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.