I was born in New Zealand, almost the opposite side of world to Africa. Growing up, my father was very interested in antiques, history and the stories behind the objects. At 18 years old, I left New Zealand and went to Australia for four years of military training. During my time there, I got a taste for exploration and adventure and was lucky to travel around the globe including tribal areas such as Papua New Guinea and then later to Cambodia in 1992; all these places gave me insight into the world (that it was indeed bigger than just New Zealand).
In 1995 I moved to Perth, Australia and met a Zimbabwean bringing African tribal art back with him, that was the first piece of African art I ever saw. I didn’t know anything about the piece but I felt an instant energy coming from it. I had always felt a connection to Africa but had never been there. This first contact was my introduction, the piece had a sense of story, history, ethnography, ritual energy and aesthetic beauty.
The first piece I bought was a Chokwe mwana pwo mask. Looking at it now, do I think it was ritually used? Well there is a question mark there but it is beautifully constructed; it has a strong aesthetic to it. That first purchase triggered my interest in African art. Many people talk about Africa like a country but it is many and the art coming out of the continent is so diverse, so broad and so different. I’m still today discovering new styles and techniques. There are even hybrid versions of art between villages or tribal groups. Many galleries dismiss these hybrids as fakes but they are used ritually. Every time I visit Africa or read a new book I discover something new about traditional art from Africa. That’s the attraction of African art, it’s constantly changing.
Over the next six years I purchased a small number of pieces from galleries in New York, Belgium and Canada. I soon realised that buying from, or visiting galleries wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to experience where the pieces came from so in 2003 I spent three months in Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa. In Lusaka I was exposed to the sheer weight of material being sold but in around every thousand pieces I saw maybe one that was used ritually. Since that first visit, I try to go back to Africa every year for a 3 week stretch during which time I’ve also explored Burkina Faso, Mali, Angola, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. During these trips I integrate myself into village life and local cultures and visit local shops to find hidden gems.
Masks without a doubt. Why? Because it’s really what piqued my interest in African art and it has remained my passion. I purchased two masks to start, researched them and slowly got into masks in a big way. I collected a few more, learned more about them and started to specialise. Figures are totally different, I don’t know much about them. I can pick a mask, look at it, touch it and say yes, it feels right. I haven’t spent enough time looking at or handling figures.
I don’t like to play favourites, each piece has its own story, aesthetic, look and appeal. They are all unique in their own way. Even if a piece isn’t classically beautiful I find it appealing because of its ritual connection and energy. I believe the energy from ritual use transfers to masks and objects used during ceremonies.
However if I DID have to pick it would have to be the Chokwe Katoyo mask I have out on display in my home. Funnily enough it is a representation of a foreigner. I really enjoy this piece because in speaking with a professor of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels he told me of its authenticity and completeness (buttons, seeds, patina). It’s not about the prettiness of the mask but it has a feel to it. It’s been dated to between 1920 – 1930 so it’s a very early example that has survived over time.
Another mask I love is a large Dogon kanaga mask that’s fairly beaten up but a favourite because in one of the villages I visited in Mali – Begnimato Village on the Bandiagara Escarpment – the mask was being decommissioned and I was very lucky to get it. Masks are like teacups, they hold the spirit of the ritual. When chipped, they are discarded and new teacups are made, it’s something that can be replaced. For me, the mask represents an emotional connection to the people and place.
It doesn’t matter what the tribal group is, but I do like pieces from the Igbo, Ijo, Chokwe and some Yoruba pieces. I have a thing for Guro masks of the Je group and I also like pieces from the Mossi, and Bobo of Burkina Faso.
Before my trips to Africa, I got into the bad habit of buying for the sake of buying but quickly got out of that. Everything I bought I still have because I think it was a good learning experience. However, anything I buy now must fit a certain criteria. It must ‘sing’ to me, it must have a good aesthetic, I must be able to see the story behind it. I have to feel like it’s been ritually used which for me is a combination of things, the style of work, the patination and the finish of surface (could be the paints used, the damage, something that’s been knocked around for 30 years in back of a hut). For me damage is OK. Anything perfect is a question mark. The inside of a mask is also very important. Anything consistent across the inside or outside I discard because it has probably been manufactured to look authentic but not ritually used.
For a long time now I’ve been working to complete my collection on Guro Je society zoomorphic masks. I have two out of a set of about half a dozen; the zanaure gazelle mask and the zeiwe mask. I’d love to find pieces that are as well carved as the ones in my collection.
There are some other masks that i’ve recently added to my collection. In Malawi there is a Chewa secret cult called Nyau. They create masks that are influenced by christianity, one of which is the simoni mask based on Saint Peter. The masks are painted burnt red (a caricature of a caucasian burnt in the sun). The mask is stunning; beautiful form that pulls in the idea of evolution of society and globalisation.
I have 24 – 25 pieces from recent trips that I still have to finalise research on. In total I have about 75 pieces in my collection. There are about 15 items displayed in my home but I rotate them on a regular basis. The masks are on display with other artwork like modern paintings; I like the mix between contemporary and traditional.
I find that some contemporary works can capture emotions like death, life and love but I find that pieces of tribal art actually played a part in death and life. So I love the energy embodied in those pieces. The physical embodiment of society and ritual. There’s nothing wrong with newly created pieces if you bond with it; old does not always mean good.
The debate around so called airport art comes from a Western perspective. It’s difficult to discuss this topic fully until the people involved in the debate experience the African environment. There is airport and tourist art sold to tourists to garner revenue for the creators. I have no problem with that. And yes there are pieces created in workshops made to look old and for sale. Some traders in Africa state that the pieces they own are very old when in fact they aren’t. Again I have no problem with that because, buyer beware. In my mind, anything older than 60 years, coming from Africa, has a question mark. But from the African side, it’s all a way of life, a way to make money.
The debate that exasperates me the most is that around recent pieces painted in European paints, big galleries shy away from them. If you look at a good piece of painted vs. unpainted art, in my experience it’s less likely that the painted mask is a fake. A good quality piece that has paint is more likely to be ritually used than a good quality piece that does not. I’ve seen and read stories where authentic painted pieces for sale have been rubbed and sanded back so that they don’t have the original paint on them. I’ve also seen airport art use paints but when you get a good painted piece, to me, there is an intensity to the colour. I see a lot of examples where oil based paints are used to highlight the mask, they use colour as part of the ritual energy of the piece. Colour in general resonates in terms of empathies of light, shade, symmetry and aggressiveness.
"The reality is that with genuine artefacts, rich colour reflects a more authentic sense of ritual energy and power than non-coloured pieces. As Frank Willets said, 'most African sculpture in Western collections is unpainted, yet in Africa, sculpture is probably more commonly painted than not'."
Pretty much every source I can turn to I will. Before purchase, I read as many books as I can, I use online resources mercilessly and talk to as many people as possible. Museums are also a vital source. All that being said, it’s important for me to physically see as much as I can. Books are great and academic learning is important but nothing compares to touching pieces; to feel the plasticity, the artistry, the textures. When you look at any of the great paintings online and then physically stand in front of them you get a different sensation. For me that’s what works, I love reading but don’t rely on that only to form the main part of how I assess work.
Most important is to follow your passion. If a piece speaks to you and you love it then buy it within your means and find out more. It will take you on the next step in your journey, you will learn from it. Your tastes will evolve and things will become clearer. If you collect only to make money then it’s better to put your money in the bank!
Following your passion means finding out as much as possible, seeing as much as possible and touching as much as possible. Touch as many pieces as possible but form your own opinion from your passion. The only opinion that matters is yours but don’t have an uninformed opinion.
My three key pieces of advice would be to: