Founded by Michel Leveau (1930–2012) under The Dapper Foundation in 1986, the Musée Dapper was opened in Paris with the mission ‘to promote the traditional arts of sub-Saharan Africa’. 31 years later, and with 50 exhibitions under its belt, the Musée Dapper believes that this mission has been successfully achieved and will permanently close its Europeans doors on June 18, 2017—the last day of its last exhibition, ‘Masterpieces from Africa’.
‘Masterpieces from Africa’, a tribute exhibition to Michel Leveau, brings together 130 major pieces of classic African art that have, until now, never been presented together. In this article, we celebrate some of the Musée Dapper masterpieces that currently grace the exhibition floor—masterpieces that will never be shown in this space again.
“[Michel Leveau] never acquired anything in situ but bought exclusively in the West, at auction houses (especially Sotheby’s), from Parisian galleries, and from private collectors. He was a connoisseur with a trained and sure eye and an appreciation for provenance, as demonstrated by the fact that many of the pieces in the collection were formerly the property of figures like Charles Ratton, Helena Rubinstein, Jacob Epstein, and Georges de Miré. Although he was by no means a socialite, he was part of a small group of active collectors in Paris, which included individuals like André Fourquet and Hubert Goldet.”—Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, Director, Musée Dapper
Ethnic Group: Fang, Betsi
Object: Eyema Byeri (Reliquary Guardian Figure)
Dimensions: Height = 22.1 inches
Provenance: Musée Dapper || Georges de Miré, Paris || Louis Carre, Paris (1931) || Sir Jacob Epstein, London || Carlo Monzino, Lugano
The elegance, poise, and black depth of this female figure, exudes the power eyema byeri ‘containers’ need in order to house the guardian spirits of Fang ancestors. Allowing the living to communicate with the ancestor residing within her, this ‘African Venus’—as described in 1933 by the London Lefevre galleries—was one of 11 Fang heads and figures that made up the renowned Jacob Epstein African art collection. Her heart shaped face, speaks to the love and serenity she possesses, while the rounded curves of her arms and thighs speak to her ability to carry the weight of responsibility.
Country: The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Kota, Ndassa
Object: Boho Na Bwete (Reliquary Guardian Figure)
Materials: Wood, Copper, Brass
Dimensions: Height = 23.6 inches
Provenance: Paul Guillaume, New York || Alfred Stieglitz, New York
Like the Fang, the Kota store the bones of deceased chiefs in woven baskets and crown them with boho na bwete reliquary figures. It is believed that this practice ensures the protection and survival of the family group. This Musée Dapper Kota was collected and sold by New York dealers Paul Guillaume (1891–1934) and Alfred Stieglit (1864–1946) respectively. They were both instrumental in changing perceptions of African art from artefacts to fine art. Stieglitz’s 1914 exhibition ‘Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art’, was the first exhibition in the U.S. dedicated to the classic art of Africa.
Country: The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ethnic Group: Kongo
Object: Nkisi (Power Figure)
Materials: Wood, Feathers, Plant Fibres, Composite Materials, Shell, Metal, Mirror, Skin, Pigments
Dimensions: Height = 15 inches
Provenance: Robert Visser, Düsseldorf (1903)
Nkisi figures and objects were used by the Kongo to defend communities and individuals from illness, witchcraft, and infertility. They were also used for evil, to bring misfortune, sickness, and sometimes death of enemies. This figure was once owned by Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Robert Visser (1860–1937), plantation director for the Dutch trading company, Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels Vennootscha. During his time in DR Congo, Visser amassed a collection of nkisi figures which he eventually sold off in 1904.
Ethnic Group: Bangwa
Object: Njuindem (Priestess Figure)
Dimensions: Height = 33.5 inches
Provenance: Gustav Conrau (1897–1898) || Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin (before 1926) || Arthur Speyer, Berlin (1929–1934) || Charles Ratton, Paris (1934–1935) || Helena Rubinstein, New York (1935–1966) || Harry A. Franklin, Los Angeles (1990)
‘Trophy’—this figure is a trophy in every sense of the word. Owned by royalty in her Bangwa hometown, cherished by important collectors of classic African art, exhibited in major shows, photographed by Man Ray, and published in almost every important African art book. Is there anywhere this beauty hasn’t been?
Njuindem (meaning ‘woman of god’; also called ngwindem or anyi) maternity figures are carved to represent mothers of twins and royal wives of the chief. Helena Rubinstein purchased this njuindem figure from Ratton in the 1930s, later being sold at Sotheby’s in 1990 for $3.4 million, smashing the then record for African art.
Country: Republic of Benin
Ethnic Group: Fon
Artist: Ganhu Huntondji
Object: Bocio (King Glele Figure)
Dimensions: Height = 41.3 inches
Provenance: Made before 1889 || Belonged to the ‘treasury of King Behanzin’ || Achille Lemoine || Charles Ratton (1926)
King Glele (reigning from 1858–1889) commissioned the artist Ganhu Huntondji, to create this figure to honour King Guezo (1818–1858), Glele’s father. The figure is said to represent King Glele as the war god, Gu (he holds two swords called gubasa, the weapons associated with the god of war). Positioned in front of the main Abomey gate to the kingdom, it was believed that this figure offered protection to the king, his court, and his people from malicious external forces.