How Auction Houses Can Improve the Ways They Describe Non-Western Art
This week, a 19th-century kifwebe mask from the Songye people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be the star lot of Christie’s spring sale of African art in New York. With angular facial features, striated designs, and a symbolic use of color, bifwebe (plural of kifwebe) masks are distinctive and rife with symbolism. Female masks are white, symbolizing light, the moon, and health, and male masks are black or red, representing smoke and danger. Before colonial times, the male bifwebe were linked with policing practices within the Songye community. During colonization, they took on a new role: preserving the historical powers of leaders within the community as Belgian forces—who colonized the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1879 to 1960—came in and tried to disrupt them.
But you wouldn’t know much of this history if you read the feature Christie’s ran about the mask on its website. Instead, the auction house has chosen to lean into what it doesn’t know about the object, describing it as “intangible,” “other-worldly,” and even assigning supernatural powers to it—calling it “an opening to the fifth dimension.” Out of context, the descriptions provided by Christie’s—including the slick 47-second video it has paired the text with—come across as breathlessly effusive at best, infantilizing at worst.
Beyond mystical descriptors, Christie’s has devoted a significant portion of its marketing space to Jeanne Walschott, the Belgian collector who acquired the object in the early 20th century. The article also name-drops Western artists who have been inspired by Songye art, “from the
Reckoning and restitution
Recently, museums around the world have been grappling with complicated colonial legacies. Last November, per President Emmanuel Macron’s instruction, France released a comprehensive report on African objects. The report by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr rattled the museum world, particularly institutions with major African art collections like the British Museum and the Musée du Quai Branly. Some feared that the report would call for the restitution of tens of thousands of objects, stripping their collections bare. In October, the British Museum agreed to loan some of the Benin bronzes back to Nigeria, which has sought their return since receiving independence in 1960.
Most recently—and perhaps most poignantly for the kifwebe mask—the African Museum in Belgium reopened following a revamp that sought to include greater engagement with critical postcolonial ideas. The museum—which had not seen a significant reorganization since the era of Belgian dominance in the Congo—had long been criticized for imagery depicting Africans as savages, and even has eroticized African figures carved into its walls. Still, post-reboot, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the museum for not going far enough to own up to Belgian’s violent colonial history under Leopold II. “The Working Group notes the importance of removing all colonial propaganda and accurately presenting the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial past,” the group said in a statement.
And yet, despite museums’ well-meaning (but not always successful) efforts to adjust their tones and practices to 21st-century standards, auction houses continue to present African artifacts through a Eurocentric lens, often glossing over an artifact’s original context while foregrounding its connections to Western artists and collectors. A Christie’s article about a rare Fang Ngil mask that the house sold last fall for €2.4 million ($2.7 million) invokes
Mystical language and Western-centric presentations are not limited to Christie’s. In texts accompanying the Sotheby’s auction of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas this week, a Songye shield is described as evoking “a striking sense of modernity to Western eyes.” In describing an Ancestor Statue from New Ireland (a part of what’s now Papua New Guinea) that sold for $4.7 million in 2016, the auction house first mentions reaction to it (“Good lord!” he reportedly said), and describes the statue as offering “a glimpse into the spiritual life of a primordial, autochthonous island culture, as it existed before the cataclysmic influence of Western contact.”
And it’s not only African art that is subject to Eurocentric framing and mystical descriptions. An object from Easter Island featured in a March sale at Christie’s was advertised as “beguiling” and “baffling” experts, and was called a “silent witness to long-lost civilization.” Given the recent news about the governor of Easter Island tearfully begging for a massive Moai sculpture to be returned, Elizabeth Marlowe, professor of art history at Colgate University, was stunned. “There was this very public moment of Easter Islanders asserting their autonomy and voice,” she said. But in anticipation of a sale of a Moai kavakava figure, the Christie’s text was “full of language that makes it sound like Easter Island civilization has vanished,” Marlowe continued.
In response, Marlowe started a Twitter thread prompting others to take the same language Christie’s uses for non-European art and use it to describe European art.
“It has been a notable influence on prominent modernist Pacific Island artists,” one said of Creation of Adam (1511–12). Another jabbed at the tendency to generalize and link everything to fertility in a description of Saturn Devouring His Sons (1820–23): “This haunting piece showcases the enduring myth of eating the son of a god—a preoccupation in many European cultures, probably related to fertility.”
In a description of iconic American Gothic (1930), one Twitter user wrote: “Two totems stand rigidly, possibly menacingly, in this American painting whose origins remain unknown.…The curious eyes…seem to stare into the viewers very soul.”
The responses to Marlowe’s prompt are funny, but they get at a sad truth: Applied to familiar Western objects, the language seems condescending, alienating, reductive, and laughably simplistic. Such language is, “by many measures, a reaffirmation of the colonial worldview,” Marlowe said. In the case of the kifwebe mask and the ancestor figure from Easter Island, she criticized the “insistence on the idea that this is a mysterious culture, that there is no way to know what these objects are,” and the complete “refusal to engage with the descendents of the community.”
Marlowe’s point about language also extends to the visuals supporting auction house presentations of non-Western art. In a Sotheby’s feature about Aboriginal art, before any images of the actual objects or any images of the people associated with them, there is a photograph of a white missionary and collector in Aboriginal headgear, and someone who appears to be a Papuan individual blurred in the background.
When objects from outside of the traditional, Western art-historical narrative are auctioned off, they tend to be presented in what Marlowe called a “pure dehistoricized form.” The result is often a narrative of the object within a Western framework and a marketing strategy that operates under a colonialist ethos. The story of the object is edited into a selective biography—often relying heavily on the collectors who acquired the object—with any messiness edited out. That “messiness” means, in many cases, the very people who created the object.
By rendering these objects distant and curious, they can seem ahistorical, apolitical—outside the progress of time, suspended in some imaginary, pure realm. They are written out of the historical narrative. A collector acquiring them may not feel they are engaging with the dire present conditions in the Congo, or the region’s violent colonial history, but some more distant, idyllic—if not entirely fictional—past.
There is a case to be made that these sorts of descriptions in auction houses’ marketing copy are harmless, and even necessary. And the houses haven’t entirely omitted context—there is a more extensive description in the Christie’s sale catalogue that includes some information about the kifwebe mask’s functions in Songye culture (though it still eschews any mention of colonialism).
Christopher Steiner, professor of African art at Connecticut College, notes that in the past decade or so, the significance of “star quality” provenance has increased—meaning the higher the pedigree of Western collectors who have owned an object and the more Western artists have been inspired by it, the better. This he attributes, in part, to the fact that “as more and more copies/replicas enter the markets, collectors have become less confident in their own ability to judge quality and authenticity,” he said. Instead, they rely on provenance as a guarantor of an object’s value.
“In the end, we are dealing with the empowerment of two ‘spirit beings,’” Steiner added. “The original African religious context and the near-godly status of some esteemed dealers and collectors in art-market history.”
In the case of the Christie’s kifwebe mask, it is not that this object was made for export or should be subject to restitution. “Our market covers works of art [that] were made and used within the culture for traditional purposes. We cannot comment on the value of items that we don’t auction, such as objects made specifically for export,” a Christie’s specialist said via email.
At the end of 2018, when museums and galleries were in the heat of a reckoning with their colonial pasts, Christie’s released a statement saying it remains deeply committed to researching the provenance of consignments and will only auction objects it feels comfortable selling. The auction house undertakes a “comprehensive pre-sale due diligence process,” the Christie’s specialist said. “In cases where potentially problematic provenance is found, Christie’s will not take on the consignment.”
When asked for additional information about the kifwebe mask’s origins, the Christie’s specialist said that a Songye artist made it in the 19th century and that Walschott purchased the mask before 1933, and also described her status as a collector: She was “one of the first and few women to become a dealer and collector of African art,” the specialist said. “She had an exceptionally long career, spanning over nearly 50 years and opened her first gallery in 1923.”
Still, Marlowe offered an additional criterion beyond airtight provenance for such artifacts: “The ethical collector should want to see some indicator someone in the country of origin has given his blessing to this sale.”
There are layers of truth to auction houses’ characterizations of these objects. In the case of the kifwebe mask at Christie’s, there is, indeed, mystery. Each and every minute detail of the mask has an esoteric meaning linked to a mnemonic phrase or metaphor. To join the “masking society” that wore bifwebe, one would need to learn a secret code as a kind of membership identification. Wearing the mask and an elaborate costume it would have been paired with, the Songye person would achieve a different state of being, becoming a ngulungu.
But the mask’s ceremonial purpose was not not so much about “entering a fifth dimension,” as Christie’s put it. In the Songye ritual, “the invisible is as real as the visible; there is no transition, the invisible is simply made apparent,” writes Dunja Hersak, a scholar of Congo masks.
In response to questions about its descriptions of African and other non-European objects, Christie’s said there were no significant differences between descriptions of African art and art in other departments. “Christie’s Specialist Departments cover a wide range of art from Antiquities, to American, Asian, Luxury, Old Masters, Post-War & Contemporary to name a few,” the specialist wrote. “The language used to define the art in each of these categories is descriptive, not more or less descriptive than the language used in African art.”
But this response may miss the distinction between the amount of description and the nature of that description, as Marlowe’s Twitter thread irreverently demonstrated. The sense of mystery elicited in Christie’s language is not so much tied to the details of the cultural practices, which genuinely contained mystery, but more generally applied to the entire Songye people and their artifacts.
Such promotional language in auction house catalogues and websites risks romanticizing lack of knowledge, erasing the living people who could more fully contextualize the object, and the difficult reasons why we might not know more about it.
Perhaps this is what sells. Perhaps an aura of mystery appeals to a majority of collectors. These are potentially valid justifications from a commercial standpoint, but that doesn’t have to be the only consideration. As Marlowe put it: “It’s very possible to educate people to want something different.”
Kelsey Ables is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.