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Contributor: Babs Fotherby
The Tribal Arts of Africa:
Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geography

At first sight, this large-format glossy book seems to be just another coffee-table book , with the usual roll call of classic pieces in Western museums. A closer inspection however reveals a number of differences. First are the smaller, black and white photos of more unfamiliar pieces. Then there is the systematic way in which the information in the book is presented. The book is divided into 5 Sections covering different regions of Africa: Coastal West Africa, Inland West Africa, Nigeria & Cameroon, Gabon & Zaire and East & South Africa. Each section is further divided into different ethnic/geographical groupings – Asante, Dogon, Yoruba, Fang, Madagascar and so on. Each of these groupings is allocated 4 pages. The first two pages are a mixture of text and around half a dozen small B&W photos per page, giving a potted ethnographic history, often breaking down the artistic production of individual groups into masks, statuettes and everyday objects and a small bibliography. The following two pages are more in a classic coffee table book style, full colour spread with 1 or two photos per page.

I was struck by this rigid format, the explanation for which I discover in the introduction: "This book has been created with the aim of helping professional and amateur collectors alike to find visual and textual references to tribal objects they have collected." At the back is a list of major dealers, and Mr Bacquart worked for Sotheby’s before setting up as a consultant to museums and collectors.

The book only briefly acknowledges the circumstances in which these beautiful works of art have come to reside in Europe, such as "¼ the arrival of the Benin loot in 1897, following the British conquest of Benin ¼ ". The author’s total lack of concern with the history of colonial oppression is revealed in such telling phrases as "¼ the great colonial period of the second half of the 19th century¼ " and, "Great curators, such as Von Luschan, added to the quality and number of their collections¼ ".

The fact that this plundering of African cultural heritage, driven by the demand of the collectors this book was written for continues today is dealt with in one paragraph, with one of the feeblest apologies I have come across: "The pieces referred to above have often been illegally exported and thus raise difficult questions about the protection of the cultural heritage of the countries in question. For example, controversy surrounds certain funerary figures from Madagascar and a number of terracotta statues originating from West Africa. With looting and clandestine excavations, much scientific information about these objects has been lost. The international community has rightly condemned these practices. Nevertheless, it may be worth considering that, with their arrival on the Western market, these archaeological pieces draw the attention of Westerners still more to the antiquity and sublime beauty of black African art traditions."

In a single paragraph the author acknowledges the desecration of these cultural objects by Western collectors: "Once removed from their African context, these artefacts are often fragments, literally and metaphorically. Most have lost their original patinas and some of their paraphernalia including applied jewellery, cloth and magical substances. Such adornments, meaningless to Western eyes, were of prime importance to African tribespeople and were regularly considered more important than the statues or masks themselves. And in a metaphorical sense, the objects a ‘fragmentary nature’, since they are no longer used in the West – what remain are lifeless shells, retained because they are ‘beautiful’ or are of ethnographic interest."

This existence as "lifeless shells" is reinforced by the photographs. The are all taken with neutral, mostly black backgrounds. There is not a single photo of a piece in an African environment, past or present, not a single human presence or sign of the hand that made them. In another paragraph Bacquart presumes to define the "genuine African artefact" as one that "must have been made by an African artist, and also must have been used during tribal ceremonies. This concept excludes most of the modern creations of African art." The selection of works in the book are almost exclusively sculptural, mostly wooden, with some ceramic and stone pieces, a few decorated with beads, shells, skins, feathers etc. This again reflects European tastes and definitions of art, rather than a true representation of African cultural output. Perhaps the book should have been subtitled "as collected by the West". It is worthy to note that a survey of the bibliographies at the end of each section revealed that out of the approximately 300 authorities quoted, only 2 appear to be of African origin (Nigerians). Again then, we have a Eurocentric view of African culture.

In its favour, the book is very organised and thorough, presenting a more comprehensive range of pieces than are usually contained in such encompassing tours of African art. Bacquart obviously admires the works immensely but this admiration is inextricably linked to the desire for possession. Though I can find nothing explicit in the book, the very absence of a living Africa in this book, the way in which these works of art have been isolated from the diverse and changing cultures that have produced them, makes me feel that his admiration does not extend to the African people. The stunning beauty of these works coupled with this isolation and denial fills me with sorrow as I leaf through this book. In the absence of anything better, it could be a useful resource book, a starting point from which to find out more about a particular African culture.

For more information about the ethical issues surrounding the ownership of African art in the West, you could get in touch with the Africa Reparations Movement, 3 Devonshire Chambers, 557 High Rd, London N17 6SB, Tel: 0181 880 9100; Website: www.the.arc.co.uk/arm/home/html. (see also Black Perspective Issue 10 (Dec 1997) for an interview with Bernie Grant on the issue of African reparations)
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