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Behind the mask : African Art/Western Imagination
Are art collections the result of the enthusiasm of people who, for whatever reason, follow their primeval urge to hunt and gather, an impulse that in prehistoric times was necessary for survival? But then great collections are not an essential necessity and seldom make a profit. Perhaps it would be better to regard the collection of works of art as a significant result of taking pleasure in possessions. (Dieter Neupert )
The history of collecting illuminates something striking: the human mind’s unquenchable curiosity, and its love for the wonder of the world. (A. C. Grayling )
When I was about twelve, I bought a small book of west African masks and figures; I no longer remember what prompted me to do so. I doubt that I had seen such art, so I surmise that the illustrations affected me in a way that other types of art did not. When I was 19 I was accepted by Voluntary Service Overseas and worked in the Solomon Islands for a year. Working for the Geological Service, I alternated between office work in Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, and field work on the island of Santa Isabel. It was a wonderful time for me, visiting remote Melanesian villages, meeting people who still carved and used beautiful utilitarian objects, listening to folktales about how the different people, animals and birds crossed and settled on the various Pacific islands. On my way back to England I stopped in New Zealand, where I visited several museums that held large collections of Maori art.
For many years I visited museums in Europe and America, but didn't think seriously about collecting tribal art until 1980. I had been living in London for a few years and discovered a handful of dealers and galleries specializing in tribal artefacts. I met David Morris, a fellow collector, in Ian Auld’s Camden Passage shop in Islington. We spent most Saturday mornings together, alternating between Portobello Road and Camden Passage. David’s small house in Chislehurst was crammed with tribal and non-tribal art, including pieces that he bought from Herbert Rieser, an important dealer who, sadly, died in 1978, just before I began to collect. Two dealers, the ceramicist Ian Auld and Maurice Joy, became my good friends and I spent many happy hours in Ian’s shop listening to him talking about art. Sadly, neither Ian nor David are still with us. But, something rubbed off from them (Ian had been a teacher in Nigeria at one time) and my enthusiasm for African art grew. Maurice Joy, as ever, allowed me access to his wonderful library of tribal art books and our (sadly, infrequent), walks on Hampstead Heath are peppered with erudition and scholarship. Maurice once worked with William Fagg at the British Museum, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things tribal has never ceased to amaze me. On one occasion, I showed Maurice a small animal figure that had been brought to England years ago, found by the previous owner in east Africa. Maurice immediately said “Rhodesia” and added that the only other time he had ever seen such figures was over forty years ago in a Liverpool museum.
I have been lucky in another way. Over the past few years, many fine scholars of African art have produced excellent and exciting exhibition catalogues and essays, often based on years of field work. I only know these people from their books, but have learnt much from them and, like many others, I owe them a great debt of gratitude. There are too many to list, but if I mention the names, William Fagg, Roy Sieber and Robert Farris Thompson, readers will understand what I mean.
Over the years I have continued to collect both tribal and modern art, and have seen objects go into and out of fashion as trends change. Museum attitudes toward their collections have changed as well. What follows are some random thoughts on subjects that interest me. They range from the meaning of the word “art” to the question of how objects from Africa became “art” in the western sense. They include thoughts on how collectors and museums understand, interpret and display African art.
Guro heddle pulley, Ivory Coast.
I believe Confucius said that one should first define one's terms. Today I collect “Tribal art” from Africa. I have asked myself why we apply this term for carvings, masks, sculptures and utilitarian objects. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it was called “Primitive art”, an ethnocentric term redolent of cultural superiority. Here are a couple of short extracts from “Primitive Art” by L. Adam (1940) described in the book’s cover blurb as an anthropologist and artist.
The best way then to define “primitive” peoples would be to say that they comprise all those tribes who are outside the spheres of (a) modern European civilisation, and (b) the great Oriental civilisations - in other words, peoples representing comparatively low cultural stages.
All the primitive races of modern time are physically distinct from prehistoric man and from the modern European. Their classification as “primitive”, however, is based on the stage of their cultural development, rather than on their somatic features.
Until recently I doubted if anyone still uses the term “Primitive Art”, which I thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history. But, in 2003 I found it used to describe the Berkley Galleries as “dealers in primitive art”. Alright, the Gallery was open during the 1950’s, when such art was considered to be “primitive”, but I was taken aback to see it in use so recently. Today, most people use “Tribal Art”. But as I show below, even “tribe” is contentious, and this may be why the French have begun to use “Art Premier” as their preferred term. For the moment, I am sticking with “Tribal Art” and that is what I collect.
Among the most striking and (for better or for worse) fruitful results of the vast development (I had almost said hypertrophy) of world communications in this century is the present condition of art in the “civilized” world, a state of virtually complete eclectism, of freedom from the blinkers formerly imposed by the Western tradition upon the vision of artists and of the patrons of art. Hence has arisen the International Style, which may look anywhere for its inspiration, subject only to the trammels of fashion and commerce. William Fagg 
Some years ago it was common practice to say that African art was discovered in the early 20th century by a handful of artists in Paris. Maurice de Vlaminck, a painter, claimed to have been the western artist to “discover” African art, in 1905 (this date is now disputed; more likely, it was the following year). According to Vlaminck, he had been painting in the open and, retiring to a bistro, saw three African statues between the Pernod bottles behind the bar. Vlaminck persuaded the owner to sell them to him for a round of drinks. He said he was, “moved to the depths of my being” and, after showing the figures to a friend of his father, he was offered a white Fang mask and two statues that belonged to the friend. Shortly afterwards Vlaminck sold the Fang mask to André Derain. “When Picasso and Matisse saw it at Derain’s home they were absolutely thunderstruck.” However, according to Matisse, Picasso had previously seen an African statue that Matisse had purchased from a curio shop, “Chez le Père Sauvage”, in the Rue de Rennes. Matisse was showing the statue to Gertrude Stein when Picasso called by unexpectedly. We also gain insight into attitudes toward tribal art in 1906 when we consider that the poet and friend of Picasso and Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, was planning a series of art books that would include one titled L’Art chez les Sauvages (The Art of Savages). Did the proposed title come, I wonder, from the name of the curio shop “Chez le Père Sauvage” or did Apollinare and others consider tribal art to really be the work of savages? Somebody once defined tribal art as the work of people without names. Perhaps it was the anonymity of the artists that excited Picasso and his friends. As the Roman poet Horace said:
Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept, unknown, because they lack a sacred poet. Horace, Odes iv. ix. 25 (65 BC - 8 BC)
In fact, we have Picasso’s own views on African art. When we read his intense words, I think we can understand just why everything that had been painted before his Les Damoiselles d’Avignon became redundant.
All alone in that awful museum (.i.e. the Trocadéro), with masks, dolls, ,made by the redskins, dusty manikins, Les Damoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting - yes, absolutely … The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things … The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve known the word in French. They were against everything - against unknown, threatening spirits. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! ... all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. They’re tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much), emotion - they’re all the same thing, I understood why I was a painter. 
Possibly, then, it would be fairer and more accurate to say that these artists did not “discover” African art, but that they recognised it for what it was - art - and that they liberated it from the domain of the ethnographer. Picasso, Braque and their contemporaries were suddenly presented with insights that enabled them to escape the restraints laid upon them by generations of western artists. Their art flourished, perceptions were altered, and the world would never be the same. However, it would be even more accurate to say that these Paris based artists were not the first to recognise the qualities of African art. After the British punitive raid on Benin (1897), large numbers of metal and ivory art works were removed from the city and dispersed around Europe. Some were purchased by the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (now Ethnological Museum) and in 1901, museum staff member Felix von Luschan felt able to say that:
These Benin works indeed stand at the highest level of European casting technique. Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone before or after him, down to the present day. In technical terms, these bronzes stand at the highest apex of what is achievable at all. 
Perhaps more work is needed before we can definitely say just who in the west “discovered” African art, after all!
Seated Senufo figure, Ivory Coast.
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