#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.
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.
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.