Emphasising the changing aesthetic tastes of collectors and shifting patterns in the African art market, terracotta was once highly sought after, especially in the ‘60s. It was believed to provide the historic link between Egyptian art, classic archaeological material from Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Mediterranean. Terracotta was used as ‘proof’ of the proximity between cultures and the origins of humanity—even if that ‘proof’ was more visual than scientific.
Franco Monti was born in Milan in 1931. From an early age, he was interested in the arts, particularly sculpture and in the early 50’s he began modelling clay and carving stone anthropomorphic figures. He became engaged in the French school of ethnology and his interest in African art would give him a new perspective on sculpture, it became his inspiration for his extensive travels to Sub-Saharan West Africa.
In praise of clay, terracotta, stone, and soil, we explore the allure that ‘Earth’ once had through the works from the Franco Monti collection, presented at the Dorotheum ‘Tribal Art’ auction on 4 December 2018.
“Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but can be art in the right hands.”
The Shilluk in Sudan believe that God (Juok) created people from the earth using white clay for white people, brown earth for Arabs, and the best fertile black soil of the Nile for Africans. Like the Greek god Prometheus, Otala, the Yoruba orisha father, created the first humans from clay. Also in Nigeria, the Jukun believe that Ama, a shared deity with Igbo people, built humans piece-by-piece like a clay pot is layered. Many other creation mythologies all over the world, including the monotheistic religions, refer to this creation form as the beginning of mankind.
If you have ever worked with clay, you understand. It is dirt and water, a primordial substance that has no shape, that must be manipulated and worked, cold and wet. Then it is placed in a blazing oven and transformed into a material that is all that is left from most lost civilizations.
Like the iron forge, the oven is compared to a womb. By combining the elements of earth, fire, water, a new element is created. It is this knowledge that made the ceramicist and forgers so powerful—and sometimes shunned by their own people out of fear.
Among the Ashanti and related Akan ethnic groups, it was customary to place commemorative heads on the tombs and shrines of important deceased persons. The relatively long ringed neck of an nsodia head is surmounted by a disc-shaped or oval head with a wider upper section. They have solemn expressions, often gazing up. On the back of the head, a hole is visible that prevents the terracotta piece from cracking when being baked. These heads are dated as far back as the 17th-18th century. Made of the eternal material, they remain as a vessel for deceased spirits.
After all is gone, the terracotta shards remain.
Joris Visser's passion for African art started at a young age—his father, Jan Visser was the curator for African Art at the Tropenmuseum. Studying Art History and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, Joris wrote his thesis on the legitimisation of African art in Western museums. He has since participated in all the 'tribal' art fairs of Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Brussels, over the last 25 years. Joris is now currently the 'tribal' art expert at Dorotheum, one of the world's oldest auction houses.