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African Forms - The Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection
A superb Mangbetu drum, Democratic République of Congo. estimate : € 40.000/60.000. © Sotheby's Images.
PARIS, FRANCE.- Sotheby’s is honoured to announce the sale of the Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection – the most important private collection of non-figurative African art. Created over the last fifteen years, the collection follows more than thirty years of collecting in the field of African art by the Ginzbergs. This American collection encompasses objects from across the continent of Africa, and the Ginzbergs have focused specifically on objects of great quality and beauty. In this unique collection, the Ginzberg’s have chosen objects which encompass many materials, colors and superb forms realized in traditional African art.

In the history of collections, non-figurative African art entered collections in the period of the great discoveries of African art. Some objects entered the princely collections of Europe as well as those of natural history museums and artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact the first objects which came to Europe from Africa were objects of use or weapons rather than masks or ritual statues. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, one need only look at the catalogs published by the famous English dealer, W.O. Oldman, to see the multitude of non-figurative and utilitarian objects he had for sale.

Marc Ginzberg explained in his book African Forms, published in 2000, ‘In the vast array of useful objects that have emerged from Africa, we have a resource of designs and patterns that can be applied in our own cultures. We also have a textbook on the integration of material life into the spiritual life, and we have a panoply of beauty that surprises the eye. The images before us are startling and beautiful, but most satisfying works or art, whether music, poetry, painting or sculpture, show originality emerging from a canon or tradition, and we need to know the sources of these forms to deepen our appreciation.’ Both the creation of this collection, and now the dispersal of the collection are landmark events in the history of art from Africa.

As Marc Ginzberg explains, the collection was chosen to show a wide variety of abstract art. The Ginzberg’s structured the collection around functional categories in order to highlight the treasures of non-figurative African art.

In Africa the human body constituted a place of privilege of artistic expression. At each stage of life, according to precise codes of conduct, men and women painted their faces, added ornaments to their bodies, or scarified them. The aesthetic of these decorations was always prescribed, and jewels or elaborate coiffures were signs of identity, individual and social. The Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection reflects the richness of forms found in these jewels, including a wide range of forms—bracelets, necklaces, anklets, earrings, pendants and the like, estimates from €1,5001. The collection also includes jewels worn on the head such as those for initiates, for married women, combs as well as labrets (estimate: €600/800). These jewels from across the continent were made from a great variety of materials, each invoking a specific meaning from the most rare (shells, feathers or horns) to the most precious (gold, ivory, imported beads, bronze or iron) or the most fragile or ephemeral (hair, copper, bone vegetable fibers, grains, pigments). The textiles were also jewels. Conceived as tableaux with a complex graphic design they often had many functions: clothing indicating status or prestige (the Yoruba beaded tunic, for example, estimate: €10,000/15,000) or the Guro woman’s loincloth, estimate: €10,000/12,000), ceremonial clothing (the Dida tie-dye raphia, estimate: €2,000/3,000, or carpets for stools (the famous Kuba raffia estimated from €1,000 to €1,500).

Considered by many as sculptures, African musical instruments, ‘sounding forms’, are well represented it the Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection. The chordophones, illustrated by a Ouganda harp with eastern influence (estimate: €1,000/1,500), the membranophones (instruments producing a sound from the vibration of a membrane) the drums in the form of an hourglass; the idiophones such as the superb Mangbetu drum of the purest form (estimate: €40,000/60,000 – ). Finally the category of airophones is represented by a selection of the most beautiful small whistles in ivory (Pende) used for hunting, and superb ivory oliphants (Mangbetu), carved from the finial end of an elephant.

Amongst utilitarian objects from Africa, receptacles occupy an unusual place for it was often the natural material which determined the form and function of the container. A round calabash was used as a cup amongst the Mangbetu (estimate: €1,000/1,500) while an elongated calabash made a water pipe in Cameroon (estimate: €1,000/1,500). Receptacles in wood and in terracotta, horn or leather were chosen by Marc and Denyse Ginzberg for their great quality, constituting objects of great refinement. Amongst the Kuba for example, treasure boxes and palm wine cups were delicately carved with geometric motifs estimates from €2,000. Their magnificent patinas show a mixture of oil and pigment. The use of tobacco, introduced to Africa in the 16th century, gave birth in South African small finely carved tobacco containers in bone, estimates from €1,000 to 6,000, wood and ivory amongst the Zulu in particular (estimate: €25,000/35,000).

By their formal quality, stools, perhaps the most functional of all the objects in the Ginzberg Collection, were always considered works of art. The form of an African seat if often a circular stool with one or more legs. The shape varies considerably depending on the cultural use and significance. For example, amongst the Kuba, backrests served as a stool and are the personal property of high ranking people. Amongst the Lobi, the form of a particular tripod stool for men implies a ritual usage by the fact that one could not cross one’s legs. In Cameroon amongst the Bamum or Bamileke one encounters the greatest variety of furniture—stools, thrones and beds. The Marc and Denyse Ginzberg Collection includes a large selection of neckrests which have caught the eyes of many western collectors by the elegance of their forms. Used as rigid pillows to maintain the elaborate coiffures of men and women, these ‘support of dreams’ are unrivalled for the creativity they express—in the form of a stylized quadruped amongst the Zulu (estimate: €6,000/9,000) , or a root in East Africa, or event a delicate geometric form amongst the Shona from Zimbabwe (estimate from €4,000).

In 1991, an exhibition at the Dapper Museum in Paris, Spoons-Sculptures, gave a mark of recognition to these daily objects which are spoons. ‘The sculptor operates a sort of compromise between the liberty of creation and the souvenir of the traditional forms and images. That is to say that the plastic language does not differ from that which we find in figurative sculpture’ (Dapper 1991:26). The same form of a spoon can easily be a variation of a human figure such as in the Ivory Coast when an abstract form amongst the Kulango is a spoon, estimate: €2,000/3,000). In South Africa, there are two types of spoons, large and elegant wood spoons and small, personal spoons in ivory or bone, estimates from €2,000. In Central Africa, the refinement of small objects is best seen in the elegance of ivory spoons amongst the Boa and Lega. Amongst the Lega these spoons also have an important symbolic meaning (estimate: €15,000/20,000).

The weapons in the Ginzberg Collection truely transcend our idea of functional objects as so much care and attention has been taken in their design. The collection includes both defensive weapons such as shields, and offensive weapons like swords and throwing knives. As Ginzberg himself noted in 2000, ‘One can v





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