Circuits of African Art / Paths of Wood: Exploring an Anthropological Trail

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this essay, I argue that the economic and social forces of globalization have altered spaces in which art, commerce and scholarship are negotiated. In the first part of the essay I demonstrate how the historical and philosophical forces have shaped the space of African art. How has the history and culture of Western art affected the perception of and commerce in African sculpture, masks and textiles? In the second part of the essay, I consider the impact of a different set of historical and philosophical parameters-the history of long distance trade and the impact of Islam-on West African traders' perception of "wood," the term they use to denote African Art. In the third part of the essay, I analyze what happens when these two universes of meaning intersect in contemporary transnational spaces. In the conclusion, I argue that this continuously negotiated and renegotiated picture of perception and reality, art and commerce will have a significant impact on twenty-first century practitioners of ethnography. [ethnography; globalization; transnationalism; art and commerce; African Art; New York City]

The Seventh Regent Armory at Park Avenue at 67th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is hallowed ground in the history of twentieth century art. It was the site of the famous Armory Show of 1913 that introduced to North American art lovers the works of, among others, Marcel Duchamps and Pablo Picasso. It has also been the site of one of the most prestigious annual shows in the "tribal" art world: "Tribal Antiquities: The New York International Show," which in 2001 was held between May 20-23. Given its renown and its opportunity for profitable exchange, the event draws an array of well-known "tribal" antiquities dealers, who display their treasures with great panache. These professionals present their jewelry, textiles, masks and statuary with proper mounting and proper lighting-presentation that not only augments desire for an object's "allure," but also increases its perceived value.

In 2001, 52 dealers paid substantial fees to present their antiquities in New York. Of the 52 dealers represented at the Tribal Antiquities Show, 17 offered works of African art. Some of the dealers showcased West African masks and statuary, including some old terra cotta figures; others featured Central African pieces: masks and statuary fashioned from wood, old carved ivory and iron weapons. One dealer displayed neolithic projectile points from West Africa.

Propelled by various agendas, five groups of visitors streamed through the dimly lit corridors. Several dealers, who decided for various reasons not to display their pieces, trickled through the crowd. Perhaps they'd find a bargain. Maybe they'd size up the market. A swell of collectors moved through the aisles, hoping to add important pieces to their private fine arts collections. A strong current of curiosity seekers coursed through the aisles, intending to look and learn rather than study and buy. A few students of the art market in New York-including, of course, myself meandered through the crowd, hoping to arrange future interviews or gather pertinent information. Finally, a small group of African art traders steered through the corridors, looking for opportunities. During one of my visits a group of collectors gathered around a particularly compelling display of Central African masks and statuary. At these antiquities shows collectors are often distinguishable by age and manner of dress. They are usually middle-aged people dressed in dark suits. This particular group of collectors talked in hushed tones. One collector asked the dealer about patina and provenance. After several moments of informed exchanges, an African trader, dressed in a stylish tweed sport coat and black dress slacks, approached one of the collectors, a tall silver-haired gentleman dressed in a navy blue suit.

"Sir, I notice that you are admiring the Fang pieces," he said, in heavily accented West African English, referring to rare reliquary statues that had been long ago carved in Gabon. …