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African Art In American Collections by Warren M. Robbins, Nancy Ingram Nooter

African Art: A Personal Encounter

As the birthplace of humankind, according to the remarkable findings of the Leakeys and other paleontologists, Africa has for centuries exerted a tremendous magnetic pull for people throughout the world whose lives or careers drew them somehow near it. As far as we know today, Africa is an origin that every human being shares, the source of our common human ancestry-whether or not we all fully realize it.

My own first encounter with Africa came with the discovery of its traditional art, and it changed my life. The discovery enriched not only my understanding of the culture and of the peoples of Africa, but of the human creative process itself. Ultimately, it impelled me to establish in the United States a museum devoted exclusively to fostering public understanding and appreciation of the art and culture of the continent.

For me it all began with the book Afrika, given me in 1950 by a friend in Munich, Germany, who knew of my fascination with Egyptology. Written by Ernst Fuhrmann and published in 1922 by the avant-garde Folkwang Museum in Essen, it contained illustrations of the tribal art of West and Central Africa-much of it misattributed, according to what we have subsequently learned of tribal styles. But whether the art depicted was identified as of the Luba people of the then-Belgian Congo (Zaire), or of the Baule people of Côte d'lvoire, the sculpture projected to my eye a style and a grace and a creative genius that were at once intriguing and inspiriting.

Fully occupied at the time with other responsibilities as an American diplomat serving in Europe, however, I did not take my second step until eight years later, in 1958: in a little antique and curio shop on the North German Frisian island of Sylt, I acquired my first two objects (neither of any particular significance aesthetically).

Though a modest beginning, the purchase was enough to whet my appetite, and a year later I returned to the antique shop to track down the source of objects I had acquired. "They came," I was told, "from a dealer in exotische Kunst who resided near Hamburg." Since the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, hub of world trade for Germany, lay directly on my return route to Bonn, where I was stationed at the American Embassy, I stopped for an intended half-hour or so to learn more. The half-hour extended to the greater part of a day and I departed with some thirty pieces-masks and little figures of humans and animals, utilitarian objects, and textiles. The dealer, Frau Lori Kegel-Konietzko, an artist herself, made yearly trips to Africa, driving in her own Volkswagen from village to village accumulating objects. Unarmed and alone, she was, I thought, admirably courageous. Subsequently I came to realize that traveling alone in the villages and on the roads of Africa can be far safer than on the streets of New York, Paris, Barcelona, or London.

I could not know it then-although their respective prices could have been a guide for me-but my purchase that day was a mixed bag of authentic works and tourist objects. One, a Bamana antelope from Mali, was of sufficient quality to be requested and permanently displayed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, to which I donated it in appreciation of the early support and interest given the Museum of African Art by Margaret Plass and her mentor, William Fagg of the British Museum. Other objects from Nigeria and Zaire, though authentic, were of mediocre quality; still others were corruptions of traditional styles, made for the tourist trade.

One learns slowly to discriminate, but this symbolic first step in my journey toward an appreciation of African art has now culminated in the accompanying photo survey, featuring some of the finest examples of African sculpture extant.

The kind of encounter that I had with African art has been experienced as well by countless others. Since 1960, when geographical areas of Africa that had formerly been colonies under French, British, Portuguese, Spanish, or German rule began to gain their independence, there has been a tremendous surge of interest among Europeans and Americans in the peoples and the cultures of Africa. With this new interest has come greater recognition of Africa's historical and cultural significance. Utterly incompatible with this new sensitivity to Africa is the following highly ethnocentric entry in the 1926 Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Africa with the exception of the Nile Valley and what is known as Roman Africa is, so far as its inhabitants are concerned, a continent practically without a history-and possessing no records from which such a history might be reconstructed. The Negro is essentially a child of the moment and his memory, both trivial and individual, is short.

Consciousness of the new Africa and a new, compelling curiosity about the old, has be- come particularly apparent in the United States, where well over a tenth of the population -- more than twenty-five million Americans -- can trace their ancestry in whole or in part to Africa; where thousands of African students attend American colleges each year, many of them subsequently returning to positions of political and economic leadership in their own countries;. and where hundreds of African diplomats have been accredited to the American government in Washington or to the United Nations in New York.

But quite apart from political and economic considerations, there has been a concomitant interest in the art of Africa, with growing recognition not only of its importance as one of the great creative traditions of humankind, but of its impact on the art of the Western world. The British critic Roger Fry, in a review of a 1920 exhibition of some thirty works of African sculpture, foresaw the effect that African art was to have on the Western concept of art itself.

What a comfortable mental furniture the generalisations of a century ago must have afforded! What a right little, tight little, round little world it was when Greek art, even in Roman copies, was the only indisputable art, except for some Renaissance repetitions! (Fry 1920, 99)

In 1966 the original volume of African Art in American Collections was published, not merely for sale in the United States and Europe but for distribution by American Embassies throughout Africa of some three thousand complimentary copies. The distribution, on the occasion of the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in Dakar, marked the first substantial effort by a Western nation to convey to African peoples the seriousness with which their traditional art has come to be viewed by non-Africans.

Like its predecessor, this volume is concerned with the two worlds in which African art has functioned: the insular, traditional societies of Africa that were disrupted by colonialism and.,-the more universal society of man in the twentieth century, into which, due to a variety of inevitable culturological forces, as well as a newly receptive Western aesthetic, it has been absorbed as a secular art.

For at least two millennia traditional African sculpture, supplemented by oral history, served both as the principal means of socioreligious communication within groups of people contemporaneous to one another and as a link from generation to generation. In the absence of written languages in most traditional cultures, these objects comprised for Africans a symbolic language in sculptural form. The significance of this language of forms and patterns is pointed out in the succeeding essay by the venerable Amadou Hampate Ba, one of Africa's foremost spiritual leaders.

Upon these objects Westerners have superimposed their own concept of "art." Consequently, the sculpture, in the broader context of universal culture, has taken on a new communicative function as important on a global level as was the earlier one within its own culture. Today it has become the principal instrument by which the underlying values and beliefs of traditional African society can be made manifest to the non-African world.

Paralleling the proliferating interest in Africa during the last quarter century, there has been a tremendous increase in the number and variety of objects that have found their way into American museums and private collections. Accordingly, this present volume detailing African art in American collections includes some sixteen hundred illustrations, none of which appeared among the 354 objects illustrated in the earlier book, or, with few exceptions, in any other of the general reference works on African art published in the last two decades. Yet the two volumes combined are still far from comprehensive in relation to the innumerable styles, substyles, and functions of African art known today.

This book is intended to address a number of different audiences: first and foremost, those with a special interest in African art-curators, scholars, teachers, students, dealers, collectors-connoisseurs and beginners alike.

But the book is also addressed to a vastly larger group of nonspecialists: professionals in other fields of art or entirely different specializations who wish to become conversant with the art of Africa; lay persons who, though having no particular interest in art per se, are nevertheless vitally interested in Africa, and therefore in its creative traditions; the large constituency of African Americans who wish to strengthen their understanding of the African facet of their ancestry; and the growing numbers of persons in international diplomacy, trade, development, health, and education who are becoming increasingly involved with Africa. For such relative newcomers to African art, it is hoped that the photographs in this book with their accompanying captions and this essay itself may serve in some measure as a visual and textual primer.

But it is not only to non-African constituencies that the book is addressed. Rather it can be a reference source for the growing number of contemporary Africans -- government officials, diplomats, teachers -- who are no longer involved to any appreciable extent with the traditional customs of their people but who are engaged with the non-African world in the forging of modern Africa and in presenting it to the world. For them, understanding and respect for the creative traditions of the African past, as well as an awareness of the broader role that the art of Africa plays in the world scene, is an imperative.

In assembling this volume some nine hundred private collections and public museums were canvassed for information on what the owners regarded as their most important works. More than one hundred fifty collections were personally visited and hundreds of identification photos taken to supplement the many hundreds submitted. More than fifteen thousand objects or photos were considered. From them, the best or most significant examples of approximately two hundred thirty styles of African art were selected, representing 252 private collections and seventy-three museums in the United States and Canada.