How to rank African Art: Part 1

For the collector, ranking African tribal art and even the ranking of African masks (a single subcategory), presents several dilemmas.  A simple example should illustrate the problem. Imagine if Picasso didn’t sign his works, and his style was copied by both talented and lesser talented artists for say a minimum of 100 or so years. What exactly would we have to go on. Well, to remain in the context of tribal African masks, there would be,

  1. clear Stylistic characteristics,
  2. indications of the Tools and materials used during the period,
  3. signs of Use,
  4. Provenance or history of the piece,
  5. consistent Aging patterns and patination of the surface, and finally,
  6. like a fine wine, the Character of the piece should age well.

The mnemonic one could use is STUPAC; Style, Tools, Use, Provenance, Aging, and Character.

To the carver of  authentic tribal masks, stylistic characteristics were very important. The carvers held positions of authority and developed their skill over years of training as an apprentice to a master carver[1].  It is important to remember that the masks were often used as protection against sorcery, bad luck, to appease spirits, and to help maintain the culture and value system of the tribe. Consider the following three Ngil masks from the Fang tribe. Although the masks are very different, they each retain basic stylistic characteristics.

The Fang mask was used for  the ngil ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers. The first mask[2] is held at the Louvre museum in France. “Typical are large, elongated masks covered with kaolin and featuring a face that was
usually heart-shaped with a long, fine nose. The Ngil society disappeared with the beginning of the colonization of Gabon in the early 1930’s.”[3]

This mask[4] has similar markings and facial scarification  patterns. The hairstyle is similar and the heart shaped elongation of the face, tapering to a small mouth is evident.

This last mask[4] is also a Ngil mask,  showing similar markings, but different facial scarification, and reflecting a higher degree of stylistic implementation than the first two. It is very important for the collector of African tribal art, and African masks to frequent museums and exhibitions to familiarize themselves with what would be considered “benchmark” stylistic characteristics and tribal norms.





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