`Airport Art' Strikes Again!

By Elsom, John | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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`Airport Art' Strikes Again!

Elsom, John, The World and I

Airline passenger beware! Those intriguing artifacts in that inviting airport "gallery" just may not be the real thing.

I was in the heart of Africa, face to face with one of life's eternal enigmas. Or rather, I was in an airport in the heart of Africa, changing planes, and the mystery in question was what I could take home to my mother, a 91-year-old yeoman of the parish of Great Totham who has everything, even if she can't quite lay her hands on it at the moment.

And then I saw it, the perfect gift, a large black wooden spoon crudely carved from half a tree trunk, a spoon to strike terror into the heart of a missionary; a spoon for all seasons and seasonings, to stir the village pot and beat off the jackals; the genuine article--five feet tall--a communal spoon.

While I was pondering another of life's enigmas, how to wrap it up and take it home, I noticed a label beneath its rim that read: "Made in Soweto. Do not immerse in hot water." Soweto was half a continent away, a sprawling city in South Africa that has parking lots, traffic cops, and other signs of civilization. This spoon was a fake. "Airport art" had struck again.

If you looked at it closely, you could see that the deep rod-black color, so redolent of a rain forest, was merely a dye, while the hack marks from a jungle ax had been made by a machine trained to be clumsy and human, perhaps programmed by one of Bill Gates' software packages, a Neanderthal update. It was like the pottery lamps you can pick up in the streets of Jerusalem, which might be very old indeed, the broken marble statues that could have fallen off the back of the Parthenon, or the shillelaghs from Donegal to ward off the wee folk.

All fakes--every one of them--oven when, by a remote chance, they happen to be genuine. On the wails of fashionable apartments in Hampstead or Manhattan, there are enough shamanist masks to cast a spell over Africa, but even when the provenance has been researched and the art object in question can be proven to have come from where it is said, there remains an element of trickery, for why should a witch doctor's mask, supposed to inspire awe and respect, hang on a hook as a designer folly under a pencil spot, far from the forces that it claims to control?

The fakery in short lies not in the object but in ourselves, that we should seek to demonstrate our control of other cultures by taking trophies from them. It is colonialism, not far removed from the Victorian imperialism that we pretend to despise. For would I otherwise have contemplated buying for my mother a large wooden spoon that she could barely lift, let alone stir with, if it had not been for the images lingering in my Western mind of the Dark Continent where Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji and white men died in the search for the source of the Nile, which had always been there and was not much improved by their finding?

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