2015 Visko Hatfield. This work is offered in our Arts d’Afrique, d’Oceanie et d’Amerique du Nord sale on 23 June at Christie’s in Paris
On June 23, Christie’s Paris will be selling the William Rubin Kota. If there is one work of Tribal art that has threaded its way through major collections, starred in ground breaking exhibitions and flowed into the veins of 20th century Modernism, it is this spectacular and numinous piece, which speaks to us across culture and time.
Kotas are wooden, copper plated figures, which were revered objects, lashed to large reliquary baskets where they guarded the relics of ancestors with their knowing eyes. They are overtly simple, features being reduced to a longitudinal stripe for a nose, their watchful eyes represented by oval forms filled with screws.
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The first Kota sculptures arrived in the collection of the Paris’s Musée de Trocadero in 1887. The Kota set to be sold at Christie’s was exhibited as part of the Exposition d’Art Africain et d’Art Océanien in 1930 — where it was spotted by the dedicated and knowledgeable collector Helena Rubinstein, who bought it. Five years later it was one of the stars of a landmark exhibition of African art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York mounted by Alfred Barr, with photographs by Walker Evans.
The Kota then entered the prestigious Kreeger collection and, in 1981, was acquired by William Rubin, the steely-eyed curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Exhibited alongside several other works from the same region, the piece changed Rubin’s understanding of the origins of Modernism — the curator choosing to show his prize Kota in the landmark exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern.
To see this Kota, as I was lucky enough to do when it was on show at Christie’s London (as it is again from10-15 June), is to be amazed by its simplicity and its very complex and powerful ambience; such a guardian of ancestors. There is no doubt the next chapter in its history will be equally as distinguished as its voyage through the 20th Century.
Main image at top: Maître de la coiffure en crête de coq. Couple de figurines tugubélé, circa 1930. Côte d’Ivoire, centre du pays sénoufo. © Museum Rietberg Zürich, photo: Rainer Wolfsberger. Courtesy Collection Marianne et Helmut Zimmer
Read more of Meredith Etherington-Smith in this index of her weekly Antenna Columns. For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily