About the Collection
It started in 1970 when a young German came to South Africa to gain 6 months of international experience. I was never to forget my first experience of Cape Town which set the scene for a lasting belonging to the continent. Arriving by sea early in the morning on a rainy day I took a taxi to a hotel not far away which was suggested to me for a day or two , I unpacked and decided to rest a while, as the last night on the ship meant party time till the early hours. An hour or two later I got up and walked outside. The rain had finished, the clouds had lifted, the sun was out and the air was absolutely clear. All I really knew of Cape Town was the heart transplant achievement of Christiaan Barnard and I also was very fond of Miriam Makeba’s Click song. I have always loved Jazz as a powerful interpretation of black lives and thought I might experience some of it in real life. And of course I was aware of the unequal racial laws which worried me somehow. But I was totally unprepared for the sheer visual enchantment that I would experience. In front of me was the deep blue sea with an equally deep blue sky, when I turned around there was the most magnificent mountain ever seen, I honestly felt like wanting to dance in the street. This experience reminded me of the way my favourite painter Vincent van Gogh described the clarity and intensity of the colours in Southern France to the drab grey of the Netherlands.
So the planned 6 months became a lifetime of love for Cape Town, South Africa, and Africa in general.
Collecting African Art on a small scale started the following year on a trip to Namibia and what was then Rhodesia and Mozambique. Seeing all these different cultures made me want to learn and study all aspects of Africa, from wild animals to deserts and tropical forests, the history of its people and eventually the history of African Art. Over a period of time I learned from books, personal experiences and visits to museums, and of course lately the internet provides new facts and also fiction, and this learning and studying is still continuing on an ongoing basis as a very rewarding hobby. Collecting traditional art started in the early 1970’s, purchasing random things on my travels and also visiting local curio shops. I still remember purchasing a beautiful large Senufo bird statue in a local shop and was quite astonished by the reaction of many fellow residents and friends who couldn’t understand how I paid money for “black” things. However the greatest influence on my interest in traditional art happened with the arrival of Abraham Njoya in Cape Town from his native Cameroon. Abraham is a direct descendant (great grand son) of the famous King Ibrahim Njoya (1860-1933) of the Bamun. Abraham quickly realised the potential that Cape Town offered, being the main tourist hub in Africa with a highly developed infrastructure, probably the most advanced in Africa. Using all his experience and knowledge from his traditional upbringing and with considerable contacts in West and Central Africa, he started a curio business with the emphasis on traditional African Art.
As he established himself successfully in the local business environment, he invited members of his family to join from Cameroon. Especially his brothers Adamou and Salifou have been influential in assisting me not just with their knowledge, but with first hand information on any new and exciting pieces that have come to the market. Abraham has been officially rewarded with a chiefdom by the king of the Bamun and is currently the official representative of the king in South Africa, assisting with the spiritual and social well being of the resident Cameroon community. Over the years my relationship with Abraham has strengthened and we have become true friends in the African way of Ubuntu. Abraham, his brothers and their circle of associates have been of great assistance to me in asserting a true value of the collected pieces. As the difference between genuine and faked pieces is sometimes difficult to tell, it is extremely important and rewarding to be in a position to get honest and knowledge based second and third opinions at all times. Very interesting are the different values applied in judging pieces, for the Europeans the questions are very factual, missing the real point, like, is it genuine, how old is it, where does it come from? While to an African with roots in traditional culture the first judgement is the spiritual power it contains. After many years I believe I have at least partly developed an African understanding of traditional art.
The description Traditional African Art refers strictly to the art of Black Africa, excluding the Arabian countries and Egypt in the North and the San, Khoi and European cultures in the South. Most African Art is made from wood, so it is no surprise that the people of the tropical forests in West and Central Africa have been the most productive and also the most creative exponents. Traditional African Art was never made for the sake of art alone, as was done in Europe, but always had a religious or cultural purpose. Even the court art of Nigeria or Cameroon can be described as religious as the king was sublime and the spiritual master of his people, and all court art was only to enhance his prestige.
It has generally been an accepted norm by international authorities that for African Art to be genuine, it had to be created for a religious or cultural purpose and it had been used for that purpose. I agree to this standard of evaluation, but I firmly believe that art also needs to be fully appreciated for it’s aesthetic value alone. The old traditional ways have all but disappeared and with it the natural ability and driving force of creativity which was a by product of the way of life. That is why the collection is called Vanishing African Art as in future there will only be cheap and repetitive reproductions for the tourist trade, while the new African creativity will probably at first thrive in areas of fashion, music, and literature, as has happened already, before a kind of African renaissance opens the way for a new wave of inspiring visual arts.
Most of the pieces in the collection originate from the early 20th century and were originally collected from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. This was the time when the new religions, especially Christianity (Islam in the North had been established well before then) and of course political independence became the driving forces of change, and everybody wanted to emulate the western style of living, to the extend of even feeling embarrassed of their roots. Many original sculptures were destroyed, burned, or buried under ground. Yet many survived and were kept by local chiefs or medicine men, and many pieces were collected by men with great foresight like Nji Idriss Mbombo, the father of my friend Abraham. As a grandson of King Ebrahim Njoya, he was part of Bamun nobility but never involved in the direct circle of royalty and had to find and create his own way of surviving. From the 1950’s to the 1980’s he was a travelling trader and salesman, covering all of Central Africa from Nigeria to as far as Zambia in the South. As money was in short supply, he had the foresight and ability to exchange his services for many treasures of traditional African art, which would otherwise probably have disappeared without any trace. My closeness to Abraham and his brothers, and through their father the connection to one of the greatest rulers in African history adds even more to the meaning and importance of my collection.