Private collection Harald and Ursula Suhr, Canada / Germany
published: 2012, August 13
Harald und Ursula Suhr
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada / Germany
”When we were collecting, we never strove for completeness. We never bought in the hope that an object would become very valuable at a later date. The decisive factor was that the object appealed to us.“ After forty years, the question of how it all started is not easy to answer: ”Subsequent, ingenious analysis’s or excuses made to the partner for the size of the expenditure are only part of the story.” Their appreciation lay in the power, shape and beauty of african works.
It all started with a mask that was exhibited in a shop window that was apparently brought back by a missionary. That was the beginning of the 1970’s. ”We bought the mask as its shape and expression appealed to us. Unfortunately the mask turned out to be a worthless copy.”
They were left counting the cost, ”…sometimes due to ignorance but also down to the skills of some counterfeiters”. The only way is to read as much as possible and visit museums, galleries and exhibitions so that qualified comparisons can be made. Only then can you get close to understanding the objects. In addition there is also the intensive exchange with experienced collectors and experts. The “Zake Circle” along with Helmut Zake, Arnold Bamert, Hans Himmelheber and Manfred Magin belong to this group.
The collection grew in 1978/79, especially by purchases made in galleries in New York such as Ladislas Segy, as well as René David (Zürich), Paolo Morigi (Lugano) and the “Galerie Studio 96” in Stuttgart. Old masks, for example the Kran/Ngere-Wobe from Liberia, belong to these acquisitions. (lot 87). Collected in situ by George W. Harley, it still has the old inventory number ”1220“ and the gallery label Segy (published in 1976 in „Masks of Black Africa“). They acquired an old kifwebe mask from René David with a provenance from the Paul Timmermans collection, Tervuren (- 1976) (lot 177). Timmermans was a scientist and a field researcher in the former Zaire. He worked at the Musée Royale de l’Afrique centrale in Tervuren, Belgium.
One of the highlights in the Suhr collection is a very well preserved Dan figure (lot 110): published in 1976 in the Rietberg Museum catalogue, stylistically it is from the vicinity of Zlan (Liberia).
“After a few years of collecting we became more courageous and started to bid on objects in auctions although we only knew the pieces from photographs” recalls Suhr. Two works, one that was formally in the New York collection of Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908 – 1979), they were bought in 1980 at Sotheby’s: one was a 132 cm large shoulder mask from the Mumuye, Nigeria, with the inventory number of the Rockefeller foundation in the Metropolitan Museum (lot 143), as well as an elongated Dogon figure (lot 91) from the John J. Klejman’s (New York) collection, that was later in the Museum of Primitive Art, whose founder and President was Rockefeller.
The present private collection contains about 150 objects, gathered from a variety of peoples, times and in numerous forms; they are nearly all classics of African art. For example a ”nkisi” fetish figure from the Songe in the DR Congo that still contains magical substances (lot 176) or an ancestral figure from Nigeria with hand-sized wooden discs in the ears that are characteristic for Mumuye women. (lot 145). Likewise unmistakeable and with much of the original colour still well preserved are two helmet masks: a ”kalunga“ – helmet mask from the Bembe (D. R. Kongo) (lot 163) as well as a finely carved four-faced helmet mask ngontang“ from the Fang (Gabon) (lot 162).
A top piece and one of the oldest objects in the Suhr collection is without doubt a small protection figure from the Lulua in the Congo (lot 171) that dates back to the 19th century. It has a wonderful patina and even though an arm is missing it was extensively used for cult purposes that indicates its importance within the society.
Art objects alone weren’t enough for them though ”…we wanted to experience more from life in Africa, about its peoples, myths and ideologies. In the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso we were able to visit remote villages for a few weeks together with a member of the Afrikamissionare - Weisse Väter“.
Of course as a collector you often hope that you will still find treasures in the country of origin. ”The markets were full of carvings and serial productions, the galleries often presented only a few pieces, in spite of that they had some wonderful stories. We had the most fun with the local travelling dealers that as if by magic, turned up as we arrived. We bought a few of these nice objects but of course there were no masterpieces to be found”.
High quality pieces were still to be found at recognised tribal art dealers and collectors: they acquired an Epa mask from the north-eastern Yoruba region as well as other pieces from Arnold Bamert (1906 - 2006, Solothurn). It showed a kneeling female figure over an abstractly formed helmet part, the right hand held a sacrificed chicken. Below a thick camwood powder patina the unmistakable Yoruba ideal of beauty takes its effect. Schädler published it in 1989 in ‚Afrika – Maske und Skulptur’ (lot 152).
Similar in its motive but different in its composition is a large maternity figure from the Yoruba in Nigeria. Style features are from the Efon-Alaye workshop, and their most famous carver Agbonbiofe († 1945) was (lot 153).
Only a few of the pieces were added to the collection during their time in Canada (as from 1990). When they returned to Europe Ursula and Michael Suhr they made a clear decision to close the book on their passionate collectors life.