With its imposing size, balanced geometric volumes and animated expression, this male statue raises many questions as to its geographic origin, its use and its arrival in Europe.
When published for the first time in 1992, Karl-Ferdinand Shaedler theorised a possible attribution to a Gabonese, Cameroonian or Congolese sculptor. In 2001, thanks to comparisons with a set of Mobaye status in Central Africa, Bernard de Grunne suggested it originated in the Ubangi region, the river separating the Central African Republic from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and flowing into the Congo River. If this is the case, it should be closely compared with another, very similar male statue conserved at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle de La Rochelle natural history museum. The latter was published by Dr Ekpo Eyo in 1977 as a Montol sculpture from Nigeria – an attribution not since corroborated.
So where was this statue now exhibited at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac sculpted? And what clues can lead us to a hypothesis? Part of the answer lies in an investigation into the history of the sculpture at the Muséum de la Rochelle, the known uses of labret statuary art in a region encompassing East Cameroon and the Ubangi border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the history of European explorations and migratory movement in the region.
Central African Republic, Ubangi region
Gbaya population (?)
First half of the 19th century
Wood and mother-of-pearl
H 95 cm; W 21.6 cm; D 21.6 cm.
Former Aalderink Kunsthandel collection, Amsterdam
Former Lore Kegel collection (circa 1930), Hamburg
Former Boris Kegel-Konietzko collection (1980, by inheritance)
Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels (1993, acquired from the previous owner) then Entwistle Gallery, London (1993, acquired from the previous owner, ref. no. L0214), private collection, United States
Presented at the Frieze Masters in London (spring 2016) then at the Parcours des Mondes 2016 by the Entwistle Gallery
Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2018.3.3), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
Possible geographic attributions
A comparative work
The male statue in La Rochelle appears to be the twin of the one in the donation and could be attributed to the same workshop, or even the same sculptor. A few nuances distinguish one from the other: the wood is lighter in some places, and it is adorned with earrings and mouth ornaments. According to the information provided to the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac by Élise Patole-Edoumba, Director of the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle de la Rochelle1, this sculpture joined their collection prior to 1880 but no information remains on the person behind its entry into the Museum’s collections, nor on its geographic origin or use. Although it has been dated to pre-1880, another question remains: how did it arrive from a region then unknown to Europeans? Indeed, at the time the Ubangi region had yet to be explored.
First European exploration of the banks of the Ubangi
In 1876, the German Friedrich Bohndorff was the first European to explore the eastern part of what would become, less than one century later, the Central African Republic. He spent time in the Nzakara and Zande kingdoms but did not reach the Ubangi River2, where both sculptures originate from. In 1881, he returned to the Zande kingdom (which he called Niam Niam) as assistant to the Russian explorer Junker. It was not until 1884, four years after the arrival of one of the sculptures in France, that British explorer Reverend Grenfell3 discovered the headwaters of the Ubangi. He reached them by following the Sangha River4 in present day northern Congo which, according to the explorations of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, became part of the French colonial empire. Grenfell’s exploration showed the existence of a passable river route, seemingly already well mastered by the inhabitants of the region, and those of the Ubangi in particular.
The male statue donated pre-1880 to the Muséum de la Rochelle does not necessarily come from a region discovered by the first European four years later, but many details on both works indicate this location.
Lip ornaments: Ubangian labrets and plates
The work conserved at the Muséum de la Rochelle has a metal plate (or disc) on the upper lip and a vertical labret piercing the lower lip.
The statue from the donation bears similar traces of ornaments.
On closer inspection, the remains of a circle carved in the wood can be seen, where a plate may once have been; on the lower lip, the missing piece of wood suggests a labret.
As explained by Julien Volper5, in a region extending from South Sudan to the northeast of the DRC and encompassing Central Africa, the bodily aesthetic of the populations included the wearing of a labret. Volper clarified that the combination of a lip plate – in wood or ivory – and a labret – made from wood, ivory or quartz – was specific to the Ubangi region. Old photographs and etchings attest to this practice, particularly among the Banda and Manja, neighbours of the Gbaya, where the men and women wear these ornaments for festive occasions and/or weddings to display their social status.
5 Volper, 2014, pp. 62-64.
The tri-lobed ridged headdress could also indicate the aesthetic practice of a specific group. Although they varied depending on style, headdresses indicate a particular period and social status6. Photos from the late 19th century show similar male headdresses on the banks of the Ubangi, among a group known as Ngbandi-Sango, as well as among Gbaya women.
Other comparative works: Ubangi and Gbaya of Cameroon
There is no doubt that the statues bear the signs of Ubangi body art. The silhouette of the statues and the aesthetic techniques used by the sculptor for the face, however, make them difficult to attribute.
Firstly, large statuary remains marginal in light of the corpus that has made its way to the West and given that these sculptures are not conserved at local level.
The pair of Banda statues from a private collection and the AfricaMuseum in Tervuen, barely 40 cm in height, have several aspects in common: the protruding mouth and the mouth ornaments, a lip disc and labret. The arms are also represented in the same way, alongside the body forming a rhombus cut in half, in addition to the bent, curved legs.
A group of statues attributed to a Mobaye sculptor7 exhibit the same characteristics of taut legs and arms. They also have details of Banda statuary, such as the wide groove forming the curve of the spine, also seen on the back of the statue in the Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection.
In the Ubangi region, insert materials are frequently used for the eyes and ornaments, particularly beads and shells such as cowrie shells, used as currency in the region. Mother-of-pearl, used for the eyes of the statue exhibited at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, is rarer. This choice is notably seen on Banda and Ngbaka statues, along the Ubangi River.
However, all of these sculptures, Banda, Zanda, Manja and Ngbaka differ from this one in their solid character, and the rendering of the face, neck and bust of the statue.
A final category of statues merits particular attention: that of the Gbaya people, a Ubangi-speaking people. Linguistics, local historical sources and the archaeological research of Pierre Vidal between 1982 and 1992 all point towards the presence of the Gbaya in Central Africa “in the Nana basin for at least three thousand years”8. A large migratory movement of the Gbaya to the west is evidenced in the early 19th century. Thierno Mouctar Bah explains: “In the first half of the 19th century, Gbaya migrations, no doubt ancient, were accentuated under the pressure of the pro-slavery raids organised from Darfur, Ouaddaï and Bagirmi. Since then, the movements, from south to north, shifted to the west, towards present day Cameroon. […] When they clashed with the Fula in the 19th century, they were not yet territorially stabilised in the Adamawa Region.”9
Specialists, both ethnologists and art historians alike, make no mention of statues in the Ubangi area of the Gbaya territory post-1950. The only known Gbaya statues almost all come from Cameroon10 ‒ the rare examples are conserved at the Munich, Berlin and Geneva museums. Collected in the very early 20th century by German ethnologists and explorers, the six male statues from eastern Cameroon are similar to the one at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in terms of their proportions, and particularly their conical trunk. The volumes of the torso and legs, the diamond-shape formed by the arms, the flat-contoured shoulders, the use of a white medium for the eyes, the concave line of part of the face, the raised nose and the shape of the mouth all match that of the statue in the donation.
“Bogoto ancestor figure” Collection of the Franco-German Logone-Mapa-Grenz expedition, led in 1913 © D.R
Some have earrings or a pagne, a garment likely worn by the statue.
However, they are different in terms of their mouth ornaments. Although they often have two vertical labrets, they do not have any lip plates.
To conclude, the geographic origin remains hypothetical. Some converging presumptions based on the general morphology, the ornaments and dimensions suggest a Ubangi-speaking sculptor with solid knowledge of Ubangi sculptural language, on the one hand, and the Gbaya of Cameroon on the other hand. We must remember that the region was troubled throughout the 19th century by large migratory movements that contributed to cultural assimilations. and mutual borrowing11.
The statue in the Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière donation illustrates two central characteristics of sculpture in western Ubangi, emphasised by the artist Georges Meurant: “Ubangi sculpture [sic] is not stereotyped, its styles are less constraints than recombinations of ways of working born from a shared heritage fuelled by migrations, proximity and the success, beyond their initial sources, of diversely collective and personal activities, which use instruments and illustrations.”12 And to supplement his definition with regard to the intention suggested by the aesthetics of the statuary art: “Its message is reduced to the essential: the presence”13.
Large statues are rare in the regions around the Ubangi River. The closest matches are those in two photographs from the early 20th century, unfortunately with no legend. Used for healing and fertility rituals, as part of initiations and offered in tribute to the ancestors, the region’s statues take on various functions at the discretion of the person commissioning the work. In acephalous societies, that is to say without a chief, great freedom is left to the individual, particularly when it comes to beliefs and cultural practices. In other words, a form is not necessarily linked to a specific use.
After a mission in Cameroon in 1913, Günter Tessmann explained that Gbaya statuary featured an ancestor, an image that was taken out in secret as part of the Labi male initiation society14. However, in the late 20th century, ethnologists specialising in the Gbaya region of Central Africa, like Pierre Vidal and Paulette Roulon-Doko, make no reference to any statuary art in Labi initiation nor in the tribute paid to the ancestors15. It is not currently possible to determine the use of this work in its original context, which remains unknown.
Background of the work
There is no solid evidence that the male Ubangi statue now on display in Paris left the African continent with the statute conserved in La Rochelle. Were they produced and used in the same location? This is not clear either.
The oldest evidence of its presence in Europe dates back to 1930 at the Aalderink Kunsthandel store in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Founded in 1930 by Jaques [sic] Aalderink, the gallery specialised in sculptures from the Far East, the Pacific and Africa.
The German Lore Kegel (1901-1980) acquired the statue at this gallery around 1935, though there was no indication of its origin. Lore Kegel was one of the first women to study higher education at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. She was already a painter and had carried out ethnological studies in Asia, Italy and West Africa when she decided to open a gallery in Hamburg named ‘Lore Kegel - Exotic Art’, inspired by her knowledge of arts from Africa and Oceania. Had she already opened her own gallery when the sculpture caught her eye? It seems she did not intend to sell it, as it remained in her private collection her entire life. She visited Africa several times in her lifetime, particularly Zaire, the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, where one of her sons, Boris Kegel-Konietzko, lived. Boris bought the gallery on his return to Hamburg in 1964 and inherited the statue on the death of his mother in 1980.
Thirteen years later, the statue became part of a major private collection in the United States before joining that of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière who donated it to the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in 2018.
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
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Esme, Jean (d’), Afrique équatoriale. Paris: éditions Duchartre, 1931.
Eyo, Ekpo, Two Thousand Years Nigerian Art. Lagos, Nigeria: Federal Dept. of Antiquities, Nigeria, c. 1977.
Friedrich, Adolf [Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin], From the Congo to the Niger and the Nile: an account of the German Central African expedition of 1910-1911. London: Duckworth & Co, 1913.
Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk “Un creuset aux frontières ouvertes en Afrique centrale”. in Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk (ed.), Ubangi : arts et cultures au cœur de l’Afrique. Paris: Actes Sud, 2007. pp. 16-103.
Hahner, Iris, “Coiffures dans la région de l’Ubangi à la fin du xixe siècle” IN Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk (ed.), Ubangi : arts et cultures au cœur de l’Afrique. Paris: Actes Sud, 2007, pp. 284-293.
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Meurant, Georges, “La sculpture ubangienne” in Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk (ed.), Ubangi : arts et cultures au cœur de l’Afrique. Paris: Actes Sud, 2007. pp. 140-233.
Roulon-Doko, Paulette, “L'adresse annuelle aux ancêtres chez les Gbaya de Centrafrique”, in Guitard Emilie and Walter van Beek (eds.), Rites et religions dans le Bassin du lac Tchad, Paris: Karthala, 2017, Collection Hommes et sociétés, pp. 255-272.
Roulon-Doko, Paulette, “La notion de ’migration’ dans l’aire gbaya”. Tourneux Henry and Noé Woïn. Migrations et mobilité dans le bassin du lac Tchad, IRD, pp.543-553, 2009, Colloques et séminaires. https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00720191/document
Shaedler, Karl-Ferdinand, Gods, Spirits, Ancestors: African Sculpture from Private German Collections. München: PANTERRA, 1992.
Schmalenbach, Werner (ed.), Arts de l’Afrique noire dans la collection Barbier-Mueller. Paris: Nathan, 1988.
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Volper, Julien, “De bouche à oreille : parures labiales et auriculaires en ivoire au nord Congo” in Felix, Marc Leo (ed.) White Gold, Black Hands, Ivory Sculpture in Congo, volume 8. Qiquhar, Heilungkiang, The People's Republic of China: Gemini Sun, 2014. pp. 50-91.