Having admired and in a small way collected African masks for years, I've recently begun to study them. Isn't this a bit late? Well, no: I've followed the advice a wise friend gave me long ago -- that I should just buy what I liked. But now I find I want to know more about these things that I like.
Unfortunately a lot of what I'm learning is unsettling. For instance, the question of authenticity: is an authentic mask one that was carved for use in ritual practices embedded in African custom? If that definition is right, then two things would follow. (I say this based slightly on my own experiences looking for masks, but more on what I’ve been learning from reading, particularly in the fascinating book by Christopher B. Steiner, African Art in Transit (1994), which studies the African art trade in Côte d’Ivoire.)
First, it's very unlikely that many of the masks for sale in African markets today are authentic in this sense. The traditional practices of which the masks were a part are fading – though I doubt that these practices are entirely gone – and so presumably fewer and fewer masks are being made for actual use in ritual. Moreover, there are a lot of masks for sale, so many that there probably just aren't enough villages to support the commerce from their own ritual stock. Most masks, instead, are probably being made right now, and mainly for the tourist trade. They may look old, but that’s because they’re specially treated to appear that way.
Second, if a mask actually is authentic, how did it make its way from ritual to commerce? Steiner offers this description of bargaining “[a]t the village level of the art trade”: “[M]uch art is obtained during times of personal or regional crisis…. Bargaining here is less concerned with price as it is with the negotiation of a sale – i.e., convincing someone to sell something.” (64) On the same page, Steiner quotes an African art trader on this process:
When buying in villages, you have to be very careful about what you say. You have to be gentle and polite. You have to explain to the elders that these objects are things which people want to learn about. “Your children,” you must tell them, “won’t be able to appreciate or understand these things unless we take them and preserve them in museums and in books.”
I recently heard Michael Sandel speak about his current work on the intrusion of market thinking into areas of life that used to be regulated, at least on the surface, by other forces. (For example: government programs that pay children for reading books during summer vacation.) He was worried about the moral corrosion that might be caused by market values' "crowding out" of other human impulses, and that's an important concern. But the moment when an authentic mask is pulled from the world of its creation into the world of art and commerce seems worse -- an act of cultural destruction rather than mere corrosion.
Paradoxically, almost all masks that are really old (say, a century or more) seem to be in Western museums. There they have been preserved against climate and pests, which are not kind to wooden masks. There too, it seems, they get treated as objects for preservation rather than for use and in due course replacement.
But now, today, it seems right to say that those Westerners who simply like African masks should not seek masks that fit the definition of authenticity I started this post with, because if they succeed they will be contributing to the disintegration of a culture. Instead, they – we – should embrace masks made today, for trade, as today's expression of this traditional art. And we should buy what we like.