Dealer Spotlight

Dori Rootenberg, United States

February 20, 2017

By: Adenike Cosgrove

Tell us a little about yourself, why Africa?
There are a number of reasons on ‘why Africa’. I've always loved African art—I was first exposed to it at a very young age. Growing up, my family knew Chaim Gross, the well known sculptor, artist and collector of tribal art. He had a beautiful town house in the West Village in New York City, which I was fortunate to visit.

I was an Art History major in college—we didn't spend a lot of time on African art but we certainly covered it and my love for African art was rekindled. Then of course, during visits to museums I’d see tribal pieces and I always found them fascinating. Even if there were pieces that I personally would not choose to live with, I appreciated the form and power.

I also love the extremes in African art —from the sleek and sensuous minimalism of, for instance, a Mangbetu drum to heavily patinated and intricately carved works. As much as I love simplicity and minimalism, I also love complex objects such as figures with detailed scarification patterns or fetiches which have layered textures.

What motivated you to start dealing in classic African art?
It really was my husband, Daniel Rootenberg’s idea; he’s the one that really got us going with collecting. One day he said, “why don’t we turn this into a business?”. I was very interested in the idea because it was at a time in my life when I was open to beginning a new career. We developed a website and started participating in shows. The first show we exhibited in was in Manhattan at the Armory. We had a successful show and this motivated us to keep going.

ZULU HORN, SOUTH AFRICA

Can you describe some of the major pieces you’ve sold?
I suppose major is a relative term. To some dealers ‘major’ may be defined as an object valued over 1 million USD. To others, the price may be significantly less than that.

I prefer to talk about important objects that may or may not have extremely high price tags, but are rare, beautiful and have the patina of age and use. In that category, a few that I have handled include a wonderful and rare Zombo figure, a beautiful Lulua from the Myron Kunin collection, a gorgeous Dan mask with Paul Guillaume provenance and a pair of South African engraved cattle horns with scenes from the Anglo-Zulu War. There are many others, but these are some that come to mind easily because they are amongst my favourites.

JACARANDA GALLERY
NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES

How do you source pieces to sell?
Every dealer and collector is sourcing virtually the same way: from auctions, from dealers, or from private collections, this is no secret. Much of the type of art we deal in, was taken out of Africa during colonisation so there is little to be found in Africa.

Do you think it’s necessary to have knowledge of the history or traditional use of the pieces you deal in?
I do. But what's important to me, may not be important to another dealer or certain collectors. I know one collector for example, with an extraordinary collection of African art that told me without hesitation that he had little interest in what the object was originally used for. For him, the African art is strictly about aesthetics. He wants the best examples he can find. I would say that he is an exception, though. I find that most of my clients really do like to know the history and function of the objects they acquire.

When people come into the gallery, the very first and most important issue is does the art speak to them. Are they engaged, do they think it’s beautiful, is it sensitive, moving. Then, to be able to share the story and history really fleshes out why that piece is special. For instance, I love headrests and being a collector of South African art exposed us to some of the most beautiful headrests created in Africa. But when I learned that not only did headrests have an obvious function-- to keep coiffures off the ground-- but that they were a means of communicating with ancestors, my love of them was elevated. History of use is interesting and wonderful.

On a personal note, I love doing research. As much as I enjoy the social aspect of this profession—speaking with clients, discussing objects with them, exhibiting at art fairs—I am also very happy in the library with my nose in the books. I like that balance that this profession provides. I love doing research; it’s its own form of hunting.

ZOMBO FIGURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

DAN DEANGLE MASK, IVORY COAST

Now, with regards to provenance who doesn’t like it? I don’t fault a collector or dealer for wanting provenance. Good pedigree can and does add to the appeal . But, is it the end all, I don’t think so. With certain types of objects you’ll never know the provenance. South African objects, taken out by British soldiers and missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, typically wound up in the attic of someone’s great grandparents and were later discovered in London’s Portabello market or in some little country auction. There’s no way of knowing the provenance in those cases. In such situations it’s up to the dealer to know how an object ‘ranks’—how a particular object compares to others of its kind.

ZULU VESSEL, SOUTH AFRICA
NOW AT THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

HERERO LADLE, NAMIBIA

You were one of only a handful of female dealers at Parcours des Mondes in 2016, why do you think there aren’t that many female dealers in this space?
I think that yes, the tribal art world is dominated by male dealers and collectors however one area that isn’t male dominated is curation. There are an equal number of female curators in African art as there are men, at least here in the US. Many of the curators in top fine art institutions are women.

I think one of the reasons why we see more male dealers and collectors is that this kind of art has traditionally appealed to more men than women. I do have female clients but I have many more male clients. In the general population there is the false perception that African art is about fierce looking masks or fetish figures. Many people are not familiar with all the other magnificent, aesthetically beautiful pieces of tribal art such as textiles including beadwork, forms like headrests and ceramic vessels, jewellry and currencies, and other utilitarian and figurative objects created by master carvers. There are many pieces that are easy on the eye!

Some dealers I know got started by being involved in the Peace Corps–not many women were doing that at the time. Being a dealer is also the kind of work that requires that you be on the road. Pre-internet, the only way to show objects was to travel. For women that had children at home it was not an easy career. Finally, there is the physical aspect to this profession. Unless you’re able to hire a team to do the physical labour, setting up a show can be very arduous; you have to be ready to roll up your sleeves.

LULUWA FIGURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

What insight do you think being a woman brings to dealing in African art?
I don’t think it's because I’m a woman that I bring special insight. I think it’s because of my background and passion for design. A man could easily have the same background as I have. I came out of the fashion industry where I was a designer and colourist. I think my background combined with studying art history has given me a sensitivity to colour and an eye for form that’s so useful in this profession. One could say I am a 'design junkie'. I love all good design whether it is traditional African art, contemporary furniture, architecture or decorative accessories., etc.

I also love interior design. Although I do not have a degree, it is something that comes naturally to me and I often assist my clients in designing mounts for their art and placement for the art in their homes. Sometimes clients love an object but are not sure how to display it. It is always exciting to visit clients and see how they have incorporated their art acquisitions into their living spaces. Our gallery is in our apartment in NYC. Therefore, people see how we live with the art which also gives them ideas.

What advice would you have for collectors starting out in African art?
First, work with respected dealers. It’s easy to be fooled by an object that looks authentic but isn't. The world of African art is a fairly small community. Work with dealers that are open, transparent and willing to share information.

Second, buy the best you can within budget. You don’t need huge amounts of money to start. A beginning collector has to be realistic. One cannot buy a fine Fang on a small budget! But, there are many authentic and beautiful smaller objects that are affordable. I personally love small objects; combined, they can make a wonderful collection.

Third, buy what you love. Buy something that when you wake up in the morning and open your eyes, you’re happy to see it. Sometimes you hear the advice that one should never buy art as an investment but I say ‘love and investment’ do not have to be mutually exclusive. If you buy what you love and you buy the best you can, you have probably made a good investment.

Finally, learn about your objects. Buy books, visit museums, look, look, look and look some more! I am still learning every day.