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Object of the Week: Standing figure (Nkondi)

SAM’s Congolese Standing figure (Nkondi) meets and enraptures visitors in our African art galleries. Beads, feathers, and knots of string secured to the wooden figure with countless iron nails lend him a startling and uncomfortable presence. Why has he been on the receiving end of this aggressive, symbolic gesture of driving nails?

Across the country, in exhibitions at great museums like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nkondi has confronted viewers with his own appearance—and with wrong assumptions about his purpose.

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

Not only has he been exhibited extensively, the Nkondi has an interesting provenance. He was collected by Merton Simpson (1928-2013), one of the most significant dealers of African and tribal art in the second half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Simpson first opened his gallery—Merton D. Simpson Gallery—in the early 1950s in order to support what he considered his primary work: painting. An artist for life, Simpson served in the Air Force and was asked to paint General Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he did, earning $100 for his effort. Simpson became part of the New York Abstract Expressionist school, crossing paths with artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who would critique Simpson’s paintings in the frame shop where Simpson worked. Later he joined the politically focused Spiral Group of artists, which also counted Romare Bearden among its members.1

No slight to Simpson’s visual art, his accomplishments as a dealer of traditional African art surpassed what he did in painting. When Simpson passed away in 2013, a New York Times obituary reflected on his incomparable taste and expertise, his success and renown as an art dealer, and the significance of his doing so as an African American. Heinrich C. Schweizer, then head of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s, remarks that “Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s Simpson became the most important dealer in the US in this field . . . Worldwide, you could say he was one of the two or three leading dealers, and certainly a powerhouse in the US, and this was especially remarkable for an African-American, who began doing this in the time of segregation.” The same article quotes an equally admiring Lowery Stokes Sims, the highly respected retired Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design: “When I worked at the Met I would go to the gallery and see some of the most incredible African art I’d ever seen in my life. It was really showstopping. And occasionally he’d show his own work . . . For an African-American who came up in the art world in the 1970s, he was truly one of those unsung pioneers, crucial in establishing our place in the art world.”2

Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese

SAM’s Nkondi was purchased from Simpson in 1968 by another exceptional collector of African art, Katherine White, whose transformational 1981 gift—of which the Nkondi was part—forms the core of the museum’s African collection.

Since the Nkondi has arrived at SAM, the museum has been telling his true story and deconstructing “fetish” myths about him. Congolese advisor Fu Kiau Bunseki has offered critical insights on the Nkondi’s role as a sign of authority, and as a hearer and keeper of agreements. Check out the SAM website for rich insights on the thoughtful symbolism that informs each element of this memorable figure.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections  Coordinator

Oral history interview with Merton D. Simpson, 1968 November, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Bruce Weber, “Merton D. Simpson, Painter, Collector and Dealer in African Art, Dies at 84,” New York Times, March 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/arts/design/merton-d-simpson-artist-and-gallery-owner-dies-at-84.html
Image: Standing figure (Nkondi), Congolese, wood, iron, fiber, beads, string, glass, feathers, chalk, 31 11/16 x 13 3/8 x 8 11/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.836, Photos: Natali Wiseman.

Acknowledging the Katherine White Library

In 1981, the art collection of Katherine Coryton White (1929-1980) came to the Seattle Art Museum. Along with her important gifts of African, Native American, Oceanic, Meso and South American art, her book collection was given to what is now the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM Downtown.

Recently, Pam McClusky, Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania, gave a talk about White and her voracious desire to collect and understand all that she could about African art. That desire to understand reminded me that we had books from her personal library in our collection: I remembered seeing her distinctive bookplate, yet couldn’t readily identify those donated works in our online catalogue (OPAC). The library volunteers and I set out to properly acknowledge her gift by identifying those books and noting their provenance in the catalogue with a note stating “From the Library of Katherine White.”

The original idea was to go book by book through the collection and see if we could find a bookplate or handwritten inscription linking it to White. But something wonderful happened: a box of catalogue cards was discovered in an area of the library typically used for storage. It contained a complete list of the books from White’s library.

The incredible find: a box of cards listing White’s donated book collection
Library volunteers identified books in the collection and noted the former owner in the library catalogue (OPAC).
Such cards would have been used in the card catalogue (the hole at the bottom allowed the cards to slide along a track) which preceded our online catalogue. In this case, we were very happy to have such relics retained.

With this valuable list in hand, we identified more than 350 books, all research-level material, much of it rare, including several 19th century books. There are many interesting works, but some highlights include:

  • The Ancient Art of Veracruz, published by the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles in 1971 is one of only four copies (the other three are in two California libraries and the British Museum).
  • New Guinea Art in the Collection of the Museum of Primitive Art, published by the museum in 1968 is one of only three copies (the others owned by a Canadian and a German library).
  • The Journal of a Residence in Ashantee was published in 1824 and is the oldest work from her collection.
  • The African Sketch-Book, a well-regarded two-volume set, was published in 1873, and is one of only 87 publically available copies in the world, is quite beautiful and is inscribed by the author, William Winwood Reade (1838-1875).
Cover of The African Sketch-Book, 1873.
Inscription by the author, William Winwood Reade in 1873.
Title page to the first volume of The African Sketch-Book.
Engraved frontispiece to The African Sketch-Book: “The more I looked, the more I was surprised. Here was a great wild elephant, who paid no more attention to us than a cow in a field to people looking over the hedge.”

To see a full list of her books given to the Seattle Art Museum, visit our OPAC and under Lists, choose Special Lists, then The Katherine White Library.

To learn more about Katherine White, see:

  • Pamela McClusky. Katherine White: Her Epic Quest to Collect a Continent (video) Seattle Art Museum, 2013. 60 minutes. VIDEO N 7398 M33 W3 2013. Available for viewing in the Bullitt Library.
  • “Taming Reality: Katherine White and the Seattle Art Museum” in Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Christa Clarke, eds. Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display. University of Washington Press, 2011. N 7380.5 R47. Available for consultation in the Bullitt Library.

Come see these and other works from the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt’s collections on the 5th floor, Seattle Art Museum (Venturi Building). Go to our website for hours and information: http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/Learn/Library/.

– Traci Timmons, Librarian, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Top photo: Katherine White’s personal bookplate.