By Tajudeen Sowole
A Kota wood piece, one of many African sculptures, which some art historians believe ‘inspired’ Cubism, has just led Christie’s auction of African, Oceanic, and American Indian art, held in Paris, France. The late June sales, according to Christie’s, recorded a total sales of €11,565,175 ($13.2 million).
About 78 percent of lots on offer, the auction house disclosed, were bought just as three lots sold above €1 million ($1.1 million) and seven auction records set. Leading the sales was a Kota from the collection of late American artist, William Rubin; the three-dimensional female figure was sold for €5,473,500 ($6.2 million), estimated at €6-9 million; $6.8-10.2 million). The work was said to have been put on sale for the second time in nearly 100 years. At the Paris sales, it recorded “the second highest price secured for an African work of art sold in France, and third in the world.”
Other record sales included the Grébo/Krou mask from the Côte d’Ivoire/Liberia region, making a record for a Grébo work when it sold for €1,321,500 ($1.5 million). It was estimated at €500,000-t0-€800,000 ($568-909,000).
For the Oceanic works, represented by the rare Maori nephrite club - dating back to the 18th century - collectors bought for €85,500 ($96,600), nearly two times more than its pre-sale estimate (€40-60,000; $45-68,000). Impressive sales were also recorded for American Indian works exhibited by a Tlingit mask which more than tripled its €80,000 ($91,000) high estimate when it achieved €337,500 ($384,000).
Ahead of the sales, a lecture at the Musée Picasso in Paris focused on the links between the art from the Kota and Western Modern art. The Kota are a people in today’s Gabon, who, according to Robin Poynor’s History of Art in Africa, live in villages comprising two or more clans. Figures from the land are known as Kota mbulu ngulu, and were said to have been taken to Musee de l’Homme, France in the 1880s.
The kota people’s clans comprise several lineages or family groups that trace their descent from a common lineage ancestor. This is an important point related to their art, for like the Fang, the Kota revere the relics of ancestors.
“Ancestor worship formed the core of the family group’s religious and social life. At the death of a chief, the initiates would take from the body of the deceased various relics, which were then decorated with metal and rubbed with powders of multiple magical powers. The Kota have produced large quantity of statues of ancestors with the diamond-shaped lower part called mbulu-ngulu. These rather two-dimensional sculptures are in wood; symbolic metals were applied to the upper part in strips or sheets to add power. Copper in particular was identified with longevity and power. These statues stood guard in cylindrical bark boxes, on baskets or bundles called bwete that contained the skulls and bones of important ancestors. Bound into a packet and lashed to the base of a carved figure, the bones formed a stable base that allowed the image to stand more or less upright. Thanks to the diversity of the groups, scattered over a vast area, a great variety of different styles of figures has developed, some of them endogenous and some influenced by neighbouring styles.
“Kota figures represent an extremely stylized human body, reduced to shoulders and “arms,” in emptied lozenge shape, surmounted by a large face framed by an ample coiffure with hanging tresses. The face, always oval, may be concave (female), convex (male) or concave-convex, with a forehead in quarter-sphere (also male). The reliquaries were kept outside the homes in huts at the edge of the village. Only the initiates of the lineage had access to this sacred place. At the time of initiation in the reliquary cult, the clans would meet to perform communal rituals. Each clan’s chief would dance holding the reliquary. Some reliquaries featured a large figure representing the lineage founder along with some smaller figures representing his successors. There are figures with two identical or different faces made on two opposite sides of the flat head.
“The bwete was called on in time of crisis to combat unseen agents of harm. Its intercession was sought in such vital matters as fertility, success in hunting, and in commercial ventures. A husband could use it to guard against his wife’s infidelity, for it was believed that if he placed pieces of her clothing in the reliquary, an unfaithful wife would be driven mad. Families took their bwete to ceremonies of neighbouring villages to strengthen the allied community. The display of the bundles and their shiny, visually riveting figures was accompanied by feasting, dancing, and the making of protective medicines. These bwete were kept for generations, but during the 20th century, when religious beliefs changed, they were abandoned or even destroyed.”