You might recognise his name on a few articles on ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, or you might be familiar with the books he’s authored—African Masks and Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland. If he isn’t writing for ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, he’s probably wearing a different hat. Aside from being a contributor to the website, he is also a designer, author, and collector based in Odense, Denmark.
For this Collector Spotlight, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA decided to highlight one of its own: Leif Birger Holmstedt.
I have always been a keen collector. It is an obsession that I acquired during my youth. Perhaps it was in my genes, I don’t know. Be that as it may, today I am an incurable collector of ethnographic objects and the only cure for this wonderful 'lunacy', or at least the only means of keeping it at a manageable level, is entirely based on economics.
The concept of collector’s mania should not here be defined as a disorder but characterised as an excessive acquisitive zeal. I'm not a collector just for the sake of being a collector. The incentive has always been borne by the interest for, and the history behind, the things that at a given time were topical.
The desire to become a collector, especially of ethnographic objects, was seriously awakened in me at Copenhagen Airport in Kastrup in 1972. I met the sculptor Robert Jacobsen at a bistro while he was on his way to Munich. At the time, he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts. I was on my way to Iceland with my wife and son for a family visit. During our conversation, I told Robert that in my art collection I had his little wooden sculpture called Reclining Woman (1939). It pleased him very much, as it was the first wooden sculpture that he had made. He told me he would like to see it again. He invited me to visit his home in Tågelund, Denmark, when he got back from Munich.
Three weeks later, we met again at his farmhouse in Tågelund. I knocked on the large gate to the courtyard and when it opened, I felt as if I was in Aladdin's cave from One Thousand and One Nights. At that moment, I was in a whole other world. It turned out to be an inspiring stay. Robert introduced me to his collections of ethnographic art, old Russian icons and German peasant art. I became so absorbed by his exciting world.
After the visit, I felt changed. Robert’s interest in African masks and figures had seriously influenced me to such a degree that I felt it almost instantaneously. I have since felt the reverberations of that visit, which manifested in me becoming a collector of ethnographic objects.
When I began collecting, I initially made a few purchasing mistakes. It was of course not least based on my great ignorance of the traditional use of special characteristic elements. I was impressed by exciting 'hybrid' masks, where the content of elements could be attributed to several different ethnic groups, but when it was original masks and figures I sought, I quickly got rid of these decorative ornamental pieces in favour of objects that had been consecrated and used in various forms of ceremonies and rituals.
The objects I have today in my African collection are primarily acquired through reputable galleries such as Galerie Carrefour, Pierre Vérité (Paris), Galerie Robert Duperier (Paris), Jo De Buck (Brussels), Alain Naoum (Brussels), Marc Leo Felix (Brussels) and Giovanni Franco Scanzi (Abidjan), as well as through internationally known auction houses.
I have devoted the most time to collecting art from ethnic groups of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guinea, so my collection is predominantly comprised of masks and figures made by artists from these countries.
Guinea. I especially like masks and figures from Baga, Toma and Loma. Carl Kjersmeier writes in his book På Fetischjagt i Afrika, "The Bagas' figurines and masks are among the rarest African Negro sculptures. In particular, they have become renowned for their up to three-metre tall dance mask, nimba, a mixture of bird and man.”
For several years, I have searched for such a nimba shoulder mask for my Baga collection. However, the examples I have been offered unfortunately belong to the category that I call 'airport souvenirs', so my Baga zigiren wöndë headdress is still the jewel in the crown of this collection.
I received these comments regarding this headdress in 1998 from Frederick Lamp:
This one is unique, as far as I know, because of the representation of a full upper body on the front panel. Normally, the breasts are carved, but not arms, hands, navel, vagina, and scarification patterns, as yours seems to have. The piece seems to have been made for Baga ritual, judging from the photograph. I have no idea of the age, but judging from the repair, I would guess that it has seen quite a bit of use.
I know of no way to identify the specific location of origin. It could be from any point on the coast of Guinea, except probably not from the Baga Sitemu or the Pukur. I assume you have my book, Art of the Baga (1996), where I give a map of the Baga area (pp. 42-43) and a description of these headdresses, called Zigiren-Wönde (pp. l66-169).
Côte d’Ivoire. I find the Baule peoples masks and figures particularly amazing. The Baule people, after fleeing the Ashanti Empire, settled in the central part of Côte d’Ivoire among the Guro, Yaure, and Senufo people, whose art inspired them.
On the basis of this ‘adoption’, the Baule have produced pieces carved with an admirable amount of care and with a great sense for detail. The attention to minor details such as eyelashes and scar tattoos gives an impression of the high artisanal standard and artistic level of Baule artists. It also testifies to the fact that the woodcarver possessed a distinctly aesthetic sense, unlikely to have been surpassed by other African ethnic groups.
In addition to a beautiful mask, some standing figures, and a seated figure, I also have some exciting objects from the Dan, Senufo, Yaure, Guro and Wé.
Congo. Kuba masks have played a significant role in the federal ethnic group for generations. A large number of these masks, previously used for initiations, have today completely disappeared. The three remaining masks typify royal masks. These masks have been widely imitated by the residents of the villages, who in the past used other types of masks. The royal masks are listed in the following order of rank—moshambwooy, bwoom and ngaady a mwaash, where moshambwooy is the grandest of these royal masks.
Of particularly interesting objects, I have in the Congo collection a tshibangabanga helmet mask from the small Binji ethnic group, a Bongo helmet mask, a Bwoom helmet mask and a pwoom itok mask from the Bushoong people. In addition, I also have some interesting masks from the Ngbaka, Ngombe and Salampasu.
On the basis of the knowledge I subsequently acquired through literature, visits to museums, galleries and trade fairs—and, of course, contact with my two mentors, the experts frère J. A. Cornet and Marc Leo Felix—I published the book Afrikanske Masker in 2003. Here, I write about the various uses of masks in different types of ceremonies and rituals arranged by the ‘secret societies’. These include rituals related to births, funerals, sowing and harvesting celebrations. Masks were also used to convey important political messages. For instance, a mask dance would be in order at a king’s death and the subsequent accession to the throne of his successor. arrangements. The mask dance had for centuries been a significant socio-cultural activity, both in the spiritual and secular sense, among the African tribal people.
At initiation ceremonies, the mask dance was also of great importance, as it serves as the living’s connection to ancestors’ spirits, imploring them to help with the imminent events.
For the dancer, the magical content and physical appearance of the mask had a crucial function as it indicated what role the dancer was to fill. It was important that the dancer’s costume had the right identification markings, consisting of symbolic characters or stylized and caricatured abstractions because it emphasised the content and message of the dance.
The growing influence of missionaries in Africa rejected the magical thoughts and the ritual-filled everyday life of its residents. Moreover, colonial rule dissolved secret societies, the practitioners of tribal ceremonies, under the pretext of political activity directed against the interests of the colonial rule. As a result, the production of the original mask types for these ceremonies and rituals has been lost, never to return again.
Over the years, I have been subjected to many laughable experiences in connection to being a collector!
For example, I had purchased a large figure, where one arm had been damaged while in transit. When I asked the local carpenter to repair it, his comment was, "If you really think this bad piece of craftsmanship is worth repairing, then come back at the end of the week and I'll have it repaired.” I was a little disappointed that it could not be repaired then and there, so I told him what the figure had been used for, and of course, I hoped that its violent spirit would not hurt him, while he had it in his custody. The carpenter subsequently looked at the figure a little nervously and then said, "You can come and get it today at 4 o'clock before I close.”
We have had guests in the house who have felt so frightened by our masks that they would not stay overnight with us, without the lights being on.
Years ago, I purchased a Kota reliquary figure that I placed in my studio, but unfortunately, it released such unpleasant vibrations that I had difficulty concentrating or just being in the same room. The day I got rid of it, the discomfort disappeared!