|Out of Africa:
from sculptures and masks to textiles and clothing, African traditional arts are a hot sell
Art Business News, Jan, 2002 by Claudia La Rocco
Whether it's wooden gazelle statues laid out on a street vendor's mat or a Bangwa figure going for $3.3 million on the
auction block, African art sells. Brought to Western attention through missionaries and explorers and prized as "primitive
art" by such canonical artists as Braque, Modigliani and Picasso, African art has moved from the ethnographer's domain
to the art world. Systematic collecting began in the 1950s and has grown (along with prices) ever since. Today, galleries,
museums and dealers showcase an array of African objects by different African ethnic groups for people looking to
explore the dizzying variety of traditional African arts.
Form and Function
In Western society, art often exists in its own world, separated from people's routine, everyday lives. This distinction is
not drawn in many African cultures, both past and present, where numerous utilitarian objects are made with an
astounding attention to aesthetics. Designed for specific, often ritualistic uses in a traditional culture, these objects are
prized as fine works of art by Western collectors, galleries and museums. From delicate silver Ethiopian crosses to
massive, powerful ceremonial drums from the Yoruba, there is something for almost every eye.
Frank Herreman is director of exhibitions for the New York City-based Museum for African Art, which is currently showing
"Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali," a collection of approximately 120 objects and photographs offering a window into
Bamanan social and religious life. The pieces range from ornately detailed wooden Ci-Wara crest masks representing
antelope to colorful, beautifully grotesque Maani puppets representing people or spirits in human form.
"Mostly," said Herreman, "these objects are seen as ritual objects, though you could call them utilitarian. It is a bit like
medieval painting; a Madonna is a ritual object, but it is also a work of art."
Tim Hamill, director of the Hamill Gallery of African Art in Boston, sees things a bit differently. His gallery contains about
20,000 items from all over sub-Saharan Africa, though the bulk of his collection centers on the Dogon, the Yoruba and
the Kuba peoples. Prices vary depending on age and strength of craftsmanship, but generally fall between a couple of
hundred and a few thousand dollars. Though made with a stunning artistry, Hamill insists that the drums, costumes and
other objects within his gallery "are not made as art and not seen as art [in their respective cultures.] It would be as if we
took our radios and blue jeans and put them in a museum. Only occasionally did these cultures make something just for
decorative purposes, and even then it would have the function of highlighting status or prestige."
Whether or not these objects are seen as art in their respective cultures, Western experts agree that understanding the
function and history of a piece is essential to knowing its value. Indeed, there is a strict separation between traditional art
and art made specifically for a Western market--often referred to rather disparagingly as "airport art" or "tourist art."
While much of this art is beautifully made, its lack of traditional context drastically reduces its appeal and market value.
Knowing this, many of the people making the art will go through elaborate processes to fashion fake traditional pieces.
Though determining authenticity is an inexact science, a knowledgeable eye can usually detect a reproduction.
According to Winfield Coleman, director of Gallery DeRoche in San Francisco, "A classic faker's mistake is making the
object look evenly worn, whereas something that is handled is never handled all over in the same way. The interior of a
mask, for example, has to show it's been in contact with skin oils repeatedly, but the forehead has more oils than the
cheeks, so [the staining] won't be even."
Attaining Success as a Dealer
Because pieces are rarely dated and are not signed by individual artists, in order to determine authenticity a dealer has
to know how a piece was used, which means understanding the social structures and history of its culture--no mean feat
when one considers the complexity and diversity of African ethnic groups.
In recent years, this task has become easier, said Charles Jones, director of Charles Jones African Art in Wilmington,
N.C. Jones became interested in African art while traveling through West Africa in the mid 1970s. "I started out as a
collector then began dealing in the 1980s. Most people start out this way--you have to have an enthusiasm and passion
for the art," he said.
Another key to being a successful dealer, according to Jones, is a frame of reference. "You have to have a fairly
complete reference library. In the interceding 20 years [since I began dealing], a tremendous number of books have
been published on African arts" he said. "When I got started, for example, there was no standard reference book for
Ghana--now, there are six or eight books." As museums increasingly expand their horizons, their African collections also
serve as valuable resources.
Still, familiarizing oneself with all of these cultures can be a full-time occupation and is one of the reasons most galleries
specialize at least in traditional African arts and often in specific areas within the continent (DeRoche, which features art
from a variety of indigenous peoples around the world, is an exception to this rule).
In addition to keeping pace with present-day peoples, dealers must also be knowledgeable about societies known only
through archeology, such as the Nok. With material dating from 300 to 100 B.C., this culture from the Jos Plateau in what
is now Nigeria has left behind one of the oldest known surviving ceramic traditions.
Though ancient itself, the Nok tradition was discovered fairly recently, in the 1930s. Up until then, said Coleman, "this
very rich culture was simply invisible." Discoveries like this are not uncommon, added Coleman, pointing to another
group within Nigeria, the Mumuye.
"In the 1970s," Coleman explained, "these strange Cubist statues started appearing on the market. Nobody had ever
heard of Mumuye. Essentially, they were discovered 20 years ago--now, they're quite desirable and collectible."
Growing Demand, Diminishing Supply
Though it is still possible that other cultures might be discovered, Coleman believes it is increasingly unlikely. And even
as demand is increasing, supply, for a variety of reasons, is gradually diminishing. One of the major causes is that the
cultures which produce these are disappearing themselves, as outside cultures encroach.
"Traditional cultures around the world are under attack," said Coleman. "Western culture is assaulting them, not militarily,
but culturally." Ironically, the same societies so enamored of traditional African art are the very societies unwittingly
responsible for its destruction.
The responsibility, however, cannot be laid only at the feet of Western cultures. "Islamic cultures have been raiding
Africa for centuries," Coleman pointed out. "You find African peoples who have converted to Islam, such as the Hausa in
Nigeria, very aggressively raiding people such as the Yoruba, destroying what they consider to be idols."
Meanwhile, national governments, in an effort to maintain control over their people's artistic heritage, are increasingly
imposing strict laws about the exportation of archeological materials. This is partly in response to the pillaging of
archeological treasures for sale in foreign markets. While trade during the 20th century has been, by and large, very
orderly, with foreign dealers relying primarily on local representatives to conduct transactions with informed villagers, this
was not the case earlier on, particularly in times of war.
Mali, home to the Bamana people, is one example of a country that has developed very strict standards on exportation.
"They have every right to do it," said Coleman. "But, that said, these are some of the richest sources of archeological
material being brought to a standstill. What is available is what was out [of the country] before the laws changed."
Two other contributing factors to the dwindling supply of traditional African arts are climate and the normal wear and tear
that occurs with any utilitarian piece. "Most African art [being sold now], despite claims to the contrary, was made in the
20th century," said Hamill, particularly when it comes to materials susceptible to a tropical climate. "Wood rots, and a lot
of these piece decay," he explained. "Also, there is a problem with insects, particularly termites. So people tend to throw
these objects out and replace them. They don't seem to value the old and historic in the way we do, they just want
something that works."
Caring for Wear and Tear
Because the pieces are used, collectors generally prize the damage and wear that goes along with this. There is,
however, a significant demand for the sometimes controversial practice of repair and restoration. Farid Tawa, who has
been collecting and dealing in African art for more than 20 years, is owner of Tawa African Art in New York, a gallery that
offers both mounting and restoration.
"There are different opinions on repairs," said Tawa. "But museums do it. As long as you don't change the piece, I don't
see any problem with restoring it back to its original condition."
Of course, the concept of an original is a bit different when it comes to traditional African art. "If you take a mask, the
masks are always copies. What does it mean, original? Maybe the first mask was done 200 years ago, then the pieces
were done for 10 villages, and then 100 villages. Sure, every carver puts a piece of his soul in the piece, and they are
always slightly different, but what is an original? You cannot know."
Yuri Raskin has been collecting traditional African art for more than 25 years. Ten years ago he began selling a few
pieces in his wife's antique shop. When she passed away, he concentrated entirely on selling African art. Today, he sells
to dealers and private collectors all over the world through the Internet; last year, for example, he sent some 25 pieces to
a buyer in Singapore. He also, along with his son, Dr. Ilya Raskin, has a museum showcasing around 200 pieces, mostly
masks and figures.
Hamill agrees with Raskin's assessment of originality. "People replace old things with objects that look just like
them-they're not copies anymore than the ones that are a hundred or two hundred years' old. Traditions survive."
Traditions change, too. "People who collect traditional art are, generally speaking, very appreciative of the rarity of these
objects," said Coleman. "They know these cultures are disappearing."
These days, the Maani puppets used to embody spirits in the Bamana culture are often made to look like celebrities.
From Michael Jackson to Bob Marley, the ephemeral icons of popular Western culture are confronting the traditional
icons of indigenous cultures. Though it remains to be seen which culture will emerge victorious, the record heavily favors
modernity. But even as these cultures, and hence their art, face an uncertain future at home, their fate within the
Western art world is secure.