Inside the mind of a collector: Peter Ntephe on African arts….

Mbole Anklet

African art has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is almost uncontestable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Unfortunately, back in the days, these objects seemed not to have been coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them and thus no effort was made to preserve them. Often their value was negligible once their function was performed. So, when foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards, a lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.

But times have changed. The value for these art works even by Africans at home and the diaspora is immense and some are going all the way to ensure its preservation. One of them is  Peter Ntephe, an African art collector.

Peter Ntephe is a man of many parts.  With six degrees from some of the world’s leading universities, including Oxford and a PhD from the University of London, he undoubtedly qualifies to be described as “well read.”  The one-time practicing lawyer, London academic, and football commentator, is also quite well traveled, including in Africa, and has built up a remarkable collection of African art.  We sat down with him to speak about his artefacts and some of the intriguing cross-cultural sensitivities that arise in collecting traditional art.  Dr. Ntephe lives in Houston where he is a C level executive in a multinational oil company.    

The conversation begins;

Ibiene: I’ve seen some of your collection and its quite impressive.  When did you start collecting African art?

Peter: I began collecting formally in 2010, starting with two magnificent masks I bought in Freetown.  The collection however has pieces I acquired earlier, including notably from an African art dealer in Lille, of all places, in 2002 – at the time, I intended those merely as house decorations. 

Ibiene: What kind of African art do you collect?

Peter: I collect mainly masks and sculptures.  Some of my collecting has been done in down time while on trips to far-flung corners of Africa in my work as an oil company executive.  I guess then that you would categorize my collection as tribal or ethnic art, although I much prefer the term “traditional art.”   

Dr. Ntephe and ceremonial kingship codpiece, acquired in Northern Nigeria

Ibiene: What’s your philosophy for choosing your pieces?

Peter: I choose my pieces for their aesthetic – visual – appeal to me.  And of course, reasonableness of cost.  I try to find unique pieces, even when looking for the “classics” of traditional African art collections such as a Songye, Chokwe or Teke mask.  While I generally keep away from mass pieces made clearly for casual tourist purchase as souvenirs, I pay short shrift to Western collectors’ contrived yet overriding requirement of authenticity in choosing my art.  

Ibiene: What do you mean by “authenticity”?

Peter: That should actually be what do they mean by authenticity?  For Western collectors, a traditional African art piece can only be given value if it is made and used for ritual, is old – or “antique” as they call it – and was intended only for its functional rather than artistic utility.  Aesthetics do not come in at all, or when they do, which is rare, they are just tangential, if at all, to value.  

Ibiene: So what problems do you have with this “authenticity”?

Peter: My problems with it are fundamental especially when you know the undertones.  It comes from something of a racist complex.  It is a complex that the late, great Chinua Achebe described in his famous critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as depriving Africans of basic human expression, like art for art’s sake, and rendering Africa therefore as “as the other world, an anthesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.”  It panders to an image of Africa as a dark, primeval and foreboding continent, full of mystical and mysterious rituals which govern the lives of the prehistoric, loincloth-bound, “authentic” natives, inhabiting thatched huts or even living in trees in smokey little settlements in the middle of dense jungle.   

Ibiene: Can you break that down a bit in relation to the art?

Peter: Sure. When European explorers, anthropologists and colonialists encountered Africa en masse in the nineteenth century, racist narratives emerged that negroid Africans were basically sub-human, at least by European standards, and had not evolved such higher instincts or faculties as making or appreciating art for art’s sake.  

Henri Kamer, writing as recently as the 1970s, forcefully argues along those lines.  I must read it for you.   “In Africa there is no creative artist, as such, and the purely decorative object, of which there are so many in Europe and Asia, does not exist.  All [African] art is functional, ritual or traditional.”  He continues, that “some pieces are executed with more or less plastic beauty [by] the creator who is called an artist but who would be more accurately be an artisan.” This is the 1970s o, not 1790!  

There’s more: “In effect, that which is called an African art object has not been conceived as such by its creator.  The object made in Africa … became an art object upon its arrival in Europe.”  And then the coup de grace.  “It was only a short time ago that the concept of Black art became generally accepted.”  Incredible, isn’t it?

Ibiene: Truly, incredible!  Please go on

Peter: So you see that when the looted Benin artefacts – the so-called Benin Bronzes, even though most are not actually bronze – first arrived Europe after the British Punitive Expedition that sacked Benin in 1897, the thesis immediately arose that those works of outstanding beauty could not have been made by black Africans but by Egyptians or, incredibly, the Portuguese.  Many of the artefacts were obviously decorative rather than made for ritual or any other function and so did not fit the narrative of pre-colonial Africans not having the capacity to consummate art for art’s sake.  

That narrative still influences the “authenticity” – ritual and antiquity – parameter on which Western collections set much of their store of value on for African tribal art.  If a piece cannot be shown to have been used in a ritual, and preferably quite dated, then it is regarded as a “fake” or dismissed as “tourist trash,” no matter its artistic finesse.  

Conversely, this attitude has resulted in some crude and ugly pieces, rudimentary really in terms of craftmanship but alleged to have been used in rituals, being offered as the authentic representations of African art – the epitome of Africa’s traditional artistic expression.  That in turn consolidates the subliminal image of the African, in his or her element, as possessing only childlike cognitive abilities.  The Eurocentric patriarch, then vindicated on the assurance of his superior mental evolution, can cast a withering glance and snort, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Ibiene: I see.  Fascinating.  So you would not collect art made for ritual?

Peter: My one determinant is aesthetic appeal.  I look for quality craftmanship, for uniqueness in design, for arresting imagery, for pure artistic beauty.  I have spent hours in arts and crafts markets in remote towns – the gods of oil and gas are funny where they place hydrocarbons – looking for that one piece that makes me go, “wow.” 

And this ritual, anyway, how many traditional art pieces can be made for ritual today?  Traditional rites have diminished and along with them ritual art in the face of the onslaught by received religions and modernity generally.  Indeed, the traditional artists have learned to pander to the still insatiable demand by Western collectors for ritualistic antiquities by faking them.  

There is a funny movie, a documentary, Je Ne Suis Pas Moi-Même, shot in Cameroon, which I commend to everyone on this point.  It shows these tremendously skilled carvers in a rural area making what they would pass off as antique and authentic by copying them from a coffee table photobook, published in Europe, of African art in museums abroad.  So, who’s fooling who, really?  And what is authentic?  

Twin figurines, acquired in Jabi, Nigeria.

Ibiene: What about antiques?

Peter: I have little time for antiquity.  Indeed, the traditional artists have learned, in response to Western demand, to also fake antiquity.  They have various techniques, such as dusting, burning, cracking, caking in mud or blood, and even burying their work, to prematurely age it.  You’ll see some of that hilariously done in the documentary I talked about.

Moreover, for me, dirtying the work, which is what artificial aging usually achieves or involves, robs it of the aesthetic appeal that is so important to me.  In Namibia, a few years ago, I chanced upon a stunning Chihongo mask.  That style of mask originated among the Chokwe people in Angola and the Congo and is popular with African art collectors.  I had put off buying one until I saw the outstanding version I did that day.  It was caked in mud of course and presented to me as “authentic.”  

After we haggled and agreed on a price, I told them to wipe off the mud carefully and polish the mask.  They looked at me like I was mad – “No, no, no, sir, we polish, no value, mask spoil.”  Upon my insistence that I would not conclude otherwise, they relented and polished the mask (with wooden-floor wax).   When it now became this shiny wooden piece of aesthetic beauty, they admitted their surprise that the mask looked much better and said they would try to sell a few more pieces in the polished state.

Ibiene: So which ones in your collection are your favorite pieces?

Peter: It is difficult to tell.  I really like most of them.  They hit my visual taste centers from different angles.  But if I would absolutely have to choose, there are a few.  

Ibiene: Yes, please choose?

Peter: One is the bust of a Masai woman with a shaved head that I got in Kenya in 2013. The stoic expression on her face, intricately rendered, gets me all the time.  

Bust of Masai woman, acquired in Nairobi, Kenya

Then there is the ornate, curved Tuareg sword I bought off a man on a camel in a little village in Niger – I haven’t seen anything quite like it since. And oh, of course, a phallic wood carving that I found in Cotonou which caused quite a stir at airport security as I had packed it in my hand luggage.  One of the security men picked it up and ran around, waving it about, to much hilarity by his colleagues and other passengers.    

And then there are my masks, which I consider the center pieces of the collection.  I particularly like one, which I acquired in Ndjamena, Chad and had framed (an abomination to many traditional art collectors) on my return, to enhance its display appeal and capabilities. It looks Chokwe but was claimed by the dealer as Southern Chad.  

There is an imposing Bamileke elephant mask which I hunted down in Douala after having been long enamored of one owned by the Brooklyn Museum. I had wanted another that looked slightly more pristine as that was not only cheaper, the dealer claiming the one I bought as having been actually worn in performance and therefore “authentic,” but in keeping with my collecting ethos.  However, she had concluded a sale on the other so I settled for my authentic [laughs] but still beautiful, albeit costlier, piece.

Ibiene: Talking about your masks, I have seen some of them and while they are indeed beautifully crafted, they might come across to people as scary.  Also, with the links to ritual, are you not sometimes scared?

Peter: Scared? [Laughs].  Of what? [Laughs again].  My own ancestral spirits?  No.  You know, that is the irony in all of this.  While foreigners seek and prize African masks used for ritual and in performance, Africans are increasingly fomenting a repudiation of them.  I think that is quite sad. 

I’m sure you’ve even seen the video that went viral recently of a performance of the twirling raffia masquerade somewhere in Europe by white Europeans?  So, that which Africans reject on account of misconstrued notions of modernity is now being appropriated as postmodernist art by those whom Africans think responsible for those notions.  

Mask, acquired in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Once, I had a dear friend visiting from Nigeria and immediately she came across one of the masks from Sierra Leone, screamed in fear and revulsion, “What is that?  God forbid!”  Her basis, of course, was that it was fetish and demonic, and antithetical to her Pentecostal Christian beliefs.  But I grew up in an orthodox Christianity that through its (somewhat oxymoronic) links with modern scientific education and rationality, not only propounded but experientially demonstrated the nonsensicality of many of those superstitious fears.  Remember the part in Things Fall Apart where the villagers are shocked that the missionaries have not died but thrived weeks after being assigned land in the evil forest?

Ibiene: Yes, yes, I do remember that.  Funny.  Achebe was a master storyteller.  Please continue.

Peter: And I ask again, why should African masks and religious art be automatically regarded as evil and demonic but the equivalents from the West as good, holy and progressive?  The gargoyles on the Notre Dame in Paris that Africans ooh and ahh about, to keep up with the Joneses, would the reception be the same if they were termed African? 

Coming back to the Sierra Leone masks and authenticity, it happened that I visited the market at the end of Lumley Beach with some of our European technical staff who were on the hunt for traditional art too.  The traders assumed none of us had African antecedents and went into the usual spiel about how all the pieces were authentic, antique, used for ritual, from up-country, etc.  

They however spoke among themselves in pidgin English, which of course I understood, and unbeknownst to them revealed to me that the mask carvers were actually working in an outlying building behind the main stalls.  At the slightest opportunity, I ambled over to the workshop before they could stop me, much to their consternation.  So, no, I definitely have no reason to be scared of my Sierra Leone masks (or any other for that matter) [laughs].

Mask, acquired in Cotonou, Benin Republic

Ibiene: Okay.  You talked earlier about the looted Benin artefacts.  There has been a call for African antiques in Western collections and museums to be returned to the countries from which they were forcibly taken.  What is your view on this?

Peter: You know, despite all I’ve said, I’m quite ambivalent on that.  

Ibiene: Really?  Why?

Peter: My stand is multifaceted here and I hope I can get it across without being misunderstood.  

First, the pieces, fortunately or unfortunately, derive their pecuniary value from being held in the West and perhaps their mode of acquisition even, the history attached to them.  But they are only a microcosm of art that has come out and keeps coming out of Africa.  Why are the traditional pieces made since not being given as much value, particularly in Africa?  Are the Benin artefacts looted by the Punitive Expedition at the end of the 19th century the only ones made or the most beautiful ever even?  Of course, not.  

Secondly, I have my strong reservations about the inclination of many African countries – and I’m speaking hard fact here – to preserve and maintain the antiques with as much care and attention as has been lavished upon them in the West.  I visited the Igboukwu Museum in Southeastern Nigeria last year and was horrified. 

Igboukwu is the place of course where the late Thurstan Shaw led excavations in the1950s that unearthed sophisticated bronze ornaments and sculptures from around the 9th century that pre-date more well-known bronzes such as those from Ife.  Those excavations came on the heels of an initial discovery of bronze works by a villager, Isaiah Anozie, while digging beside his home.  

Five of the artefacts from the original excavation are part of the British Museum collection.  Suffice it to say that I shudder to think what would happen if they were brought back to the Igboukwu Museum that I saw last year.  Chimamanda Adichie built one of her characters in Half of a Yellow Sun, the Englishman Richard Churchill, around his fascination with the Igboukwu bronzes.  I bet dear ol’ Richie would be equally mortified! [Laughs].

On the other hand, it is undeniable that communities which make art have and should retain a cultural property in the art, especially when it was forcibly taken from them.  The US pioneered the Lieber Code back in 1863 which essentially forbade the forcible appropriation of indigenous artwork even via military conquest.  Europe, including Britain, had no such law up to the Benin Expedition; otherwise, there would probably be less disputation now that ownership of the looted bronzes could never have been acquired without the consent of Oba Ovonramwen whom the Expedition deposed. 

Covid protocol meets beaded banner (acquired at Karen/Langata, Kenya)

Ibiene: So what is your solution?

Peter: Again, I am treading on delicate ground here.  I would probably opt for some form of shared ownership or a trusteeship in certain cases, where proper custody on return is doubtful.  In that case, proceeds from, say, continued exhibition of the works abroad can be shared between the Western custodians and the historical producers of the art.   

Where maintenance and proper custody can be guaranteed, it would seem right that the artefacts be returned, even perhaps against the putative rights of the current owners who might claim a long root of title from successive purchases.  This has happened in the past, including the often-cited case of the Afo-A-Kom, the spiritual thing of Kom, which was stolen from the royal sanctuary in Laikom, Northwestern Cameroon in the 1960s.  Upon the discovery of the statue in a US gallery years later, it was eventually returned, after some dispute, to the Kom. 

It should be clear, of course, that I am talking about only stolen or forcibly acquired pieces because please note that African traditional art was long collected, by consensual purchase from Africans, and shipped abroad before the 1890s.  Some of the earliest collectors, believe it or not, were missionaries, contrary to the impression that they invariably destroyed all the traditional art they came across as heathen pieces.  

Also, notably, a famed British adventuress, Mary Kingsley, legitimately purchased many artefacts in her travels in Africa in the 1890s, some of which were eventually bequeathed to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  I particularly enjoyed that museum during my time at Oxford, although it predated my art collecting.  

Ibiene: Finally, what is the future of your collection?  Any exhibitions in the offing?

Peter: Funny that you ask that because I was already scouring Houston, in my spare time, for an appropriate exhibition venue before Covid hit.  I was looking at this summer or early fall.  I’ve also been slowly, very slowly, writing a book on the pieces in the collection as well as my views on African traditional art collecting, some of which you have enticed out of me in this interview.  Appropriately, the launch of the book should accompany the opening of the exhibition, but we’ll see.

Ibiene: Ha, so one epilogue of a question – about the book and the exhibition, can we expect an invitation to cover and to attend?

Peter: Yes, of course!

What an incredible conversation with Peter Ntephe! Do you have any question for Peter bothering in African arts? Or you have come across a piece that is worth sharing? Please share with us in the comment section.

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