I love the idea of the traditional African sculpture from the African point of view. It is not a human being or a living person that is crafted by hand. It is a spirit, which is human like. In our culture the study of the physical body like nude drawings is the foundation of our artistic awareness and since I learned designing from scratch, I actually went through this process. African sculptures are not abstract in the way we understand abstraction. What we think is abstraction, is in reality the expectation or assumption of a spirit of an individual African carver. For us, these sculptures have been and are inspiration and trigger art movements.
I adore their directness, deconstruction and the radicalism on one side and on the other side I am impressed by the amazing craftsmanship and diversity in composition. That reminds me of my work for hat designer Philip Treacy in London and of the Haute Couture in Paris. The stylisation brings matters to the head and beyond. Also I feel inspired by the aestheticization of African sculptures. They have their meaning and impact in the rite itself and, afterwards, an effect in our art and design.
A famous Senufo carver, Songuifolo Silué from Sirasso Ivory Coast, once got asked what he thinks, how we treat their objects. He answered, that we use their objects like flowers we place on a table. I found that very essential, because an object gets removed from their culture and placed in a completely different context. He was right that sometimes it is just decoration and then, most of the time it is about moneymaking. To me personally, it is inspiration. Karl-Heinz Krieg once said that the masks are my medicine. What to say? He was right.
One of the very first was an nkisi statue I bought on eBay. I liked the crude and sinister expression of it. Shortly after, I couldn’t resist and opened one of these extremely mysterious fabric balls attached to the figure; it turned out to be a fake. Even part of the t-shirt was a copy of a famous cigarette brand; “Camel” has no “s”. So immediately I was exposed to another side of procuring African sculpture.
Shortly after I started collecting, I specialised in kpelié masks from the Senufo of Ivory Coast. To me kpelié masks possess a combination of strength and elegance; the carving demands great craftsmanship.
My masks are all on one wall, I call it ‘the crust’; one mask after another is hung (in classic Petersburg Hanging) so that you can barely see the wall. The wall looks disturbing, like a huge sculpture. However it’s important to note that I collect not for quantity, but for comparison. Having a closer look, you discover the greatness of every single mask, it’s like discovering a whole new universe.
I collect antique and recent masks from documented and unknown carvers. The oldest mask is a loko bronze cast from before 1900, the most recent one, an airport art mask, was made two years ago from a master in Korhogo, Ziehouo Coulibaly. In addition to kpelié masks, I also collect statues but only when the carver is known or relatable.
My favourite piece changes daily. Usually, the latest acquisition is my favourite but I still love every item in my collection.
I admire most the work from Doh Soro, a Koulé from Djemtene, who died in his early forties. He had an incredible talent for structure and formation. I find the diversity of Koulé Songuifolo Silué from Sirasso very interesting. He carved in the traditional style but he also developed a pure and simple style. Silué had an amazing artistic awareness of proportion. His nyingife statues are in different heights, but all in the same proportion. I enjoy the flamboyance of Koulé Bakari Coulibaly from Dickodougou. His masks are extreme, overloaded and spectacular. During their lifetime, these masters produced a huge amount of characteristic sculptures. Usually male family members assisted in the process. When a master was actively working for about 60 years, he easily produced more than 1000 objects. Unlike with other African art pieces, because of the huge volumes of objects produced, it is usually possible to determine the carver of Senufo sculptures.
The kpelié mask is not really a rare mask. Today, you can find authentic antique masks from carvers who died around the 1950s. One year I bought just one mask and in another I bought 10 masks in just two weeks.
Unfortunately, I have experienced a few break ins so the most valuable objects are in a safe elsewhere. Though I do not present all the items in my house for all to see, I sometimes present some of the items on my Facebook group ‘Living With African Art’. Many sculptures have a place in my home and are integrated in my daily life.
Another collector was surprised that I also collect recently created objects, even airport art. He said “I don’t want fleas in my home”. I think that is narrow minded…very narrow minded. Everyone is manic about getting an antique piece from before 1945. But a piece can be magic too if it was made five years later or in 2010. The risk of buying a fake is very high in all genres of art, but to me just because a mask is recently created does not relegate it to the category of ‘fake’.
I find recently created kpelié masks even more interesting because its style has not changed dramatically in the last, let’s say 150 years – they are nearly free from Christian or Islamic influences. In my opinion the Senufo have a very strong cultural identity; they keep and save this identity through constant repetition. Carvers repeat traditional elements in their own handwriting and with tremendous craftsmanship. So I find recently created pieces highly important and would most certainly not describe them as ‘fleas’.
My mentor, Karl-Heinz Krieg (b. 1934 – d. 2012), lived with the Senufo from the early 1960s. He always wanted the carvers to speak directly to us, because in the African art scene the carver is anonymised and not of importance (apparently a provenance is more important for a high price). I dedicated my first book, about the aesthetics of African sculpture, to his memory and ensured that where possible, the creator of pieces profiled in the book were identified and credited for their work.
If you ask a hundred experts, you will get a hundred different answers. I avoid ‘expert opinions’ because everyone answers in their own vested interest. It is so easy today to call an object a fake without needing to provide any proof of this claim. Unfortunately a number of people today think they are experts and try to increase the value of their collections by berating others. I have became very skeptical and very critical of African art experts.
During the last ten years I’ve developed a database of digital files, books and magazines on traditional African art. I also do a lot of research on the internet, in museums and exhibitions, and compare my objects with pieces in other collections. In addition, I always have an eye on what is going on at auctions such as at Sotheby’s or on eBay.
In Ivory Coast, I work with Souleymane Arachi, a collector and gallerist with many connections in the region. In cooperation with him I have been fortunate to be able to conduct interviews with old carvers in their Senari language.
I do collect for myself and not to make other collectors jealous, but many are. I’ve received very rude comments on my books even before they were published. The main accusation was that I only try to increase the value of my collection. Sure, that is a side-effect, but not my intention. What I do want is to show the beauty and the inspiring impact of the sculptures and to share information about Senufo carvers.
After publishing my books, other collectors contacted me via social media and showed me images of their objects. I never judge an object by a picture alone; I have to hold a piece in my hand. However, sometimes I can tell for sure that a mask is obviously airport art or, even better, that I can name a carver and date of creation by a picture only.
I know a lot about Senufo sculptures, but not everything. Ok, I write books about these sculptures, but every day I learn something new.
First i’d say get specialised in a single type of object from a single tribe – this prevents you from getting frustrated or lost… Africa is huge and provides enormous variety in its amount of amazing sculptures. Specialising also means that you can gain massive amounts of knowledge about your very specific collecting field by comparing your discoveries and understanding the similarities and also differences. It will help prevent you from buying a lot of fakes. However I think it’s important to buy airport art too, these pieces help to see the differences.
As a young collector be prepared to get bashed by other collectors and gallerists. There are egocentric characters in the African art scene. Keep in mind that their criticism is not about the beauty of the sculpture; it is all about money.
In the end, most importantly, be a passionate collector, not a calculating buyer!