African Art: a prestigious Swiss collection

Milan, Wednesday 14 October 2020


Kuba (Repubblica Democratica del Congo)

Wood with a dark natural coating
H 61 cm

Portrait sculpture of a king.
Place of collection: a region of Bushoong between the courses of the rivers Kasai and Sankuru, in the village of Nshyeeng in Kuba (called Mushenge on today’s maps).
It represents the statue of a king of Kuba, Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen (*). It is the last portrait of a king of Kuba, which, after eighty years, is available in the West.

The information that follows is taken from Cornet’s work published in 1982. He describes and illustrates the history of the Ndop-style sculptures of 12 sovereigns in detail, including the last one, which represents the statue of the Kuba King Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen (1939-1969). The old statues of the sovereigns, after their death, were sculpted by professional sculptors. These posthumous works were held in great consideration by the women of the harem and the direct descendants because of their symbolic value and were handed down in posterity.However, the sequence of having the sculptures created was interrupted for various reasons.Many of the old statues were scattered in collections and museums across the world. Since the first half of the twentieth century, they have no longer been sculpted by the court’s sculptors.This was reversed by King Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen, because, upon his enthronement, he was not able to find a sculptor able or willing to create his portrait (in the Ndop style) after his death. He therefore decided to create the statue that would represent him with his own hands. Being a character of great virtue and clarity of mind, he regretted the uncertainty that surrounded his kingdom in the face of all the evolutions of the modern world. With this initiative, he sought to maintain his kingdom’s historic tradition and distinctive elements alive. He therefore decided to sculpt his own portrait.The king’s self-portrait sculpture (lot 16) entered Europe in 1940, a year after his enthronement. We can therefore hypothesise that the king sculpted at least two works in that period, one of which found its way to the National Museum of Zaire (Musées Nationaux du Zaire).

Both the works capture all the details of the tradition that characterise Ndop portraits: a flat combing with a decoration of shells in the upper edge and a criss-cross pattern of lines on the lower edge; the hairline on show, decorated with drops on the neck, the round shape of his ears, the bend of the eyebrows, the scarification of the temples, a Cypree three-line pectoral strip, a decorated covering for his buttocks, and a rectangular base with a woven design. The king is wearing two shoulder rings, two on his forearm and four bracelets on his wrists. In his left hand, he holds a rooster, an animal that alludes to security, a symbol that identifies the dynasty of each sovereign.

Sold € 22.140,00

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- Charmette antique collection, Gouvernuer, Paris, brought by him himself in 1940;
- Maurice Nicaud antique collection (Paris) (**);
- George F. Keller antique collection (New York/Davos) (Inv. G.F.K. 276);
- Former Paolo Morigi collection (Lugano);
- Former private collection (Lugano);


- Berna 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. 276, page 307;
- VENTURI LUCA M. “Anime antiche, arte negra, da una raccolta di sculture dell’Africa occidentale” BSI Bank, Lugano 2002, fig. 44;

- FAGG WILLIAM “La sculpture africaine de Eliot Elisofon” London 1958, pages 7 and 202;
- CORNET JOSEPH “Art de l’Afrique Noire au pays du fleuve Zaire” Brussels 1972, pages 120-140;
- CORNET JOSEPH “Art Royal Kuba“ Milan 1982;
- LaGAMMA ALISA “Heroic Africans” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2011, pages 152-181;

(*) King of Kuba Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyen who ruled from 1939 to 1969. These sculptures represent the portraits of the sovereigns of the Kuba dynasties. The indigenous name that identifies these statues is Ndop. In his expedition to the Congo in 1908, explorer Emil Torday was among the first Europeans to reach the Kasai territory, where the Bushoong (Kuba) people lived. In his precious book, he describes their customs, traditions and works: TORDAY EMIL & JOICE THOMAS A. “Notes Ethnographiques sur les peuples communément appelés Bakuba, ainsi que sur les peuplades apparentées. Les Bushongo” Annals of the Belgian Congo Museum (Musée du Congo Belge), Brussels, 1910. The history of the dynasty of the 124 sovereigns was passed down orally and documented evidence only emerges in the seventeenth century when sixteen works, considered to be authentic, were identified. These royal Kuba sculptures was presented at the Exhibition of Antwerp in 1937-1938, on display for the first time. Following this, other researchers dedicated themselves to studying these royal sculptures. Anthropologist Jan Vansina went into great detail about its history after travelling to the Congo in 1953. In the era of King Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen (1939-1969), the royal residence covered an area of 800 x 400 metres, and housed 5,000 – 10,000 inhabitants. The buildings were made of dried plant material. The king’s village was based on an ancient model – unique in Central Africa – comparable to a large European hamlet in the Middle Ages. A further author dedicated years to reconstructing the history of the Kings of Kuba: the Franciscan Father Joseph Cornet (1919-2004). Born in Belgium, he lived as a missionary in Congo for more than thirty years. An art historian, he conducted investigations into the customs of many ethnic groups. He published many works which bear witness to this research. He was the director of the National Museum of Zaire (Musée Nationaux du Zaire) and, after a long stay in Kasai, wrote a detailed essay on the royal statues of Kuba, researching their historical and iconographic reconstruction.
A detailed study on the golden age of the kings of Kuba was carried out by Alisa LaGamma, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York (MET): Heroic Africans.Published in 2011, with 30 pages full of illustrations and historical references, it covers the classical statues of the kings of Kuba. It contains the testimony of authors such as Emil Torday (1875-1931), Frans Maria Olbrechts (1899-1958), Jan Vansina (1929-2017) and Joseph Cornet (1919-2004) who, throughout the years, have documented their history and origins.

(**) Maurice Nicaud (1911 - 2003)His biography was taken from an articleby Bernard De Grunne in SOTHEBY’S “Collection Marceau Riviére” Paris, auction of 18th and 19th of June 2019, page 424 The photo was published on page 164It was a famous antiques’ dealer who shared his passion for and luck in discovering Western Africa in the years just following the Second World War with collectors and art dealers like Marceau Riviére and Pierre Verité. In 1950, with his Spanish wife Josepha Guérero, he was in Africa in search of objects. After various trips to Guinea, Mali and Ivory Coast, the couple settled down in Paris in Rue Guénéguad, where he opened Bargui, an African art gallery. During their time together, Nicaud held many pieces from the Baga, Dogon, Yauré, Baulé and Dan groups. Important Dogon works were acquired by the Musée Dapper in Paris. In 1970, they lent the Museum of Zurich a dozen works for an exhibition organised by the director Elsy Leuzinger, “Die Kunst von Schwarzafrika”. The volume was translated into Italy with the title “L’Arte dell’Africa Nera” Milan 1972.Many of Maurice Nicaud’s famous works are today present in private collections and put on display in museums. In particular, many can be observed in the volume written by his friend Marceau Riviére, published in Paris in 1975, entitled “Les chefs-d’oeuvre africains des collections privées françaises”.The inheritance of the Nicaud family was the subject of an auction in Paris organised by Binoche & Giguello on 21st March 2018. Among the 26 works on offer, there were 9 of pulleys for weaving: objects with an apparent low commercial value, which were nonetheless one of the Nicaud couple’s many passions.

- Bern 1980, Musée des Beaux Arts (***). Under the base of the statue, the label of the Museum of Bern is still stuck on. The indigenous name is slightly different than the one noted by Cornet (1982). However, the Museum listed the name of the king who was present in Paolo Morigi’s profile, edited by him before 1980.


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