Paris Gallery displays Maori art 5 Jul 2012
The most interesting art collections sometimes go relatively unnoticed by the general public, due simply to the way publicity works. This is the case with the collection of Barbara and Joe Abensur, which includes superb Maori pieces. Some of these are currently on display in Paris at Gallery Bacquart.
Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, owner of the Paris gallery where these pieces are currently on display, is author of The Tribal Arts of Africa. Bacquart lives primarily in London, spending two days each week in Paris. Gallery Bacquart specialises in pre-contact tribal art from around the world.
The Abensurs also live currently in London, though Barbara is originally from New Zealand and Joe from Morocco. The couple began collecting Maori art in the early 1980s, initially with the assistance of Morris Pinto.
Some significant Maori pieces in the collection date from before Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand. The most interesting of those currently on display include a treasure box, a whalebone comb and a short club for disarming enemies.
This club is made from wood, and the fine lines created by polishing the instrument with a stone create a beautiful texture on the instrument’s rounded side. There is tiki detailing on the side and at the top of the club, with a hole for cord allowing the club to be looped around the waist.
Another wooden club in the collection also dates from the 18th century, with a ledger in the British Library noting that it is “said to be a Cook relic”. This possible provenance is certainly intriguing, though further research is necessary.
The whalebone comb also dates from the eighteenth century. It is one of only twelve still in existence from this period. Of these, ten are in museums and this is one of only two in private hands. The comb is in remarkably good condition, suggesting it was worn only occasionally.
This, too, has an intriguing provenance, having made its way to Europe with a member of a Polynesian royal family living in Paris. The comb entered the Abensur collection through Gallery Meyer in 1989.
Such a comb would likely have been owned by a Maori chief, and kept in a treasure box, alongside feathers and tikis. There is an impressive rectangular carved treasure box in this collection, which would have been hung from rafters.
Interestingly, the intricate carving of the wood was done with a shell, not an iron tool. There are also shells, in ring shapes, inset into the side of the box. These shells are a type of haliotis that can no longer be found.
In the nineteenth century, treasure boxes were protected by placing tobacco inside them in order to ward off insects. These items acquired sacred status as the property of Maori chiefs.
While these are the most celebrated pieces in the collection, there are a number of other Maori items. These include a number of Tikis carved in nephrite, a stone that offers a beautiful black grain alongside soft green. Maoris are the only Polynesian people to have created objects from nephrite, and it may have taken five months of labour to craft a sixteen-centimetre figure.
This collection also includes a number of clubs, both long and short, in materials such as whalebone, basalt and nephrite. There are some more recent pieces, including a portrait by Vera Cummings, a pupil of Charles Frederick Goldie.
While less familiar to NZ audiences, examples of African tribal art on display alongside the Maori objects are also of interest. One’s experience of art in private collections, or pieces displayed in the galleries of art dealers, can be more personal than elsewhere. In this case, it’s possible to look closely at the patina on a head rest and see the back of a tribal mask, important in evaluating how these objects were actually used.
This context also allows the visitor to see the Maori pieces in relation to the overall interests of private collectors, and to gain a sense of what drives people to collect particular objects. The examination of this collection and pieces’ provenances also offers wider insight into the appeal of Maori objects to wider audiences, where these interests meet and diverge from the original use and value of such items.
Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blog –Dispatches from Europe.
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