Collection of African art

Collection of African art
Headdress, a mantsho-na-tshol, 19th/20th century
Ritual Pounder, deble, ca.1870
Female Reliquary Figure, biery, 19th/20th century
Male Ancestor Figure, lusingiti, 19th/20th century
Cult Figure, 19th or early 20th century
Nail Figure, nkisi n’kondi, before 1900
Seated Figure, probably 17th/18th century
Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1920
Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1930
Headdress, a mantsho-na-tshol, 19th/20th century
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Collection of African art
Headdress, a mantsho-na-tshol, 19th/20th century

Shape of a snake, From an unknown workshop in the Baga, Nalu, Landuma, Pukur, or Bulumits region, Guinea
Wood, painted, height 200 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

With the spread of Christian missionary activity and Islamization, many tribes in Africa felt the need to establish secret societies in order to protect their cultural identity and continue practising their traditional religions. As the mask of a medicine man, this headdress was an important emblem of secret societies along the coast of northern Guinea. It is a stylized representation of an upright boa constrictor and is carved from a single piece of wood that may have been shaped into this form while it was still growing. Given its weight and height, it was most likely worn only with the aid of a supporting frame and several assistants. Its actual function remains unclear: it was probably used during initiation rites and was considered capable of warding off even the most threatening demons.

Ritual Pounder, deble, ca.1870
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Collection of African art
Ritual Pounder, deble, ca.1870

Work of a Senufo master from the Sikasso region, Mali
Wood with shiny dark patina, height 95 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Deble or doogele sculptures made by the Senufo people in Mali are stored in a sacred grove that is accessible only to the men of the poro, the secret society responsible for maintaining social harmony. The figures are pounded on the ground during funeral ceremonies, possibly to announce the arrival of the deceased in the next world. As such figures are among the most highly venerated images in this region, they did not reach Europe until a very late stage. The present figure, an impressive combination of stylized linearity and three-dimensional physicality, is one of the earliest known sculptures of its kind.

Female Reliquary Figure, biery, 19th/20th century
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Collection of African art
Female Reliquary Figure, biery, 19th/20th century

Unknown Betsi master from the southern Fang region, Gabon
Wood with shiny dark patina, height 44 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

This figure was originally placed on top of a bieri, a reliquary box in which the mortal remains of important clan ancestors are preserved. It is not known whether such sculptures are actual portraits of the deceased. This figure held a sacrificial vessel in her hands, and the sculpture’s dark patina may be the result of ritual sprinklings or rubbings with blood or palm oil. The Fang peoples in what is today Gabon have produced perhaps the most significant carved sculptures in all of Africa. The stylization of the face and body lends the present work a strong sense of physicality; this, combined with its cubic, almost constructivist form, also proves fascinating to Western eyes.

Male Ancestor Figure, lusingiti, 19th/20th century
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Collection of African art
Male Ancestor Figure, lusingiti, 19th/20th century

Unknown Hemba master from the Bena-Niembo region, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood with shiny patina, height 90 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Ancestor veneration is an important part of life among the Hemba of eastern Zaire (now Congo). Ancestors are portrayed as sculptural figures that are stored in shrines and brought out on particular occasions to be worshipped or invoked. The symmetrically stylized rendering of the body makes this an especially fine piece. The patina has been obtained by rubbing the figure with palm oil, a ritual part of the practice of ancestor veneration. As with all such sculptures, the genitals and legs would originally have been concealed by a bast skirt.

Cult Figure, 19th or early 20th century
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Collection of African art
Cult Figure, 19th or early 20th century

Unknown master from the Mumuye region, Nigeria
Wood with shiny dark patina, height 99 cm (including pedestal)
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

From both a formal and an artistic point of view, this figure from the Mumuye people of Nigeria is to Western eyes perhaps the most impressive work in the Fondation Beyeler collection. One cannot fail to be impressed by the way in which the sculptor has carved the figure in the round from a single tree trunk, while at the same time rendering it as a cubist-like form. There are rudimentary nipples and genitals (or a navel) on the narrow torso, which is supported by short legs. Monumental arms emerge from the shoulders to encompass the entire body and end in stylized hands. It is not known whether these originally held a container. The sculpture is topped by the suggestion of a relatively small face with hair shaped like a helmet. As impressive as this figure may be, very little is known about its original function. Many lines of cultural tradition have been irrevocably destroyed by the post-colonial wars which continue to ravage Africa to this day.

Nail Figure, nkisi n’kondi, before 1900
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Collection of African art
Nail Figure, nkisi n’kondi, before 1900

From a Kongo workshop in the Vili region, Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood, nails, and other iron elements, cowrie shells, porcelain, resin, height 104 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

N’kondi figures play a very important role among the Vili people of the Congo region: their tasks include warding off evil forces, acting as oracles, and protecting children, pregnant women and the weak from harm. When the figures were being produced, particular emphasis was placed upon the depiction of the faces and the beards made of resin, which were intended to have a frightening impact and at the same time serve a protective function. The lower part of the body would probably have been covered by a bast skirt. A medicine man assigned the figure its particular task by placing a mixture of medicinal herbs and magical substances inside it. The nails and iron blades that have been driven into the present piece indicate that it served as an object onto which desires could be projected. People’s desires were attached to the nails, so to speak, in the hope that the figure might subsequently fulfil them.

Seated Figure, probably 17th/18th century
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Collection of African art
Seated Figure, probably 17th/18th century

Fragment of a slit drum, From a workshop in the M’bembe region, Nigeria
One piece of wood, the end of a giant drum (approx. 2–3 m), height 82 cm, depth 54 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Figures like these often decorated the ends of the large wooden slit gongs that were used by the Mbembe people of Nigeria as a means of communication. Slit gongs are carved from a single piece of wood; their age is hard to determine as they are often badly weathered from continued exposure to the elements. Radiocarbon dating tests on comparable sculptures have shown that the wood can be up to 300 years old. This depiction of a seated woman is remarkably lifelike – a characteristic feature of Mbembe art.

Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1920
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Collection of African art
Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1920

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Raffia, with dyed applications, 254 x 78 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1930
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Collection of African art
Ceremonial Cloth of the Kuba, ca.1930

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Dyed raffia, 677 x 83 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Coming to the understanding that the art created by peoples untouched by Western civilization possessed autonomous meaning and profound expressivity was of great importance to modernist art. Many European artists such as Picasso and Matisse not only collected works of art from beyond Europe, but they also drew inspiration from their forms and expression. A prime example of this is Picasso's Femme from 1907 in the Fondation, whose facial form is influenced by African masks. So it is altogether logical to do as Hildy and Ernst Beyeler did and supplement a collection of modern Western art with non-European art. Even if these works have been divested of their actual function as objects of cultic veneration invested with supernatural powers, they are displayed in the museum in the belief that they can take their place on an equal footing alongside the works of modern art. Besides, could there be a more appropriate way of presenting these religiously inspired works outside their original cultural context than to exhibit them in the company of pictures by the great masters of modernism?

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