Miniature Sculptures from Africa

by Herbert E. Roese © November, 2001

Although no separate ethnographic division for 'Miniature' African Sculptures exists, the presence of small, delicately carved figurines is fascinating. There are also small/miniature masks. However, is it not known in either case if their creators or recipients had a special reason for requiring a small version of the article. In fact, the nomenclature 'Miniature' came about by the co-incidental collection of small examples of African carvings by one person, i.e. the painter, the late Josef Herman. His interest in African art had come about as part of his development as a painter. Apparently, after having been introduced to African art by Sir Jacob Epstein's collection, and acquiring some pieces from acquaintances and at auctions, he happened to befriend an African in the Portobello Road Antiques Market in London in the late 1950s/early 1960s who had access to African sculptural art. He brought it regularly to Herman's studio 'by the sack-full' (personal communication). Herman selected what appealed to him and, in time, a collection of about 600 figurines grew, of which a large proportion were mininatures. It was an arbitrary but astonishing collection, which was based on its aesthetic appeal to the painter - until the former Keeper of the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum, William Fagg, saw it. His study of the small figurines lead him to publish a book, which he entitled "Miniature Wood Carvings of Africa" (1970, Adams & Dart, Bath). By way of this publication the term 'African Miniatures' was coined. It was a unique collection, which was exhibited at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea in 1985, as well as in Durham, Bristol, Sheffield and Coventry (see Arts Council exhibition catalogue below). Sadly, after the death of the artist in 2000 it was dispersed and auctioned as individual pieces by Christie's in Amsterdam.

In order to create suitable parametres for this group of sculptures, William Fagg selected a spread of height, which ranged from the smallest at 7.5cm/3inch (i.e. half the size of Figure-3!) to the largest at 24.5cm/9.75inch. Between these two dimensions the greatest concentration was around 10-15cm/4-6inch. Below are 4 examples of the larger range, i.e. 16-19cm/6.5-7.5inches. As Herman noted in his foreword to the book, it seems to be a typical human response to feel that a form will be intimate and endearing when made on a small scale. What increases the attraction even further is that for the African sculptors of 'Miniatures' no surface was too small to carve details such as tribal scarifications on face and body, or to carve intricate hairstyles on heads no bigger than 2cm. Nor did it prevent them from including characteristic facial features. Figure-1 below is a good example of all three details, especially the latter. Yet, the overall height of the figurine is a mere 16cm/6.5inches and the head is just 3cm broad & high.

All four miniatures illustrated here were actually in use. The Fante heddle-pulley was found on a working double-heddle loom (see 'Two Unusual Sculptures from Ghana'); the Hemba ancestor figure has signs of wear and a thick, hard coat of deposits on it; the Senufo pair used to stand in a hut - the termite-eaten feet account for it. They represent an ancestor couple. A diviner prescribes that the client him/herself obtain a pair to keep in his/her house. The statuettes are purchased by the diviner's client and are in most cases a simple pair of matching free-standing figures, an intermediary link with their deity.

. .
16cm/6.5inch ............. 19cm/7.5inch ...................... 15cm/6inch

William Fagg (1970) - "Miniature Wood Carvings of Africa", published by Adams & Dart, Bath.
D.Attenborough & H.Waterfield (1985) -"Miniature African Sculptures from the Herman Collection", an exhibition catalogue published by the Arts Council of Great Britain.
Christie's (2001) - Auction Catalogue-Tribal Art, published by Christie, Manson & Wood Ltd.

See also some images of the former Josef Herman Collection

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