Dispatch #3 : Europe's African Art Treasures, 10/27/01

       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.   

Some countries, particularly East Africa  Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania  don't produce much sculpture. Cultures that live in dry environments and keep cattle and are semi-nomadic go in for lighter and more portable forms of artistic self expression like basketry, beadwork, poetry and dance. An exception are the Dogon of Mali, who live in the high rock desert of the Sahel,  and have been producing amazing sculpture for centuries, from forests that at this point are almost totally gone.

      The Big A art belt extends, or extended, from  Congo up the west coast of Africa  through Gabon, Camouroun, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and up to Guinee Bissau, the small former colony of the Portuguese tucked under Senegal.   My best piece is probably  a two-tiered funerary statue made by the Bijagos people who live on the islands off Guinee Bissau, which I picked up in l987 in the huge, humming market of Bissau, the capital. The Bijagos was one of the last cultures in Africa that was still producing Big A art, but civil war engulfed the country three years ago, and the tradition has apparently been pretty much snuffed out. 

        On the top tier of the statue two men are carrying a shrouded corpse, a woman is tearing her hair in grief, and a pig has been sacrificed. Beneath it,   the tree trunk has been hollowed out into cylindrical frieze of  writhing snakes and shapely,   bare-breasted women--  the underworld, obviously. I call the statue Thanatos. 

It goes with two others I picked up in Congo, which I call Eros and Genesis : the former is of a joined couple who are making love seated and facing each other but you can't tell who is penetrating whom, who is the man and who is the woman. 

The latter is of   a woman in the throes of childbirth, her baby being pulled from between her legs by another women.  

These three sculptures to me rise to the universal. They are primal, images from the collective unconscious which together lay out the three constants, the defining events of the human experience : love, birth,  death.  
        Sometimes I ask myself what am I doing with these things ? (not that they’re big-ticket items. I’ve rarely spent more than fifty dollars for one.)  I'm no better than Lord Elgin ripping off the marbles of the Parthenon, or the dealers in the sacred katchinas of the Hopi that make their way into Beverly Hills livingrooms. But then I think, at least I know they're safe. They're not going to be destroyed or lost. If I don't get them, maybe someone who won't appreciate them or take care of them will. And so I have become a small-time participant   in the northward flow of  the sculpted art from subSaharan Africa.

         This being the case, I figure the least I can do is to learn something about the belief systems that produced these  objects which have ended up in my possession. There are undoubtedly many spirits in my study that I am not aware of. Most of the best stuff by now is in Europe.   And so for some time I have been envisioning a fascinating and different grand tour of Europe : of its great collections of African art. To do it right would take at least a month, maybe the whole summer. I would start with the Musee Royale de l'Afrique Centrale in Brussels, the greatest repository of art from the Congo basin.  Then to Paris to see the new wing of Louvre, the Musée de l'Homme, the Musée des Arts de l'Afrique et l'Oceanie, and the Dapper Museum. 

        I'd pop over the channel to the British Museum, which is dusting off its extensive collection and preparing an exhibition , as are the Brooklyn Museum and many other institutions. African art is hot at the moment. I'd hit the small provincial museums of Lille, Strasbourg, Anguleme, Aix, and Marseilles, to which retired colonial administrators or their heirs left the treasures, too good to be in private hands,  they collected astrophies or mementos of their careers in Africa. I'd do the Dahlen Museum in Berlin, the municipal museums of Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Mainz. In Switzerland I'd see what was in  Basel, Berne, and the private Barbier-Mueller Collection in Geneva. Then toVienna,  the Nepstrek Museum in Prague, the Piccurini Museum in Rome. The Vatican is particularly strong in African "Christian art" (like the praying madonna I also picked up in Kisangani). Milan should not be missed, I hear, or the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon.  
       This year I managed to complete the first leg of the tour : Brussels and Paris. I had to do some research in the Belgian colonial archives for a history of my wife's family (she is Rwandese) that I've been working on. The Musée Royale de l'Afrique Central, in whose reading room I hunkered down for two weeks, is in Tervuren, a verdant suburb of   Brussels. The main building is a 125 by 71 meter cupolaed Louis XV-style palace that sits on the edge of the  Forest de Soigne, an unbroken 30 kilometre long forest that is the largest green space left in Belgium. It is one of those formidable  Victorian structures devoted to natural history and ethnology like the marvelous oceanographic museum built by Prince Ranier's great-grandfather Albert 1 (Grimaldi) in Monte Carlo.  Inaugurated in l910, it and its various outbuildings house one of the largest caches of Africana on the planet.  But the collections are in disarray, I discovered. Books are missing, thousands of old photographs are uncatalogued. It's almost as if they're ashamed to have the stuff, Raoul Peck, whose feature film on the murder of Patrice Lumumba, opened this summer and has footage of the museum, told me. 

        The museum was designed as a showcase for Congo Free State, which King Leopold created in l885 and ceded to Belgium to be run as a colony in l908. It was during this time, according to Adam Hochschild's harrowing book, King Leopold's Ghost, five to eight million Congolese, enslaved as rubber and ivory collectors, died (actually the figure is from Mark Twain). But you won't find anything about the genocidal downside of Leopold’s “philanthropical enterprise,” as he called it (he never even set foot in the Congo)   in the displays, except for one painting in a corridor hung with the work of  the artists, known as les Africanistes, who were sent down to the colonies in the twenties and thirties  to document and celebrate their  riches and colorful exoticity. (Much of their work is reproduced in  Lynn Thornton : Les Africanistes : Peintres Voyageurs). Called  "La Civilization du Congo," it shows a Congolese man being flogged at a whipping post, while a pith-helmeted colonial ticks off the lashes in a notebook.

         As you enter the museum, to the left is undoubtedly one of the longest dugout canoes in existence, excavated from from a single tree and capable of holding 100 people. There is a diorama with a  family of stuffed okapis, the secretive forest giraffe that was the last large mammal on the planet to be discovered by science, in l902. Three adults and a baby with "standoffish glass eyes," as Barbara Kingsolver describes the stuffed okapis in the American Museum of Natural History in her novel about the Congo, Poisonwood Bible . One of the most popular exhibits over the years has been a replica of a Leopard Men, or Anioto. These were members of a secret Congolese society who dressed in leopard skins and murdered people in the night, ripping them open with iron claws or knives and  making it look like the work of a leopard. "It must be understood that such ritual institutions dedicated exclusively to murder have only seen the light of day rarely in Africa," explains a sign, added recently to mitigate the longstanding stereotype of the savage African. 
       By the time Congo won independence, in l960, the museum's collection boasted 240,000 objects, and many more have been acquired since. Among them, in a small glass case off to one side that you wouldn't notice unless you knew what you were looking at, is the  delicately
beaded diadem of Rwabugiri, the 19th century umwaami or king of Rwanda, which was worn by every umwaami after him until the monarchy was overthrown in l959. What is this doing here? I wondered in shock. It's like having the crown of England or the mitre of the Pope. But then I came back to the argument : if it wasn't here, where would it be ? Would it exist even ? Would it have survived the revolution of l959 that brought down the monarchy and created a Hutu people’s republic, and the successive purges of the former Tutsi ruling class, culminating in the genocide of l944 ? 

     Saving such primary artifacts of Africa’s heritage, however selfish the motive, is undoubtedly one of the few positive things that colonialism did in its 60 year tenure of  Africa’s political landscape.  

       In another case was a Lega ritual helmet, worn by initiates of the bwami society,  which was almost exactly like one I picked up last summer in rebel-held eastern Congo, whose embattled national parks I was doing a report on for Ted Turner's  United Nations Foundation (the UNF is contributing $4 million to the heroic effort to keep the parks going during the civil war; see Dispatch #2.) It had a plume of elephant tail hairs, clasped in cowrie shells, and the skullcap was studded with cowries. Mine is studded with buttons--  a more recent model, showing the progressive influence of Western goods on Lega culture. The Lega live in the forests of South Kivu province, but like millions of their countrymen, the civil war has displaced them, and they   aren't making these things at the moment and may  never again. So I may well have one of the last Lega helmets.

       One room at the Musee Royale is devoted to the 125 most celebrated pieces :  the masterpiece collection. The most famous one is the Mbangu mask of the Peule, a nomadic people of the West African desert, which was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal l984 show "Primitivism in the 20th century : the Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." Its twisted face, half black, half white,  is often compared with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, although it was used by the Peule in their curing rituals and represents someone with partial facial paralysis, perhaps from a stroke, and actually postdates the Picasso by decades. 

       On the top floor was a shows called Exit Congo, about the history of collecting the sculpture of the Congo basin, "a story of extraction, alienation, appropriation" of objects that then "had a second life as museum exhibits." The show hoped "to offer some sort of redress to all the unjustly forgotten artists, the creators of the masterpieces on display." Many of the pieces  were fetishes and other "pagan idols" confiscated by missionaries, who burned most of them, but sent the best ones north. "The model of the museum was the 19th-century  approach," the show's curator, Boris Wastiau explained  "collecting everything in every prescribed field of the natural and social sciences." The imposition of the Western rational?scientific mindset on to something that was very
different, more focused on the  world of  invisible causes, "seemed to establish a firm grip on things and thus control them," Wastiau (who obviously read Michel Foucault’s On the Order of Things)  writes in one of the show’s explanatory texts.  Since l960 the museum has been searching how to reinvent itself and to redefine its mission,  but it remains as much a  reflection of its time— a cold, dark, musty  relic of absolutism no longer possible, at least in its monarchic form,  fascinating in its  own way  —      as the exhibits are in theirs.
       There are also 49 important private collections in Belgium. Three--  the Felix, Marc, and Vanderstraete collections--   rival the Musée Royale's. (See Dick Beaulieu's book, "Belgium Collects African Art.") "Collecting is something that is innate in many Europeans and Americans," the museum's curator of ethnology, who turned out to be an old friend,  Gustaaf Verswijver, told
me.  (Verswijver and I had not seen each other since l976, when we spent a month together in a recently contacted Cayapo Indian village in the Amazon, so there was much to catch up on.) "In the nineteenth century,” he went on, “every family had a curio cabinet full of exotic things."

      It was a swath of long-extinct giant sloth fur in Bruce Chatwin's grandfather's curio cabinet that set him off on the quest that resulted in his first book, "In Patagonia." 

       According to Susan M. Pearce's "On Collecting : An Investigation Into Collecting in the European Tradition," nearly one in every three people in North America collects something. Pearce identifies various categories of European acquisitiveness in chapters that include :  "Collecting in a Post?modernist World," "Collecting Culture," "Collecting Ourselves," "Collecting Relationships," "Collecting in Time," "Collecting in Space;" "Collecting the Other, Within and Without"; "The Other Beyond and Before,”  and “Collecting the Shape of Things to Come." The afficionados of African art are collectors of  the Other.  Jacques Germain, a Montreal?based dealer in ancient Africa art, explains that the appeal of his merchandise is "spiritual, plastic, aesthetic, and exotic—   they are things from another culture. They have everything.” Germain reckons that there are about 5000 serious collectors in the world, 200  "serious serious" ones,  20?50 "serious, active, wealthy" ones," and 20 to 30 museums who are "in the game of buying." They are supplied by 10 to 12 high?end dealers, who have "the knowledge and the money to buy and the talent to chose." The record price for a sub-Saharan sculpture is $3.4 million, for a queen figure from Cameroun that was auctioned at Sotheby's in l989. Germain says that after many years of traveling all over Africa, looking for art,  "I don’t go any more, because there is nothing left." He only deals in pieces that have a provenance. "There are so many brilliant fakes. The Congolais are particularly expert at making them."
      This June the five hundred pieces in the Hubert Goldet collection were auctioned in three  sessions in Paris that attracted everyone in the game. Goldet, who died last year, kept the entire collection in his Paris apartment. It was the most important one to come on the market since Helena Rubinstein’s in l966. Germain was there, of course.   
       It was in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century that African sculpture was first recognized as an extraordinally  potent art farm. The inventiveness and plastic verve of these "rough-hewn idols" permanently upset "the frame of reference for art," as Andre Malraux put it.To avant-garde types like Guillaume Apollinaire, they represented an Otherness that was totally refreshing to the Western eye. Andre Derain turned Picasso on to the sculptures at the Trocadeiro Museum, now the Musée de l'Homme. Their direct influence on Cubism is well-known. Less known  is the appropriation of African visual ideas and concepts  by Surrealists, Expressionists, even pop artists, and contemporary African artists appropriating their own traditions. 

      The subSaharan section of the Musée de l'Homme is the best place to get a sense of the cultures that produced these masterpieces. The pieces are arranged by culture, or region, or environment, or type (such as headgear). There is a superb and very early example of European
hybridization : a long 15 ?16th century side?blown ivory horn,  probably commissioned by some well-to-do Portuguese slaver, who supplied the European animal motifs that blend with the African ones into which the tusk has been elaborately carved. Also some Nkisi Nkondi fetish
statues, which the Bakongo made to ward off evil, magic, and misfortune. They were bristling with nails and shivs that supplicants had pounded into them. I saw the same sort of fetish that I had seen six months earlier confiscated from a local Azandi poacher who had been captured in northeastern Congo's Garamba National Park :  a low-slung quadruped carving on whose back was a lid that, as the poacher demonstrated, slid back and forth. If the lid slid smoothly, everything would go well, he explained. If he encountered resistance, he wasn't go to find any game or was going to run into an anti-poaching patrol.    

       The other big French state holding of African art is the Musée des Arts de l'Afrique et l'Oceanie. Few museums have been through such brutal mutations. It began as the Musée des Colonies,  an even more sumptuous colonial showcase than the Belgian Musée Royale.  The 
frescoes and decor of the Hall of the Five Continents are high  Art Deco. A million people flocked to the museum’s l931 Colonial Exposition. In l935 it became the less imperialistic Musée de la France d'Outremar, the Museum of France Overseas, which was changed  in l960 to its present, totally unproprietary and unoffensive name by Andre Malraux, who got such distinguished consultants as Claude Levi?Straus to advise him on acquisitions. In l995-96 276 stunning pieces from Nigeria were bought from the Barbier?Muller collection. The museum is full of masterpieces, some of which, along with others from the Musée de l'Homme, have been
transferred to the Louvre and are on permanent display at the Pavilion des Sessions in a completely mind-boggling exhibition of Art Premier, First Art (rather than the politically incorrect primitive art) that was opened by President Chirac in April of last year. To have these 100 works, most of them from French museums, in the Louvre, on equal footing with Europe's Old Masters, fulfills a dream that many have had for over a century : poets, artists, scientists, collectors, heads of state or simple citizens, the catalogue explains. The exhibition is the first phase of the Musée du Quai Branley, to which by 2004 the entire collections, staffs, and librairies of  the musées de l'Homme and des Arts de l'Afrique et l'Oceanie will be transferred, thus making it the principle museum for presentation, research, and teaching, "a place of hommage to nonwestern societies and of the sharing of cultures still too often misunderstood... the Museum du Quai Branley is the expression of the will of France to grants its just place to the primitive arts in the world of museums. Further, it is a witness of the fact that hierarchy no longer exists between peoples." 

        Any lingering doubts about the importance of African sculpture will be dispelled by a visit to the Pavillion des Sessions.  The Dapper, which should also not be missed,  has some oldest pieces in existence (9th century B.C. Sao and Nok terracotta figures from the interior delta of the Niger; 10th- to 15th?century A.D. Bandiagara, Dogon, and pre?Dogon wooden statues)  and is regarded by many experts, including Jacques Germain, as the finest  private museum in existence. Its 150 objets from subSaharan Africa are ranged on two axes 1) history and mythology 2) relations with man and the supernatural world. Perhaps five percent of the visitors, I noticed, were Africans, about the same percentage as at the other four museums. The African emigre population  in the European Union seems much larger, at least  in the airports and on the streets of Paris.  I left Europe this time, in fact,  with the impression that it is  undergoing a definite  process of Africanization.   There will only be more  emigres and Europeans of African descent coming to these museums and reconnecting with their magnificent heritages. First came the art, now in growing numbers the people from the cultures that produced it. In the distant day when peace and security returns to Africa, the issue of repatriating these masterpieces will undoubtedly come up. But by then it may not be necessary.

Some other things from my collection: