African Masks

An interview between Frank Heirmann and David Norden:

African MASKS .

Ibo Mask
Provenance: Derech Collection, Paris.

How do you become an African Art expert?

“It is like Jazz Music, most don't get a clue, because you must listen to it much and for a long time. You must see thousands of mask before understanding the mystery. The Norden's have been antique dealers for three generations. My mother collected African art and from the age of 6, I went with her to auctions. My father had from time to time African art in his shop on the Lange Leemstraat, but my mother kept the best pieces for herself. My father wasn't really an afro-specialist in the same way as my brother Jacob who took over the family shop and specialized in antique music instruments. I had the African Art virus and opened a double antique shop on the Sint-Jorispoort in 1992 – one for general antiques and one for tribal art. In 1998, I was able to buy a house in the Sint Katelijnevest and started to specialise more on African masks and statues.”

What is the use of Masks?

“Masks are coming from animistic cultures, tribes who don't believe in one single god, but rather try to live in harmony with the ancestors' spirits and nature's forces. For the ritualistic ceremonies they carve masks and statues that are “empowered” by the village sorcerer. It is only after this empowerment that the masks can call upon the spirits and nature's forces.”

How many different kind of African masks exist?

“The Masks are ‘danced' during ceremonies. You have death masks for funerals, masks used during the harvest, hunting masks, initiation masks. Many tribes also have disease masks to prevent and heal. The Pende tribe from Congo has splendid objects that show a split tormented personality. Animal figures generally symbolise the forces of nature. The significance of certain masks, however, is still not known.”

How old are these masks?

“For an African it's not the age which is essential. Every generation makes new masks. But some special samples are kept for generations. For an antique dealer and a collector a mask must be at least fifty years old, preferably with a traceable pedigree – a documented line of ownership confirming the age of the item. Typically, this means that it has been recorded who brought it back from the colonies, or better, that it was exposed a Museum's permanent or temporary collections. The best masks are coming from the interbellum, the most valuable pieces were already exposed before the First World War. In Museums you can find masks that are more than 600 years old, but these are historical curiosities.”

Are there many fake masks?

“Absolutely. There are two kinds of fakes. The “airport art” means pieces carved fast for the tourist market. These masks have never been danced or used. Then you have the more sophisticated fakes, items artificially made to look older and that give the impression of having been used in rituals. Only experts can tell the difference. There are laboratories that can date objects, but science doesn't know everything either. The style, the patina, and the way it has been carved give more clues to the experts. Real collectors buy only from specialists who can give them some guarantees. In case of doubt, I take pieces back without problem.”

African mask price ticket?

“You get a nice tourist mask at 50 euros, a fine mask half a century old will easily cost 2,000 euros. Top pieces can go up to 6,000,000 euros. For most people these expensive masks are not relevant because they simply couldn't tell the difference.”

Who are the mask collectors then?

“With globalisation the interest in ethnic art has grow rapidly. In 1998, I started a website that now gets 3,000 visitors each week. The site has an international discussion platform with 400 members ( replaced now by Facebook where I have 2000 followers, and a newsletter with 10,000 readers). Survey's showed that ethnographic art constitutes a mere two percent of the general art on offer. But more and more people interested in Western art, are now developing an interest in ethnic arts too. They buy a piece occasionally. Really knowledgeable collectors are rare. In Belgium I think they are only some 300. Luckily for me, I sell worldwide to good clients.”

How alive is the mask culture?

“We see a revival in Africa, led by financial and touristic reasons. Also, animistic and tribal culture can be a way to express opposition or resistance to the ( Christian or Islamic) colonialists. It reinforces the identity”.

Is there a relation with Carnival masks?

“Our disguises are a remnant from a far past. Did you know that in Germany and Ukraine they found masks from the XIIIth century looking very similar to the African ones? Finally we are also animals, with a layer of culture. Halloween, students baptism, groups with signs or uniforms are in the same sphere as African mask rituals. Only in our civilisation it became a game, whereas the African believes in it.”

David Norden

Sint Katelijnevest 27

B2000 Antwerpen


Tel +32 (0)3 227.35.40

Frank Heirmann.

Gazet van Antwerpen []