Produced by Dr. Jean-Marie Jullienne and compile and edited by co-authors, David Jullienne and Nozomi Kitazawa, Oju Ona: Collection of the South African Museum of African Art is the first book in the planned South African Museum of African Art series. Billed as the introduction to a much larger museum project, the 140 objects presented in the book are a glimpse into a rather unique collection that comprises more than 1600 pieces in total. We interviewed the author to find out more about the project, the artifacts featured and what exactly went in to creating such a culturally-rich book.

Bamum Royal Throne

Which artifact was the most challenging to obtain and why?
The majority of the pieces in the current collection were collected over a period of 40 years by a passionate collector of African art named Mr John Wessels, and of course each piece has its own unique history and related story set of stories to tell. During the course of our research we were fortunate enough to get assistance from various great sources, one of whom was Mr Njutapmvuli Mouliom Hamidou, who is a very knowledgeable African art dealer. This was extremely helpful to us as Mr Hamidou’s family have been in the African art business for something like five generations – I believe his father and even grandfather were instrumental in acquiring some of the larger items and he explained that of all the objects in the collection it was the Royal Thrones that were probably the most difficult and expensive items to acquire.

What made the thrones the most challenging to retrieve?
For one thing, the fact that they are royal thrones makes them particularly significant objects – they are often decorated with what represented the wealth of the people (in the form of glass trade beads or cowries) as a visual sign of their opulence and importance and, being created for the use of only a select few individuals on special occasions, they are also quite rare objects. Despite their considerable bulk, many are rather ornately carved or elaborately finished with delicate glass beads and/or cowry shells, all of which requires highly experienced and well- equipped individuals to transport them from their places of origin. More often than not they had to be transported from some of the more remote regions of Africa where the terrain can be extremely challenging for any sort of vehicular transport.

Bamileke Royal Thrones King & Queen

What’s the next step after the piece has been retrieved?
Once a piece has successfully been retrieved from such an area it still has to be shipped or air freighted to its final destination, and so has to be subjected to all the usual issues of customs, quarantine, handling damage and so on before finally being exposed to a Methyl Bromide for 12 hours in order to kill any passengers that may have come along for the ride.

This, however, is only half of the story and only happens once the object has been successfully located, its sale or trade successfully negotiated and the necessary ceremonies performed in order to ‘dis-imbue’ the object so that it can be released, often involving scores of individuals and is not always a simple case of money for goods. It was essential to have a reliable and experienced team of professionals to get the job done. They also needed to be properly funded in advance in order to successfully complete the whole trip.

These expenses could easily run into hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions of rands, all paid for up front with no guarantees that you will even receive the object.

Bamileke Throne & Bamum King’s Throne

Where did the inspiration for the project begin?
I was always amazed that there was no African art museum in South Africa and that African art was always relinquished to sidewalk or flea market-type sales. I thought that a book would be the first step in introducing people to the magnificent variety and richness of art available on the African continent.

The story behind Oju Ona started in the ’90s when Mr John Wessels aka ‘Pappa Cameroon’ (as he was known to the local African art dealers) asked me to assist him in negotiating with the Museum of Primitive Art in Paris (The Musée du quai Branly). Mr Wessels was hoping to have his collection placed in the museum and needed a fluent French speaker to assist him in the negotiations. At the time I felt that I had insufficient knowledge of African art to be of any assistance and declined the opportunity.

Seventeen years later I was approached by an auctioneer friend regarding a collection of African art that was up for sale. I then made an offer that was accepted by the estate without knowing to whom the estate had belonged. That same night I had a dream in which I had a vivid recollection of John Wessels and his collection, which I had last seen nearly two decades previously. After the dream I felt the urge to keep this unique body of work intact and so I decided to try and preserve and exhibit it for the sake of future generations for as long as possible.

Despite the not inconsiderable difficulties that this decision has presented, I still feel that it was the right thing to do as this project is long overdue in Africa.

After all, art is at the centre of culture and identity. If we want to see African art and culture elevated and celebrated on our terms then it is it is essential that we take the lead in proudly displaying our art to the world and preserving our heritage for the generations yet to come.

I think it would be a terrible loss to the country and the continent for this wonderful collection to go the way of so many others before it and sold off piecemeal to foreign collectors.

Bamileke Royal Throne

The press release claims this museum will rival the Louvre, 1) in what way/s will it pose as a rival and 2) what has been the response to this goal from the general public?
I am the promoter of the concept and registered the name of ‘The South African Museum of African Art’ (PTY) LTD. I identified Park Halt Station as an ideal location and approached Transnet, who are the owners and Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), who are the lease-holders, with the proposal.

The brief for this concept is to create a building that embodies the future of the country and the continent in scale, style and ambition and which will vie with other world class museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, in capacity.

To visualise this ambitious brief I engaged the expertise of two young architects – a move that I believe has really paid off as their fresh and contemporary approach to building’s design is exactly in line with our requirements. I sincerely believe that their design could be an icon for the city in an area that I think could become the ‘Times Square’ or ‘Piccadilly Circus’ of Johannesburg.

So far, I think that everyone we have spoken to recognise the desperate need, in Johannesburg especially, for properly planned and maintained public spaces that integrate cultural and artistic institutions as well as entertainment and commerce and so on and as a result the responses we have gotten have for the most part been extremely enthusiastic.

Bamenda Tikar Power Figure

The book focuses on a small portion of the entire collection, how did you pick and choose which artefacts to put in the book?
It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. All in all, from concept to final product, we spent three years in the production of Oju Ona. The process began with photographing and cataloguing the entire collection and then using the catalogue we had created we began the long and difficult task of selecting a broad range of pieces, within a set of categories, representing each and every country in the collection. This was done with the museum in mind as the book’s purpose is simply to be a broad overview of the collection that provides a brief introduction to the subject in a South African context. In fact we spent quite a bit of time on the problem of how to group so many pieces from so many places and peoples.

Essentially, our goal was to devise a set of novel yet sufficiently broad categories that maintained a sense of continuity from group to group so we spent quite a bit of time on the problem of how to group so many pieces from so many places and peoples. This was done with the museum in mind as the book’s purpose is simply to be a broad overview of the collection that provides a brief introduction to the subject in a South African context.

Taking the art and placing it in one central location in South Africa makes it difficult for people in different countries to view the art, why one huge museum instead of a series of smaller ones in multiple countries?

The goal of the South African Museum of African Art is to germinate a new vision for the arts in South Africa, which not only celebrates our cultural diversity but also proudly proclaims our role as custodians of an important heritage that belongs to everyone.

In doing so we believe we can inspire the next generation of historians, archaeologists, writers, architects, engineers and academics of every specialty, hue and background. One very important way to do this is to take the lead in shifting the focus of academic research towards the vast and little-understood history of Africa, from an African point of view, by establishing a centre for study and academic discourse that we hope will lead the way in future research and free African art from the shackles of the art/artefact dichotomy.

The museum aims to be the most representative collection of African art – showcasing work from every country in Africa, something that has never really been attempted before and which requires a large central and secure location to house and properly display it. However this is not the whole story – it has always been our intention to tour various elements of the collection around Africa and indeed, the world so that all who are interested can be inspired by it. This will also serve to create the sort of academic focus and interest that we believe will be of great benefit to the country and to the continent.

Bamum Queen’s Throne

Will the museum focus on lost history and artefacts or will it highlight contemporary art and the forward-moving spirit of Africa?
The larger, long-term goal of this museum is to create and foster a broader interest in the cultural heritage and history of the continent of Africa so as to a local appreciation for the art of and artefacts of the continent so that they might be involved in the on-going dialogue on the topic of what separates art and artefact.

We believe that it would be a healthy distinction to make from a local standpoint rather that have the perspectives of Europe and America as the only voices that count when it comes to the topic of what the likes of Sotheby’s and others have branded ‘primitive art’. In fact we feel that once the distinction between what actually constitutes an invaluable and utterly unique piece of cultural and historical heritage fit only for public display for the benefit of all and what is a valuable piece of art, regardless of what form it takes, then we will have taken an important step

… A step towards taking control of our heritage and promoting the talented artists of the continent fostering local and regional appreciation and active participation in both the generation of new forms of art as well as preserving and celebrating cultural heritage.

Click HERE for Part 2 of the interview.

Purchase Oju Ona, here!

Hemba Caryatid Stool

interview by Sydney Chesnut, edited by Chanel Carstens