Magazine article The Spectator

Sinister Goings-On

Magazine article The Spectator

Sinister Goings-On

Article excerpt

Above a door frame in one of the galleries at the Courtauld Collection hangs a large and hideous African tribal mask that used to belong to the artist Roger Fry. Words cannot convey the sinister aspect of the thing, but the brief description and provenance stuck on the wall at eye level might give you some idea. It says:

Luban dance mask. Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Tanganyika, 19th or early 20th century. Carved wood. Traces of paint. This mask was probably made for the Kifwe secret society. In spite of its considerable weight, it must have been worn on the head or supported above it. This powerful carving played a curious and tragic role in Roger Fry's life. He acquired it in Paris in spring 1924 and proudly showed it to his close friend Josette. Its expressiveness, which she found horrifying, disturbed her delicate equilibrium and led to her suicide.

There was a bloke at last week's Waterloo Cup whose massive head and evil face might have been the inspiration for just such a thing. He was sitting in a horse box behind the bookmakers' ring. Arranged inside his converted horse box was a row of television screens, each showing a different field-sport video. One screen was showing hare coursing; another fox digging; another ratting with terriers. The idea was that if, after watching for a while, you wanted to own a particular video, you stepped up to the Luban dance mask and showed it the colour of your money - ten quid each or two for £15.

Life's too short, I told myself as I passed by, to stand and watch grainy field-sport videos in the back of a horse box. Especially with the best hare coursing in the world going on in the next field. But the semi-circle of onlookers gathered in front of the horse box looked quietly engrossed, and I hove to for a closer look. I gave myself a minute's viewing only, two at the most.

Moving from right to left, the fox-digging video. Dig dig dig. The fox must been ten feet down. Next to that, the hare-coursing video was a poor-quality reproduction. Who wants to see single-handed lurcher coursing, anyway, when you've been thrilled to the marrow by pure-bred greyhounds coursing under rules for the past two days? The ratting video, however, was riveting.

Half a dozen blokes with half a dozen Plummer terriers were ratting a rubbish tip, in colour, with commentary. …

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