My parents lived in Tanzania in the 40s after which they went back to Germany, taking with them their memories of Africa and a figure from Arusha. As they talked about Africa and spoke to each other in Swahili my interest in the region was piqued in an authentic way. Later in life, when I started my career in Germany, I saw an advert for a job in Africa. Based on my parental heritage, I decided to apply for the job and was sent to Niger.
When I started my collection I had a heritage, I was already embedded in African traditions and culture; I followed the passion of my parents.
In Niger I found Yoruba and Hausa tradesmen selling art items. I spoke to some experts in the field and ended up purchasing some good items with proven authenticity. From Niger, I went to Sudan, Congo, Togo and Bénin collecting more African art. I got a nice Bénin plaque believed to be from the end of the 19th century (it’s been featured in the Basil Davidson book). From those beginnings I completed my collection.
While working in Africa for 11 years, I went on a legitimacy campaign. Travelling to rural populations, I had the opportunity to connect with several chiefs from a number of different villages to validate the pieces in my collection. I went to a village in Central Bénin and met the elders of the town in a secret house where I found over 100 Yoruba Gelede masks. In exchange for sponsoring the creation of new masks, I was permitted to take 50 of the masks found. The elders were satisfied with the deal because they replace masks every 50 years; they wanted to make the next generation of masks.
In Congo I met the king of the Kuba ethnic group to whom I showed one of my pieces. He validated it and confirmed that it came from his court. I also befriended a Voodoo priest (from Ouida) in Bénin. I travelled with him to a number of villages and bought some items from the Fon tribe.
I like everything coming out of Africa but above all I love masks and figures. I have some silver jewellery from Sudan and textiles from Kuba. I have a wide range of items due to my extensive field history in Africa.
I have a big Lega collection, of more than 50 items collected from Congo, that’s particularly meaningful to me.
A German museum curator and an ethnologist of Freiburg University checked some of my items and told me which ones to give away and which to keep. By the way, the Gelede and other objects were registered in the Yale University Library African art database.
I exchange items from time to time with other collectors but I now rarely buy new pieces. I believe that you must concentrate on what you have and not diversify too much.
Most items I have are displayed online. I don’t have enough space to display all my items (currently standing at more than 500!), but I do display a select few in my home combining traditional pieces with contemporary artwork.
I think that some newly sculpted pieces are rather perfect. Figures that correspond to cubism (Picasso, Les demoiselles d`Avignon), dadaism or post-dadaism. Modern pieces have a facility of playing with figures in unusual ways. If you buy an item because you like it, African art is perfect. What I like the most about African art is its combination with traditional concepts; the marriage of Voodoo and modern elements of today.
In my opinion, authenticity of African art is an awkward concept, it comes from a Western need to classify objects as created by a specific maker or workshop. One criteria is to ask if the object served for a cult, however this classification can be problematic because today most cults are relegated to history. I have also seen situations where recently created works are buried in the soil for some years so that they come out looking very old.
I have more than 100 books of African art. If I want to buy, I conduct extensive research first and also compare the item with others in my existing collection to validate authenticity.
If someone wishes to start collecting African art, my advice would be to follow the way African art is considered. It’s important to learn as much as you can; visit museums and read books. There are a growing number of online catalogues which you can study. The Yale University catalogue also has a huge database of traditional African art objects.
You can also learn by touching pieces, follow pieces with your fingers. It’s the only way to identify if an object has been used. Go to auctions but don’t buy the first thing you see, instead visit several auctions and touch the pieces on show. Look for an expert to accompany you and listen to their advice. The patina of objects is important; is the piece covered in blood or feathers for example. African art means you must SEE the items and have them in your hands before buying.
My final piece of advice would be to concentrate on one ethnic group or six to seven at the most and not to diversify too much. Be an expert in Baule, Yoruba or Igbo pieces but I don’t recommend a huge diversity. Like stamps or coins concentrate on one topical issue.