Migrating Objects

Preview of the Peggy Guggenheim African Art Exhibition

April 05, 2020 By: Kathryn Cua

The multitudes of Peggy Guggenheim live on in the public imagination of contemporary society in a number of ways, for better or worse. She’s survived by her reputation as the eccentric heiress to the famous New York City Guggenheim family fortune, the memory of her botched nose job, and the written accounts of her very public love affairs. But above all, she’s remembered and revered for her unwavering dedication to championing contemporary art and artists of her time. Her vision to build this collection of what we now understand as Modern art—let alone during a time when very few others afforded artistic merit to it—is what, in the words of Larry Gagosian, has immortalised her presence on this earth.

The collection that succeeds the famed art patroness is now housed in The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, an art museum in Venice, Italy. In 1947, Guggenheim purchased the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an unfinished 18th-century palace along the Grand Canal. She decorated her home with the artworks from her collection and opened it to the public in 1951. Three afternoons a week from April through October, guests could float from room to room and view artworks by Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, and Salvador Dali among other Modern “masters”. Her home quickly became a destination for art-lovers around the country and beyond. Today, the museum boasts a collection of more than 400 definitive artworks from the early 20th century’s leading artists.

Guggenheim’s collecting focus centred on American and European artworks between the years 1938 and 1946. However, unbeknownst to most, her attention shifted to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Indigenous Americas in the late 1950s. A current exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection called ‘Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection‘, turns a curatorial eye to this lesser-known part of the art patroness’ massive collection.

‘Migrating Objects’ showcases Guggenheim’s non-Western art objects as a cohesive whole for the first time ever. The exhibition opened 15 February 2020, and is set to be on view until 14 June of this year. However, with the global impact of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, particularly on Italy, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection announced on its website that the museum will be closed in compliance with the Decree of the President of the Council of Ministers dated 1 April 2020. The Italian government extended the country’s anti-coronavirus lockdown to 13 April 2020—this closure is unfortunately set to last for much longer.

"I dedicated myself to my collection. I am not an art collector. I am a museum.”

— Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century

In preparation for Migrating Objects, the museum formed a Curatorial Advisory Committee, which did extensive research on the 35 objects presented in the exhibition. The committee is composed of Christa Clarke, an independent curator and scholar of arts of global Africa and affiliate of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research; Vivien Greene, the senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; R. Tripp Evans, a professor of the history of art at Wheaton College, Massachusetts; Ellen McBreen, an associate professor of the history of art at Wheaton College, Massachusetts; and Fanny Wonu Veys, a curator of Oceania at the National Museum of World Cultures. The landmark exhibition mirrors an internal desire to draw attention to the underrepresented parts of the collection. Karole Vail, who became the museum’s director in 2017, has sought to use her directorship to demystify and paint a fuller picture of Guggenheim’s collecting interests, which clearly extended far past the Western world.

Like many other Western audiences, Peggy Guggenheim’s exposure to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Indigenous Americas was mediated by Modern art. In her case, more specifically, Guggenheim’s exposure came by way of one artist in particular: her then-husband, Surrealist artist Max Ernst. Guggenheim became interested in non-Western material culture in the early 1940s during her brief marriage to the artist who was an ardent collector of Oceanic and Indigenous art of the Americas. Married in 1942, Ernst and Guggenheim shared a New York apartment that they filled with art. They exhibited Ernst’s collection alongside works made by their mutual artist friends. A year later, the couple split and Ernst took every last work of art with him. It wasn’t until 1959 after she opened her collection to the general public and permanently settled in Venice that Guggenheim began to acquire African art.

When she displayed these historical works in her Venetian palace, she did so alongside the arts of Europe she collected, drawing upon visual connections she made between the two. Migrating Objects recreated a pairing she made between a d’mba Baga headdress from Guinea and Picasso’s 1928 painting, The Studio. The d’mba depicts an abstraction of a feminine ideal, and McBreen suggested that Guggenheim knew full well that Picasso was inspired by the headdress’ complex language of abstraction. “We know that by 1928, Picasso owned a d’mba Baga headdress just like this…So her taste and the connections that she was making between the arts of Europe and the arts of Africa was very much part of a much longer history of artists of the early part of the twentieth century appropriating and borrowing ideas for their abstraction,” McBreen said.

“I could not afford to buy anything that I wanted, so I turned to another field... I began buying pre-Columbian and primitive art."

Although Guggenheim had expressed a genuine interest and appreciation of these works, the rekindling of her interest in non-Western material culture came out of her incidental distaste for what was popular. Guggenheim championed and collected the work of her artist friends at a point in time that they were considered underdogs. By 1959, contemporary art was considered to be en vogue and became very covetable to own. With the rise in price coupled with Guggenheim’s dislike for the money-driven art market, she began to look elsewhere. She bought Ernst’s collection off of him piece by piece and also consulted dealers such as Julius Carlebach, Franco Monti, and Paolo Barozzi. She was considered to be a latecomer to collecting African art, so surely these dealers had provided some guidance in her selections. But it being Guggenheim, she always followed her own vision.

Guggenheim’s interest in African art, much like her artist contemporaries, was deeply rooted in an inexplicable attraction to these objects because of their decorative nature, aesthetic qualities, as well as their perceived mystique. Although she truly cared for these works, she, like many other Modernists, simply did not feel compelled to learn about the meaning and value of the objects she collected or the proper contexts in which they were intended to be shown and used. She often showed these traditional objects alongside contemporary artworks, creating some type of ahistorical, purely aesthetic exhibition. Ellen McBreen said that this exhibition seeks to reconcile “two competing stories,” properly contextualising and historicising the ‘tribal’ objects while also granting credence to the Modernists’ projections of their meanings and the ways these imagined ideas informed their art.

The effort to confront Western biases in the reading of these objects is particularly salient when considering the presentation of the Gabon reliquary guardian figure. The reliquary ensemble, called the mbulu ngulu, was made by an unrecorded Kota artist. It consists of a face-like upper register anchored by a lozenge-shaped base. Within the object’s original context, the lozenge-shaped base was meant to attach to a basket that held the remains of an ancestor. In the gallery space, however, the object is displayed on a pedestal in a white cube gallery, unable to perform its intended function. According to McBreen, many Europeans, Picasso included, read the lozenge-shaped base as an abstraction of the human figure rather than a fastener of sorts. In a 1908 painting of his, which was soon after he acquired one of his Kota reliquaries, Picasso based the figure of a dancer on the lozenge-shaped base, reading it as abstract anatomy and interpreting it as arm and limb.

While this exhibition makes it a point to contextualise Guggenheim’s African art collection, it was also important to the Curatorial Advisory committee that ‘Migrating Objects’ highlight the misunderstandings, projections, and personal values that audiences hold when viewing artwork from different cultures.”The title ‘Migrating Objects’ evokes the great physical distance,” McBreen said. “And when those objects migrated, much of the original contextual information of those objects were lost. In its place, many of the artists who collected objects like this, and Peggy Guggenheim herself, projected their own meanings and in many cases, mythic meanings onto these objects. So as objects migrated, so did their meanings.”

Peggy Guggenheim was often photographed alongside the African art in her collection and based on those photographs, it is thought that her private collection consisted of close to fifty artworks from Africa and Oceania. With the exhibition now temporarily closed to the public, we highlight some of these pictures of Guggenheim with her collection along with a preview of the African artworks on view and descriptions from the exhibition guide below.

"I found myself the proud possessor of 12 fantastic artifacts, consisting of masks and sculptures from New Guinea, the Belgian Congo, the French Sudan, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and New Ireland."

Exhibition Room 1: Mythologising the Dogon

Left Image: Seated male figure made by an unknown Dogon artist from the N’duleri region in Mali, in the first half of 20th century. Artwork and exhibition photographs by Matteo De Fina © Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Right Image: Peggy Guggenheim with her Dogon figure in the entrance hall of her eighteenth-century Venetian palace, the ‘Palazzo Venier dei Leoni’. Hanging from the ceiling is a 1941 Alexander Calder mobile and behind her is a 1937 painting by Picasso ‘On The Beach’. Photograph courtesy Keystone Features/Getty Images

The varied groups of peoples who settled amid the steep sandstone cliffs of Mali’s Bandiagara region several centuries ago have collectively, if imperfectly, come to be known as Dogon in the twentieth century. Their arts are among the most researched, collected—and mythologised—in all of Africa. During the 1930s, Dogon culture was the focus of French ethnographic missions, many of which were led by anthropologist Marcel Griaule, and captured the attention of Surrealist writers and artists.

Though Dogon peoples had long interacted with neighbouring groups and area traders, and more recently, with French colonisers, their visual traditions were presented as timeless and unchanging. Moreover, French ethnographers typically read works of art through the lens of Dogon stories of origin, favouring myth over historical specificity.

Iconographic elements on the objects here reflect elements of the Dogon creation myth. The vessel, used to hold sacrificial offerings of goat and sheep meat during annual ceremonies, is known as aduno koro, meaning “ark of the world.” The name refers to the ark sent to earth by Amma the Creator with the original eight human ancestors. The equestrian figure on the lidded container recalls the primordial being, Nommo, who accompanied the ark on its journey and then transformed into a horse to pull it across the land to water. The two disks that form the stool of the seated male figure are often viewed as symbolic representations of earth and sky. While such interpretations may be valid, they can preclude a fuller understanding of the circumstances surrounding the creation and use of the individual works.

Exhibition Room 2: Baga D'ma Headdress and Kota Reliquary Guardian Figure

Left Image: D’mba headdress made by an unknown Baga artist from Guinea, in first half of 20th century.
Right Image: Peggy Guggenheim with her Dogon figure in the entrance hall of her eighteenth-century Venetian palace, the ‘Palazzo Venier dei Leoni’. Photograph courtesy Keystone Features/Getty Images

Peggy Guggenheim began collecting African art in 1959, just prior to the “Year of Africa” —when seventeen African nations declared their independence. But most collectors’ preferences were unrelated to the works’ contemporary African contexts. By selecting this Baga d’mba headdress from Guinea and the Kota reliquary guardian figure from Gabon, Guggenheim followed tastes that the artistic avant-garde had established in the early 1900s. These two African traditions were closely associated with Pablo Picasso’s art and likely played a role in her selection.

The Kota figure from a reliquary ensemble (mbulu ngulu) exemplifies the extreme re-contextualization that African objects experienced (and still do) when they migrated to Europe or the United States, where they are often exhibited in fragmentary form. The unadorned lower portion of the lozenge-shaped base, which anchored the object inside a basket holding ancestral remains or diviner’s substances, was not meant to be seen.

Likewise, the Baga headdress is only one element from a complex dance masquerade. A male performer carries it on his shoulders and, also, wears a raffia skirt and a shawl that hides the mask’s extended legs. French colonial forces suppressed these performances in the early twentieth century. After Guinea’s independence in 1958, Muslim leaders again challenged the tradition, contributing to the depletion of these ritual objects from Baga communities. After decades of censorship, the ceremony and headdress underwent a popular revival in the 1990s.

The majestic d’mba often dominated Guggenheim’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni foyer, installed alongside works by Picasso, such as ‘The Studio’ (1928). Picasso acquired a Baga shoulder dance mask of this type around the same time he painted The Studio. He also owned at least two Kota reliquaries, representing one of many traditions from which Picasso borrowed strategies for reorganising human anatomy. For instance, in Half-Length Portrait of a Man in a Striped Jersey (1939), he embedded two sharp pyramids into the oval normally used to represent a head. Once Picasso self-servingly insisted that the African sculptures in his studio were “more witnesses than models,” but their formal and conceptual impact on his work is undeniable.

Exhibition Room 5: Toma, and Mukinka Masks

Left Image: Angbai or Nyanbai mask made by an unknown Toma or Loma artist from Guinea, in the first half of 20th century.
"It is my destiny to seek the impossible. In whatever form you meet him, it fascinates me, while escaping the easy things in life." Peggy Guggenheim, A Life for Art

The masks in this gallery are tangible remnants of performances which still sometimes occur in Africa and Oceania. Because of their striking features, masks like these, once removed from their original contexts, are too often appreciated only for their aesthetic and perceived fantastical qualities. But the masks had complex attributes and appeared in specific settings, frequently as one component of an elaborate, multipart costume. Those elements are as relevant as the individual masks themselves. Even so, masks can provide an opportunity to consider the range of meanings they had for their makers and users.

While their geometric stylization captured the aesthetic imagination of Western artists, Toma masks had a powerful spiritual function in the West African men’s Poro society, a cross-ethnic political and judicial association responsible for overseeing the initiation of young boys. The horns refer to the potent forces of the wilderness, which protect the vulnerable youth, while the absent mouth may remind initiates that the knowledge they acquire must remain secret.

Among Salampasu communities in central Africa, the mukinka mask historically could only be worn and performed by high-ranking members of the Mugongo society of warriors on special occasions, such as funerals of important men. A symbol of status and wealth, the mask included a woven-fibre shirt and an animal-hide skirt. The mukinka masking performances were largely abandoned in the early 1960s, due to a local iconoclastic movement, but some artists continued to create masks for foreign markets, capitalizing on their economic opportunities.

Exhibition Room 6: Adugbologe-Workshop Ago Egungun Headdress

Left Image: Ago egungun headdress made by an unknown Yoruba artist (ca. 1875–1949) from the workshop of Oniyide Adugbologe in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
Right Image: Peggy Guggenheim with her ago egungun headdress. Photograph courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Collection

This headdress has been attributed to the Adugbologe atelier, a family-based workshop of sculptors in the Yoruba city of Abeokuta, Nigeria. Since at least the nineteenth century, they created objects that served the ritual and prestige needs of local patrons. By the first decades of the twentieth century, they expanded their clientele. When locally commissioned sculpture was deemed unacceptable by the patron on artistic, technical, or even spiritual grounds, they often sold it to tourists and expatriates. At mid-century the atelier shifted almost entirely to commodity carving for external markets, a transitional period of artistic production during which this work was made.

In its original contexts, the Ago Egungun was intended for dances honoring the social values of maternity. Its colors have rich symbolism. Blue, for example, indicates the calm associated with ideal motherhood. However, once they reached the West, creations such as these took on new, and involuntary, lives as repositories of fantasies. Artists and collectors often believed African sculpture represented timeless or static traditions. This headdress upends that cliché, however, because it was made by skilled specialists responding to modern market forces.

Guggenheim perpetuated a “primitivist” mythology with freewheeling combinations of cultures in her home. She moved the Ago Egungun from room to room, but her frequent placement of it before Louis Marcoussis’s The Regular (1920) emphasised common visual features: the coincidental overlap of colours, or the stately presentation of a figure seated within a framework of highly coded abstract elements. The pairing implied that Marcoussis somehow built on the “ancient” language of Africa, but it is entirely possible that this Yoruba object was made after the painting. The affinities Guggenheim suggested were far removed from the headdress’s original functions and instead reinforced the Eurocentric theory that Parisian twentieth-century interwar Cubism was a universal language without borders.

Exhibition Room 7: The Iconic Chi Wara

Left Image: Male chi wara headdress made by an unknown Bamana artist from the Ségou region in Mali in the first half of 20th century.
Right Image: Peggy Guggenheim in the library of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Photograph courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Bamana chi wara headdresses, which entered Western collections by the 1880s, are among the most recognizable forms of African art. Historically, they were created to be worn in performances honouring Chi Wara, the half-human, half-animal divine being credited with introducing agricultural skills to Bamana communities in Mali. Though often referred to as “antelope headdresses,” they are actually based on the physical features of a combination of animals, including aardvarks and pangolins, in addition to antelopes. All of these animals are regarded as having skills needed for successful farming, such as digging, and as such, serve as appropriate symbols.

In the past, chi wara headdresses would be performed by young men in male-female pairs in dance ceremonies that encouraged and supported farmers while working in the fields. The headdress would be attached to the head by means of a basketry cap, and the dancer’s face and body concealed with layers of raffia fibre. In recent decades, chi wara is performed mostly for popular entertainment and the form of the headdress has been adopted as a symbol of Malian identity.

Exhibition Room 8: Senufo Style and the International Art Market

Left Image: Figure of a hornbill made by an unknown Senufo artist from Ivory Coast, made in the first half of 20th century.
Right Image: Photograph of Peggy Guggenheim by Carlo Bavagnoli (1932).

Beginning in the late 1950s, Robert Goldwater, the director of New York’s Museum of Primitive Art, mounted a series of influential exhibitions that sought to define artistic styles of individual African cultures. Among them was Senufo Sculpture from West Africa in 1963, which presented art of an area where the present-day nations of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali meet. Works from this region were plentiful on the market at the time through a combination of circumstances, including discarded cultural traditions, economic opportunity, and outright theft. Among some Senufo communities in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, masks and figural sculptures were being abandoned or destroyed by followers of Massa, a movement intended to restore social order after the end of forced labour by the French in 1946.

Guggenheim’s collection has a particular concentration of objects attributed to Senufo artists, reflecting their greater availability at mid-century. Figurative sculptures (pombia) were typically made for use in funerary ceremonies honouring deceased members of the largely male Poro association. Historically, they were male-female pairs, like the couple here, and produced in limited quantities by master sculptors. As the sculpture came onto the international art market, thanks to the iconoclasm of Massa followers, demand increased and many began to disappear from villages. Communities commissioning replacements in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were fewer active sculptors, often had to turn to non-specialists who introduced artistic innovations in the form of accessories or added details, as with the more recent figure here. Other works in the collection, like the hornbill and the equestrian figure, may have been made expressly for foreign patrons, following the aesthetic canons that have come to define Senufo style.

Exhibition Room 12: The Art of Initiation

Panels made by unknown Nkanu artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the first half of 20th century.

The works presented here were originally created for use in male initiation ceremonies known as mukanda in the southwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Among Yaka communities, masks historically were worn in performances that celebrated the formal transition of initiates to adulthood, offering protection during this vulnerable passage. Kholuka masks are distinguished by the puppet-like figures on the top, which typically celebrate male virility often through innuendo. Such masks were commissioned from an expert sculptor, who would incorporate the ashes of a mask danced during a preceding ceremony to reinforce generational continuity. The exuberant performance of the mask, worn by a senior man, would mark the conclusion of the initiation ceremonies.

The two panels here may once have adorned the interior of an nkanu initiation enclosure, a thatched- roof structure erected at a symbolic crossroads between the ritual area and the village. Such panels were made by specialist artists who also had a mastery of esoteric knowledge and symbolic language. The objects likely served as a visual learning aid for the newly minted initiates, bolstering the morale and social instruction given to boys during their period of seclusion.

Senufo Two-Faced Wanyugo Helmet Mask

Two-faced wanyugo helmet mask made by an unknown Senufo artist from Ivory Coast, mid-20th century.

Only in the mid-twentieth century were Senufo helmet masks taken from the Côte d’Ivoire and sold on the European market. Thus, this specific sculpture type would not have been familiar to Alberto Giacometti when he created Woman with her Throat Cut in 1932. However, the wanyugo exemplifies the fantastical themes that he and other Surrealists coopted for their own artistic purposes. Peggy Guggenheim likely echoed such associations when she later combined these two sculptures in her own, often ahistorical, installations.

This form of helmet mask was meant to have an aggressive appearance, befitting its use in detecting and confronting harmful forces. Such masks were typically worn during the evening when limited light would obscure the hybrid animal forms—evoking the powers of the wilderness. At the top, a chameleon and a seated figure jointly grasp a small container that may once have held a substance enabling its wearer to tap into the supernatural.

Aspiring to the transformative power of objects such as this one, Giacometti crosses psychic boundaries between sex and death in his work. It has been interpreted as a representation of violent misogyny masked as heterosexist Surrealist fantasy. But it also potentially collapses sexual boundaries. The bronze woman’s torso, which could suggest male genitalia, arches up and away from the claw-like base reaching around to embrace it, implying body parts either in a paroxysm of pleasure or in the painful throes of death. Like a praying mantis, an insect which fascinated the Surrealists because the female ate its partner after mating, Giacometti’s fantastical zoomorphic human is both a victim of—and a menace to—its imagined partner.

Kathryn Cua

Kathryn Cua is an emerging curator currently based in Chicago, Illinois. Kat graduated with degrees in journalism and art history from the University of Missouri in 2018. She has worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sager Braudis Gallery in Columbia, Missouri. Her research interests lie in modern and contemporary American art, particularly in art of the African diaspora. In her free time, Kat is an avid reader, exhibition-goer, and contributor to ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA.

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