"Gwan" mother and child figure. (Museum Associates / LACMA )
The L.A. County Museum of Art has signaled its commitment to African art by paying $1 million for a 3-foot-high "Gwan" sculpture of a mother and infant, believed to help ensure healthy childbirth by the Bamana peoples of Mali.
"It's one of the oldest surviving wood sculptures of Africa and probably the oldest Gwan figure in existence," said Polly Nooter Roberts, a curator of African art at LACMA and professor at UCLA.
According to carbon dating, the piece was made between 1432 and 1644, earlier than Gwan figures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The wood, almost petrified, has a rich, ash-brown color. Some of the sculpture's details have survived, but the baby's head and the mother's braids have not.
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The Gwan figure was acquired this weekend as part of Collectors Committee, an annual LACMA event that has become the museum's biggest vehicle for art acquisitions.
This year about $3 million was raised for acquisitions, up from last year's total of $2.5 million. The money came from individual donations, a live auction and gala ticket sales, which started at $15,000 a couple.
After voting to buy the Gwan figure priced at $1 million, collectors went on to purchase a 12th century Japanese wood sculpture of a Shinto deity for $600,000 and a 10th century Korean cast-iron Buddha for $435,000.
On the contemporary side, the group also purchased a 1964-66 Op Art mural-sized construction by Argentine artist Julio Le Parc for $500,0000; a 1980s model of James Turrell's epic American artwork-in-progress, the Roden Crater, for $215,000; a large-scale 1997 photograph of a female figure behind a mashrabiya (or patterned wood screen) by Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna for $62,000, and an even larger 2011 photograph by German artist Thomas Demand of his own reconstruction in paper of the Daiichi power plant in Fukushima for $178,500.
Two works suggested by LACMA curators were not bought: Sam Durant's 2005 installation "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.," priced at $240,000, and Gaetano Gandolfi's decorative painting from 1785-90, "The Sacrifice of Iphigenia," priced at $650,000.
The event began Friday night with swanky dinners at trustees' homes and culminated Saturday night with a gala dinner at the museum where participants voted on acquisition proposals made by LACMA curators.
Event sponsor JP Morgan Chase donated to the museum two works from its corporate collection: a 1955/77 photograph by Robert Frank, "St. Francis and Gas Station, and City Hall — Los Angeles" and a portfolio of Ed Ruscha's "Stains" from 1969 that record his experiments on paper using beer, bacon grease, solvent and various bodily fluids among other substances.
Roberts, the African art curator, plans to install the "Gwan" sculpture at the entrance of the museum's new African Art galleries, which open July 7 with a show of Luba sculptures on loan from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.
"It's a very symbolic acquisition for the museum, as LACMA is conceiving and giving birth to a new area of collecting and display," she said.