COLLECTING SOUTHERN AFRICAN ART(IFACTS)
Scholarly interest in the reception – rather than production - of African art has grown steadily since the mid-1950s. While many African art historians continue to map the histories and meanings of ritual and other artifacts, now they are increasingly concerned about understanding the collecting practices of both public institutions and passionately committed – in some cases, totally obsessive – private individuals. This interest in exploring the motivations of collectors has also encouraged a growing focus on shifting patterns in collecting practices.
Active, widespread collecting of African art dates to the second half of the nineteenth century, when ethnographic collections first began to be formed in response to the emergence of Anthropology as a discipline. While the majority of these ethnographic collections have remained in the public domain, most of the artifacts acquired by colonial administrators, missionaries and explorers have ended up on the open market. Originally bought as souvenirs, this material is surprisingly diverse, ranging from figurative works and masks associated with ritual practices, to utilitarian items like baskets and weapons, and various forms of adornment and dress.
Because early collectors of African art – including artists like Picasso and Matisse - had a preference for figurative works that challenged the aesthetic norms of European sculptural traditions, much of the nonfigurative material languished for generations in the attics and dusty storerooms of private homes. Only interested in acquiring anthropomorphic works, early collectors generally confined their efforts to acquiring carvings from West and Central Africa, blindly accepting the then widespread assumption that southern African communities produced only utilitarian artifacts like headrests and meat plates. The internationally acclaimed South African artist, Irma Stern, shared the prejudices of these early twentieth-century European collectors; for although she traveled throughout South Africa to paint local subjects living in outlying rural areas, she nurtured her interest in African art by going to the Congo in the 1940s, visiting groups like the Kuba and Mangbetu, and exchanging tinned food and other goods for ritual figures and initiation masks. It is not surprising, then, that the carvings and other art forms produced by southern African communities are conspicuously absent from an exhibition of Stern’s collection of African and European ‘Christian’ art held at the South African National Gallery in the mid-1950s.
It is only in the last two to three decades that there has been a dramatic growth in interest in traditionalist art from southern African. While it would certainly not be possible to attribute this interest to a single intervention, Roy Sieber’s 1980 decision to exhibit African household objects at the Indianapolis Museum and elsewhere, and his publication of both African Household Furniture and Goods (1980) and, earlier, African Textiles and Decorative Arts (1972), undoubtedly made a significant contribution to shifting African art collectors’ attitudes to, and perceptions of, the nonfigurative, so-called ‘minor’ arts of Africa. As Sieber pointed out in his introduction to African Textiles and Decorative Arts, the study of forms such as textiles, costume and jewelry had until then “been neglected by the West, where attention has been focused primarily on the sculpture of Africa.” As he noted further: “This attitude not only stems from Western aesthetic values but results in a geographical emphasis on West Africa where most traditional sculpture is to be found” (Sieber 1972:10). In a preview to his 1980 exhibition of household objects, Sieber confronted this bias again, noting that “Our Western view of African traditional household objects has been warped by our passion for the figurative, the decorative, and the unique.” In the face of this bias, Sieber affirmed the importance of studying household objects and encouraged his audience to develop an appreciation of the aesthetic concerns that informed their production. He noted, for example, that “Tools such as knives, hoes, and mortars tend towards functional simplicity; furniture such as beds, neckrests, and stools and containers of wood, clay, or calabash may be simple,
even stark, or they may be richly varied in form or highly decorated” (Sieber African Arts vol 12,no 4,1979:29).
Collectors who showed an interest in southern African art before the 1980s have pointed out – rightly - that both the figurative works and household artifacts produced in this region were virtually absent from books and museum displays in the 1970s and earlier. The widespread conviction that southern Africa was particularly lacking in sculptural traditions was also actively reinforced by African Arts, the only scholarly journal then devoted to the study of art from Africa, which failed to publish a single article on southern African carving traditions before the mid-1980s. As late as 1988, when Anitra Nettelton published an article on southern African figurative works in this journal, she devoted her discussion to questioning the then still widespread myth that all carving traditions from the region could be ascribed to the ‘Zulu’.
This lack of understanding of southern African traditionalist art was to change dramatically following the decision by South African born Jonathan Lowen to allow part of his collection of southern African work to be repatriated in the late 1980s. When the private collector who bought part of Lowen’s collection decided to house it in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, several African art historians were invited to write essays for an exhibition catalogue titled Art and Ambiguity, Perspectives on The Brenthurst Collection of Southern African Art, which completely transformed our understanding of art from the region. Apart from introducing other scholars and African art collectors to a wealth of previously unpublished material, notably various headrest styles, Art and Ambiguity finally laid to rest the erroneous conviction that southern African communities lacked traditions of figuration. Building on her earlier work for African Arts, Anitra Nettleton used the opportunity to discuss figurative carving traditions associated with initiation practices among groups like the Tsonga and Venda, as well as other sculptural traditions from the region, while Sandra Klopper explored the history and function of figurative staffs and small statuettes from south-east Africa, identifying for the first time the hand of the Baboon Master, a carver who appears to have worked for indigenous as well as external patrons in the Durban-Pietermaritzburg area at the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, several other master carvers have been identified, including the Master of the Small Hands, and considerable research has been done to make sense of the informal workshops in which these artists seem to have worked.
Vice Dean: Arts
University of Stellenbosch