Out of Africa: From Sculptures and Masks to Textiles and Clothing, African Traditional Arts Are a Hot Sell

Article excerpt

Whether it's wooden gazelle statues laid out on a street vendor's mat or a Bangwa figure going for $3.3 million on the auction block, African art sells. Brought to Western attention through missionaries and explorers and prized as "primitive art" by such canonical artists as Braque, Modigliani and Picasso, African art has moved from the ethnographer's domain to the art world. Systematic collecting began in the 1950s and has grown (along with prices) ever since. Today, galleries, museums and dealers showcase an array of African objects by different African ethnic groups for people looking to explore the dizzying variety of traditional African arts.

Form and Function

In Western society, art often exists in its own world, separated from people's routine, everyday lives. This distinction is not drawn in many African cultures, both past and present, where numerous utilitarian objects are made with an astounding attention to aesthetics. Designed for specific, often ritualistic uses in a traditional culture, these objects are prized as fine works of art by Western collectors, galleries and museums. From delicate silver Ethiopian crosses to massive, powerful ceremonial drums from the Yoruba, there is something for almost every eye.

Frank Herreman is director of exhibitions for the New York City-based Museum for African Art, which is currently showing "Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali," a collection of approximately 120 objects and photographs offering a window into Bamanan social and religious life. The pieces range from ornately detailed wooden Ci-Wara crest masks representing antelope to colorful, beautifully grotesque Maani puppets representing people or spirits in human form.

"Mostly," said Herreman, "these objects are seen as ritual objects, though you could call them utilitarian. It is a bit like medieval painting; a Madonna is a ritual object, but it is also a work of art."

Tim Hamill, director of the Hamill Gallery of African Art in Boston, sees things a bit differently. His gallery contains about 20,000 items from all over sub-Saharan Africa, though the bulk of his collection centers on the Dogon, the Yoruba and the Kuba peoples. Prices vary depending on age and strength of craftsmanship, but generally fall between a couple of hundred and a few thousand dollars. Though made with a stunning artistry, Hamill insists that the drums, costumes and other objects within his gallery "are not made as art and not seen as art [in their respective cultures.] It would be as if we took our radios and blue jeans and put them in a museum. Only occasionally did these cultures make something just for decorative purposes, and even then it would have the function of highlighting status or prestige."

Determining Authenticity

Whether or not these objects are seen as art in their respective cultures, Western experts agree that understanding the function and history of a piece is essential to knowing its value. Indeed, there is a strict separation between traditional art and art made specifically for a Western market--often referred to rather disparagingly as "airport art" or "tourist art." While much of this art is beautifully made, its lack of traditional context drastically reduces its appeal and market value. Knowing this, many of the people making the art will go through elaborate processes to fashion fake traditional pieces.

Though determining authenticity is an inexact science, a knowledgeable eye can usually detect a reproduction. According to Winfield Coleman, director of Gallery DeRoche in San Francisco, "A classic faker's mistake is making the object look evenly worn, whereas something that is handled is never handled all over in the same way. The interior of a mask, for example, has to show it's been in contact with skin oils repeatedly, but the forehead has more oils than the cheeks, so [the staining] won't be even."

Attaining Success as a Dealer

Because pieces are rarely dated and are not signed by individual artists, in order to determine authenticity a dealer has to know how a piece was used, which means understanding the social structures and history of its culture--no mean feat when one considers the complexity and diversity of African ethnic groups. …