Monday, 15 December 2014


This is an Online Exhibition Open to the Entire World 

Curated by Joe Pollitt - 2014/2015

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (Italian pronunciation: [ameˈdɛo modiʎˈʎani]; July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France and lived in Montparnasse, Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century. He is known for portraits and nudes in a modern style characterized by elongation of faces and figures.

Portrait of Léopold Zborowski, 1918

Source: Louvre in Paris

A return to the Louvre — or a long-awaited arrival

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
Non-Western art has not always been absent from the Louvre. In 1827, under the reign of Charles X, the Louvre housed a maritime and ethnographic museum called the Musée Dauphin, where visitors could admire “exotic” pieces brought back by great explorers such as Cook and Lapérouse—objects regarded as mere “ethnographic specimens”. After Jules Ferry’s decision to separate “the history of traditions and customs from the field of art,” a museum of ethnography was created at the Trocadéro in 1878, to house the collections of the Musée Dauphin, the Musée de Saint-Germain-en Laye, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. At that time, aesthetic considerations were overlooked in favor of scientific value.

In 1905-1906, artists in the avant-garde 
Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
(Fauves, Cubists, Expressionists, etc) encouraged a shift in attitudes to what they called “negro art” (including African and Oceanic art). In 1909, Apollinaire expressed his desire that the Louvre should present “certain exotic masterpieces that are no less moving than the finest specimens of Western statuary.” Similar declarations were made throughout the century; Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, declared in 1943, “The day is surely not far away when collections from distant parts of the world will leave ethnographic museums to take up their rightful place in art museums,” and in 1969, in his work entitled “L’intemporel”, André Malraux foresaw the arrival of negro art in the Louvre, asserting that many people shared this desire.

The Fang People of Equatorial West Africa
Source: The History of Fang Masks

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
The Fang people used masks in their secret societies. Members of this male society wore the Ngil masks during the initiation of new members and the persecution of wrongdoers. Masqueraders, clad in raffia costumes and attended by helpers, would materialize in the village after dark, illuminated by flickering torchlight.

The Fang tribe are spread over a vast area along the Atlantic coast line of equatorial Africa and can be found in Cameroon equatorial Guinea and Gabon namely along the bank of the Ogowe river.
Masks, such as those worn by itinerant troubadours and for hunting and punishing sorcerers, are painted white with facial features outlined in black. Typical are large elongated masks covered with kaolin and featuring a face that was usually heart-shaped with a long fine nose. Apparently it have been linked with the dead, since white is their color. The Ngontang dance society also used white masks, sometimes in the form of a four-sided helmet shape with bulging forehead and eyebrows in heart-shaped arcs.  The So, or red antelope, was connected with initiation that lasted several months, the masks used during this ritual had long horns. Passport masks, were attached to arms of the maskers.

This great rain forest region in the Fang territory is a plateau of middle altitude, with innumerable waters with falls and rapids rendering navigation for the most part impossible, and with a climate typically equatorial. 

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
History: They are principally hunters but also agriculturists. Their social structure is based on a clan, a group of individuals with a common ancestor. The ensemble of Fang peoples practice a cult devoted to ancestor lineages, the bieri, whose aim is to both protect themselves from the deceased and to recruit and aid in matters of daily life. This familial cult does not monopolize the Fang’s religious universe, for it coexists with other beliefs and rituals of a more collective character. 

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa

The bieri, gave rise to remarkable wooden sculpture. The bieri, or ancestor figure, would be consulted when the village was to change location, or when a new crop was planted, during a palaver, or before going hunting, fishing, or to war. But once separated from the reliquary chest, the sculpted object would lose its sacred value and could be destroyed. The ritual consisted of prayers, libations, and sacrifices offered to the ancestor, whose scull would be rubbed with powder and paint each time. With its large head, long body, and short extremities, the Fang bieri had the proportion of a newborn, thus emphasizing the group’s continuity with its ancestor and with the three classes of the society: the “not-yet-born,” the living, and the dead. The relics were essentially skull fragments, or sometimes complete skulls, jawbones, teeth and small bones. The bieri also served for therapeutic rituals and, above all, for the initiation of young males during the great So festival. 

Chinua Achebe Talk On Conrad's Heart of Darkness 

Quote: "But more important by far is the abundant testimony about Conrad's savages which we could gather if we were so inclined from other sources and which might lead us to think that these people must have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band. For as it happened, soon after Conrad had written his book an event of far greater consequence was taking place in the art world of Europe. This is how Frank Willett, a British art historian, describes it: 

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
Gaugin had gone to Tahiti, the most extravagant individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable; it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Derain was 'speechless' and 'stunned' when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze. . . The revolution of twentieth century art was under way! 

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa
The mask in question was made by other savages living just north of Conrad's River Congo. They have a name too: the Fang people, and are without a doubt among the world's greatest masters of the sculptured form. The event Frank Willett is referring to marks the beginning of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art, which had run completely out of strength.
The point of all this is to suggest that Conrad's picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate even at the height of their subjection to the ravages of King Leopold's lnternational Association for the Civilization of Central Africa. 

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in a Black Hat

Tsogo Mask | Bwiti People from Gabon
Tsogo masks are controlled by the Bwiti men's initiation society. The masks represent supernatural beings, each type has its own name and symbolism. They are used in initiation ceremonies and share the kaolin white surface with their Gabon neighbours, the Fang, Punu and Kwele. Check out blog: Trip Down Memory Lane

Lunia Czechowska with her left hand on her cheek 

Portrait of a Lady
Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa

The Ngil Mask of the Fang and Amedeo Modigliani By Barbara Steinberg

The Ngil Mask of the Fang and Amedeo Modigliani By Barbara Steinberg 
 The Fang were once an itinerant people, whose animist cult, bieri, was devoted to ancestor worship. Their statues had reliquary boxes attached, which the Fang carried with them. Without a reliquary box, a statue lost its power.

They had a secret society called Ngil (gorilla), accessible only to men. Its purpose was to initiate new members and persecute adulterers, thieves, debtors, poisoners, and those who dealt with society disrespectfully. The Ngil mask, painted with white kaolin to invoke the power of the deceased, represented a horrific spirit designed to eradicate evil. The character would appear suddenly in the dark, illuminated by torchlight. It was a terrifying experience.

 When the Europeans came, especially English, Dutch, and French traders in the 16th Century, the Fang mostly settled in Equitorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Gabon. In 1910 Gabon became part of French Equatorial Africa, which was when French colonial officers banned the Ngil mask.

However, through colonial trade ships, African art reached France.

African masks and sculpture became attendant muses to Cubism. As Picasso, a noted collector, pioneered the movement with Georges Braque from 1910 to 1920, European artists paid no attention to the original cultural significance. They were only interested in integrating African art’s simple forms, bold lines, and open designs into their own philosophy.

One of the artists most deeply influenced was Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). In 1909, an ambitious art dealer named Paul Guillaume wanted him to try sculpture, so he became Constantin Brancusi’s apprentice for a year. After Brancusi introduced him to African sculpture, Modigliani rejected Art Nouveau and Impressionism. Instead, he painted studio portraits with a Cubist palette of black, browns, greys, off-whites, red ochre, and burnt sienna. His style was unique.

There may never have been a Modigliani face had he not seen the Ngil masks of the Fang people of Gabon.

Indeed, Modigliani’s sculpture, “Tête,” shown at the 1912 Cubist exhibit in the Salon d’Automne, sold at Christie’s for $52.6 million on June 14, 2010.

So we have yet another story of African design being banned by European colonialists determined to replace indigenous culture with Christianity, exploit natural resources, engage in the slave trade, and conquer land, while European artists interpreted the same objects and advanced Western intellectual history.



Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa


Female Head 1911-12 Tate

Ngil Mask | Fang People, Equatorial West Africa


Stone Figure Head 1912

No comments: