A superb Mangbetu drum, Democratic République of
estimate : € 40.000/60.000. © Sotheby's Images.
Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection, African Forms
10 Sep 07, Paris
Opens 06 Sep 07
PARIS, FRANCE.- Created over the last fifteen years, the
collection follows more than thirty years of collecting in the field of African
art by the Ginzbergs. This American collection encompasses objects from across
the continent of Africa, and the Ginzbergs have focused specifically on objects
of great quality and beauty. In this unique collection, the Ginzberg’s have
chosen objects which encompass many materials, colors and superb forms realized
in traditional African art.
In the history of collections, non-figurative African art entered collections in
the period of the great discoveries of African art. Some objects entered the
princely collections of Europe as well as those of natural history museums and
artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact the first objects
which came to Europe from Africa were objects of use or weapons rather than
masks or ritual statues. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, one need
only look at the catalogs published by the famous English dealer, W.O. Oldman,
to see the multitude of non-figurative and utilitarian objects he had for sale.
Marc Ginzberg explained in his book African Forms, published in 2000, ‘In the
vast array of useful objects that have emerged from Africa, we have a resource
of designs and patterns that can be applied in our own cultures. We also have a
textbook on the integration of material life into the spiritual life, and we
have a panoply of beauty that surprises the eye. The images before us are
startling and beautiful, but most satisfying works or art, whether music,
poetry, painting or sculpture, show originality emerging from a canon or
tradition, and we need to know the sources of these forms to deepen our
appreciation.’ Both the creation of this collection, and now the dispersal of
the collection are landmark events in the history of art from Africa.
As Marc Ginzberg explains, the collection was chosen to show a wide variety of
abstract art. The Ginzberg’s structured the collection around functional
categories in order to highlight the treasures of non-figurative African art.
In Africa the human body constituted a place of privilege of artistic
expression. At each stage of life, according to precise codes of conduct, men
and women painted their faces, added ornaments to their bodies, or scarified
them. The aesthetic of these decorations was always prescribed, and jewels or
elaborate coiffures were signs of identity, individual and social. The Marc and
Denyse Ginzberg Collection reflects the richness of forms found in these jewels,
including a wide range of forms—bracelets, necklaces, anklets, earrings,
pendants and the like, estimates from €1,5001. The collection also includes
jewels worn on the head such as those for initiates, for married women, combs as
well as labrets (estimate: €600/800). These jewels from across the continent
were made from a great variety of materials, each invoking a specific meaning
from the most rare (shells, feathers or horns) to the most precious (gold,
ivory, imported beads, bronze or iron) or the most fragile or ephemeral (hair,
copper, bone vegetable fibers, grains, pigments). The textiles were also jewels.
Conceived as tableaux with a complex graphic design they often had many
functions: clothing indicating status or prestige (the Yoruba beaded tunic, for
example, estimate: €10,000/15,000) or the Guro woman’s loincloth, estimate:
€10,000/12,000), ceremonial clothing (the Dida tie-dye raphia, estimate:
€2,000/3,000, or carpets for stools (the famous Kuba raffia estimated from
€1,000 to €1,500).
Considered by many as sculptures, African musical instruments, ‘sounding
forms’, are well represented it the Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection. The
chordophones, illustrated by a Ouganda harp with eastern influence (estimate:
€1,000/1,500), the membranophones (instruments producing a sound from the
vibration of a membrane) the drums in the form of an hourglass; the idiophones
such as the superb Mangbetu drum of the purest form (estimate: €40,000/60,000
– ). Finally the category of airophones is represented by a selection of the
most beautiful small whistles in ivory (Pende) used for hunting, and superb
ivory oliphants (Mangbetu), carved from the finial end of an elephant.
Amongst utilitarian objects from Africa, receptacles occupy an unusual place for
it was often the natural material which determined the form and function of the
container. A round calabash was used as a cup amongst the Mangbetu (estimate:
€1,000/1,500) while an elongated calabash made a water pipe in Cameroon
(estimate: €1,000/1,500). Receptacles in wood and in terracotta, horn or
leather were chosen by Marc and Denyse Ginzberg for their great quality,
constituting objects of great refinement. Amongst the Kuba for example, treasure
boxes and palm wine cups were delicately carved with geometric motifs estimates
from €2,000. Their magnificent patinas show a mixture of oil and pigment. The
use of tobacco, introduced to Africa in the 16th century, gave birth in South
African small finely carved tobacco containers in bone, estimates from €1,000
to 6,000, wood and ivory amongst the Zulu in particular (estimate:
By their formal quality, stools, perhaps the most functional of all the objects
in the Ginzberg Collection, were always considered works of art. The form of an
African seat if often a circular stool with one or more legs. The shape varies
considerably depending on the cultural use and significance. For example,
amongst the Kuba, backrests served as a stool and are the personal property of
high ranking people. Amongst the Lobi, the form of a particular tripod stool for
men implies a ritual usage by the fact that one could not cross one’s legs. In
Cameroon amongst the Bamum or Bamileke one encounters the greatest variety of
furniture—stools, thrones and beds. The Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection
includes a large selection of neckrests which have caught the eyes of many
western collectors by the elegance of their forms. Used as rigid pillows to
maintain the elaborate coiffures of men and women, these ‘support of dreams’
are unrivalled for the creativity they express—in the form of a stylized
quadruped amongst the Zulu (estimate: €6,000/9,000) , or a root in East
Africa, or event a delicate geometric form amongst the Shona from Zimbabwe
(estimate from €4,000).
In 1991, an exhibition at the Dapper Museum in Paris, Spoons-Sculptures, gave a
mark of recognition to these daily objects which are spoons. ‘The sculptor
operates a sort of compromise between the liberty of creation and the souvenir
of the traditional forms and images. That is to say that the plastic language
does not differ from that which we find in figurative sculpture’ (Dapper
1991:26). The same form of a spoon can easily be a variation of a human figure
such as in the Ivory Coast when an abstract form amongst the Kulango is a spoon,
estimate: €2,000/3,000). In South Africa, there are two types of spoons, large
and elegant wood spoons and small, personal spoons in ivory or bone, estimates
from €2,000. In Central Africa, the refinement of small objects is best seen
in the elegance of ivory spoons amongst the Boa and Lega. Amongst the Lega these
spoons also have an important symbolic meaning (estimate: €15,000/20,000).
The weapons in the Ginzberg Collection truly transcend our idea of functional
objects as so much care and attention has been taken in their design. The
collection includes both defensive weapons such as shields, and offensive
weapons like swords and throwing knives.
read also vente Ginszberg (in French)
published in African Arts > Summer, 2001
More than the human figure: the Marc and Denyse Ginzberg collection of African art
By Elisabeth L. Cameron found at Find
One of Marc Ginzberg's first purchases of African art was a snuff bottle. Having grown up around his parents' collection of Asian snuff bottles, he was comfortable with the forms and was also interested in how artists from different areas of the world employed their own artistic vernaculars to create an object that served the same function. Expanding from this secure beginning, Marc and and his wife, Denyse, developed an outstanding and well-known collection of African masks and sculptures, a source often tapped by museum curators for special exhibitions. Not quite a decade ago, however, they began to divest: as a great many of their African pieces moved into major museums, they returned to the start, this time shaping a more tightly focused selection of artworks.
The Ginzbergs' new collection celebrates the genius of the African artists who transform common objects like pots, shields, blades (Fig. 1), and cups into exceptional works of art. The fact that there is no English word for this genre illustrates how these arts have been ignored. Rather than saying what unites them, we are forced to say what they do not portray--the human body; they are "nonfigural."
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
What attracts the Ginzbergs to these works is the marriage of form and function, use and meaning. The artist must produce an object that fulfills a utilitarian purpose, but he or she moves beyond this charge to make it aesthetically satisfying as well. Occasionally the aesthetic focus supersedes function, elevating the piece to "uselessness." Many African throwing knives (Fig. 1c), as Ginzberg points out, are so elaborate that there is no place for the thrower to hold it.
A connoisseur's appreciation of the object is heightened by an understanding of the tools and processes employed. In Africa, masterpieces can be the result of seemingly simple or low-tech techniques. Most potters, for example, do not use potters' wheels. They produce wonderfully symmetrical works with the coil method, often building the top and bottom of larger pieces separately and then combining the two halves. They might fire large quantities of pots not in kilns but in open pits, where beautiful markings are caused by serendipitous contact with fire and ash (Fig. 2).
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Most artworks in this category are designed to be handled; use, in turn, completes the beauty of the piece. Kuba cups that have held palm wine and been passed from hand to hand gain a deep, lustrous glow (Fig. 3). The pestle is basic to the preparation of foods and medicines. Its prolonged daily use by women creates a patina and results in abstract and sometimes surprising shapes (Fig. 4).
[FIGURES 3-4 OMITTED]
European interest in African art peaked after the 1897 British Punitive Expedition to the Benin kingdom resulted in a market flooded with exquisite figural bronzes and ivories of a quality that rivaled that of European sculptures. Soon afterward, modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque began to look to African figural sculpture and masks for inspiration. But the art world ignored the richness and aesthetic quality of the continent's nonfigural genres--exquisitely made bells (Fig. 5), gongs (Fig. 6), pipes (Fig. 7), cloth (Fig. 8), stools and backrests (Fig. 9) and such--dismissing them as "ethnographic objects" or "items of material culture." While figural works slowly moved into art museums, nonfigural forms remained in natural history presentations and in the collections of missionary and colonial families and institutions.
[FIGURES 5-9 OMITTED]
American and European cultures continue to relegate many of these works to the "decorative arts" category. 1 In contrast many African cultures ascribe to them great cultural and ritual importance. Ivory Lega spoons, for example, are used in Bwami initiation to teach moral principles (Fig. 10). Elegant Mangbetu hairpins (Fig. 11) and beautifully decorated Songye axes (Fig. 1b) become prestige objects, signaling the wealth and importance of the bearer. Miniature Dogon shrine ladders, too small for human use, mark entry into ritual spaces (Fig. 12).
[FIGURES 10-12 OMITTED]
Nonfigural arts began to be collected by Westerners at the same time as or earlier than figural arts. Missionaries and colonial officials, Mr. Ginzberg points out, accepted and even promoted such objects because they perceived them as nonreligious and because they disapproved of the nude imagery typical of African figure sculpture. Their support, however, backfired: the art market valued works that it saw to be precolonial and untouched by external influence, whether European, Indian, Islamic, or Christian. For Marc Ginzberg, such distinctions are irrelevant; he feels that objects should be judged on the merits of their form and design. Besides, with the European and Arab presence on the west and east coasts of Africa in the fifteenth century and earlier, very few African arts have truly been unaffected by outsiders.
Because good nonfigural African pieces are still difficult to obtain in the United States, Mr. Ginzberg recommends that interested collectors look to Europe as a source. Most of the works move from Africa to Europe and stay there. European dealers who would, without a second's thought, travel to the United States to promote a Fang figure or a Kongo nkisi do not find it profitable to do so for a group of comparatively inexpensive spoons or pots. Collections in Europe that focus on this nonfigural material, such as African shields (Fig. 13), are therefore much larger and more sophisticated than most of those in the United States.
[FIGURE 13 OMITTED]
The first art exhibition dedicated to African textiles and objects worn or carried was mounted in 1972: Roy Sieber's groundbreaking "African Textiles and Decorative Arts" (organized by the Museum of Modern Art). "African Furniture and Household Objects" followed in 1980 (curated by Sieber and organized by the American Federation of Arts). There were no masks or figures, though Sieber included many works that incorporated portrayals of humans and animals. He commented on his selection: "The almost exclusive choice of figurative examples [in other exhibitions] reflects western taste; in reality 'sculptural' types represent but a small fraction of the total. We have tried to redress this overemphasis by choosing examples in, roughly at least, the proportion that represents their hue appearance in traditional contexts" (1980:15).
Occasionally exhibitions have presented specific art forms devoid of figural designs, such as Kuba textiles. Ethiopian crosses (Fig. 14), some borrowed from the Ginzberg collection, were recently highlighted in an exhibition organized by the Israel Museum. (2) Only in such narrow presentations, however, are non-figural arts given their due.
[FIGURE 14 OMITTED]
The Ginzbergs are on a mission to bring these works into the mainstream of African-art appreciation and study. Marc Ginzberg points out that today it would be difficult and costly to assemble an excellent collection of figures and masks; on the other hand it is still possible to develop a world-class collection of nonfigural art. The universal nature of many of these works--cups, shields, pots--makes them immediately accessible to novices. Fakes are still relatively few, but as interest and prices increase, Ginzberg expects more of these to appear on the market.
Thanks to the Ginzbergs, Roy Sieber, and others, new attention is being paid to nonfigural arts. Through his recent publication, African Forms, (3) and a traveling exhibition (through August 8 at the Museum for African Art, New York), Marc Ginzberg, with Denyse, hopes to bring these genres to the attention of the broader art community.
[This article was accepted for publication in September 2000.]
Many thanks to Marc and Denyse Ginzberg for welcoming me into their home, for showing me their collection, and for sharing with me their enthusiasm and their insights into nonfigural arts. I have unabashedly incorporated these into this article.
(1.) Decorative arts in the United States are beginning to move out of a secondary category and deservedly coming into their own as a field of study in, universities and museums.
(2.) "Daughter of Zion: Orthodox Christian Art from Ethiopia," Israel Museum, Jerusalem (March 2000-2001).
(3.) The catalogue is distributed in the United States by Abbeville Publishing Group, New York. Editions are available in English, French, and Italian.
Biebuyck, Daniel P. 1973. Lega Culture: Art, Initiation, and Moral Philosophy among a Central African People. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Binkley, David A. 1992. "The Teeth of the Nyim: The Elephant and Ivory in Kuba Art," in Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture, ed. Doran H. Ross, pp. 277-91. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Ginzberg, Marc. 2001. African Forms. Milan: Skira.
Northern, Tamara. 1984. The Art of Cameroon. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
Puccinelli, Lydia. 1999. Entry for Ethiopian crosses, in Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art, vol. 1. Washington, DC: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Schildkrout, Enid and Curtis Keim. 1990. African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
Sieber, Roy. 1980. African Furniture and Household Objects. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1989. "Body and Voice: Kongo Figurative Musical Instruments," in Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments, ed. Marie-Therese Brincard. New York: American Federation of the Arts.
Wood, John George. 1868-70. The Natural History of Man; Being an Account of the Manners and Customs of the Uncivilized Races of Men. Volume 1: Africa. London: G. Routledge & Sons.
ELISABETH L. CAMERON is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
COPYRIGHT 2001 The Regents of the University of California
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