In the first part of the upcoming Christie’s and Millon auction preview, we highlighted the interesting lots that shouldn’t be overlooked. Now we review two masterpieces coming up for sale. These masterpieces embody a vital part of African art history, real treasures of the past selected by the tastes of two remarkable pioneers of the classic African art market; Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton.
Bruno Claessens, European Head of African & Oceanic Art at Christie’s Paris, introduced us to a rare and mysterious Kuyu figure collected in French equatorial Africa by the colonial official Courtois, and a wonderful and fascinating Luba-Shankadi headrest collected by Ratton. Both pieces are a part of a restricted corpus of work known in the world, both pieces have similar exemplary examples exhibited in famous museums, both pieces are back on the market for the next generation of African art custodians.
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ethnic Group: Luba-Shankadi
Dimensions: Height = 6.9 inches || Length = 6.8 inches
Provenance: Charles Ratton, Paris, France || Madeleine Meunier, Paris, France before 1964
Estimate: $570,000 – $910,000
This remarkable masterpiece of rare elegance is one of the restricted corpus of works classified in 1964, by William Fagg and Margaret Plass, as carved by the ‘Master of the Cascade Coiffure’ Luba-Shankadi sculptor due to the monumental hairstyles carved in the headrest. To date, thanks to Ezio Brassani and François Nyet’s research, 16 to 18 Luba headrests have been identified as coming from the small kingdom of Kinkondja, near Lake Kisale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first known headrest of this style was collected in 1901 by Ernesto Brissioni (displayed to the Museo di Antropologia e Etnologia at Florence); that of Madeleine Meunier’s collection was acquired by Charles Ratton nearly half a century later.
The technical excellence and magistral virtuosity of this work are revealed in its perfect balance, in the geometry of the curves of the hairstyles (repeated twice by the presence of a double bun). A symmetry of lines and forms breathes a fascinating dynamism to the sculpture. The streaked and developed hairstyles are worked with sharpness.
A high-ranking symbol in Luba society, these elite hairstyles demonstrate the need for headrests. Called mikanda, this hairstyle was fundamental in Luba-Shankadi culture; they were a symbolic attribute of beauty. Taking over 50 hours to complete, the mikanda coiffure shows a level of technicality that distinguished the elite from common villagers. To protect and preserve the hairstyles overnight, headrests was specially sculptured. As well as its utility in protecting hairstyles, headrests were also believed to guard the dreams of their owners. The beautiful patina of use of the Madeleine Meunier headrest confers an additional sweetness to the headrest, adequate for its second custom as a protector of the unconscious world.
Embraced and bound with strength, an infallible link seems to unite the figures of this work with double caryatids. This link is emphasised by the skillful play of parallels—parallels of the arms and legs bound to each other and strengthened by the horizontality of the characters’ chins. The whole gives the fascinating impression that their members are inseparable in spite of the distance between their bodies. The particular position of both characters—a leg carved on the knee of the other figure (reproduced in examples of double caryatids listed by Ezio Bassani, in particular in another headrest acquired in 1936 by Kjersmeier, preserved today at the National Museum of Copenhagen)—arouses numerous questions. This position could be the sign of allegiance and alliance between figures of high-rank.
An unfathomable physical link is established between both characters, a link strengthened by their prominent faces and stressed by their intense gazes. Their wide open, almost globular eyes are emphasised by a striking arch of the eyebrow. The ‘Master of the Cascade Coiffure offers us a sculptural feat of infinite delicacy, he offers us by his technical fitness, the ability to discern the spiritual depth of region. This truly is a fascinating and sublime work, an overwhelming masterpiece.
A Luba-Shankadi headrest by the ‘Master of the Cascade Coiffure’ from the Rudolf and Léonore Blum collection was sold for $901,804 in June 2014 by Christie’s. Sotheby’s sold a lot similar to Madeleine Meunier’s headrest for $1,663,758 in 2005.
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ethnic Group: Kuyu
Dimensions: Height = 25.6 inches
Provenance: Aristide Courtois, Paris, France before 1938 || Madeleine Meunier, Paris, France before 1964
Estimate: $68,000 – $91,000
Aristide Courtois brought back numerous and exceptional Kuyu objects from his missions—Aix-en-Provence archives and Madeleine Meunier’s collection give evidence of this. It is because of Courtois that we now have knowledge about Kwélé and Mahongwé masks. It is also due to Courtois’ extensive collection that we have amassed more insight into the traditional arts from Kongo.
In 1938, he sold most of his collection to Charles Ratton, then, in 1944 to Pierre Vérité. Despite selling a large number of pieces, Courtoise kept a few treasures, one of which was a figure of exceptional scale which remained in his collection until he bequeathed it to his wife Madeleine. It is this Kuyu figure.
Knowledge about Kuyu sculptures is restricted and remains to this day a mystery for a number of experts. We nevertheless know that these figures were used in initiation ceremonies that imparted esoteric knowledge concerning the secrets of mystical forces and ancestral influences. An etata figure would have been used to announce the end of the ceremonies. According to anthropologist Anne-Marie Bénézech, this Kuyu figure came from the Likouala-Mossaka region in Northern Democratic Republic of Congo. The figure’s characteristics allow us to classify it as ‘Style 1’ of the Kuyu sculptures (of which there are three styles according to morphological benchmarks). The relief of geometrical scarifications worked with a magistral technicality are typical of Kuyu figures, they embody its beauty canon.
Its cylindrical body is impressive, its expression intriguing, its charismatic strength subjugating. Its convex and decorated bust and lengthened, folded up arms stress the figure’s imposing presence. According to Bénézech, the hands towards the breast indicate that the chief is in close communication with ancestor spirits. A vibrating polychromy—red, black and white—livens up the statue. This Kuyu figure is one of the finest known examples in the world, and will certainly make a historical auction record.
Eagerly awaited, these rare objects of superb aesthetic quality and with exceptional provenance promise certainly, a beautiful battle between bidders on 15 December 2016 at Drouot. You can still preview the upcoming lots at Drouot and Christie’s until 14 December and see the full auction catalogue here.
ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor Aurore Krier-Mariani is an art advisor at AK.A Consulting with a focus on tribal art objects. Her passion for classic African art was born when as a little girl of only seven she saw her first Punu mask and immediately felt its magnetic power. Aurore has been covering the African art industry for over five years including her studies for her Masters of Archeology and Art History, her time at Christie’s African & Oceanic Art department and now as an independent consultant for African art collectors.