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African Art and Artefacts in European Collections 1400-1800 

Book Review
African Arts, Autumn, 2002 by William Hart found at findarticles.com

Product image for ASIN: 0714125474 African Art and Artefacts in European Collections
Author: Ezio Bassani; Buy New: $160.00

 


British Museum Press, London, 2001. xxxix + 328 pp., 615 b/w photos, CD-ROM. 85 [pounds sterling] hardcover.

The publication of this book, the culmination of decades of work by Ezio Bassani, is a major event in the art history of Africa. It answers the call made by Jan Vansina in 1984 for "a systematic reference catalogue [for Africa] listing all known objects and all iconographic representations for different periods of time" (1) and shows how much can be achieved for the history of African art by a thorough investigation of original archival and visual records. This is Bassani's second such endeavor: in 1986 he identified a number of African works of art and artifacts known to have been in Europe before 1700 for an exhibition at the Musee Dapper in Paris; (2) but his new work, which includes a CD-ROM of the text, (3) is on an altogether more ambitious scale.

In his foreword Bassani explains the organization of the catalogue and briefly sums up what a survey of the material reveals. There is an opening essay on early collections and collectors of African art, and four appendixes dealing with specific groups of early African art: oliphants from Calabar; two seventeenth-century Kongo wooden figures, attributed by Bassani to a Master of Bamba Ngo; Kongo art in general; and the Afro-Portuguese ivories. With the exception of the appendix on the wooden figures, these repeat or summarize discussions that the author has given elsewhere, but it is useful to have them brought together.

The sub-Saharan material is divided into three groups totaling 818 objects: (4) first, items that can be documented as having been in European (or American) collections before 1800 and whose present location is known or unknown (nos. 1-681); second, items known from illustrations to have been in Europe or America before 1800 but are otherwise unidentifiable (nos. 682-96); and third, items whose present location is known and which we can assume, by analogy with other documented objects, to have been in Europe by 1800, although their presence cannot be documented (nos. 697-818).

The catalogue is an impressive work of scholarship. It lists, country by country, the original museums or private collections in which early sub-Saharan artifacts have been identified and gives a brief account of their history. Bassani provides a separate description for each object, including its dimensions, the materials of which it is made, its present location, and (where this can be determined) its provenance and the ethnic group with which it is associated. He cites early manuscript or printed sources, together with the earliest verbatim description of the object in those sources. Most items are illustrated by a photograph. One can only guess at the research and detective work that has gone into the bald details recorded for each piece. Bassani generously acknowledges the help of museum curators and other scholars who contributed information to the catalogue--the list of names takes up two and a half pages--but he has undoubtedly been the pioneer and the prime mover in the whole enterprise.

The scope of the objects described will surprise many. They range from virtuoso works--elaborate ivory carvings such as the Afro-Portuguese saltcellars and oliphants--to humble everyday items such as leather sandals, raffia mats and bags, and articles of clothing. The catalogue, includes an assortment of weapons: bows and arrows, swords and spears. However, masks and wooden figure sculptures that we nowadays take to be typical of African art hardly feature at all. There is a solitary mask (from Senegambia: no. 282) and only four wooden figures (two from Kongo, two from Sierra Leone/Guinea: nos. 268, 514-15, 573). (5)

With this catalogue Ezio Bassani has put future researchers in African art history in his debt and confirmed his reputation as a leading authority in the field. His decision to include objects that either have not survived or cannot now be located is a sensible one. Some may come to light in the future, and in any event it is better to have a fuller record of the sorts of African artifacts that Europeans of past centuries thought worth collecting. Where one might quibble, however, given that the catalogue aims to list objects in Europe by 1800, is Bassani's inclusion of some objects that are only known from nineteenth-century records, such as the items from the Crosthwaite and Hutton Museums (listed in a catalogue and a handbill dated 1826 and 1831 respectively); those objects may well have been acquired after 1800. On the other hand a future edition of the catalogue, or supplement to it, should find a place for the incontrovertibly pre-1800 "piece of Cloth from Eboe, and from the Gold Coast, in Africa" listed in the 1786 catalogue of Richard Greene's Lichfield Museum, (6) and the African "rarities" recorded as being at Adams's coffee house or tavern, the Royal Swan, in London in the 1750s. (7)

I have a suggestion to make about one of the objects listed. The ivory carving (no. 265) now in the Reserve of the Bibliotheque de Saint-Genevieve in Paris, which is described speculatively as a "staff" or "club," is surely a section of a siwa horn, examples of which are still to be found today in certain coastal towns of east Africa such as Lamu. Since it is firmly documented as having been in France in the 1690s, it corroborates Swahili oral traditions that trace those horns back several centuries. It is, one notices, the only object in the catalogue that can be definitively linked to east Africa.

I believe also that I can shed light on the donor of an interesting group of objects (three ivory lidded vessels and two ivory armrings) from Owo in Nigeria (nos. 382-86). They went to the Berlin Museum fur Volkerkunde via the Prussian Royal Kunstkammer, and according to a letter (dated Feb. 5, 1872) in the museum archives from J. Friedlander, who is not otherwise identified, they were given to the royal collection by Friedlander's grandfather. The writer of the letter was, if I am not mistaken, Julius Friedlander, a celebrated numismatist and from 1868 to 1884 Director of the Royal Coin Collection (hence his referring to Wilhelm Grube of the Berlin museum's East-Asia Department as "dear colleague"). His grandfather was the Konigsberg-born businessman and Jewish intellectual David Friedlander, an associate of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and friend of Alexander von Humboldt, whom the younger Friedlander credits with having persuaded his grandfather to give the ivories to the museum. It would be worth investigating whether David Friedlander's papers and correspondence have survived, and if so, whether they record how he acquired the objects.

Now for the downside. Considering the importance of this catalogue for the future study of African art history--the fact that it is likely to become a standard work of reference--one would expect the British Museum to have taken great pains to see that the photographs and text were as free of blemishes as is humanly possible. Instead there are serious shortcomings. The photograph (no. 553) of the Afro-Portuguese saltcellar in the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow is printed upside down. Illustration 14, of Manuel ne Wunda, the seventeenth-century ambassador of the King of the Kongo to the Holy See, is printed in negative. The Bini-Portuguese saltcellar in the Lipchitz Collection (no. 801) is illustrated by a photograph of the Bini-Portuguese saltcellar (no. 798) in the Etnografisch Museum in Antwerp. The illustration of a Bini-Portuguese spoon (no. 14) is mislabeled as Sapi-Portuguese.

Nor does the text show signs of having been properly checked. There are minor mistakes of one kind or another throughout. Some of them are simple misspellings or typographical errors: "fifthteenth" for "fifteenth"; "occurred" for "occurred" (p. xxv); "coachs" for "coaches" (p. xxvii)--and all of these before one has gotten into the body of the catalogue itself. I noticed a number of garbled proper names: for example, Robert Plankett instead of Plunkett (p. xxxiii); Mrs. Lightgow instead of Lithgow (pp. 183, 184); Dale Idgiens instead of Idiens, and Henggeler G. instead of Henggeler J. (p. 310). Anyone looking for the "Notes on Museums" in The Illustrated Archaeologist of 1984 (p. 312) will look in vain, since the date should be 1894. Similar frustration awaits the person interested in the Dresden Kunstkammer who looks in the bibliography for the publications by Guhr and Neumann 1985, Hantzsch 1902, Menzhausen 1985, and Wolf 1960 (p. 100). None of them are listed.

All of this could and should have been corrected in advance by careful proofreading. Was publication rushed, or was too much reliance placed on computers to undo the human errors and omissions that so easily creep in? One expects more from the British Museum. These flaws don't make the catalogue worthless to the researcher or historian, but they do introduce an unwelcome note of uncertainty. It is a pity, when there is so much to celebrate in the long-awaited appearance of Bassani's magnum opus, that one finds oneself distracted by his publisher's failure to do it justice.

(1.) J. Vansina, Art History in Africa (London, 1984), p. 40.

(2.) "Oeuvres d'art et objets africains dans l'Europe du XVIIe siecle," in Ouverture sur l'art africain (Paris, 1986), pp. 64-86.

(3.) Although some will welcome the CD-ROM, I found that a database of the material would have been more useful. The facility to enlarge illustrations, which sounded promising, simply exposed the limitations of the original digital images.

(4.) These groupings in the catalogue itself correspond to four groups of items listed in the foreword ("documented and located," "documented and unlocated," "unidentified," and "undocumented"); but it is not easy to square the numbers given there--534, 118, 165, and 119 respectively--with the total of 818 items actually listed in the text.

(5.) Other figures, it seems, were taken to Europe but have not survived, such as the "idols" and "other different instruments of superstition" ("idoli con altri varii instrumenti superstitiosi") that Father Andrea da Pavia brought from Angola to Rome in 1692 (no. 519).

(6.) A particular and descriptive Catalogue of the Curiosities natural and artificial in the Lichfield Museum collected (in the space of 46 years) by Richard Greene (Lichfield, 1786).

(7.) A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Adams's at the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road (3rd ed., London, 1756). The objects listed include "a Tomahawk, or Ethiopian's, or Hottentot Man's Suit of Cloaths'; "Purses of Guinea Grass"; "Queen of Whiddah's Caps of her own making"; and "King of Angola's Scepter.

WILLIAM HART, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is the author of Continuity and Discontinuity in the Art History of Sierra Leone and many articles on Sierra Leone's traditional art. He also serves as a consulting editor of African Arts. Dr. Hart was a lecturer in Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, in the 1970s.

COPYRIGHT 2002 The Regents of the University of California
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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