Origins of Tribal Artifacts questioned

By Nicosia Smith

Whenever I visit an African tribal art exhibit I always leave with a lot of questions. And almost always these questions are about the acquisition of the pieces on display. I cannot help wondering how these pieces were acquired, that is, the circumstances of the original acquisition.

Whether it came from a cave, grave, tribal village or family; and how?

Pillage always comes to mind. The pieces on display in this age one can argue, has changed many hands. And some may have even been in an attic and passed from generations to generations with the owner now discovering its value. But before it reached to being traded at fair value, I cannot help but wonder if originally, a fair price was offered or any at all.

(African Tribal Mask)

I have also questioned the issue of value, whenever I see metal pins and beads on tribal pieces made during the colonial era. I know the colonial traders received gold, diamond and other precious stones for the pins, beads and dyes used on the tribal pieces. And one can argue, a far greater exchange for them.

One recent New York Times article raise another, more pertinent question about this, the spirituality of the art. These tribal art pieces, as it is called, were functional and used at different spiritual and tribal functions.

This fact is never lost to you, whenever you visit tribal art exhibits. For example, on artifacts used at divination ceremonies, remnants of feathers and gifts of cloth and bottles bought by those seeking favors are still visible.

Another example, are the popular fertility dolls, given back then to expecting mothers. Seen as decorative pieces; these dolls represented what the young woman and her family wanted in the unborn child. They were cared for like the child would be cared for and kept long after the children grew up. They even became family heirlooms, being passed from one generation to the next.

When one considers the functions of many of the pieces. Some used during sacrifices and other ceremonial and traditional events, I for one will pass on ownership. But the questions about its acquisition lingers, even though an answer may never be found.


Amyas Naegele and other collectors court Madison Avenue

A collection of the art  displayed at 1016 Madison Avenue.

A collection of the art displayed at 1016 Madison Avenue.

By Nicosia Smith

Believe it or not.

It is not only for business meetings, silverware or designer clothing that the crème de la crème goes to Madison Avenue.

Beyond the retail blitz and high-end café establishments, tucked away in town houses are Madison’s galleries. Some permanent and others a passing exhibit, for a day or two.

Sometimes, you are alerted to them in a New York Times cluster advertisement. Or it may simply be a sign on the sidewalk.

Like the sign outside the 1016 Madison Avenue town house last month; boldly announcing an African and Oceanic art exhibit.

As you peered through the glass doors at 1016 Madison Avenue, a curious look of – ‘I want to get in,’ led to a ‘buzzzzz’ – and an unlocked door.

True to the poster on the sidewalk – amid tall potted green plants and under just bright enough lights, walking into the foyer you come face to face with: carved masks, headrests, figures, pottery, weapons, seats and textiles. Ancient art from New Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Congo and Guinea-Bissau lining the walls, sitting on metal stands or were encased in glass showcases. The detailed and intricate works mesmerized and spiked the curiosity.

The art work grabs you in. While the welcoming faces and eager eyes of the organizers and exhibitors, bid you to go further in and up, that is, to the second floor. And we did just that, the executives and passersby alike.

In this multifaceted art environment, one still felt connected to the single theme, which lend itself to an easy flow.

Stretched out in his chair and at times hunched over a computer is co- organizer Amyas Naegele, of Amyas Naegele Fine Art Bases Ltd. An art restorer and private collector, he is among the over ten exhibitors at this Madison town house.

Naegele reference the scene to a coming together of, “What we call like-minded dealers…whose work, whose collections complement each other.” We wanted to be able to exhibit art from the Americas, Africa and Oceana – non-European ethnic art, Naegele said. Currently there are no members exhibiting pre-Columbian art or ancient American art. “Maybe someone will come along showing pre-Columbian art in the future,” he says.

These dealers last year became MATA, Madison Ancient and Tribal Art, but they have not developed to the point where there is a solid membership. MATA’s dealers include private collectors buying over several months, or others with weekly clientage looking for and trading art or have fulltime jobs.

In the upper and lower floors of the town house, these exhibitors were verbal encyclopedias, telling the background stories behind the pieces.

Holding up a wooden miniature doll towards the light, with an examiners’ eye, one exhibitor exclaimed, “Isn’t she beautiful,” as if confirming a known fact.

Looking at the miniature wooden fertility doll with piercings on her chest, face and back that resembled a cross, which I was told was not and protruding naked breast, you may not know what to think.  Solution, ask. And since the exhibitors were so familiar with their pieces background information was plentiful. The one on one conversation with the exhibitors added an extra meaningfulness to the art displayed.

“This is our third session here. And this is the first time we have done a show in the autumn but we will see how it goes.”

So next May, at 1016 Madison Avenue, take a journey through ancient Africa with MATA.

Book of photography captures Guyanese narrative



(Fenton B. Sands photo)

By Nicosia Smith

Call it the proverbial ‘bird’s eye view’ or ‘being in the center of it all’.

Fenton B. Sands, an economic development specialist, has let his lens tell the complex stories of the multi-cultural Guyana. Sands, a former USAID Mission Director to Guyana, spent a little more than two years in the country and his personal photos are the basis of Reflections of Guyana – The Quintessential Book. The book (52 pages over 100 pictures) available for sale December 15, is a juxtaposition of religion, architecture, natural and cultural themes. The following is an edited Q &A of Sands’ journey towards publication.

How did you come to the decision to publish a book on Guyana?

I came to the decision in stages.  But let me pick it up from the fact, that I took a lot of pictures in Guyana, thousands of pictures.

When I got to Guyana, I was immediately struck by the vibrant, clear images I saw, that were different from the other places I have lived and traveled as a foreign-service officer.  For one thing, the environment made the pictures clear, crisp, and sharp.  This was a different country, culturally, socially and somewhat geographically too – which also drew my attention.  Eventually I had quite a catalogue of pictures, which I showed people in Guyana; family; and friends that had also traveled a lot in the foreign-service.  Many of them liked my pictures.

Several Guyanese friends kept telling me I should put my pictures together in a book – and one friend in particular kept pressing me to do that.  So when I had the time, I self-publish a small book titled, “Among my Best Pictures of Guyana”.  I learned a lot about how to do page layouts, pick good pictures, and prepare images for top quality printing. Again, people kept saying they liked what they saw and encouraged me to publish a bigger table-top picture book.

Therefore, with this encouragement and after doing a lot of research on publishing, I got the courage and felt confident enough to publish a nice book on Guyana.

What were some of your other influences for this book?

The answer to this is tied to the background on how I got into photography.  It all goes back to my father, who had an illustrative career as an agricultural expert. He lived and travelled all over the world, but mainly in Africa.  I remember the excitement of my extended family in the States, when we returned from countries like Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. and my father showed them pictures from these places.  This inspired me to do the same thing, when I followed pretty much the same career path as my father, working and traveling overseas, mainly in Africa.

However, about eight years prior to coming to Guyana, I had literally put down my camera, because there wasn’t much that interested me (photographically). Except on some occasions, when I got to witness and take pictures of great cultural events in Ghana, where I had been living and working for five of those eight years.  At the same time, I was forced to make the transition from using a film-based 35 mm camera to using a digital 35 mm camera (which is another story). And I also began learning about and using computer software to manage and modify digital images – something I had done before in a darkroom.

So as I mentioned above, I have lots of good pictures of Guyana and I felt like sharing my impressions of this beautiful, interesting country.  I also felt like providing a positive image of Guyana with good quality images. Despite some of the not-so-nice things people see and hear about the country – including Guyanese themselves.  I often got a kick out of people wondering where I took a certain picture, sometimes from people living in Guyana or elsewhere.

 Were there pictures you wanted to include but did not get a chance to?

Yes indeed!  Culling and selecting pictures was one of the toughest jobs.  So I have hundreds of other pictures I left out.  Part of the reason for leaving some pictures out, had to do with the number of pages in the book.  I didn’t want to invest too much time and effort (plus money) in having a book printed that in the end, people weren’t that interested in.

Explain your selection process, was it agonizing, knowing you could not include all the photos you took?

I wanted the pictures to flow. So that affected my selection process, as well as, wanting to pick good quality images.  I thought it important to have informative captions for the pictures, which is one thing people said that they would appreciate, after seeing the prototype of the earlier self-published book. I wanted to have more architectural pictures with interesting descriptions, but couldn’t get a lot of information. It was disappointing and I left many of those pictures out.  In general, I thought it important to have input from Guyanese for the captions, but to my surprise, very few people were forthcoming with help on this – except for one great friend.  He is an authority on Guyana’s landscape and geography.

What themes if any, you wanted to base this book on?

I based the book on several themes – and that’s what you would see.  Since Guyana is a country of six races, I naturally focused on people to show the variety of the country’s ethnic makeup.  Guyanese cultural events and a mixture of religious practices are related themes in the book as well; followed by images of the country’s fantastic natural and geographical features and its architecture, such as houses on stilts.

 What were some of your concerns if any, publishing a book about Guyana, having lived in the country only two years?

Well, I certainly didn’t want to come across as pretending I know everything about the country, or that I have pictures that cover every aspect of Guyana; especially having been there for only two years.  I am a serious non-professional photographer.  So, often, I could only take pictures within the context of doing my job as an economic development specialist (the reason why I was in Guyana) and I didn’t always have the opportunity to move freely about to take pictures.   Yet on occasions, I did get around and specifically try to capture scenes like the awesome colorful sunsets or the vibrant cultural kite flying scenes on Easter Sunday that is quite a sight.

How is this different from your other works?

I’m new at this so I don’t have a lot of other books.  As I mentioned above, I have self-published a few smaller books entitled “Among My Best Pictures of Guyana”, and “Among My Best Pictures” (that includes pictures of Guyana and Ghana).  Those works are very similar to this book.

However, I also recently self-published a book with pictures and commentary about my father entitled: “A Tuskegee Airman and More”. He led an extraordinary life.  Growing up a poor city-boy in Harlem, New York, he became one of the elite pioneering black men known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  After this experience he became a top-flight expert in tropical agriculture and traveled around the developing world. Starting first in Liberia, where he went in the 1940s with my mother and where I was born.

Say how buyers will get to know Guyana from this book?

Following the many photographic themes in the book, people will get a glimpse of the different features of Guyana.  I hope that people of Guyanese decent, primarily those who have either never been to the country, or haven’t been there in many years, will be impressed with how nice the country is.  I know, from the reaction I’ve gotten from people who don’t know about Guyana, some pictures will surprise and maybe even awe them (the Guyanese Diaspora). And perhaps make them want to visit this country, with such a natural environment and Caribbean culture, full of interesting, friendly, and attractive people.

Post War American painters chose abstract expressionism

(Neil Welliver image)



“See it Loud!”

It’s the theme of three floors of American abstract expressionists.

In the National Academy Museum seven American post-war painters are featured in, “See It Loud.

These American painters:

∙ Leland Bell

. Paul Georges

. Peter Heinemann

. Albert Kresch

. Paul Resika

. Stanley Lewis

. Neil Welliver

Displayed in this 19th Century mansion, turned Museum, is a diverse collection of each artists’ work.

Influenced in part by Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers, these painters continued as abstract expressionists forsaking the more popular European expressionisms.

The works cover the mundane to the grand; for example, self portraits, dining, outdoors, the club scene, the prairie and the streets. Like Leland Bell, Croquet Party, 1965, oil on canvas, is about families standing on a green lawn in khakis and Bermuda shorts preparing for a croquet match – mallets in hand.

And Paul Georges, floor to almost ceiling canvases of lilies and roses in bright yellows, green and red; and his self-portrait in studio, 1959, oil on linen. Or Neil Welliver landscapes which captured natures’ dry streams, marshes, snow-covered hills and riverbeds.

The painters may seem to have similar taste but their differing portrayals lends itself to variety and intrigue.

A vivid blue sky with cascading clouds hovers over the prairie, in Kresch’s Landscape, 1992, oil on canvas; yet a mixture of yellow, green and brown makes the barren landscape, almost evening.  While Lewis’, Two Houses in Leeds, 2004, oil on canvas, also under a blue sky gives a roadside view of two homes in the country.

Resika, though, added a little more to his paintings of nature – nudes. He had half draped and fully dressed female figures posing standing or reclining in lush colored landscape of tree trunks, dry branches or around potted plants and bouquets.

These painters continued their realism into the 21st Century, except for Leland Bell that died in 1991. Georges, Welliver and Heinemann died in 2002, 2005 and 2010 respectively.

Welliver believed, “If you give yourself to a place you begin to feel its power.”

The exhibition runs through January 26, at the Museum on 1083 Fifth Avenue.