African Art: a prestigious Swiss collection

Milan, Wednesday 14 October 2020


Ashanti, Kumasi region (Ghana)

Hardwood with dark coating, glass beads
H 31.5 cm

Fertility Doll.
Stylised female figure conceived in the genius creative mind of African sculptors and that Ashanti people have been passing down since the dawn of time.


€ 8.000 - 10.000

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- Helmut Gernsheim antique collection (Castagnola di Lugano);*
- George F. Keller antique collection (New York/Davos) (Inv. G.F.K. 169);
- Former Paolo Morigi collection (Lugano);
- Former private collection (Lugano);

(*) Helmut Gernsheim (Munich 1913 - Lugano 1995). In the 1930s, he took up photography in Munich and started studying for his academic career. In 1937, he presented a series of his photographs to the Paris International Exposition, though did not receive the chance to exhibit them due to political reasons. After the war, in 1946, he moved to London, obtained British citizenship and spent half of his life working at Tate Gallery.As a photographer, he became famous worldwide. He was a collector of historical photographs, and published articles about photography and photography equipment. His collection of paintings, photographs and photography equipment is considered the largest in the world. In 1964, he settled down in Switzerland, in Castagnola di Lugano, where he also became passionate about African art. He sold works to George Keller, Paolo Morigi and other art dealers. One of his Ekoi masks, a famous one, was exhibited in 1970 at the Zurich Exhibition. It was featured in “L’Arte dell’Africa Nera”, Milan 1972, fig. O10.


- Bern 1980, Musée des Beaux Arts;
- Lugano 2002, Palazzo Riva, Banca Svizzera Italiana (BSI);


Reproduced in
- MORIGI PAOLO “Raccolta di un amatore d’arte primitiva”, Magliaso, Lugano & Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland 1980, fig. 171, page 173;
- VENTURI LUCA M. “Anime antiche, arte negra, da una raccolta di sculture dell’Africa occidentale” BSI Bank, Lugano 2002, fig. 29;

- FAGG WILLIAM “The Sculpture of Africa with Eliot Elisofon” London 1958, page 106, ill. 135;
- FAGG WILLIAM & PLASS MARGARET “African sculpture” London 1964, page 13;
- DAGAN ESTHER A. “African dolls for play and magic” Montreal, Canada 1990, pages 70 - 75;
 - WILLET FRANK “African art” London 1971, page 112;
- RIVIERE MARCEAU “Les chefs-d’oeuvre africains des collections privées françaises” Paris 1975, page 74;

These dolls, called “Akua-ba”, meaning “welcome” in the local language, were commissioned for sculptors by pregnant women. The doll, which represents the idea of beauty for Ashanti people, was used as an amulet. According to an old tradition, such sculptures had the magical power to bring good luck to women during childbirth and later the first years of their child’s life.The oldest dolls have a round head, and their body is composed by a conical cylinder with small horizontal arms. The dolls have no legs. These works were commissioned by pregnant women, who took care of them as if they were their children until giving birth. When leaving their home, these women used to carry the dolls on their back, wrapped inside their clothes, the way African women are used to carrying their children every day. After the birth of the child, the dolls were placed on family altars, but often mothers gave them to their daughters as toys.The dolls were carved out of hardwood and have very smooth surfaces, with no signs at all of the tools used by the sculptor. The carvings are very precise, and, on the back of the head, we can see elegant, abstract designs. At the centre of the base disc, a light carving in the wood indicates the female gender of the doll. These dolls were embellished with tiny colourful glass beads that the sculptor wrapped around their neck or hung on the small holes on the head. The shiny dark coating was obtained using vegetable substances, such as palm oil, kola nut or shea butter. The coating is not present on the emphasised areas due to the repeated rubbing against the clothes of the woman owning it and the handling of the doll.


African Art

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