In my opinion, tribal or ritual African art express the essence of art – when art reaches the harmony between naturalism and abstraction; the interplay of the mythical and spiritual realm; the observation of the real and its conceptualization. Or what Roland Barthes calls – the punctum. It is something that ‘pierces’ and ‘wounds’ the observer; it cuts the person suddenly, deeply, and instantaneously. It shoots out like an arrow, and pierces me. I have that kind of experience with tribal art.
Beyond the symbolic appearance of the object and its spiritual appeal, we should be aware that there is often a philosophical dimension; the object should be understood as part of a ritual or a principle of the real. To me, it’s a well of inspiration from which I can draw.
As a religious scholar, I am particularly interested in lived religion, how people articulate their religious values and beliefs, cosmologies, desires, fears, bodies and Eros through art and ritual systems; the fundamental and essential drives of life that help them to cope with malice and the everydayness.
Particularly, I am interested in how religious material culture creates and generates the worlds of beliefs and spiritual practices. What is fascinating about tribal art is its powerful, intense presence. It is a mixture of the inner and external reality. The reason I am attracted to tribal art is because of its intense, graphic beauty and primordial purity. When we are interested in distant cultures and times, we take certain responsibilities and narratives about these cultures. A collection is “a magic encyclopedia” (Benjamin). We are keepers of a particular culture’s testimony. As Inti Ligabue puts it, “the owner of an object becomes its poet, its narrator. Its history, its use, all these things are yours for the telling.”
I bought my first African piece on a flea market 10 years ago. It was not a genuine piece but at that time I didn’t know much. I was attracted to the form. I still keep the piece. A few years later I bought my first ‘real’ objects – a very expressive Dogon figure and Mumuye ancestral figure with a hypnotic look. Initially, I bought objects that appealed to me for no particular reason. Form is very important for me but also expressive intensity.
Later I have become interested in masks that are abstract or surreal. I bought several masks in Africa as well. I also grew up in a house with tribal art objects that my parents acquired while traveling. They had some wonderful African and Pre-Columbian pieces. Probably that influenced my interest for tribal art.
"Every passion borders on the chaotic… the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories."—Walter Benjamin, 1979
I particularly like African masks, their startling expressiveness and fascinating modernity; the interplay of the modern and the archaic, which interpenetrates its own experiences. Masks can be truly beautiful and deeply disturbing at the same time. The dialectics between imagination, performance and the sublime is what actually attracts me. I have also several Oceanic and Pre-Columbian pieces.
I like Lobi art; the simple cubist style and symbolic abstraction really appeals to me.
Well, there are many approaches. I personally prefer meeting people in person where I can negotiate price or make some exchange. It is also important to have an opportunity to examine an object in real. It is difficult to judge an object by a picture alone.
I don’t have a problem with that at all. If you are asking me about authenticity, I personally think that ‘authenticity’ is an ideology and the politics of collecting and/or dealing. The critical questions are: who creates meaning for African ritual/tribal art? Who decides what is authentic or not? Who or what determines its cultural authenticity? Who can decide what is art and what isn’t? I try to leave that open.
Raymond Corbey gave a good example about some intriguing Asmat artefacts in his book Tribal Art Traffic. Namely, he shows how Asmat traditional woodcarvings and styles are incorporated with Christianity. An example of such a ‘Christian animist’ figure is an Asmat representation of Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus. The child comes out the vagina that would be considered as blasphemy in western religious iconography but it is not strange for the Asmat. In their contextual theology Christ becomes an ancestor. Corbey shows how Asmat still think along traditional, mythical lines especially in recently created religious art even after their conversion to Christianity. Authentic or not?
But if something – in terms of fakes, copies, replication, forgeries, and imitations – is made to deceive those seeking ‘authentic’ African art, than I have a problem. So, when there is conscious intent to deceive or when the carver artificially ages the patina in order to look old than we have a problem.
Well, if you are not only interested in the aesthetic value of an object you will probably consider it’s ethnographical meanings bound to specific cultural contexts. Certainly we are looking at tribal art – particularly masks – in a very different light from that intended by its makers and original ritual performers. We often forget that masks, for example, were seen as part of ritual objects in form of faces (the human-but-not-quite-human shape) moving in performance, surrounded by kinetic dimensions of music, dance and ecstatic forces or not seen at all, kept in shrines and overseen by hereditary priests. We have to look at them in a motion as danced performative masquerade. Masquerade is instrumental to the transcendence of the self and to the negotiation of personal and communal identity, and politico-spiritual systems. Masks are endowed with considerable spiritual power; it is a spiritual and cultural performance of the imagination and fetishism.
Sadly, African art in our western eyes is stripped of its original setting. Unfortunately, many people, including collectors, don’t think contextually about tribal and ritual art and its purpose and the symbolic meanings it conveys. It is a pity indeed how much we are missing when we gaze at tribal art through decontextualized lens. It is an old question: art or artefact, an aesthetic methodology or an ethnographic/anthropological one.
Personally I find the ethnographic/anthropological or ritual context of an object just as important as their aesthetic values.
I do a lot of research using books and catalogues on tribal art. I visit museums, collectors and exhibitions. I regularly visit BRUNEAF in Brussels and Parcours des Mondes in Paris.
That’s a tricky one. I think I wasn’t patient enough. The rule is to be patient and know you are going to learn and be more experienced with time.
Collecting should be fun but with tribal art it’s not always that easy, it’s a tricky business. I think every collection is highly personal, the result of aesthetic encounters but also a cognitive approach and choice. A collection is to some extent an articulation of the person’s identity and self-narrative.
Buy what you like not what others say to buy. I think self-discipline and patient are very important aspects that I am trying to learn (not very successfully though). One has first to do research and than buy. You must refine your taste, see as many objects as possible, visit museums, galleries, dealers, and collections; and acquire one good piece rather than many cheap mediocre ones. I know, it’s easier said than done. We shouldn’t approach tribal art with forced and well-established criteria, but with an open mind. Also building a trustful relationship with a dealer is crucial. For example, I have a good relationship with Robert van der Heijden, an important dealer and collector from Amsterdam. Jan Kusters and Roberto Domingos are also very helpful with their advice and expertise.