'Treasures of the Al Thani Collection' is a major exhibition with an accompanying publication that opened on 18 November 2021, at the Hôtel de la Marine in Paris.
The exhibition, which runs indefinitely, showcases one of the world’s finest and most eclectic private collections of art and antiques with many masterpieces of classic African art.
The collection was formed by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani — a member of Qatar’s ruling family and distant cousin of Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani, another celebrated collector who also amassed an incredible collection of classic African art (some of which will be up for auction at the 2nd December Christie’s Paris sale).
A collector since the age of 18, Sheikh Hamad has spent the last 22 years building what Amin Jaffer, senior curator of The Al Thani Collection, describes as “a private pleasure… Until 2018, little was known about the wide range of works of art in The Al Thani Collection.”
The exhibition of some 120 objects — which span not centuries but millennia — includes rare treasures of classic African art, some of which are largely impossible to procure in today’s art market.
Displayed across four galleries, the exhibition takes us on a journey across time and space, showcasing masterpieces of art side by side.
With the new COVID variant, Omicron yet again threatening border closures and event cancellations, we provide a preview of the exhibition for those that can’t make it to the City of Light. That said, this is the long-term home of the collection so when travelling does become easier again, run don’t walk to go see these masterpieces in person.
Ask any established collector for advice and almost all will state that you need to "clean your eyes" regularly.
The first gallery of the exhibition serves that purpose — a palate cleanser that removes ‘residue’ from the eyes to prepare you for what is to come.
Titled ‘A Window on World Civilisations’, the gallery highlights seven works of art said to represent the “breadth and quality of the collection and skill of the various artists that created the many masterpieces in the collection,” according to the exhibition’s catalogue.
The African art highlight in this section is the now infamous and delicately carved Edo uhunmwun ekue hip pendant made of ivory. Believed to be a 16th-century representation of Iyoba Idia, the pendant is worn by the king to commemorate the Queen Mother who helped her son, Oba Esigie (c.1504-1550), ensure his place on the Benin City throne.
Only five other ivory hip pendants of the Queen Mother are known and they all reside in public institutions — the British Museum (1910.5-13.1), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1978.412.323), the Linden-Museum (F 50 565), the Ethnologisches Museum (III C 26373), and the Seattle Art Museum.
What’s missing throughout the exhibition is provenance information but of this uhunmwun ekue, we do know that it was ‘collected’ in 1897 during the British Benin Punitive Expedition by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (1859-1949) after which it was passed down to his descendants.
It was put up for auction at the Sotheby’s February 2011 London sale with an estimate of between £3.5m-4.5m. However, after public outcry, the lot was eventually withdrawn from the sale. The priceless masterpiece has now found a home in the Al Thani Collection.
‘Faces Through the Ages’ — in this gallery, the human head dominates. A range of styles convene within this single space to dramatic effect. The eleven sculpted heads on display convey expressions of grace, reverence and strength.
Such is the case with the añgokh nlô byeri reliquary head, a canon within the style group, made by an unknown Fang Betsi artist from Gabon (circa 1700–1850). The head represents widely acknowledged standards of skill, beauty and quality with its balanced features, deep patina, and severe expression.
Among the Fang, reliquary heads and full figures were believed to embody the guardian spirits of family ancestors, bones of whom are stored in reliquary boxes. These heads and figures are fastened to the boxes to serve as guardians.
While the heads were not intended to serve as portraits of specific individuals, it was important for commissioned artists to capture the essence of humanity within their creations.
Widely exhibited and published and with an extensive provenance history to match, this añgokh nlô byeri reliquary head is indeed a manifestation of life.
This intensively thoughtful and solemn head exhibits a unique ‘winged’ hairstyle that sweeps from the centre of the forehead, around the ears and down to the back of the head.
The head most recently sold at the Sotheby's ‘In Pursuit of Beauty: The Myron Kunin Collection of African Art’ New York auction on 11 November 2014 for $3,637,000.
The third gallery houses ‘An Ancient Treasury’, a showcase of all that glitters — art and jewellery skillfully made from precious materials.
The fourth and final gallery, ‘Masterpieces from Islamic Lands’ is a temporary exhibition space that currently illustrates the diversity and breadth of art from the Muslim world.
'Treasures of the Al Thani Collection' runs at the Hôtel de la Marine, Paris.
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