From Kraal to Cubism - Tribal Art Goes under the Hammer

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BYLINE: Arts writer

CLOSE to R4.5 million worth of traditional African art will go on auction at Stephan Welz & Co's Decorative and Fine Arts Auction at The Great Cellar, Alphen Estate, on February 25 and 26. The 312 lots to be sold are from the substantial personal collection of retired African art dealer Colin Sayers, who closed his Cape Town gallery, The Collector, in 2012, and they represent artisanal work from South Africa to Morocco.

Far from curios, the pieces in the collection are valuable artworks. "Curios are just that: they are 'curiosities' made specifically as souvenirs," says Anton Welz, director of Stephan Welz & Co.

"The majority of the artworks in this auction were field-collected directly from the local tribespeople themselves, whether here in sub-Saharan Africa, or less accessible countries like the DRC or Angola. They are functional items that were used in everyday life and celebrations, making them artistic reflections of African cultural heritage."

The objects on auction include an inventory of Sotho and Xhosa pipes; Tsonga-Shangaan status staffs; compact Chokwe, Songo and Ovimbundu stools, and a Chokwe throne; as well as streamlined Lodzi vessels; Tutsi, Kuba and Zulu baskets, and an array of small and large pieces from the Angolan/Congo border.

Karel Nel, an associate professor from the Wits School of Arts and a specialist on African art, will give his insights into the collection during a free walkabout on Sunday, February 23 at 10.30am.

The collection of pieces gives rise to discussion around traditional art's journey from "kraal to Cubism".

Original tribal artists weren't even aware that they were making art - they were creating functional items that were key to their spiritual lives. "Art did not originate as a desire to fulfil man's sense of beauty," says Sayers. "On the contrary, in the so-called 'primitive' societies, the artist had a very concrete function to fulfil: he made works that were an expression of his beliefs as rituals."

According to Sayers: "Prehistoric hunters made rock drawings to win the benevolence of higher forces and to attract or ward off their vital energy. When these hunters turned to agriculture... they developed new customs and social structures. Increased importance was attached to ancestors who were thought to influence events from beyond the grave. …