EN · FR · DE

Kwame Opoku: Price of Kota Sold in Paris is Interesting but what about Loss to Creators and Original Users?

The Art Newspaper informs us that a kota has fetched a very high price in Paris:
“A 66cm-tall wooden sculpture has become the most expensive work of African art sold at Christie's France, fetching €5.5m in Paris today, 23 June. This price tag makes it the third most valuable work of African art ever auctioned; the record stands at $12m for a rare Senufo female statue, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014.”  (1)

We learnt also from The Art Newspaper that the kota figure comes from   the collection of the late William Rubin, a former director at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) There is also a reference to what the paper describes as “somewhat glamorous provenance”, the object having been previously possessed by cosmetics tycoon, Helen Rubinstein and a collector of modern art, David Lloyd.

I looked in vain in the newspaper for any reference to the people or the persons who made the artefact and from which country it originally came. There was not a word on how that object travelled from Africa to the U.S.A.

Kotas are reliquary figures, called mbulu ngulu among the Kota from Eastern Gabon and Byeri by the Fang who are found in southern Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Republic of Congo. Other related peoples also produce kotas; they keep the skulls and bones of their ancestors in containers, baskets or other holders on which are placed carved figures, now generally called kota figures in the West. It is believed that the people can call on the ancestors through the relics for help.   They were thus the intermediaries between the living and the dead. The veneration of ancestral relics is widespread among many peoples.

Given the religious nature of kota reliquary, I was very intrigued to find out how the so-called Rubin Kota left its country of origin and reached America where contrary to all art history traditions the name of the collector was substituted for the name of the artist who created the object.  (2)

The Art Newspaper cites the names of Helen Rubinstein and David Lloyd who had possessed the object before William Rubin. The possession of an object that probably left its country of origin under dubious circumstances is described by the Art Newspaper as “somewhat glamorous provenance”. But what is “glamorous” about such a possession? The original owners in Africa that were supposed to keep the skulls and bones of their ancestors may not even be aware of the whereabouts of the kota. Does it not matter that what is part of a people’s belief may be decorating the rooms of non-believers elsewhere in the world for aesthetic pleasure?  

I looked at the online catalogue at the homepage of Christies’ and found an article by Pierre Amrouche entitled, “The William Rubin Kota: an Aristocratic Family Tree”. Note how the African object acquires aristocracy, not from the makers of the object or its functions but from the social status of its possessors in the West.  The article informs us as follows:

“As is the case for many historical masterpieces, the earliest origins of this fantastic object remain a mystery, but its perfection could almost have us believe that it came from heaven, sent by some god of the arts, rather than the fruit of human efforts! Indeed, while it is easy to trace its family tree from 1930 to the present day, knowing not only the identity of those who have had the honour to own it for a while—such pieces are only ever our guests—but also its market value on many occasions during public sales, for example, there is nothing to tell us where and from whom the Kota was purchased before Georges de Miré, its first official owner.”

This mystic explanation is clearly in line with the position of Westerners generally, that once an African object has passed through the possession of Western holders, be they artists, dealers, collectors or museums, the history of the object before it reached the West is not any more relevant or important.  Thus whether the object was stolen or looted or acquired under dubious circumstances, its past history should not disturb Westerners from their aesthetic enjoyment and contemplation.  It therefore comes as no surprise that Pierre Amrouche concludes his interesting article as follows:

“By becoming the William Rubin Kota, this piece has not only acquired a prestigious name, but also its own existence and philosophy. It can hold its head high among the great artists of the last century, from Matisse to Picasso and Brancusi. Born of the tropical night, it has been elevated to a masterpiece of international art.

Not content with this aristocratic pedigree, made up of the four best collectors of their times, the Rubin Kota also showed its worth at three prestigious exhibitions: Exposition d’Art Africain et d’Art Océanie, Galerie Pigalle, in 1930 in Paris, African Negro Art in New York in 1935, and lastly the sumptuous ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art, in New York in 1984.”

Will the kota now change name since there has been a change in possession through the recent auction?

One is reminded of the baseless argument presented by holders of looted Benin Bronzes in connection with the exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria (2007). The museums that put up the exhibition, Musée du Quai Branly, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Ethnology Museum, Berlin and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna (now World Museum, Vienna) argued that by being in the West the Benin Bronzes had gained extra value. The claim  of the Western holders of the looted objects was that  in the past these works symbolized religious beliefs and could be claimed by the Benin dynasties but now, because of a shift in their values, mainly aesthetic, technical and formal elegance (determined by their Western owners) they do not belong to Benin alone. This insulting argument was rejected by critics. (3)

William Rubin in his famous “Primitivism” in the 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern did not give us any information on how the kota could have left Africa and arrived in the West even though the kota appears on page 268 of the book where it is indicated that it came from the People’s Republic of Congo.  But how did it leave that country? (4) It should be mentioned though that at the the time of the publication of the book, Rubin was not the holder of the artefact but had borrowed it for the exhibition.

We read further in the online catalogue of the exhibition an article entitled “The
William Rubin Kota: An Icon of African Art” by Louis Perrois which is more
down to earth in its explanation of the origin of the Kota and how it could have come to the West:

“Before they were brought to Europe by administrators, missionaries or tropical products brokers (also known as “bush riders”), these wooden, copper plated figures were revered objects, lashed to large reliquary baskets where they presided over the relics of ancestors. People called them mbulu-ngulu, meaning “basket with a figure.”(5)

Perrois gets closer to the probable way in which this particular kota was sneaked from Gabon when he refers to missionaries and administrators as having brought African artefacts to Europe.

Most African cultural objects entered the West under dubious circumstances. Would any persons in Africa normally hand over to strangers religious objects, intended to protect the relics of their ancestors?  Such an unimaginable action would plague for ever the conscience of the perpetrators. Desacralization of religious or sacred objects that had taken place in Europe long ago was definitely not en vogue in Africa at the time of colonization. True though that the colonial invasions, the attacks on African political systems, religions and cultures had laid down foundations for future desacralization and even desecration that accompanied assumptions of African inferiority. (6)  This may explain why Michel Leiris and his French colleagues in the Dakar-Djibouti Expedition (1931-33) could go and take away sacred masks whilst their African assistants were mortified by the very mention of the idea. (7) This may also underline some of the exploits of Leo Frobenius and the disappearance of the Olokun after his visit to Ife. (8)

Hundreds of these reliquaries were brought to Europe under the colonial regime after pressures, including burning of  objects by missionaries, had been exerted by the colonial masters and the missionaries who in general worked in tandem to make the colonized amenable to  European imperialist rule for which the conversion to Christianity was seen as a necessary step.

We should also remember that many objects that are said to have been gifts or sold, were really obtained by force, physical or implied, that was inherent in the structural violence of the colonial context. Cornelia Essner has written the following:

“That the acquisition of ethnografica in the colonial time was on the basis of more or less “structural violence” will not be pursued in detail in this context. Some individual contemporaries were perfectly aware of this fact. Thus one Africa traveller and resident in the German Empire in Ruanda, Richard Kandt, wrote in 1897 to Felix von Luschan, Deputy Director of the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, as follows; “It is especially difficult to procure an object without at least employing some force. I believe that half of your museum consists of stolen objects. (9)

These questions and issues do not seem to bother many Western dealers and museum directors who seem primarily to be concerned with the market value of African cultural objects under their control. Should Africans leave it at that and support the Western celebration of the triumph of capitalist art market and its accompanying values? Should we admire holders of African artefacts with dubious or unclear histories?

With Westerners determining what the icons of African art are whilst the majority of these icons are in the West and the African elites seemingly unconcerned, it would not be surprising if in future, some people, including future generations of Africans, start wondering if we Africans made any contributions at all to African art, the best of which is in the West where the majority of experts are.

It is to the eternal shame of African elites that we have been unable to recover our cultural artefacts that were looted, stolen or transferred under dubious circumstances to the West.

Kwame Opoku, 12 July, 2015.

1. www.theartnewspaper.com/
www.christies.com/events/the-william-rubin-kota-tour-2015/   https://www.barnebys.co.uk/auctions/lot/.../le-kota-de-william-rubin  www.artnet.com/.../auctions.../arts-dafrique-doceanie-et-damerique-du-n.https://nordonart.wordpress.com/.../african-oceanic-and-pre-columbian-a
 On kota generally see the authoritative book by Louis Perrois, Kota, 2012, 5 Continents Edition, Milan. The book contains images of a large number of kota reliquary figures that seem to be all in Western possession.

2.  A French site has written: « Pour ceux qui s'intéressent aux grandes ventes, La figure "en vue" du moment, devenue icône grâce à l'orchestration Christie's, est sans conteste la figure de reliquaire Kota ayant appartenue à William Rubin, d'où l'attribution de ce patronyme qui déroge aux règles de l'histoire de l'art où le nom du collectionneur se substitue au nom de l’artiste. »

#deGe6T9tISP4v6vm.993. K. Opoku, “Opening of the exhibition "Benin-Kings and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria”, www.culture-and-development.info/issues/benin1.htm
Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007.

4. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

5. Two days after the auction sale of the kota by Christies, the catalogue was no longer available for sale. Would we have to pay, as a result of this market strategy of creating scarcity, a higher price when the catalogue is available again?

6. To a great extent, the process of desacralization and indeed desecration of African religious objects has been intensively pursued by the Christian missionaries who preached that our African religions were pagan, heathen beliefs and should be abandoned by conversion to Christianity. Those who converted were urged to collect their sculptures and bring them to the missionaries for destruction by burning. The missionaries burnt a few objects and shipped the rest to Europe where some were sold and others donated for the foundation of museums. Many art collections in Europe owe their origin to the activities of the missionaries in this respect. See K. Opoku, COULD VATICAN ETHNOLOGY MUSEUM BE HOLDING ARTEFACTS WITH DOUBTFUL HISTORIES?
See also Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 161-186.
“What I want to suggest in this chapter is that it was through the careful cultivation of a distinct, though by no means disinterested, position in relation to the colonial enterprise, that the home mission was particularly effective in disseminating an image of Africa and the African that ultimately served imperial interests.
What the missionary in the field did not give, or sell, to the national or local ethnographic collection back home, they donated to their own societys ethnographic collection. Two of the earliest museums in Britain, which were founded independently of any concern for forming stock for use in exhibitions, belonged to the London Missionary Society and the Wesley Missionary Society.”

7. In the case of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, like in all similar expeditions by Europeans, many of the methods of criminals were employed: intimidation, coercion, blackmailing, straightforward stealing and robbing and the carrying of weapons. Religious objects were profaned and disrespectfully taken away, sometimes in the presence of frightened believers unable to prevent sacrilege and sometimes crying at their own powerlessness in the face of imminent sacrilege.
EXTRACTS FROM AFRIQUE FANTÔME, MICHEL LEIRIS Gallimard, 1951. Translations from French are by K. Opoku.
28 August 1931   “After the journey. Dinner at Sido (128km). Raid, as in the other village, of all that we can find by way of dance costumes, utensils, children’s toys, etc.” (Ibid. p.96) 6 September “On the left, hanging from the ceiling in the midst of a crowd of calabashes, an indefinable packet covered with feathers of different birds and in which Griaule feels that there is a mask. Irritated by the equivocations of the people our decision is quickly made: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them into his boots, we place the other things in place and we leave.” (Ibid, p.103)
“Griaule decrees then and through Mamadou Vad, informs the chief that since they are obviously mocking us, they must, as reprisals deliver to us a Kono (a religious object) in exchange for 10 francs, on pain of the police, said to be hiding in our vehicle, coming to take the chief and the important persons of the village to San where they will have to explain themselves to the Administration. What a terrible blackmail! With a theatral gesture, I gave the chicken to the chief and as Makan has arrived with the canvas sheet, Griaule and I ordered the men to bring us the “Kono” (religious object). With everybody refusing, we went there ourselves, enveloped the holy object in the canvas sheet and went out like thieves whilst the panic-stricken chief fled and at some distance, drove his wife and children to their home with a baton. We crossed the village, which had become completely deserted, in a deadly silence, we reached our vehicles…The ten francs are given to the chief and we leave in a hurry, in the midst of general astonishment and crowned with the aura of particularly powerful and daring demons or rascals .”(Ibid.  pp. 103-104) 7 September.
Leiris’ fundamental book, published in French in 1951, has so far not been translated into English.

8. H. Glenn Penny, Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany, (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2002,) p.116.
“During his travels in Nigeria in 1911, Frobenius came into direct conflict with the British authorities concerning his collecting policies in what has come to be known as the Olokun Affair. This incident developed following complaints by the inhabitants of Ife, the sacred capital of the Yoruba country in southern Nigeria that Frobenius had mistreated and deceived them, and had taken away religious objects without their consent. The principal item in dispute was the bronze head of the god Olokun, which Frobenius claimed to have “discovered” in a groove outside the walls of Ife, but which the town's inhabitants accused him of stealing. As a result of the complaints, which followed Frobenius's departure from the city British authorities summoned him before an improvised British court and eventually forced him to return many of the items he had acquired from the area”.

9. „Dass der Erwerb von Ethnographica in der Kolonialzeit auf der Grundlage mehr oder minder 'struktureller Gewalt' erfolgte, soll hier in diesem Rahmen nicht näher verfolgt werden. Einzelnen Zeitgenossen war diese Tatsache im Übrigen durchaus bewußt. So schrieb der Afrikareisende und Resident des Deutschen Reiches in Ruanda, Richard Kandt, 1897 an Felix von Luschan, den stellvertretenden Direktor des Berliner Völkerkunde-Museums: Überhaupt ist es schwer, einen Gegenstand zu erhalten, ohne zum mindesten etwas Gewalt anzuwenden. Ich glaube, daß die Hälfte Ihres Museums gestohlen ist'. p77

Cornelia Essner, “Berlins Völkerkunde-Museum in der Kolonialära: Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis von Ethnologie und Kolonialismus in Deutschland“, in: Berlin in Geschichte und Gegenwart - Jahrbuch des Landesarchivs Berlin, (Ed.) Hans J. Reichardt, Siedler Verlag, 1986

back to top