Dr. Eberhard Fischer Museum Rietberg
Text: Sandra Willmeroth/Images: Markus Bertschi

Master of African Arts

Eberhard Fischer, former Director of the Rietberg Museum Zurich

“Just look at how this piece has been worked – the élan, the stylisation, the precision, the energy that’s in there!”

When as a young man I was appointed director of the Rietberg Museum in 1972, one of my great ambitions was to lift the veil of anonymity surrounding Africa’s wood-carving culture and give those artists some of the recognition – yes, the dignity – they so richly deserve. I always took pains to determine the precise provenance of the masks and sculptures we acquired and then affix attributions such as “Unknown master of this-or-that tribe or cultural region” – this entirely in the spirit of Rietberg Museum, which has its roots in Baron Eduard von der Heydt’s vast collection of Asian, African, American and Oceanian artworks. Collector and banquier von der Heydt had a personal maxim: “Ars una”; in other words, “There is only one art”. But I’d like to add that there are artists all across the globe!

Alone for that reason it’s a terribly annoying cliché and nothing more than antiquated missionary drivel when African art is referred to as “primitive art” and deemed daemonic or threatening in its very nature. Not a single one of these carvings has anything grotesque or wild about it. African masks are often depictions of spirits who dwell in the jungle yet also inhabit the dreams of man. They’re helpful creatures you need to get in touch with, concentrate on, so they can be effective in society. The perception that all of this is just quackery, fetishism or a pack of phantasmagorical forbears is completely false.

I really like the angularity of African masks, their symmetry, severity of form, limitation to the essential and hence their clarity, quest for equilibrium – and something that people fail to recognise at first glance: the calm and grandeur that lies within these artworks. Only a state of peace can free the panoply of emotions they evoke when on display. A laughing mask can’t cry. But a sanguine mask is somehow imbued with the feelings the artist had at the moment of its creation – something sad or perhaps gleeful; something powerful or maybe meek?

To judge the quality of African art, you need to know quite a lot about African cultures. But above all, you also have to be highly familiar with the entire spectrum of mask types and genres and know which stylistic possibilities exist in a given culture for depicting, say, a human face. There are of course typical design “templates” for each folk, but simply copying the same-old, same-old does not suffice for the true artists. They put much more blood, sweat and tears into their works: memories, perceptions, experiences. For that reason, there is a tremendous difference between a so-so piece and works that are, say, especially austere or particularly opulent or extremely precise or masterly in the way they’ve been carved. Lacking that overarching know-how, you can hardly determine whether a piece has been reproduced in the thousands or if it in fact is something quite special.

At the moment one is able to ascribe that specialness to a specific artist – recognise his fingerprint on the piece, so to speak – the work acquires an entirely different, singular value. Genuine masks of that kind can fetch the equivalent of 300 to 3 million francs at auction. There are no standards; after all, we’re not collecting postage stamps here and looking whether or not they’ve been cancelled. No, we collect the qualitatively extraordinary – if it actually is “art”.

You see, it’s frequently the case that African carvings are not real artworks, but instead rubbish. The market for fakes has become a major problem, and the likelihood is great that a layman who buys African art will end up holding the bag – with nothing in it other than perhaps a memento of the rip-off. The number of fakes and manipulated objects is enormous as there are also many African carvers who even today are very adept and use the same materials as their ancestors. Then it’s simply a matter of “replicating” the works’ aging process. For the uninitiated, differentiating between a mask anno 1910 or 2010 is practically impossible.

I’ve travelled the world countless times, in the truest sense of the expression. When you conduct research, you need to go into the hinterlands – because without your own field research, you can’t critique the provenance aspect. You have to know how people in a foreign culture actually live and, for instance, also be able to interpret the local vocabulary by means of aesthetics, gesticulations, tonal nuances. You need to have experienced how the audience reacts to a real-life “masquerade”.

It was rather by coincidence than design that I came by a collection of African art: my father was one of the most highly regarded experts on African art, and so I grew up in that world. Like other children go along with their fathers to church or the football pitch, I and my siblings joined our father at African art exhibitions. It was my greatest good fortune as a young art ethnologist to be named director of Zurich’s Rietberg Museum – in all honesty, I’d actually have paid real money to have the privilege of performing that function!

Dr. Eberhard Fischer

(*1941), holder of a doctorate in ethnology and the eldest son of German social anthropologist Hans Himmelheber, headed Zurich’s Rietberg Museum from 1972 through 1998. He is President of the Rietberg Society and General Secretary of the Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Foreign Archaeo­logical Research. In 2012, the Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri Citation for Literature and Education. The focus of his research and expertise lies in 18th century Indian paintings and African works of art.