African Art: Have We Forgotten the Joy?

By Ron Atwood
MA, African Art, UCLA 1968

At the last BRUNEAF I attended while still renting my apartment in Brussels, Jim Willis reminded me that I am the oldest African art dealer on the west coast of the United States. Though not yet a dealer per se, I sold my first piece back in 1965 after returning from Peace Corps service in Liberia with the first group sent to that country in 1962.

Again returning from Africa in 1969, after seven months of on-location writing and direction of the series, “Africa Speaks” for the educational film division of Doubleday and Company, I lent three pieces from my collection to Tom Seligman, curator of the new AOA wing of the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. Too bad I didn’t lend a few more back then, but who knew what was to come? Finally, in 1971, several months before Jim opened his gallery downtown, I established mine on trendy Union Street in San Francisco. Jim had now reminded me of that fact.

Now “semi-retired” as I call myself–another term for “what do I do now?”– I look back on the decades before the twenty first century as a time in which collectors and curators enjoyed far more sense of adventure. The enshrinement of “provenance” and the quest for only published pieces had not yet gripped so many in its pincers. As UCLA’s first African art masters degree graduate under Arnold Rubin in 1968, “provenance” then referred to where a piece came from in Africa, not where it had been exhibited outside the continent. Dare I say now that putting this extrinsic interpretation of provenance on a sacred pedestal can be just as dangerous as putting any human being upon one.

When I was young, I tended to hero worship the big name scholars and dealers, especially in New York and Europe. Yet over the many years of teaching, collecting and dealing art myself, I eventually met some of the most celebrated of these individuals here and abroad. My rose colored glasses had to fall away. I was forced to recognize that these people were fallible like myself. This remains a very important lesson in my life not unlike that of a teenager discovering that his parents are not perfect.

Pride is often the enemy of clear thinking. So also avarice. Both are common temptations for just about everybody, including myself. Can we depend on someone else’s prestige as a guide to acquisitions? That’s tempting, but not if you’ve got your feet on the ground. Only YOU should be the ultimate judge when making an acquisition. Your criteria should first come from personal aesthetic satisfaction and thoughtful examination, not visions of dollar signs or stardom. How much money a dealer or auction company has generated from past sales is not an index of infallible authenticity or even unquestionable integrity. Let’s come back to earth here and just accept the inevitable foibles and frailties of humankind.

Life does not make guarantees to anyone. Buyers who demand only exhibited pieces have often forsaken personal taste and judgement for an illusion, a seeming security blanket that reflects current market romanticism as much as any reality. This period shall pass and values, especially extrinsic, are sure to change as well. A collection is only distinguished when it reflects the personal courage and aesthetic insight of the individual collector over and above the comings and goings of the marketplace.

Take heart. Do not forsake the joy of discovery. Large numbers of fine pieces remain in collections, both inside and outside of the African continent, whose owners had no interest in lending them for exhibition or simply lacked any opportunity to do so. Publication and exhibition opportunities are few and far between as anyone who has approached a museum quickly learns. At one period in time, I was near one that wanted something. By far and away, however, most do not. Even outright gifts remain in storage rooms as is the case here in Santa Barbara where I now live. Profit making traveling shows are the rule now, just as in the movie business. Celebrity reigns and it is cheaper to capitalize on some other museum’s crowd pleaser than attempt to produce your own.

So is it best to buy only the already celebrated item, be it an Old Master or an African mask? There are frighteningly sophisticated fakes out there, as we all know. But sensible discernment, not false security blankets, will lead the industrious collector back to joy. None of us has seen it all. Those who boast of it are only fooling themselves. We are students of a challenging art form capable of greatly enriching our lives, but only if we remain open to surprise and delight without regard to status symbols.

Ron Atwood or “Uncle Ron” (as my grand niece and nephew know me)