Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique (Masterpieces from Africa)
dans les collections du

musée Dapper
Musée Dapper
35, bi rue Paul-Valéry 75016 Paris
October 1, 2015 → July 16, 2016

Published at Hyperallergic as
In Paris a Museum of African Art Brings Out Its Jewels

Fang, (Gabon or Equatorial Guinea) “The Black Venus” (a.k.a. “eyema byeri” &
“Pahouin Venus”) (19th century) Fang peoples, Betsi group, wood and pigment. H: 56
cm. Ex Georges de Miré; Louis Carré by 1931; Jacob Epstein; Carlo Monzino © Droits
réservés Musée Dapper Paris

Fang, (Gabon or Equatorial Guinea) “The Black Venus” (a.k.a. “eyema byeri” &
“Pahouin Venus”) (detail) (19th century) Fang peoples, Betsi group, wood and pigment
H: 56 cm. Ex Georges de Miré; Louis Carré by 1931; Jacob Epstein; Carlo Monzino ©
Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

In his prescient book from 1915 Black Sculpture, Carl Einstein describes certain

transcendent examples of African sculpture as a form of “fixed ecstasy.” That
interpretation suits the awe-inspiring poise of “The Black Venus” (a.k.a. “eyema byeri”
& “Pahouin Venus”) (19th century).
“Black Venus” is an inscrutable, brightly varnished, reliquary carving from the Fang
(Betsi) tribe and it aesthetically dominates Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique (Masterpieces from
Africa). An exhibition of over a hundred pieces in the Musée Dapper collection of subSaharan Africa art from Central and West Africa. It is a stunningly beautiful figurine that
projects grace and dark luminosity through both the face and body, projecting female
inner power and spiritual glow. She strongly sits in an ineffable radiance. Rather, she
floats, transmitting an emotion of effortless stoic tenderness. Her color is that of shiny
soft tar, like one can see on country roads in the heat of summer.
Looking at this black beauty with her magical elegance easily explains how and why
African art was such an inspiration to rich bohemians like Nancy Cunard and early 20thcentury avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and
Henri Matisse. As far back as 1912 the painter/theorist Wassily Kandinsky and Franz
Marc included African artifacts (as art) in their Blue Rider Almanac, underwritten by the
impressive industrialist art collector Bernhard Koehler - the same year that Kandinsky
published his deservingly famous Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In 1916, the year that
Dada sprang to life, artist/writer/gallerist Marius de Zayas published African Negro Art:
Its Influence on Modern Art, a subject that had already occupied Tristan Tzara deeply.
Indeed, as part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of Dada, Museum Rietberg in
Zurich is presenting Dada Afrika, the first show themed on the Dadaist’s craze for the art
of Africa. A craze that Barry Schwabsky has characterized as a sketchy politics and
poetics of race. Even before Dada, de Zayas first saw African art in Paris and recognized
its influences on the development of modern art there. Subsequently he proposed an
exhibit of African art to photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who once owned the
Kota (or Ndassa) "Reliquary Figure" (19th century) piece in the Dapper show. In 1914,
one of the first exhibits of African art (as seen in the context of modern art) was held at
Stieglitz’s New York City gallery 291.

Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique is divided into two large sections, with Central Africa on the
ground level and West Africa on the second floor. Among the highlights are the wood
figures carved by Fang, Baoulé and Dogon masters, like the Dogon masterwork
“Equestrian Figure” (circa 17th /18th century) – but also the lost wax cast gold disk
“Pectoral disk akrafokonmu” (18th century) from the Ashanti people of Côte d’Ivoire.

Dogon (Mali) “Equestrian Figure” (circa 17th /18th century) wood & pigment. H: 81 cm.
Ex Lester Wunderman

Ashanti (Côte d’Ivoire) “Pectoral disk akrafokonmu” (18th century) lost wax cast gold
D:17 cm © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

The show follows on the heals of another outstanding show of African art; last years Les
Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte-d'Ivoire (Masters of Sculpture from Ivory Coast) at
Musée du Quai Branly. But this show is personal. Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique honors the
Musée Dapper’s founding connoisseur Michel Leveau, who died November 14th, 2012 on
the island of Gorée, off Dakar (Senegal) as he was preparing an exhibition to be held in
Africa. Long passionate about Africa after working there, Leveau had created the Dapper
Foundation for African Arts in 1983 in Amsterdam. Interestingly, the dapper name
Dapper comes from the seventeenth century Dutch humanist writer Olfert Dapper, who
wrote Description of Africa in 1689.
Leveau never acquired anything in situ, straight out of Africa, however, but bought
exclusively in the West, especially at Sotheby’s and from Rive Gauche galleries and
private collectors, including Robert Visser, Carlo Monzino, André Fourquet and Hubert

Goldet. Evidently Leveau appreciated provenance, as demonstrated by the fact that some
of the pieces in the collection were formerly the property of Helena Rubinstein, Lester
Wunderman, Louis Carré and Georges de Miré. Some are unique and without any
equivalent in the world, like the sculptures from Gabon (Fang, Kota, Punu), Cameroon
(Bangwa), Benin (Fon) and Mali (Dogon, Soninke). Leveau had opened the Musée
Dapper in Paris in May 1986 and it is now led by Leveau’s wife Christiane FalgayrettesLeveau, who also is the curator of Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique.
Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique puts on view an array of outstanding works of African art from
the Dapper collection. Including some which had previously belonged to leading
individuals who took part in the early appreciation of African art: Dadaist Tristan Tzara,
Charles Ratton and Paul Guillaume (the French art dealer who brought African art to the
attention of Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn organized the Première Exposition d’Art
Nègre et d’Art Océanien in 1919) and sculptor Jacob Epstein. Indeed “The Black Venus”
was in the collection of Epstein.

Baoulé (Côte d'Ivoire) “Statuette de conjoint mystique blolo bian” (circa 19th century)
wood H:45 cm © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

The other carving that I found outstanding, aesthetically striking, and genuinely
delightful for its synthesis of introspective contemplation and formal detail, is the Baoulé
“Statuette de conjoint mystique blolo bian” (Spouse Statuette Mystical Blolo Bian) (circa
19th century) from the Côte d'Ivoire. This intensely detailed piece is terrific in terms of
its magical presence - even as it does not appear to be a work of the Baoulé Maître de
Himmelheber (there is no distinctively upwardly tilted head). As with many Baoulé
figures, “Statuette de conjoint mystique blolo bian” is a blolo bian (spirit husband),

representing a dream supreme spouse from the hinder world. This debonair carving is the
locus for such a spirit spouse, and once was the center of a magical shrine where a jealous
or vengeful spirit spouse could be appeased.

Installation view Musée Dapper with (right) Bangwa (Cameroun) “Statue lefem à
l’effigie d’une princesse” (circa 1926) wood and pigment, H: 85 cm, Collectée en 18971898 par Gustav Conrau puis rapportée en Europe en 1899 Anciennes collections du
Museum für Völkerkunde de Berlin d’Arthur Speyer de Charles Ratton d’Helena
Rubinstein et de Harry A. Franklin © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

Bakongo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) “Nkisi Statuette” (late-18th century)
wood, feathers, vegetal fiber, shell, mirror, hide, pigment H38 cm. Collected by Robert
Visser in 1903 © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

Also grabbing my attention was the lugubrious magical-religious “Nkisi Statuette” (late18th century) from The Democratic Republic of the Congo that was produced by the
Bakongo people. It is an amalgamated piece that visually screams of a fearlessness that
could inspire a new generation of aficionado enthusiasts. During the colonial period,
these statuettes were called "fetish" or "nail fetishes," as some of them are covered with
nails from head to toe. But nkisi also refers to an invisible world of personalized power

that can be controlled by means of ritual practices.
Carved often as a human or a dog, their eyes are usually inlaid pieces of glass or mirrors.
They also include a receptacle containing different substances that is frequently attached
to the skull or affixed to the abdomen. The stuff inside is what magically activates the
statue. For me, this object’s look of spectacular spirited defiance is salutary.
Bakongo figures’ threatening appearance make them a simple symbol of African
witchcraft. But they are produced with a wide variety of soothsayer intentions. With
them, perhaps we can see why the la bohème artists’ engagement with African works
were primarily limited to their formal qualities, as the meaning and function of the art’s
divinational magic remains mysterious even now. Not least of all, because they serve(d)
multiple functions. For example, the Soninke “Altar Figure” (circa 10th century) from
Mali, has a strange sculptural quality that is beguilling. Was it used in initiation rituals of
those developing esoteric knowledge? Was it employed in a cult that worshipped the
ancestors? or ensured the fertility of women and the land? or for purposes of curing the
sad or ill? Or was it all the above??
In an art world overshadowed by the supposed clarity of celebrity branding and market
valuations, studying Chefs-d’œuvre d’Afrique reveals a plethora of genuine mysteries
behind the spiritual and social imperatives that greatly shaped and inspired what we now
call modern art.

Joseph Nechvatal

Soninke (Mali) “Altar Figure” (circa 10th century) wood & pigment. H: 103 cm. Ex
Lester Wunderman © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris

Kota or Ndassa (Congo) "Reliquary Figure" (19th century) wood copper brass. H: 60 cm.
Ex Paul Guillaume; Alfred Stieglitz © Droits réservés Musée Dapper Paris