The White Man’s Wallet: Exploring the Ritual Buying of African Tribal Art in Western Europe
Why spend millions of dollars on artefacts of a culture that you have no connection with?
“I’m an educated man. I can tell you about optical illusions, suggestibility, any mental disease or disorder you can imagine. But I can’t explain, even through the most pragmatic of thinking, the intense physical power these (Chokwe masks) inspire in me…”
Dr EB, speaking in November 2017
Why do Wealthy European Men Collect Tribal African Art?
One dreary February morning in 2016, I trekked across Maastricht to a cavernous art fair taking place over several floors of a brutalist building, oddly decked out with absurdly large flower arrangements to appease the modern aristocrat’s aesthetic sensibilities.
Here, the elite of Europe gossiped over ancient wine and feigned interest at the ‘primitive’ artwork of the half-forgotten colonies. Through the sea of credit cards and Moschino suits, I noticed a group of buyers that stood out like a sore thumb. Clad in threadbare jackets and staring intensely at specific pieces, these male, highly educated individuals were notably not the super-rich. Typically white, tertiary medical and legal professionals, they were here for art that would cost them almost a year’s pay cheque. They would beg dealers to let them pay in instalments, even visiting a piece in a foreign country, just to have a chance at ownership. This bond and determination to ‘own’ what seemed alien to their own cultures and heritage stirred a question within me. Why collect something so obsessively when it is so -very literally- foreign?
Perhaps they were buying their way into an aristocracy that they were not part of, grasping at a form of cultural capital? Or maybe they were holding onto a past and way of life disappearing into the stress and chaos of modern life? Was it the famed colonial imperialism of the white academic? The longing to understand something so outside their education or parental pushing? White guilt? And what did the dealers make of them? Class conscious cash cows, or respected friends?
I decided to study this social group in greater depth, through interviews, observation, and literary research, to gain a greater understanding of what drives their ritual buying in this field. This area has proved to be a truly insightful area into much of the class and racially based dynamics of the European elite: as Patrick Aspers stated in his economic research, “(Micro) markets are merely ripples of a wider system…a wider morality, sociality and economic current…” (Aspers, 2011).
Through examining my fieldwork alongside the meta-social theories of classical anthropology, such as Pierre Bourdieu, and specific economic ethnographies such as Marcel Mauss’ investigation on kula, some interesting themes and patterns began to emerge in relation to class, identity and aspirations. And thus began this paper.
CONTEXT: A SUMMARY
The African Tribal Art market, or ‘Primitive Art market’, as it is known by older dealers, is a small world. Everyone knows everyone; the dealers know the buyers, the buyers know other buyers, the dealers know the wives of buyers and the sons of dealers become the dealers. It is not at all uncommon to find a family collection or business crossing four generations.
This is, in a way, a culture of its own. It has its own calendar of annual events and festivals, a very clear hierarchy, language, rules and ethics that outsiders regularly trip over on, and a very obtusely defined ‘in’ group. This is a group made through money and yet holds some notable contempt of it. While an exchange based and economically driven system, the very mention of income, sale success or cost is seen as an impropriety. This is a commonality across a wide range of nationalities and languages, resulting in it becoming extremely hard to establish hard figures on wealth, capital, worth or financial viability.
There are 3 main annual events (Brafa in Brussels, Parcours des Mondes in Paris, and The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht) that all buyers and dealers attend, with specific buyer-dealer relationships patterning the months in between with regular sales. These are usually made across phone calls and emails, before elaborate visits set up often as a meal between friends to finalise a sale. The language of choice is French- most dealers are French or Dutch- although it is not uncommon for a discussion to take place in ‘Drenchlais’ a mixture of English, French and Dutch. Frequently, a dealer will hire a young woman, or several, to ‘front’ the sale in a language he does not feel fully competent speaking. Women are, however, very much second class citizens within this system, most explicitly in terms of perceived intelligence, knowledge, finance and hierarchy. Out of 72 dealers and gallery owners at Parcours des Mondes in 2017, not a single one was female. However, almost all of the 103 assistants were female and held postgraduate degrees in the field that they were selling. Despite this, it is seen as a disappointment to speak to an assistant instead of the dealer, who is credited as ‘the expert’.
The dealers themselves are part of a hierarchy: top dealers who are millionaires and published authors can have queues of prospective buyers and academics wishing to speak to them during an event. PHR is a second generation dealer who is often praised as ‘the numero uno’ in the field. Less well known, poorer dealers take up smaller galleries and typically sell more dubiously authentic, or at least less expensive, pieces. Others are sneered at and outcast for selling ‘fakes’- that is, modern pieces or ones made for tourists- and are only able to sell to naive newcomer buyers. Authenticity, establishment and reputation are all crucial themes within an exchange. A piece sold by a ‘bien’ dealer can, even if it is just a fairly common ibeji (a set of twin statues from the Yoruba culture), increase its value by thousands of pounds.
The market itself is a monsoon economy. During a period of financial instability, such as in the 2008 recession or in the aftermath of the EU referendum, buyer interest can plummet, and with it prices. With an influx of wealthy naive Qatari buyers, auctions flux to the millions from the original the tens of thousands, out-pricing traditional standard collector capital (£50k-£90k). This in turn is seen as making a style of African art ‘garish’ or ‘new money’, so a style or tribal symbol becomes unfashionable. Some clever PR or window display can result in trends to shift unsold stock; Igbo figures, widely available, received a boom of interest following the ingenious display of a dealer in Parcours des Mondes in 2016, where they were placed en masse in a cabinet, reminiscent of the old ‘cabinet of curiosity’ collections of the 19th century.
The ‘worth’ of a piece is hence something very much decided upon by the market. The texture on an artefact is a particularly interesting area for collectors; patina, shape, carving and oil usage all come in and out of fashion, and the dealer will usually pick up on a trend and sell from that perspective. Authenticity is something that all of my informers brought up on their own accord- unlike a Van Gogh or a Roman statue, it is extremely hard to date a piece in this field. Firstly, most tribal pieces are anonymous in authorship, and secondly, most are made between 1890 and 1970, so they are too recent to form a strong era of identification through scientific tools. Thus, it is largely a guessing game and up to the experts to place a figure on something. This has led to a huge amount of suspicion, gossip and anger within the community; who sold what to whom and how much they knew is a constant conversation.
Having been involved this community for four years, albeit as somewhat of an outsider as an observer, I have been able to have a rare inside view of both sides of the system; I know the buyers extremely well socially, and I know the dealers through a working relationship. Belonging to neither group has allowed me to avoid a lot of performative behaviour in the forms of niceties and false praise over pieces and clients. Being able to hear ‘the dirt’ from either perspective is extremely interesting; revealing a darker side to what is a very polite, academic and elitist group.
Using this contextual knowledge and conducting interviews and literary analysis, I aim to explore the ritual practice and purpose of buying in this market, through establishing the motives and cultural factors that push collectors to buy these artefacts.
Friend, Foe, Salesman: The Role of a Dealer
“To be in this business for a long time, which you have to be as an expert…you have to know the tricks. You just have to. Using a pretty assistant is just one of many.”- Dr EB (in conversation)
Do the men collect in this field to buy a relationship or position with the dealer/dealer circle?
Many questions arose from the relationship between dealers and their clientele: were they friends? Was it a professional relationship? How much of it was a front? Why was there such a strong pretense of informality and friendship? Was it ‘real’?
Notably, both the deals suggested the desire to remove the transaction from the emplotment of a formal space. The dealer, after responding to dissatisfaction to the current price, immediately suggested ‘dinner’ or ‘coffee’, which, through wider observation, usually means a nice meal or expensive coffee elsewhere.
This, in conversation with EB after the deal, is a common technique which he colloquially refers to as ‘informalising’. This blurring of the lines between friendship and consumer/seller dynamics forms a strange liminal space where the rules of formality and reality are somewhat unclear. Interestingly, this is not something unique to just this subcultural exchange, but something remarked upon in many economic anthropological studies; most strikingly within the work of Marcel Mauss on the kula ring in Papua New Guinea, which I shall discuss further in this chapter. (Mauss, 1925).
Reflecting on Mauss’s work. the dynamic between trading situations has been an intriguing oddity within an economic context. Certainly, a dealer (or exchanger) has a pragmatic identity, in the need to gain a net a financial profit from the exchange, but the functions of reciprocity and charismatic networking perform slightly more abstract vectors within the relationship the dealer presents. Mauss understands the concept of trade as solidifying a relationship between two groups or individuals; within the kula ring, the act of giving or exchanging was as much about identity and bonds as it was about the object itself: the two were not separate factors (Mauss, 1925). It could well be that by blurring these lines, a dealer sold not just the object, but the relationship and contacts to the buyer, something that was tangibly desired in my interviews. Certainly, the ideas of ‘kula’ contrast and compare to my fieldwork with compelling results.
At a glance, there is little ‘giving’ on a financially based exchange, but there are still elements in this market of bonding, relationships and prestige that relate well to The Gift. While in Mauss’s work the ordinary bartering exchange (grimwali) has rules that are separate to extraordinary gift exchange (kula), there is much of an overlap between the two worlds, creating a liminality that is not wholly separate to either system: this, I would argue, is equally present within the European African Tribal Art Market (EATAM). There are consumer narratives that are common to wider markets, but also unusual, friendship like behaviours that echo the trust, reciprocity and rules of the kula. The fact that in the tribal art micro-economy a buyer is expected to sell his unwanted pieces to his dealers, or exchange them for new pieces, is another factor that influences and transforms the ‘ordinary’ European market to one far more closely focused on relationships, status and trust: the buyers and dealers are expected to know each other personally and learn and contribute to the other’s collections, if not livelihood.
While it is immediately pragmatic for a buyer to sell a piece, the financial consequences of forming a long term ‘bond’ with client, resulting in further sales, would be strategically preferable. This pragmatic approach extends far beyond economic sensibility: in a market so invested in appearances, status and hierarchy, a dealer solidifies his status and image as a ‘good dealer’ through a successful trade, loosely comparable to prestige related to the chiefs of the kula exchange ring. His market identity- and verbal reputation -relies on being perceived as an honest, knowledgeable and charismatic person.
Failure to be spoken about on those terms could severely damage his status and ultimately financial interests. Here, we can clearly see that this direct approach of selling oneself as keenly as one’s goods solidifies both the cultural norms of the group, and the future investment in further clients and financial gains. A dinner party, or a coffee shop, soften the professional emplotment of a traditional deal, creating a narrative where the client can ‘buy’ the friendship and network of a dealer as much as the goods; both, it seems, equally desirable for the clientele. This is interesting in relation to the practices surround the kula exchanges of the Muyuw: such an exchange “involves strong obligations such as friendship, protection and assistance”. The friendship is as much part of a ‘good deal’ as the actual ownership of the tribal artefact.
We can see this ‘friendship’ aspect of exchanges continued within the work of other studies: social psychologist Paul Jarrett argues that humans place more value in items that they believe themselves to own- it could be argued from this that it is essential for dealers to present these expensive sales with a considerable effort to push for a sale, as encouraging an individual to return through friendship to repeatedly view a piece could solidify the sense of ownership (Jarrett, 2010). Certainly the language the dealers used in the process of making a sale imposed this sense of ownership through the use of possessive pronouns: ‘your mask’ ‘this piece made me think of you’. By linguistically asserting the possession of the piece into the identity of the prospective buyer, they create an illusion where the object is not simply potentially to be bought or traded, but ultimately something linked to their
relationship with the dealer: the dealer has thought about their interests, engaged with them as individuals, and formed a relationship with them that separates them from the basic target market.
The role of the dealer extends to increasing the value of the piece itself, as well as the network and reputation of a client: it is strongly evident that you buy the dealer’s name and connection as much as the artefact. A ‘Ratton’ piece, for example is simply one that has belonged to the dealer’s collection, and is given a name and authenticity. The trade, and the people the piece as belonged to, is intrinsic to the value of the object. The dealer JC explicitly noted upon the issue of providence in his interview: a piece that comes from a respected buyer increases in value. As the market functions off a three point system (that is buyer, dealer and other dealer all trade their collections together) the net benefit from a dealer having a good relationship with a respected buyer could increase his chances of being given the opportunity to buy pieces of ‘bien providence’. If a dealer has a weaker relationship of trust or friendship with a client, the client may choose to exchange with another dealer within the market. This is reminiscent of a ‘circle’ trade, as with the kula: to participate is to form relationships with others, build up trust and fulfil the obligations of the exchange. Here, we can again see that it is pragmatically beneficial for a dealer to form, or at least front, a ‘friendship’ with a client.
However, as with the kula ring, it is unlikely that these social bonds are completely fabricated for economic gain or market reputation. Certainly, for the
buyers, this close relationship is extremely real, even celebrated, although not without an element of cynicism. EB, in particular, was very proud of his connections to high level dealers, at one point rushing across an auction room to introduce me to a particularly well respected dealer who had written a book on East African tribal artwork. They hugged and kissed (as is traditional in French elite circles) and EB introduced him to me as ‘the man I told you about’ and ‘the expert….and he just spoke to me!’.
There was also a considerable amount of name dropping within the conversations of the buyers, usually focused around ‘have you seen (dealer) this season?’ or ‘Do you know (dealer)?’ This networking seems to boost prestige within the group; buyers who know and have strong relationships with senior dealers are seen as more prestigious and knowledgeable in the field. This serves the dual effect of knowing who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ that season: the reputation of dealers, the prestige of a collector, and ultimately any unscrupulous merchants to avoid. While this gossiping may appear somewhat frivolous (sometimes over a minor infringement such as the price of an auction catalogue) it certainly serves a purpose of regulating and controlling the relationships and behaviours of those within the circuit.
While it may seem strange to have an element of celebrity in dealers, many of these dealers are also the premier authors and researchers of the art they sell. In the same way a student of anthropology may be particularly excited to be in a seminar with a prolific anthropologist, this micro-culture celebrates knowledge
as a source of worth or value. It could be argued, from this, that dealers profit off their own research and understanding in the role of educators and academics, providing the sense of self-worth and esteem sought by the clientele. Collector EB, on buying a £140 book from a particularly senior dealer, expressed considerable delight in having been “…Spoken to by him! Actually him!” after having listened, wide eyed, for a full 30 minutes to a particularly alarming story regarding some leeches in the Congo. Here, the dealer has an almost mythical status, rarely seen beyond the odd book or cloud of cigar smoke at the back of a private Parisian gallery. To have a connection with the prestige and expertise of these semi-divine academics brings an extraordinary amount of joy to many collectors, as, at the high echelons of the field, the top dealers can simply choose to ignore particularly grating or mundane potential clients.
Similarly, many dealers exhibit genuine fondness for some, although certainly not all, of their clients. JC remarked an explicit soft spot for EB, calling him ‘an extremely intelligent man’ and ‘very, very well read’. When I responded that the interview was in total confidence, and that EB would not be aware of any direct opinions, JC insisted that he was genuine, expressing a view that while many of his clients came in ‘a little blind’ to the field, EB would often educate himself on a piece and listen to JC for further information. Here, modesty and knowledge were valued as positive traits in a buyer, something that resulted in mutual respect: EB often visits Brussels to see JC, and they have lunch or coffee together, discussing family and political matters alongside artwork. This
bond certainly appears to have extended beyond a pragmatic need to trade, own, or collect tribal artwork: as with the Muyuw, there is a need for ‘more’ than the gift/exchange: be that friendship, status or prestige (Mauss, 1925).
However, some of the other dealers expressed considerable dislike, even contempt, for some of their customers. There was most notably an element of classism and elitism within this; all four of the customers highlighted as ‘gauche’ ‘profoundly American in taste’ or ‘arrogant’ were from new money, non-tertiary educated backgrounds. The physical and social manner of the dealers changed when confronted by potential buyers who were aesthetically or vocally ‘outsiders’ (not middle class, well-educated men). A man and woman entered a gallery in Paris, wearing elaborate gold jewellery and heavy cologne, and were met with a tangible sense of disapproval. When they spoke in a strong American accent, the dealer waved his assistant over to speak to them about a piece, returning to his desk to review his figures. Mauss noted with interest that a good position in the kula was not something that could be immediately gained; one had to work through the process of exchanging over a period of time to build up their prestige and status. In comparison, very few of the new buyers or gallery visitors were treated with much respect, echoing the possible need to bond and form relationships within the microeconomic culture.
Alternatively, it could be argued that this disdain was based on a lack of knowledge, rather than a lack of a relationship. Dealer DG explained his dislike for ‘unknowledgeable clientele’ as something of an academic divide: “What is
the point of them owning something so beautiful, so powerful, so precious, if it will be put on a coffee table? There is no point for me to speak with them…they will go on what is big, bold, garish…no taste. People like them don’t care for truth or education.” Here, the boundaries on who a dealer will exchange with was kept to an elitist circle, with the less accepted clients being limited to assistants for connections. This has the effect of creating a sense of worth for those who are able to function within the inner circles of this economic microcosm: it is not simply a matter of buying your way in; the cultural capital is far more valuable than the economic.
So; friend, foe or salesman? From the data I have collected in this study, and in reflection to Mauss, it would be plausible to gauge at the role including all three positions. While there is clearly a strong financial incentive to sell for a profit, the dealers are, from the interviews, very aware that their clientele do not simply buy the pieces, but buy a social connection and position. Not only do they own the artefact, but their place within the network and the continued connection to other future deals with the dealer, assuring a continued place within the subculture. This ritual exchange, based very much on social position in the network, ensures a reliable circle of clientele for the dealer, and a stable status of the collector within the field.
In the incidences where this balance is disrupted (by the arrival of ‘outsiders’ such as Qatari or ‘new money’ buyers, for example, or when dealer fails to enact as a symbolic figure of trust and loyalty), there is an obvious atmosphere
of distrust, disrespect and discontent. This can result in a dealer being struck off from the circuit, as discussed in my interview with JB, and indeed the conversation with the three collectors.
If a dealer is perceived as dishonest, or selling false artefacts knowingly, he is very quickly removed from his ‘expert’ pedestal in the system, and no longer has a clientele, or a reputation and place in the hierarchy. If we discuss this alongside anthropological understandings of customs and rules, as outlined by Mary Douglas (Douglas, 2002), this can also result in a breakdown of custom or traditions within the subculture; when DC demonstrated his distaste at ‘arrogant… overly ontological’ buyers with ‘a lot of money,’ he was hinting at a deeper tradition being challenged; that of mutual respect between the dealer and client through shared knowledge.
Those who are not part of the culture, that of an almost obsessive interest and study of tribal artwork, are forever outsiders to dealers like DC, a threat to not simply his comprehension of what ownership of tribal art should be, but the destruction of the bonds that he values within his career as a dealer. This hierarchy and concern for its decay is something which, as discussed in the other subsections of this project, comes up as a common issue within this circuit. If this hierarchy is so important, as it appears to be, it would be fair to say that the cultural capital and friendship is as important and intrinsic as the artefact being bought, supporting the idea that the buyer is not simply out to gain an object, but a status and bond within the market.
The White Man’s Wallet: Colonialism and Identity in a Buyer
“A Financial monopoly? We have, I suppose. But that’s not unique to this field. Look around you. Who owns the Grecian Marbles? Who owns Ming vases? White men…”
- Dr EB (Interview E)
Alternatively, do buyers collect to gain a sense of identity or moral purpose in themselves?
The cultural capital- that is, the taste of a group towards an embolic symbol in society- has often been argued to be a top-down approach through a system. For Bourdieu, what is respectable, tasteful or stylish is, on a basic level, often defined by what individuals in power or authority choose to interpret as enforcing their own values, status or influence (Bourdieu, 1984 translation). Breaking this down into three forms of capital (objectified, embodied and institutionalized) Bourdieu engaged with both the embodied traits and characteristics of individuals and their possessions and status in order to understand the full dynamics within social hierarchy. This is certainly an interesting hypothesis to explore within the power and identity dynamics within
the ethnic and racial dynamics of the art and the buyer, particularly in relation to the work of Sally Price in Primitive Art in Civilised Places (Price, 1989).
Through his theory of habitus and fields, Pierre Bourdieu understood that an individual was inherently linked not only to their embodied disposition but also to their environment surroundings: the morals, values and cosmologies they held were expressed and influential from the material world around them. In his work on the Berber house, he reflected on the placement, embodied experience and metaphorical connections of objects was closely linked to the ways in which the Berber people understood themselves and reality (Bourdieu, translation, 1970). From this, it could be said that through exploring the artwork the buyers chose to surround themselves with, and their interactions with it, we can better understand who they are, what they see within it, and what they aspire to be.
One of the most strikingly insightful aspects of how cultural capital worked in the African Art Market could be found in the language of the collectors. Almost all of the older buyers in the market (70yo+) referred to the fact they were buying ‘tribal’ or ‘primitive’ art; language they did not use in association with classical western sculpture, weaving or painting, even if the ‘primitive’ art was only some forty to fifty years old. When quizzed on this, they stated that it was the common language on the field, and didn’t hold any real meaning beyond a pragmatic explanation of ‘what the art was’. It was then that a very interesting word came up in the discussion, prompted entirely among themselves:
‘colonialism’. Here, their experience of the objects was somewhat removed or detached from my perspective of it as directly part of a historical and current narrative on African culture. For them, the language that was understood as insulting or uncomfortable to myself and the younger buyers (under 60yo) did not carry the same cultural weight or discussions- very few would use the word primitive or savage to describe their collections. So what was it that the older, dominant collectors saw within the pieces? What drove them to collect it?
Notably, the buyers, young or old, all felt the need to deny any cultural conquest over the artwork, appearing dismayed by the insinuation. “We are here to appreciate and protect it, not to own it,” one collector said within a group, who were all nodding. “Obviously, we do own it, but we don’t do it out of some white…entitlism (sic).” When pressed about what they liked about the artwork, they offered aesthetic reasons, such as shape, but with a highly westernised twist; they openly used phrases like ‘Picasso shapes’ and ‘cubism’. This was interesting from an anthropological perspective; they attached skill and worth not to the ingenuity and power of the pieces themselves, but to their analogy to western innovation or conceptual interpretation. Their relationship with the piece was heavily influenced, however subconsciously, by their role as western observers, despite their clear discomfort at it being described in those terms. Perhaps, from a ‘habitus’ perspective, they viewed the closer narratives of western art, that are so central to most Europeans understanding of art, to be the norm, while the cultural ‘other’ was filled with exoticism that they then projected into their understanding of their collections.
Here, the cultural capital, and, by extension, the worth of the artwork is framed through a lens of what was valuable or creative from a western gaze: something remarked upon not only in my fieldwork, but in ethnographic studies of western markets over thirty years ago (Price, 1989). In Sally Price’s ‘Primitive Art in Civilised Places’, what is ‘good’ about a piece is not what it meant or was worth in the original, African context, but what is perceived as “aesthetic or skilled by a white, wealthy male thousands of miles away.” While it could be argued from a structuralist perspective that this lexis was the only the buyers knew to explain what they liked about the artwork, it is irrefutable that the gaze was something to be decided upon by the wealthy, white market, rather than the creators of the artwork itself.
This rings particularly true in regards to the reception of patina among the clientele. JC used to only be able to sell pieces that had been physically ‘westernised’ for a European audience: scrubbed down, cleaned, polished and presented in a similar fashion to classical sculpture. This actively removed the meaning and ‘worth’ of the original fetish or artefact: the patina, often a form of clay mud, kaolin, oils or human grease from fingerprints, was what made the piece authentic and spiritually potent. The covering (or touching) of the surface in a repetitive act of worship or medical healing added to the literal power of the piece (Price, 1989). Through the human interaction, the piece ‘became’ after it was carved, and the physical texture of the artefact was an integral stage of it’s worth.
Many of these patina-based creations, such as dipping a statue in kaolin, or rubbing it while speaking sacred words, echoed the coming-of-age or medical rituals given to humans within the Xhosa, Yoruba and Igbo nations. By scrubbing them away, the worth of the piece radically changed: what was powerful, time consuming and sacred for the original audience was now seen as ugly, dirty and base. It was not until the 1970s, with the first ethnographic documentaries became available illustrating the material process of the artwork, that the gradual preference for an original patina returned. Now, the patina, however sticky or potentially carpet-ruining, is hailed as a central factor in the authenticity of the piece. The narrative is still intrinsically inspired by western perspectives from documentaries and dialogue, rather than the wishes or thoughts of the tribal peoples, creating a ‘bubble’ effect on the market. What is ‘good’ or ‘accurate’ is still based on what the white men selling it or researching it say.
Certainly, the younger buyers (50–60 years old) appear far more interested in the process of making and natural purpose of these figures and utensils, often asking questions about the meaning and spiritual history of a piece, as opposed to focusing on the aesthetic. There is definitely a focus on what the symbolic meaning of each design feature is dealers who know their clients are interested in the history; white typically means death, red or black means the living, sunken features suggest illness or famine, and twins (particularly among the Yoruba, who often use ibeji iconography) symbolise a desire for a child to live
unaffected by a dead sibling’s spirit. Here, we can see a shift in the dynamic between the product and the consumer: what is valuable about the product, or what a consumer may reasonably change with it, is becoming integral to the original form, as opposed to the imposed gaze.
This re-imagining of the cultural interaction being intrinsic to the object, rather than something to scrub off, perhaps suggests a greater focus on the original intent. Rather than being ‘fixed’ to look aesthetically clean and polished, the original purpose and interactivity of the piece, as well as it’s unique symbolism, are more taken into what the piece means. As a result, spiritually ‘dark’ pieces, such as slave trade tablets, that were previously sold as ‘pretty’ or ‘exotic’ are far less likely to be brought home to put on the mantlepiece: their original purpose is understood as part of the piece and the message.
Of course, however, as the European market is largely, if not completely, controlled by a white, male collection of dealers and buyers, it is logical that their tastes and sense of cultural capital would make in impact on the worth and value of the pieces in question (Price, 1989). One dealer, LR, stated that many buyers gravitated towards artwork from countries that used to be colonies of their nation: Belgians liked tribal artwork from the Congo, The French liked artwork from Chad and Nigeria, and the British liked South African, Nigerian, Ghanaian and Zimbabwean. Here, we can clearly see a colonial footprint in the genealogy of aesthetic, white male taste: what is ‘good’ in terms of cultural capital is very much decided by the rich, the white, and the powerful. The
extent to which any racial or colonialist narrative is not discussed, or considered taboo to point out, arguably illustrates the desire for buyers to retain a sense of pride within knowing about the ‘old colonies’ without the uncomfortable reflection on their perpetuation of colonialist cultural capital, or the economic power they have over ‘buying out’ traditional tribal artwork.
This is no doubt an uncomfortable topic for many collectors; the recent shift to viewing the object as part of a culture and ‘belonging’ to a people, rather than something to discuss over dinner at your luxury flat, is increasingly fraught within the self-image of the buyers: are they wealthy colonialists robbing African tribes of their culture, or intelligent, liberal academics who can understand and appreciate it in a way few Europeans can? The answer is, as ever, a matter of perspective, one that few appear to like to think about at any depth.
Owning Yesterday: Ownership of the Disappearing World
“(I know a lot about) the tribal stuff, yes. Before all the Muslims turned up and destroyed everything. That’s in part why I buy it. To protect it from people like that. Save it before they burn it all as infidel worship.”
-Mr RB (Interview F)
Do the buyers collect tribal artwork to engage with their own narratives and nostalgia of the world and its past?
What it is to be ‘a tribe’ has, as with any culture, evolved and changed across Africa’s diverse and shifting communities. Often defined in traditional anthropology by the artistic styles and rituals of a regional group, rather than the complex identities of tribal communities, the ‘tribal aesthetic’ remain staunchly cold in western art cladistics. What is Baka, Yoruba or Chokwe is defined by what western anthropologists decided the set style was in the 19th Century, when such artwork began to be collected en masse for cabinets of curiosities. The ‘hot and cold culture’ theory of Levi Strauss rang particularly true in comparison to my ethnographic fieldwork: while western artwork has been allowed to become ‘hot’ — that is changing, fluid and evolving- much of tribal
art has its authenticity and value placed in being ‘cold’- that is traditional, unchanging and uninfluenced (Pace, 2015).
While styles such as impressionism, cubism or mixed media have been allowed to develop and take value within western art circles, much of ‘modern’ African tribal art is seen is fictitious, inauthentic, ‘influenced’ or made for market: often synonymous with fraudulence (Price, 1989) (Kasfir, 2007). As discussed before, the ‘purpose’ of African Art in a western market plays heavily into what is desirable in a piece, but that still leaves unresolved questions on the desirability of ‘cold’ tribal artwork.
There is no question, from both my interviews and fieldwork, that ‘cold’ tribal art holds far more appeal to both the dealers and their clientele. In terms of price, an early, pre-contact (another term that raises questions of colonialism) piece can cost tens of thousands more euros than a later, more recent piece of the same style. On a fieldwork mission to Cape Town with EB, a long term collector, he appeared very unimpressed by ‘modern’ tribal pieces, even though they had been made by the same tribal groups using the same techniques. “Made for tourists,” he whispered to me as we passed a Xhosa man selling a large selection of fetish pieces. “What’s different about them?” I asked. “They haven’t been used in rituals.” He replied. “They’ve been made for a western market, en masse.”
Here, while the providence, style and craft were all satisfactory to traditional definitions of authenticity, there was a very clear divide between what was acceptable as a valid piece of tribal, African art. Many of the collectors I interviewed spoke
almost mythically of a ‘pre-contact Africa’ where spirits, medicine and reality functioned beyond a pragmatic, rigidly familiar Europe. They talked of Yoruba gods and spirits with the same historical nostalgia I had heard used in Hellenic classics. These weren’t simply pieces of ‘art’ but bits of history, parts of an almost fantastical, separate world. In the same way touching a Rembrandt may conjure up images of candle-lit rooms and glittering robes, the ‘used’ fetish pieces of a tribal African group hold a certain magic that isn’t the same as a reproduction fridge magnet or tourism gift-shop miniature. However, it is worth noting that many of these highly desirable pieces were hardly old, and rarely pre-contact, if indeed there was ever really such a time.
One Yoruba ibeji, on sale in Brussels, January 2017, was barely thirty years old. At this stage, Nigeria was already bustling, emerging economy, with western technologies, cars, a strong British influence and a rapidly expanding urban network. Yoruba belief systems of Shango, the lightening God and spirit based illnesses had faded behind evangelist Christianity and a growing number of Muslim communities (Enwerem, 2013). At the time these would have been made, the practice of making ibeji, and their purpose, would have long been seen as somewhat archaic, traditional. So why then, were these valuable? The answer lies, it seems, in a sense of capturing a dying art. RB, a collector from England, openly states his purpose as ‘saving’ a ‘dying culture and way of life’.
Following a post-colonialist, Straussian perspective, through the ‘warming’ of the culture, and the social and economic changes going on in Nigeria and wider African culture, there is a real sense of urgency to preserve the old, polytheistic, less-influenced Africa among many collectors. For them, cold Africa is ‘real’ Africa, and change is nothing more than the unpleasant creeping of globalisation against a purer, more innocent way of life. This could be widely criticised as orientalist; African cultures have always been changing and evolving, irrespective of the influence of white, western invasion or influence. They certainly haven’t been static, continuous and unchanging for the thousands of years beforehand (Sissao, 2010).
However, this is something that doesn’t appear to appear much in the mindset of many collectors, even if the dealers seem to be very aware and curious as to the cultural heritage and archeology that produced such pieces. As many of the buyers had parents or family from colonial era Africa, they remember a somewhat nostalgic, glossed image of ‘the natives’ and the ownership of the heritage they remember as part of that. Many remember having ‘knick-knacks’ in their colonialist grandparent’s home from tribal groups, and this may well have had in imprint of what was ‘good’ or ‘authentic’ about African tribal works.
While there is an obvious dislike for the “white man’s influence on Africa” among both collectors and dealers, I was surprised how little the thought of buying up African heritage and history in a white European market troubled them. This simply didn’t occur to many of the dealers that buying African work and selling it for a profit could create a problematic racial or cultural dynamic. The idea that they were out-pricing Africans from their own material heritage was again dismissed: repeatedly referred to ‘saving’ the work, as it seems to be believed that the pieces being kept in a cabinet is somehow a more venerable environment than allowing the weathering and gradual breakdown of these used artefacts.
Overall, there seemed a general attitude of irritation towards the suggestion that what they were practicing was questionable; they viewed themselves as saviours or protectors of what they believed was an ancient way of life that, unlike the west, had never changed. In conclusion, these thoughts were not part of their world, or their narrative on themselves. They were, in being white, globalist-minded men, culture-less, past-less, and pride-less. The Europe they knew was ever changing, with little to grasp onto with any pride or nostalgia. African, tribal art held a spirituality, stability and identity that they felt they were somehow lacking. While they couldn’t lay claim to these ‘cold’ cultures, they could reinvent themselves through the knowledge and gatekeeping of it. This classic artistic concept of ‘cold’ cultures would ultimately lead to some unusual re-imaginings of the pieces themselves, often very estranged from the mundanity or purpose for which they were created. Here, it could be argued that they bought the spirituality from what they saw as a culturally-cold yesterday to find some sense of identity in a culturally-hot, rapidly secularising world.
Making A Killing: Profit or Professionalism? Reputation in the Field
“The only way to get ahead in kula is to lie…”
- The Muyuw speaking to Damon Fortune, 1980
Q. Do buyers collect to buy a sense of prestige or a class hierarchy?
The spatiality of the pieces themselves within the galleries presented this reimagining in a particularly puzzling way; indeed, it took me several months to fully understand it. The small galleries presented a uniformly minimalist style, with statues on waist high plinths, and grass hangings on the walls. The oldest, and most expensive, pieces were placed near the front window, with the exception of one or two behind the desk for a ‘special’ client: these effectively served as Potemkin villages, presenting the dealer and gallery as having a solid reputation and ‘real’ artefacts. The cheaper, smaller, and sometimes fake artefacts are lumped together in the corners, as if hiding behind the narrative and mystique of their alleged material betters. The narrative on what tribal African art was- and where the value lay in them- was immediately apparent to me: old and pre-contact was good, while crude and more recent was bad. But why, then, was the ‘crude’ worth selling?
‘New blood,’ DC told me bluntly, grabbing disinterestedly at a fairly recent Chokwe statue. “What’s this? There are hundreds of them. Useless to anyone with the eye.” He turned it over in his hand. “But to someone who has just become enchanted, or wants to buy in? It’s magic.” Certainly, the buyers I spoke to spoking laughingly- or bitterly- about their first purchases on the market. But all spoke about becoming hooked after the first small, overpriced pieces. Clearly however, it was best for the dealers not to push the boat out too far on taking a starry-eyed new client for a fool. One particular dealer, BZ, is widely the butt of many jokes having sold ‘fake’ pieces and has steadily been forced to rely on one off, badly informed clients. Losing such a reputation can be devastating to a gallery’s business; he has since been banned from exhibiting at the largest event in the African Art calendar; Parcours Des Mondes.
This is not a factor exclusive in ethnographic observation to this study; Marcel Mauss recorded at length in his ethnography of the kula exchange system that an exchange or gift is never simply a matter of trading a meaningless artefact, but instead that the artefact is a ‘total prestation’ of the rules, social laws and obligations that follow the meaning, power and worth of the piece itself (Mauss, 1925). A failure to play into the social obligations and rules surrounding the gift of such items fundamentally affects the worth and intrinsic meaning of the piece. Once you get a reputation as being a bad dealer, your goods automatically become bad in the process. The gift (in this scenario, a piece of artwork) is intrinsically inalienable for the actors within the deal. From this structuralist perspective, we can understand that the reputation of a dealer- and a buyer- is extremely invested in the rules and obligations of not only the piece, but the exchange itself. Not unlike the kula system, failure to fulfil the obligations, prestige and promises attached to the exchange results in an ostracisation from the trade circle (Mauss, 1925). If a ‘good kula relationship is like a marriage…for life’ then a bad kula exchange can result in ostracisation from the circuit; something that clearly occurs within this market as well. A bad deal creates a bad dealer, and a bad piece, by conjunction, creates a foolish buyer and a bad dealer.
The effect that a bad deal can have on a buyer can be far greater than a simple loss of a couple of thousands of pounds. In a subculture so heavily based on knowledge, the ability to buy and spend time reading books that cost hundreds of pounds, and present such knowledge in a high-cost environment, an error can be fatal to a collector’s reputation, and ego. Both dealers and buyers have mentioned incidences where a senior collector has been so embarrassed to have been ‘fooled’ into buying a fake that they won’t report it or even seek compensation, so great is the source of shame. For the Muyuw, the status within the kula exchange is something that is not bought, but gradually accumulated through time and multiple exchanges, gradually gaining better kula pieces and better relationships by comparison: the same prestige is true of a long term participant in my ethnography. In the African tribal art market, a prestigious long-term buyer having bought a bad piece is a considerable loss of status and an affront to their knowledgeable status within the hierarchy. This can be somewhat dangerous territory for both sides of the market: a collector has to rely on the openness of other collectors to share the names of crooked dealers, and a dealer, in turn plays a dangerous game in choosing to sell illegitimate pieces among Potemkin-styled ‘bien’ artefacts in their shop window.
That being said, a monsoon economy can create desperate situations for even the most seasoned of dealers (Denny, 2016). When there is a shortage of ‘bien’ artefact capital, or even worse, a shortage of buyers due to a financial scare such as Brexit, the quality of good, non-window artefacts drops considerably. The sheer need to sell can drive dealers to lower the threshold of what they are prepared to sell, and loosen their morals on how they are prepared to sell it.
Patrik Aspers, in his theoretical and ethnographic work Markets, outlines the nature of markets in relation to wider capitalist society. According to Aspers, markets do not exist outside social life, but rather functions within and throughout it, in varying forms. As society performs, so does the standard, obligation and coordination of a market. This is fluid; as the financial and material world of a society changes, so may the rules and materials of a market (Aspers, 2011). This is immediately apparent in the change of behaviour of dealers when dealing with a wider social phenomenon or social shift; what becomes acceptable or permissible in a bad economy is mirrored by the decisions and responsibilities of a dealer.
Perhaps what is most notable, in relation to this idea, is the wider upper-middle class phobia of announcing financial shortfall in even the most dire and obvious of circumstances (Savage, 2015). Inability to keep up appearances or hide economic desperation is blazingly obvious during sales. ‘I simply mustn’t’ or, a last resort ‘I just can’t at the moment’ is a very widely recognised plea for a dealer not to push a potential purchase on them any further (Deal 1, 2017). Announcing reduced circumstances or worse still, debt, is an absolute impossibility, to the point buyers will attend main events while struggling to make ends meet at home; certainly not in a position to spend 11k on a mask in Paris for that season.
This is something is well documented in white, middle class Europeans in terms of economic manner; to confess to financial shortcomings is more than simply an embarrassment at decreased capital, but strongly attached to notions of living beyond one’s means and trying to fit in with a lifestyle you are simply not part of (Savage, 2015). No longer having the means to partake in the ritual of collection is perhaps linked to a wider notions of capital in capitalist European systems: from a linguistic perspective, words such as ‘debt’ or ‘poor’ carry strong pejorative meaning and denote heavily onto one’s character (Biressi, 2013). This is echoed within this mini-economy, supporting the idea that this is a market and culture strongly influenced by European notions of class and status. This, in reflection to the wider question of this thesis ‘why collect art from a different culture?’ suggests that a critical factor within this is also one of status and class through continued financial expenditure in an exclusive, knowledge reliant field.
WIDER SIGNIFICANCE AND CONCLUSION
Through the study of this small, isolated market, many of the themes, rules and behaviours that have become apparent express broader elements of socio-history, class, hierarchy and cultural capital within white, upper middle class European society. Narratives on position, personhood and identity flow through not simply the exchange and buying of the tribal artefacts themselves, but through the relationships and rituals surrounding this subculture. Ultimately, the question of ‘why’ in buying something beyond the cultural and often financial means or heritage of many collectors explodes into many other mysteries surrounding the white middle class.
Can you buy class?
Class is, to continue on with Bourdieu, not something that can be defined simply by income, but by an intricate display of cultural capital and behaviours belonging to a set dominant elite (Bourdieu, translation, 2012):. My fieldwork here clearly supports many wider ideals surrounding social memes and taboos of the broader ideals of the upper middle class; a taboo surrounding discussion of income, a desire to appear more educated, bohemian and successful, and a strict set of rules surrounding how a dealer or collector may behave to be part of the ‘in’ group. Here, while the pieces can be bought, allowing for a contact into the world, the relationships and acceptance is far harder to ascertain; older narratives surrounding the noveau-richeness of Americans and strict rituals surrounding the hierarchy of individuals in the sphere makes it far harder to enter the group as an outsider of the accepted norm. Ultimately, while wealthy clients are tolerated, they are not seen as the same ‘class’ as less wealthy buyers and do not receive the same respect or attention.
What does it mean to ‘own’?
“I collect because…I love the aesthetic. The look. It has an authenticity to it that western art just doesn’t have.”- RB, Interview F
When a client buys a piece, they do not simply buy the object: they buy into a narrative and constructed history surrounding the artefact and its origins, a western construction as to its worth, the colonialist otherism it often represents and, as discussed throughout this project, the relationships and bonds that follow.
To ‘own’ here is simply phasic; the piece gains and falls in value as it is passed around, with many interviewed clients referring to their role as to ‘protect’ it for another buyer or dealer. Surprisingly little is about keeping it for oneself; there is an almost kula- reminiscent element of being a good participant in having traded and collected good pieces. While obviously the wealth and status of being able to afford an expensive mask is an element of collection, very few outside the field would have any idea what is worth €50,000 euros and what is worth €5.
To own is, in this market, is to love the field and be a participant in the culture surrounding its collection and preservation. To buy is to partake in a ritual that cements and validates the social position within this subculture, to gain a sense of identity beyond the pragmatic, tertiary drive of career-focused professionals, and to own a relief, even dissonance, from the white collar world that they believe to be far more complex and problematic than the ‘tribal’ alternative.