The doll Eli, made over

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

African masks: sacred loot or commercial fine art?

[Also published in Found in My Journal, a Medium publication, 29 Jan 2022]

Nothing like a winter meditation on art and history, a deep dive into the mysteries of the world around me. As snow settles across the landscape, I look around our cabin's great room. The walls are covered with African masks. What can I learn about their magic?

[To see some of our masks, check out my Pinterest board "Africa: Connections to the Spirit World."]

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Where did the masks come from?

In the 1990s, my husband Z went whole-hog on collecting African art. Among the statues, fetishes, divination tools, and textiles are twenty-eight masks. I once knew all the tribal associations, but my knowledge is so superficial that I easily forget. I’ll study harder this time, make notes.

Two weeks into this little project, what I understand about masks is still broad.

Ours were imported from the Sub-Saharan region of West Africa: Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Burkina Fasso, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Men wear them as part of a full costume in rituals of ceremony and celebration. With a mask on, the wearer’s identity disappears. The ancestor or divinity embodied in the mask takes over.

In traditional communities, masks are not only visually arresting but also vital to movement and dance in an atmosphere full of music and song.

My research begins

Right after I made a card for each mask, carefully noting the associated tribe and nation of origin, I picked up a book I bought years ago but had lost track of: African Art in Transit by Christopher B. Steiner, published in 1994 when the author was at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The text describes the late twentieth-century marketplace in which cultural material is passed through middle-men who transform it into the authentic art coveted by Westerners.

Colonialism. The book reminded me, of course, that African cultural items were originally collected by European colonialists as trophies for their national museums and curio cabinets. They too made neat little cards for each item, categorizing them by tribe and putting each tribe’s dot on a map. The conquered people were ignorant savages, they argued, who would eventually put aside their dark rituals under white, Christian governance.

Modernism. But by the mid-twentieth century, Modern artists like Pablo Picasso and wealthy elites like Nelson Rockefeller had elevated African material culture, especially the mask, into high art — universal and cool, beautifully lit on pedestals, divorced from the mud and blood of their sacred origins, a challenge to our smug Eurocentric aesthetic. Last night online I ran across a Vuvi mask from Gabon auctioned at Sotheby’s for $389,000. It had been part of a Paris collection, likely extracted during the 1930s, while the French were rejiggering Gabon’s economy in order to extract its ivory, rubber, and timber.

Consumerism. I look around me. African masks are now popular home decor. $37.50 on eBay. Steiner tells me that all the great stuff was gobbled up from Africa a century ago. However, today’s West African entrepreneurs are smart enough to have acquired auction and exhibition catalogs. Traders know what masks are popular and what stories sell. Artisans are highly skilled at carving stunning reproductions, often aged to perfection with the patinas and encrustations that suggest long use in ritual dances.

Selling to Westerners is performance art, evoking the buyers’ most fervent dreams of enchantment.

Our collection of antique masks might be an illusion.

This isn’t where I wanted my meditation to go.

Reworking our mental models

Z purchased our masks in a burst of historical and cultural curiosity. He had led medical exchange programs in Nigeria and felt an affinity for its people. Working with New York dealers, he believed the masks he bought had been used in tribal rituals and retained their vibrant spirit. As African nations struggled with kleptocratic governments and economic strife, we both blithely assumed that foreign cash and consumer goods were more valuable now to Africans than their cultural heirlooms.

But the real story is different.

While itinerant traders do talk villagers out of their antiquitéin exchange for tools and textiles, these objects are rare in the marketplace compared to replicas produced expressly for sale to outsiders. Unlike nyama-nyama—fanciful “airport art”—these replicas carefully conform to traditional cultural and aesthetic standards. They are, in fact, commercial fine art. Merchants in the big-city markets then decide whether to sell them as such or to hoodwink buyers into thinking they are buying objects actually used in sacred rituals.

I’m looking again at our masks.

My thinking shifts.

Have I had secret Maltese-falcon dreams that one or more of our masks might be a treasure worth six figures? Am I human? Z used to tear out pages from auction catalogs and slip them into his reference books. The provenance notes of masks with exorbitant estimates always suggest they were acquired while territories suffered under the heel of colonial rule.

Two dots connect. Five- or six-figure hammer price: white man’s plunder. Three-figure purchase price: commercial fine art, made for the trade.

I find myself relieved. 

I am not in tune with ancient spirits, but in conversation with living artists, whose magic lies in their ability to carve an aesthetically powerful face from a tree trunk. Like artists the world over, they apply layers of finishes—pigments, oils, varnishes—to add interest and depth. They make art that honors their ancestors and pleases their gods.

And then they release their work into the stream of world trade.

For me, learning more about the masks becomes not a transcendent experience but a humanist one.

Yes, the system is flawed. Middlemen still regale gullible tourists and inexperienced traders with tales of ritual use that promise the object for sale is authentic. And local laws often prevent artists from selling their own creations in the big-city markets.

So, let’s open the conversation more. When I take down a mask from our wall and turn it over to look at the inside surface, I don’t need to see a faux finish mimicking sweat and body oil. I do need to see the artist’s name. Maybe, some day.

Meanwhile, I will continue my winter meditation on art.

Jan. 28, 2022

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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.