Tribal art and modernism have long gone hand in hand. Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, for example, were both fascinated by African masks, and incorporated elements of these designs into their paintings, including the former’s celebrated Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Today these most intriguing of artefacts are often used as a stylistic counterpoint to contemporary interiors, adding a rustic, artisanal element to otherwise ultra-sleek designs. Shown on stands or grouped in clusters on white walls – as in the chic upstate New York home of former ballet dancer Rita Noroña Schrager, a scheme devised by Miami-based interior designer Hernán Arriaga – these ceremonial masks can make a striking statement.
No matter how they are displayed, however, collecting them is a serious business; a good entry-level mask starts at £2,000-3,000, while special pieces exceed seven figures and prices at the top end have doubled over the past decade. In December 2014 at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris, a Muminia mask by the Lega people of the Democratic Republic of Congo fetched €3.6m – an auction record topped only by the 2006 sale of the Ngil mask of the Fang culture of Gabon said to have inspired Picasso, which went for over $7.5m. “The market has changed a great deal,” says Bryan Reeves, owner of gallery Tribal Gathering London and one of the founding members of the fair Tribal Art London. “People are increasingly picking pieces that relate visually to their interior environment, and a lot more specialist dealers now sell at contemporary art shows.”
Reeves currently has a 1920s Chokwe mask (£5,500) from Angola, decorated with yellow pigment and unusual face markings, and a stunning “house mask” (£12,000) from the same period in the Luba Kifwebe style, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Used as part of ceremonial costumes for events such as weddings, funerals and initiation rites, these masks would “sometimes depict spirits that are a cross between a human and an animal”, explains Reeves.
Both the rituals and the masks can be traced back to pre-Paleolithic times, but most available today date from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. The best examples come from west Africa: Mali, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Gabon. And since most of the countries they originate from were once French colonies, today the market is centred around Paris, where Galerie Bernard Dulon is currently showing a c1900 Lega-people wood, kaolin and fibre mask (price on request).
The most important elements to look for are age, expression and provenance – forgery is rife in the market. “People buy them because they are dramatic and powerful; they make very strong artistic statements,” says Alex Arthur, founder and publisher of Belgium-based Tribal Art magazine. “Most are carved in wood, although sometimes they incorporate metal, clay and stone as well as raffia, and even animal or human teeth.”
The spiritual element can also be a powerful draw, says Christian Elwes, head of research, publicity and media at tribal-art dealer Entwistle, which has a Kota emboli helmet mask from northeast Gabon for just under €2m. “It is a very rare and important mask of cylindrical form and cubist volumes,” he says. “It has been exhibited at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and at The Met in New York.” Another highlight at Entwistle is a Nafana Bedu mask (€85,000) from the eastern Ivory Coast – “a monumental mask of remarkable chromatic arrangement and abstracted zoomorphic form”.
One of Entwistle’s clients is Javier Perés, a Cuban-American lawyer turned contemporary art dealer now based in Berlin who has been collecting for 16 years. “My first purchase was a Baule mask from the Ivory Coast for $60,000 from Sotheby’s,” he says. “It has human characteristics and horns in dark wood with a shiny patina.” His extensive collection ranges from the beautiful and naturalistic to the more sculptural and architectural, displayed at his home in groupings on the wall – alongside contemporary paintings by the likes of David Ostrowski, Andy Warhol and Melike Kara – and on plinths. “If they have a flat back they’re easy to attach to the wall, which makes a greater impact,” he says.
Perés also has nearly 50 masks that are even more unusual; these are Bundu helmets worn by the Sande women of west Africa – rare because the majority of masks were worn by men. “They come from a number of areas, mostly Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast,” he says. “These female masks are fascinating; although they were commissioned by women they were actually made by men.” Meanwhile, Michael Backman of the eponymous London gallery has a striking Egungun headdress (£8,500) from the Yoruba people of Nigeria dating from before 1939.
Another passionate collector is Nigel Boardman, a corporate lawyer based in London and a trustee of the British Museum; his collection numbers some 25 pieces. “I started going to Africa in the early 1980s,” he says, “and five years ago I developed a real passion for ceremonial masks. They are invariably beautiful and a pleasure to look at, but the real appeal for me is that they are strikingly different in how they represent humans and animals.” His current favourite is a copper mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo that was used when appointing a new chieftain, which he bought for about £4,500 from Tribal Gathering. “New collectors should go to museums and galleries to learn as much about the subject as possible,” he advises. “And don’t spend too much money on your early purchases – they’re bound to be a mistake.”