Writing a first year extended essay, ‘Mavungu: Provenance and Aesthetic Appropriation’

By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art

Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.

In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).

PRM000017126Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.

The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.

Figure 2Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.

Figure 3Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.

Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.

Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.

4eabfc7d7f3f7aabf3229c36772a1d76Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.

The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.

For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

For information about funding and prizes available to current and prospective students in the Department of History of Art please see the funding page.


Inside Christ Church Picture Gallery

By Jacqueline Thalmann, Curator of the Picture Gallery

Studying in Oxford also means access to a number of world class museums, collections and objects – some of them better known than others. The lesser known ones have the stigma of inaccessibility attached, but it is often just a matter of less prominent placement and publicity and the uncomfortable fact, voiced by Goethe, that we only see what we know.

Have you, for example, seen Giampietrino’s important copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper or Mark Wallinger’s impressive sculpture Y, both in Magdalen College, or the El Greco in the chapel of New College? These are overlooked objects that surround us – just waiting to be noticed and seen.

Christ Church Picture Gallery and its collection somewhat share this fate – even though to a much lesser degree. However, until the opening of Pembroke College’s art gallery in 2013 – showing their remarkable JCR’s collection of mainly British 20th century art – Christ Church was the only Oxford (and Cambridge) college with a dedicated and open-to-the-public gallery and a world-class collection to fill it. In fact, Christ Church can be proud to have opened the first permanent public art gallery in Britain. It opened its doors in 1768, with the first catalogue of the paintings being published in 1771. The Ashmolean did not yet have paintings and the Bodleian’s art collection consisted almost exclusively of portraits, whose main pull was to entertain the visitors with the likenesses of the famous and infamous sitters, rather than their artistic execution.

0803_pg-137view-to-drawings-galleryInterior Views of the Red Gallery and Picture Gallery © Christ Church Picture Gallery

But the ‘art scene’ in Oxford changed when Christ Church accepted an exceptional bequest of almost 2,000 drawings and over 200 paintings by one of its alumni, General John Guise (1682-1765). The collection consisted mainly of Italian Old Masters, including all of the famous names: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carracci, Tintoretto, Veronese et al, especially among the drawings and some of the less famous and anonymous masters, whose works are no less enticing – visually and academically. The acceptance of this vast number of works also meant that Christ Church took on the responsibility of caring for them and showing them. They were not hung in private or semi-private college rooms, as would have been the easy option, but from the beginning, the idea was to share the works by displaying them together in a dedicated gallery space. This was ground-breaking: for the first time one could see paintings and drawings by the great Italian masters without having to travel to the continent or having to gain access to private residences and collections.

jbs-62v-webMichelangelo, Study for a left leg (JBS62v) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

John Guise’s awareness of the importance of the visual arts had been fuelled by one of his Oxford teachers, Dean Henry Aldrich, but also by writers and collectors like Jonathan Richardson who wrote in 1715:

” supposing two Men perfectly equal in all other respects, only one is conversant with the works of the best Masters […] and the other not; the former shall necessarily gain the Ascendant, and have nobler Ideas, […]; he shall be a more Ingenious, and a Better Man”

These thoughts have become even more poignant today in view of recent developments in art education. But let’s continue with the pioneering history of the collection: The then new Christ Church library, which was designed with an open loggia on the ground floor, was modified and the loggia was abandoned in favour of creating the necessary wall space to hang the incoming collection. This newly developed space was called the Picture Gallery (today it is known as the Lower Library) and was open to the public. The library itself (today known as the Upper Library), was the actual college library and only open to members of Christ Church and by permission. It is important to stress these distinctions in order to fully appreciate the sagacity and unprecedented act of – not only incorporating art into the Oxford education – but extending that to a wider audience.  We even have a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson of an early guide to the collection – Mrs Showwell (1807).

mrs-showwellThomas Rowlandson (after John Nixon), Mrs Showwell © Christ Church Picture Gallery

Establishing the gallery, attracted other gifts and bequests: The Continence of Scipio, an important early van Dyck, was added in 1809, bequeathed by Lord Frederick Campbell; two gifts of Early Italian paintings, by the pioneering collectors W T H Fox Strangways (1828) and Walter Savage Landor (1897) widened the scope of the collection and more recently we added a collection of British 18th century drinking glasses and Russian metal icons to it.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; The Continence of ScipioAnthony van Dyck, The Continence of Scipio (JBS 245) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

The growing number of paintings and the library’s need for more space heightened the need for a new dedicated gallery building and this, the current building, sensitively designed by Powell and Moya, opened in 1968. It was almost too sensitively designed, without any façade or wall visible from the outside, the gallery sits, nearly undetectable, within the gardens and grounds of Christ Church. This outwards invisibility almost conceals its content: one of the most important Old Master collections in Britain. But, after finding the rabbit hole through which to squeeze (the entrance in Canterbury Quad), the visitor resurfaces in a light, modern and cleverly designed building to encounter some of the great masterpieces of Western art: be it Annibale Carracci’s Butcher’s Shop, a highly visceral, early (the first) monumental genre painting or the cerebral Wounded Centaur by Filippino Lippi, or Hugo van der Goes ‘religious close-up’ – or one of our drawings exhibitions (at the moment, until the 30th January 2017, Drawing in Red, an exploration of red chalk drawing).

Carracci, Annibale, 1560-1609; The Butcher's ShopAnnibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop (JBS181) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

Having said all this, if you have not been visited the Picture Gallery, yet, do drop by. You will find us at the back gate of Christ Church, off Oriel Square. The porter at the gate can point you in the right direction – and while there is a small entrance charge – current and former members of the University and Oxford Brookes have free access, just show your University card at the gallery entrance desk.

More information about the Picture Gallery can be found here.

Curating Bloomsbury: Collections Management at The Charleston Trust

By Alice Purkiss

Charleston Today. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Charleston Today. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

In 1916, the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved to Charleston, a remote 17th century farmhouse nestled beneath the Sussex Downs. Accompanied by Duncan’s lover; David (Bunny) Garnett, Vanessa’s children with her husband Clive Bell; Julian and Quentin, and Henry the dog, the artists established an unusual home that would become a centre for Bloomsbury visual and literary experimentation and expression. Many of the group’s members regularly visited the house, including Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, and were often joined by friends such as Vita Sackville West, Dora Carrington, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Benjamin Britten.

Charleston residents and visitors c. 1925. From left to right: Francis Partridge, Quentin and Julian Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Beatrice Mayor. Roger Fry seated with Raymond Mortimer in front. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Charleston residents and visitors c. 1925. From left to right: Francis Partridge, Quentin and Julian Bell, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Beatrice Mayor. Roger Fry seated with Raymond Mortimer in front. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

As soon as they arrived, Bell and Grant set to work painting and decorating the interior of the house and its contents in their expressive and colourful style; from table tops and bed headboards, to walls, doors and baths. The artists had been important contributors to Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, a business established in 1913 to create furniture and household goods designed by contemporary artists and craftsmen. Charleston was therefore furnished throughout with Omega products, including furniture, fabrics and crockery. Also housing a collection of works by important modernist such as Picasso, Sickert and Derain, Charleston became a unique and progressive environment whose inhabitants challenged contemporary social norms. The creativity felt inside the house also spilled out into the garden, where an oasis of dramatic colour, scent and texture was planted which offered artistic props and inspiration, in addition to spaces for theatrical performances and quiet contemplation. Bell and Grant lived and worked at Charleston until they died; Vanessa in 1961 and Duncan in 1978.

Following Grant’s death, the piles of sketches, sketchbooks and canvasses that had filled his studio at Charleston were transferred to London to be sold by Grant’s dealer, Anthony D’Offay. Later returned to Bell and Grant’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, on D’Offay’s retirement, the remaining collection of over 9000 works was gifted by Garnett to The Charleston Trust in 2008.  I have been a Curatorial Trainee at Charleston since October of last year, working to photograph, catalogue, conserve and research this incredible resource, much of which has never been seen before. The role is part of a three-year project which will enable twelve early career art historians to receive comprehensive collections management training while enabling in depth academic research on the artists and their work.

The fireplace in Duncan Grant’s studio. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The fireplace in Duncan Grant’s studio. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The Gift contains an eclectic assortment of items which offer a fascinating insight into artistic practice at Charleston; the drive to create and record was not hindered by the materials available at hand. Instead, anything that would make or take a mark was employed and included in a house brimming with line, shape and colour. All manner of materials were used and are contained within the Gift: from studies on cartridge paper, canvas and in sketchbooks, to designs and notes made hastily on the backs on envelopes, household appliance instruction booklets, hotel letter paper, invoices, personal correspondence and graph paper. Included in one box of loose papers alone are a 1910 letter to JM Keynes confirming his booking for First Class ferry tickets, an invoice for a new radio from 1936, the agenda for an Arts Council of Great Britain meeting held in 1946, a letter from the headmaster of a school in Reading regarding a case of German Measles from 1926, a 1950 Christmas greeting, and a solicitor’s letter regarding a will from 1949.

All of these documents boast a sketch or annotation of some form; from abstract doodles and pattern designs to careful line drawings of classical nudes, farm animals and landscape scenes. While dates are recorded on each item in a postmark or heading thereby giving a suggestion of provenance, we can only speculate as to whether the sketches themselves made on these papers were created at the same time or at a later date. As so little was disposed of at the house, it is likely that such scraps would have cropped up years after they were first received and used as new paper for sketching or note-taking.

Duncan Grant’s Studio in the 1970s. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Duncan Grant’s Studio in the 1970s. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Not only does this variety of items demonstrate the drive for creative expression without privilege given to one material over another, these unusual items also offer glimpses into the artists’ private lives through personal correspondence and appointments. With the addition of the occasional coffee ring, dusting of cigarette ash and child’s doodle, the objects in the Gift offer an exciting visual biography of the two artists and the life they lived at Charleston.

Conservation underway in Charleston’s kitchen. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Conservation underway in Charleston’s kitchen. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

I have been a Curatorial Trainee at Charleston since October of last year, working to photograph, catalogue, conserve and research this incredible resource, much of which has never been seen before. I developed an interest in pursuing a career in collections management during my masters degree at Oxford, where I had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of contemporary artworks in the city. In addition to the practical skills acquired during this voluntary role, the department’s course provided an excellent grounding in modern art history and critical theory which has been invaluable to subsequent roles in the museum industry, and to my current traineeship at Charleston. The position is part of a three-year project which will enable twelve early career art historians to receive comprehensive collections management training while enabling in depth academic research on the artists and their work, and therefore offers a rare opportunity to gain valuable experience in a highly competitive sector.

Items in the Angelica Garnett Gift before photographing and cataloguing. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

Items in the Angelica Garnett Gift before photographing and cataloguing. Photographs © The Charleston Trust

The project to catalogue the Angelica Garnett Gift is one year in, and only a relatively small number of items have been photographed and catalogued so far. As such a rich academic resource full of intriguing objects, the project promises to unearth a wealth of material to inspire and enrich new research into the life and work of Bell and Grant, and the wider Bloomsbury circle. You can read more about the work and research undertaken by the Curatorial Trainees on The Charleston Attic blog, and keep up to date with upcoming opportunities to participate in the project on The Charleston Trust’s website.

Alice Purkiss graduated with a MSt in History of Art and Visual Studies from the department in 2012. Following roles at The British Library and Tate, she has most recently undertaken a curatorial traineeship at the Charleston Trust.