[Dispatch #3 : Europe's African Art Treasures, 10/27/01 
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       Twenty years ago, I spent two months traveling around Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having spent some time in the Amazon, I wanted to see how the world’s second-largest rainforest compared. It was my first trip to Africa, and the  unfettered joie de vivre and creativity of the Zairois (who are actually a collection of some 450 fractious and culturally very diverse ethnic groups brought together by Leopold, the king of the Belgians, in the last century for the purpose of exploiting them), was  apparent everywhere. The people were as impressive as the riotous and astonishingly diverse flora and fauna. 

        One afternoon I was walking down one of the stiflingly hot streets of Kisangani, the city deep in the jungle,  a thousand miles upriver from Kinshasa, that inspired Conrad's Heart of Darkness and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. It is a city that has experienced spasms of appalling violence, hen eight million  died harvesting rubber and ivory for Leopold, during the Simba rebellion in the 1960, when white missionaries were publicly eviscerated and their entrails eaten, and most recently during two civil wars and the subsequent battle between the Ugandans and the Rwandans over the diamonds that abound in the vicinity, when Kisangani was reduced to a pile of rubble. The people of this city have known more than there share of suffering. 

       In between these episodes of horror, the city has experienced years of torpid peace, and this was one of the peaceful periods.  As I walked along in an arcade where Indian merchants had their goods displayed on the dirt floors of their shops, a boy ran up and said urgently, mzungu, mzungu.  He had  a cane that he wanted to sell me. It wasn't "airport art,"  ersatz junk knocked off for the tourist trade. It was the real thing :  a chief's cane,  exquisitely carved out of some hard black wood that wasn't ebony. This wasn't the cane of  an ordinary village chief, but of some grand chef,   a chief of several villages, or perhaps many. Halfway up,  its elegantly spiraling shaft became  a woman with jutting breasts, and above her, a man was squatting over a drum. The top swirled back into a ring that reconnected with the shaft, several inches down; the whole thing had been carved from a single piece of wood. 

     Whatever  the symbolism of the man and the woman was, the cane possessed  palpable authority. I could feel it as I held it in my hands.That was its purpose : to reinforce and embody the chief's traditional power, like a king’s scepter, a judge's gavel, or a sheriff's badge.  It had  not been intended as a work of art, but to the eyes of a mzungu such as I, it was  a minor masterpiece.

        The kid, who was expecting me to bargain with him,  was asking two million zaires   the equivalent of four dollars for it.  Eight days of work  in this part of the world, if you could get it.. “I’ll take it,” I said, guiltily.   The cane sits in my  study in upstate New York, along with all all sorts of  other tchotchkis and bric a brac I've brought back from my travels.  There is a very similar  cane  in the Musee des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris, made by the Chokwe, a particularly “artistic” tribe  that straddles Congo and Angola.
        
         At the end of the trip,  in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, I visited the Musees Nacionaux, where 100,000 of the most remarkable artifacts that  the myriad cultures of the Congo Basin have produced are kept on  open shelves in a huge warehouse. I wandered down aisle after aisle of the most astonishing and powerful  stuff--    carvings with human or animal characteristics, or both; masks, fetishes,  ritual paraphernalia and sacra??   that far from being "primitive," as tribal art is often described, exhibited sophisticated iconographic imagination, capacity for abstraction, and technical execution and were obviously the product of rich, deep traditions. The Congo basin is the cradle of  African sculpture. More than twenty  ethnic groups produced what Gustaaf Verswijver,  the curator of ethnology at the Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Brussels, calls "Art with a big A."  For this to happen, two things were necessary : wood (which the Congo basin, whose rainforest is still largely virgin and undisturbed, possesses in abundance and an enormous variety of density, hardness, grain, color, and other characteristics); and  large kingdoms of 10,000, even 100,00 subjects like the Baluba, the Bakuba, and the Bakongo, that were prosperous enough to have a special caste that completely devoted itself to carving and sculpting wood and metal.

      There was a lot of cross-fertilization among the myriad ethnicities. Traditions backfed each other. The objects themselves traveled a lot. "Primitive" art is assumed to be "cold," in Claude Levi?Strauss's term, permanently locked into some fixed  traditional style, but these epic carvings were anything but. When Europeans, starting with  Portuguese  in the fifteenth century, began to infiltrate the basin with goods to trade,   the local sculptors quickly picked up on the artistic possibilities of their  nails, mirrors, and buttons and incorporated them into their work. In fact there is so much variety and innovation  in the sculpture of the Congo basin that it is often impossible to tell with any degree of certainty which ethnic group produced it.

        Miraculously,  a historian of Central Africa told me,  most of the Musees Nacionaux' collection is still intact. Only a few of the top pieces have disappeared in the explosive chaos of the  last four years,  which have seen the overthrow of  Mobutu Sese Seko by Laurent Kabila, who was himself assassinated in January, and the two civil wars, the second of which has claimed the lives of three million Congolais civilians so far and is still far from over. Some of these pieces have been coming up for sale in Europe, a dealer told me, but no one with any scruples or reputation to maintain will touch them.  The reputable dealers only deal in pieces that have verifiable provenance. 

     I worry about this collection. It's one of the great artistic heritages of mankind, and it is not safe--  from the  humidity or Congo's violent political birth throes. And it is not accessible. It will be some time before the country is ready for museum-goers again. Not many people know about this collection, and fewer have ever seen it. 
 

       Since then, usually on assignment for some magazine, I have returned to subsaharan Africa many times, and my private collection keeps growing. For instance, I have by now no less than six Ethiopian headrests, which are said to have influenced Art Deco— a nice series.   


 

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