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The Story of African Art

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

It’s a strange sight. A warehouse stacked to the roof with African art on the side of Jan Smuts Avenue, the busy road in Johannesburg, South Africa. Looking slightly out of place, in a checked black and white top with matching skirt, is entrepreneur Lara Tatley, the owner of this warehouse, togu’na.

“togu’na is the name of the meeting house found in the centre of every Dogon village in Mali. It’s a low ceiling building where the village elders sit to make decisions about village life. We chose the name because we liked the idea of a meeting house, the idea of connecting people from around the world with crafters from Africa,” says Tatley. Born in Bloemfontein but raised in Johannesburg, Tatley spent 10 years traveling the remote villages of Africa to negotiate with crafters for eyecatching bowls, calabashes and masks. It’s proved a good, offbeat business. So much so she featured in the GIBS/Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Women program for Women Entrepreneurs.

Her first taste of art was on a school field trip to a bronze casting studio just outside of Pretoria.

“I remember walking in there and seeing all these mystical forms encased in the casting; the furnaces and all the old moulds in the roof. The foundry is pretty dark because it needs to get hot inside. I remember the rays of light coming in off the dust. It was such a powerful field trip.

“I always wanted to make things and I used to get very frustrated when I tried to make the things the same way the adults made them. One of the barriers in my way to being an artist was that the idea of what I wanted to make and the reality of what I made were far apart from each other.”

From Australia to New York, her pieces end up in the foyers of the best hotels and as decor in powerful boardrooms.

“I always wanted to run my own business. I studied Fine Arts at university but didn’t really feel like I could be a sculptor…I wanted to do something with handmade craft art. It is something inspirational to me and I wanted that to combine with traveling the world. I was fortunate to start with a very small business that grew into a sizable business.”

It’s difficult to say how much the African art industry is worth, says Tatley. There is very little marketing research and most crafters in remote villages don’t keep records.

“Our inventory alone you would be looking at a couple of millions, excluding assets. It is difficult to assign a value because we invest a lot of capital with crafters so they can afford to make pieces,” she says.

Dealing in African art is more than just getting goods from maker to mantel piece, says Tately. It’s a risky and unpredictable job.

“African craft is not your typical retail outlet. Stock comes in from the far corners of Africa; really rural areas and collected along many channels to get to this place. People can only collect in areas where there is no conflict. It’s very seasonal; if it’s rainy season, those rural areas where the goods are produced it’s too difficult to get to them; if its harvest season, the women are harvesting and they can’t be weaving. If there is a drought there is often an influx of things as people come into the cities to try sell their goods. There is a very long caravan until it gets to this point,” says Tatley.

Customs can also hamstring business. Delays are like mosquitoes on the Serengeti, and just as irritating. Last year, a container in Cameroon was frozen in port for four months because of a backlog. In those four months, the pieces risk being ruined by mould, amid the humid docks.

“Luckily the wood was dry. It still needed to go through South Africa customs. The turnaround time for that container was over a year.”

Another unfortunate incident at a customs office in Cameroon almost ended in Tatley’s husband, Duncan, being arrested for ‘illegally smuggling’ art out the country. Since then the couple travel with a blue hard suitcase, and if the goods don’t fit in it, they freight it.

“The process of Africa customs is just so corrupt. In Africa, no one knows what the rules are. You could get an argumentative customs official like we had…People rely on going backwards and forwards and paying bribes. Even if there is a permit there is no guarantee it won’t be confiscated. It’s all kind of a backdoor process.”

Exporting is a problem. The United States demand wood to be catalogued before coming into the country; a next to impossible task when villagers can’t name the wood they use.

The wobbling South African currency makes matters worse. Often the fluctuating exchange rate means the business loses out.

The risk is part of the allure.

“In African art, forms and shapes are reproduced within societies. The crafters’ names aren’t attached to those pieces. The shape of the piece belongs to the whole society. But you can see when a shape has been made by somebody’s skilled hands,” says Tatley.

“In Africa, typically one guy would be in charge of a few people who would go into the forest then buy a tree from a family; cut down the tree; carve the majority of the piece in the forest because the wood is so heavy and the forest is dense you can’t move it out. The cost of labor in Africa is relatively high compared to the productivity…It probably comes down to efficiency and transport. We still get things that come from villages that you can only get to via a footpath. They are very remote and the only way they can get transported is on a cart with an ox, to a place where a truck or a taxi can move it.”

Then there is the haggle.

“If you have no intention to buy don’t even say ‘how much is this?’ If you do, it’s an indication that the games have begun. It’s a cultural thing throughout Africa. To say a price that is usually too low for a person to contemplate and then walk away is a very disrespectful way of negotiating.”

The uniqueness about the products is that they do all have a story.

“None of them were made for decorative purposes. Artefacts, by the nature of being an artefact, were made for a reason to fulfil a need in the community that they were originally produced in. They’ve had one lifetime of use in that community and then get changed and adapted in this one.”

Not all African art is equal. Crafters can be crafty when it comes to forgeries and will mass-produce work for tourists, cautions Tatley. To many, an original versus a fake may not mean much, but to the true collector, that story behind the piece is as interesting as the piece itself.

“If you compare prices today to 15 years ago, there is not much difference. The prices haven’t risen. Primarily this is because of an influx of African rooftop markets where the goods are not the best quality,” says Tatley.

If it’s for the love of art, Tatley will risk customs officials to travel Africa and drive a bargain in the middle of nowhere.

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Related Topics: #African, #April 2015, #Art, #Craft, #Lara Tatley, #Togu’na.