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- 16 06 2002 - 17:50 - katatonik

Breathtakingly unpretentious

I spent the afternoon reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “In my father’s house: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture” (Oxford University Press, 1992).
Here’s an extensive, immensely delicious (though not necessarily delightful) quote (pp.137f.), emphasis with bold print is mine:

In 1987 the Center for African Art in New York organized a show entitled Perspectives: Angles on African Art. The curator, Susan Vogel, had worked with a number of “cocurators,” whom I list in order of their appearance in the table of contents: Ekpo Eyo, quondam director of the Department of Antiquities of the National Museum of Nigeria; William Rubin, director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and organizer of its controversial Primitivism exhibit; Romare Bearden, African-American painter; Ivan Karp, curator of African ethnology at the Smithsonian; Nancy Graves, European-American painter, sculptor, and nlmmaker; James Baldwin, who surely needs no qualifying glosses; David Rockefel­ler, art collector and friend of the mighty; Lela Kouakou, Baule artist and diviner, from Ivory Coast (this a delicious juxtaposition, richest and poorest, side by side); Iba N’Diaye, Senegalese sculptor; and Robert Farris Thompson, Yale professor and African and African-American art historian. Vogel describes the process of selection in her introductory essay. The one woman and nine men were each offered a hundred-odd photographs of “African Art as varied in type and origin, and as high in quality, as we could manage” and asked to select ten for the show. Or, I should say more exactly, that this is what was offered to eight of the men. For Vogel adds, “In the case of the Baule artist, a man familiar only with the art of his own people, only Baule objects were placed in the pool of photographs.” At this point we are directed to a footnote to the essay, which reads:

Showing him the same assortment of photos the others saw would have been interesting, but confusing in terms of the reactions we sought here. Field aesthetic studies, my own and others, have shown that African informants will criticize sculptures from other ethnic groups in terms of their own traditional criteria, often assuming that such works are simply inept carvings of their own aesthetic tradition.

I shall return to this irresistible footnote in a moment. But let me pause to quote further, this time from the words of David Rockefeller, who would surely never “criticize sculptures from other ethnic groups in terms of [his] own traditional criteria,” discussing what the catalog calls a Fante female figure />

I own somewhat similar things to this and I have always liked them. This is a rather more sophisticated version than the ones that I’ve seen, and I thought it was quite beautiful . . . the total composition has a very contemporary, very Western look to it. It’s the kind of thing that goes very well with contemporary Western things. It would look good in a modern apartment or house.

We may suppose that David Rockefeller was delighted to discover that his final judgment was consistent with the intentions of the sculpture’s creators. For a footnote to the earlier “Checklist” reveals that the Baltimore Museum of Art desires to “make public the fact that the authenticity of the Fante figure in its collection has been challenged.” Indeed, work by Doran Ross suggests this object is almost certainly a modern piece introduced in my hometown of Kumasi by the workshop of a certain Francis Akwasi, which “specializes in carvings for the international market in the style of traditional sculpture. Many of its works are now in museums throughout the West, and were published as authentic by Cole and Ross” (yes, the same Doran Ross) in their classic catalog The Arts of Ghana.

But then it is hard to be sure what would please a man who gives as his reason for picking another piece (this time a Senufo helmet mask), “I have to say I picked this bec ause I own it. It was given to me by President Houphouet Boigny of Ivory Coast.” Or one who remarks, concerning the market in African art />

The best pieces are going for very high prices. Generally speaking, the less good pieces in terms of quality are not going up in price. And that’s a fine reason for picking the good ones rather than the bad. They have a way of becoming more valuable.

I like African art as objects I find would be appealing to use in a home or an office. ... I don’t think it goes with everything, necessarily—although the very best perhaps does. But I think it goes well with contemporary architecture.

There is something breathtakingly unpretentious in Mr. Rockefeller’s easy movement between considerations of finance, of aesthetics, and of decor. In these responses we have surely a microcosm of the site of the African in contemporary— which is, then, surely to say, postmodern—America.

I have given so much of David Rockefeller not to emphasize the familiar fact that questions of what we call “aesthetic” value are crucially bound up with market value; not even to draw attention to the fact that this is known by those who play the art market. Rather, I want to keep clearly before us the fact that David Rockefeller is permitted to say anything at all about the arts of Africa because he is a buyer and because he is at the center, while Lela Kouakou, who merely makes art and who dwells at the margins, is a poor African whose words count only as parts of the commodification—both for those of us who constitute the museum public and for I collectors, like Rockefeller—of Baule art. I want to remind you, in short, of how important it is that African art is a commodity.

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