African Art Caravan

African Art Caravan

Johannesburg’s place in the trade and migration of African art objects

african art traders

In Chad, I am taken by camel to visit a man outside the village of Sahr.  I am in search of artifacts which I am told this man – a trader – might have.  As I get to his store, he walks toward me and greets me. ‘Hello, Mark!’ I am thousands of kilometers from home, but a man I have never met before knows exactly who I am.  This is the close-knit world of African art. Mark Valentine – Gallery Owner and African Art Dealer

It is a warm clear winter’s day in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the entrance and outside the suburban house entrance gate, there is bustle and activity as men unload large crates marked ‘Made in Cameroon’, gigantic, ornate wooden doors, frames and pillars from the Indian sub-continent, and makgoros – dugout canoes – from Botswana.  Luxury 4X4’s offload designers, diplomats, collectors and tourists: from taxis alight Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Senegalese, Congolese, their bearing, their blackness, and their clothing distinguishing them as foreigners here in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

African art moves along well-trodden circuits

When I first visited Amatuli African Art gallery, it operated out of a modest bungalow on a half-acre plot, every inch of which, outside and inside the building, displayed African artifacts. Inside the house, the artifacts were displayed gallery style in every room. Outside buildings resembled a warehouse with masks, statues and smaller objects crammed onto shelves, pillars, posts, doors, and ladders propped up against walls, beds and tables piled onto one another in places in-between. A workshop buzzed with the activity of craftsmen, woodworkers, painters, polishers and framers. 

african art

Packing African artifacts in crates and boxes which are destined for London, Venice, San Francisco and all places in between.

In stark contrast to the neighbours around them, many of the visitors are in long flowing bou bous (kaftans) and leather sandals, as they gather and greet one another in French, English and African languages. They have names like Moussa and Amadou. They set down their plastic woven sacks and canvas carry bags filled with African masks, statues and objects, laying them out on the driveway, and wait for Amatuli’s owner, Mark Valentine, to begin the day’s trading.

Johannesburg is the new hub for trade in African art


Since apartheid’s end in 1994, communities of people from all over Africa have come to South Africa, mainly Johannesburg, and established their lives around the African art trade as the newly liberated nation opened up to the rest of the continent.  Propelling this migration to the southern tip of Africa were civil wars – such as in Zaire, Cote d’Ivoire and Somalia in the 90’s – that occur with depressing regularity in African nations. Political and economic refugees arrived in South Africa with little besides their tribal masks and fetishes, which they knew had value in Western markets.  Most stayed, and brought their families to share with them a new life in a post-apartheid society, then full of hope and economic promise.

They maintained links with the art trade in their home countries through relatives living there.  While borders opened up within Africa, trade surged between South Africa and the rest of the world.  In the first years of this influx, the traders brought with them tribal artifacts that were authentic and of excellent quality. 

A unique aspect of the trade in African artifacts is the “runner,” Africans who acquire objects by various means in Africa and then visit Europe and America to seek out collectors. Pre-1994, African art traders needed to travel to European centres such as Brussels and Paris, or to New York, to sell their goods.  Johannesburg now became recognised as the centre of African art trading in Africa, and a major clearing house for distributing African artifacts to major centres in Europe and America. 

african art trade
               MARK VALENTINE

Mark Valentine is one of those entrepreneurs at the epicentre of this burgeoning trade.  With the tanned healthy looks of an outdoors man – one’s image of an ex-game ranger more than met – Valentine is pleasant and very personable.  His seeming distracted-ness belies an ability to fix on not one demand but several, at the same time.  I have expressed a need to immerse myself in this world of the art traders who frequent his workplace, and he delegates his buyer, Mark Phiri, to set up appointments for me while he turns his attention to a large order placed by the owner of a prestigious London interior decorating store. When an assortment of VIP guests arrive (and with the World Cup taking place in South Africa, these have included Bill Clinton, the Murdoch’s and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Mark is the charming raconteur, binding spells around the art and  fulfilling their expectations of the African Renaissance Man.  The more he has to do, the happier he seems.

Mark tells me that a shipment of African artifacts from Ghana is being unpacked in Yeoville, an inner city suburb, and suggests that I accompany him to take a look at the goods.  As he maneuvers his way through side streets in his dirt-bespattered blue Nissan Patrol, he says  “I love this city. Let me take you to Rockey Street.  Not the Rockey Street of old.  This is way cooler.” 


Yeoville’s character has been shaped by its history as a middle class immigrant enclave – Jewish and Portuguese mostly – architecturally not dissimilar to Miami, with low rise art deco apartment blocks and 30’s style single family homes. In the 80’s it was a trendy nightspot, its main street, Rockey Street, bustling with boutiques, galleries, clubs and restaurants.  In the 90’s the middle class moved out as city revenue was diverted to previously neglected areas like Soweto, and Yeoville was transformed into a high-density low-rent neighborhood populated by a new group of  immigrants – foreign Africans. 


The suburb’s art deco gems were neglected, and  Yeoville now has a look of decay, overcrowding and makeshift stores. Most whites bemoan the ‘death of Yeoville’, and certainly, it is rare to see whites here.  It could be because of the perception of danger, or merely its discomforting contrast to the walled, guarded and pristine neighborhoods inhabited by Joburg’s affluent citizens.

On this day of the Ghana-Uruguay match, when hopes are insanely high for Ghana, the last African team left in the World Cup, we drive past an open-air restaurant,  bedecked with flags – mostly of Ghana.  Mark loves it. “You know, I would much rather come here and watch the matches than some trendy bar in Melrose Place.  I know so many of these guys, these guys are my buddies.”  He continues, “In Chad, I am taken by camel to visit a man outside the village of Sahr.  I am in search of artifacts which I am told this man – a trader – might have.  As I approach his home, he walks toward me and greets me. ‘Hello, Mark!’ I am thousands of kilometres from home, but a man I have never met before knows exactly who I am.  This is the close-knit world of African art.”   As if on cue, as we park the 4×4 on the pavement outside an apartment block, a young man shouts “Hey Mark!”  He and others are unloading hundreds – no, thousands – of masks, statues, stools, baskets which are crammed into an enormous truck parked opposite us. 

African art trading

“Just arrived! You need to see, Mr Mark!”  Mark crosses the street, and, almost as quickly, turns back.  “No, thanks, not for me.  Another time. ” he says so that he can be heard, and, in an aside to me: “I don’t buy this stuff; this is the tourist stuff, airport art”.

A tall young man with a charming smile opens the gate of a small brick face rundown house and invites Mark in. His name is Isa, and he is from Accra, Ghana. We go to the back of the house, where a shipment is been sorted into stools, female figurines, masks, carved ‘colonials’ – mostly representing football players.  Mark surveys it all, expressionless.  Then he takes some Asante stools, and puts them to one side.  He briefly talks price with Isa. 


“Bring these to Phiri tomorrow.  He will give you a check then”: Mark Phiri is Amatuli’s buyer.  He takes out some female figures – Asante aqu’abe dolls.  “And these” he says to Isa, who wants Mark to look at some other bronze metal-plated Asante stools.  “No, too new, too much gold. So, you all from Ghana?  We’re gonna beat Uruguay tonight, hey?”   They say their farewells.  The whole transaction has taken less than ten minutes, and, although brief, was enough for Mark to decide what he wanted, and what he will pay. Both buyer and seller have figures in mind which are near enough to fix a final sum.  The traders tell me that Mark is a hard bargainer – the toughest in Johannesburg.  But he is fair, and he buys far more than any other dealer.

We stop at a makeshift spaza shop to buy a couple of cokes.  Not one, but some dozen men, all Cameroonians, all traders, come to greet Mark.  The word has gotten around that he is in Yeoville, buying.   He introduces me.  He tells them they must talk to me about their work as African art traders.  I say I will come back to this street on Friday.  “Not midday – afternoon” says one of them “We are all at mosque” they explain.

Indeed all the African art traders that I meet are Muslim. Their religiosity informs their business practices and creates a fraternity amongst men who are often removed from their families and have to deal with high levels of xenophobia in South Africa.  Because of the Muslim prohibition on idolatry, which many African artifacts represent, these traders exhibit a detachment from these objects and refer to them as bois (wood), a commodity.  This contrasts with the attachment that characterizes the relationship that both the traditional owner and the collector has with the objects.


Despite their detachment from tribal artifacts, these middlemen are nevertheless deeply versed in the language, trends and tricks of the business. Above all, they are merchants to their fingertips, descendants of their Muslim forefathers who drove the salt caravans of the Sahel Desert since the 8th Century.

Now, however, they deal in a particularly 20th Century commodity – art.  As the latest of several generations of African art traders, they who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of African art.  Their forefathers made possible many of the great collections in museums and private holdings in Europe and the United States.  Their fathers and brothers operate the business in their home countries, travelling to other countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, acquiring pieces which, once accumulated in numbers, will be packed and shipped to their son, or brother or cousin who lives here in Johannesburg. 

african art traders

The trust that is necessary in a business such as this, where prices and values are merely a guide, not a rule, is a given when it is a family operation.  This trade observes a clear code of honour  – the world of African art is so small that a misdeed is quickly telegraphed throughout the community.  The Moslem brother who carries $10,000 back from a dealer in New York to an African trader in Senegal does not extract a cent for his service. 

A different kind of morality operates in the selling of tribal artifacts.  The same brother might weave a rather fantastic account around a mask or statue that he wishes to sell to a tourist. He might refer, ambiguously if not inaccurately, to a mask’s age, its meaning, its use in ceremonies, none of which he can honestly attest to. He is aware that the tourist seeks a ‘complete experience’ – of bargaining in an exotic marketplace, of connecting with local people, of gaining an insight into the world of tribal Africa – in other words, that the visitor is buying the ‘story’ not only of the piece but of the experience of acquiring the piece.  The experienced trader knows only too well that the client in the West comes with specific tastes, certain idealizations of what an artifact should convey and fixed ideas about meaning, authenticity or value. 

Some estimates place about 100,000 African art traders in Johannesburg but that figure is fluid.  It includes the substantial number of refugees from Zimbabwe who sell contemporary craft such as wire toys and painted mugs. Tribal art traders from north of Zimbabwe come and go, travelling to other regions on the Continent in search of objet d’art.  And, if the art market is saturated, a trader may decide to trade another commodity such as clothes or plastic goods until there is renewed demand.

african art

The vast majority of objects that we see in the market stalls, galleries and shops of Johannesburg and that we name African art are replicas of genuine pieces.

One country in particular, Cameroon, is renowned for its excellent carvers and artists and is the production capital of Africa’s art. There are up to 100 workshops in one town, Fumbaan, producing works in wood, beads, metal and terracotta. 

Opposite: Beaded Stool and Bed, Bamun Tribe, Cameroon

It is not uncommon for rural inhabitants in the most remote parts of Africa, once exposed to the fact that their ritual masks or statues have a cash value outside of their community, to carve replicas themselves and transport them to the markets.

Still, masks and statues, even in their crudest manifestations, represent the persistence of tribal Africa on a continent that, for centuries, has experienced relentless waves of religious, political and cultural invasion. They are the symbols of the thousands of tribes that still flourish on the continent. It is the combination of Africa’s ancient traditions of trade, the colonial experience, and extraordinary creativity that has given rise to the phenomenon we call African art.   More than that, African art represents the triumph of community and tradition over modernity and nationalism.

african art trade

In Africa there is no word for ‘art’.  Whereas Western artists see their work as a matter of self-expression, an individualist endeavor, African artists see their work as a communal endeavor.  It is the West which has bestowed the label of art.    When Muslim slave traders arrived in West Africa in the fifteenth century, Africa’s religions were based on ancestor-worship, and efforts to destroy the masks and statues of the tribes were re-doubled when Christian missionaries and colonial administrators came to conquer.

african art trade

Via soldiers, explorers, administrators and missionaries, artifacts turned up in Europe’s museums and markets and they provided the raw material  for a new kind of art  – ‘primitivist art’ – as created by Picasso, Giacometti, Manet, Jacob Epstein and dozens of other famous 20th Century artists.

Opposite: Kwele Mask, DR Congo. How modern is this!

These artists were the inspiration for a modern art form which represented a rejection of grand narrative and modern anxieties.  Modern Art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and surrealism all took from African art its essential humanism – the pieces were seen as timeless, spontaneous, natural, without signature. 

african art


Les demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907

After painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 Picasso began painting in a style influenced by the two figures on the right side of the painting, which were based on African art.

In so doing these Western artists claimed African art as their own. Indeed they conferred the label ‘art’ or objets d’art upon these objects.  In Africa artifacts were used for ritual, not display.   Masks and statues influenced Western artists’ work and indeed were displayed alongside these works.  Influenced by the great modernist artists, Western collectors began to look at these objects as art – and therefore collectible.  The artist in Africa was forgotten, the middleman made invisible and the cultural appropriation of African art was complete.

Today’s African art traders appeared on the Western art scene shortly after the 1967-1970 Biafra Civil War, when they began transporting artifacts to Europe and America. 

Many West and Central African art antiquities – those pieces that are authentic and more than 40 years old – left the Continent with this initial wave of art traders and are now to be found in the galleries, museums and collections of Europe and the U.S.A.  

Opposite: Bambara Female Statue, MALI

Before that, it was Europeans – a few collectors, ethnographers and explorers, colonial officials, merchants and sailors – who procured objects for their own collections.  These pieces comprise the balance of the antiquities that circulate the collections in the West.

Two worlds, two value systems – it is the traders and the dealers that connect them. The African art trader operates in a unique milieu – he is both participant and observer in the traditional cultures of Africa, and in the moneyed, elite world of the cultural capitals of the West. His identity however is entirely separate from both.  Like a guild – he and his fellow traders are linked by religion, values, gender, family ties and specialized skills and knowledge which span generations. What is remarkable about these men is their facility in successfully negotiating and seamlessly traversing two opposing value systems and cultures without being part of either.

African art trading

  Some items considered very powerful are used for many years, repaired when damaged and embellished with differing materials as fashions change, while others are used for a single event or ceremony.  As used items, they will be purchased by traveling traders who support their families by travelling from village to village buying discarded sculpture and selling it to the middlemen in the larger cities throughout Africa. These travelling traders are called ‘runners’. 


The intriguing aspect of African art – not the airport stuff – is that there are two different world views at play: that of the artist or sculptor, who seeks to represent a living culture – of which there are literally thousands in the continent – and that of the buyer, invariably European, for whom African culture is remote and beyond categorization, quite unlike European art, with its layered, structured, historic and highly observed products. African art breaks all the rules – it is all at the same time crazy, scary, abstract, witty, impenetrable, and astonishing. This is its allure. It is like nothing the buyer has ever seen before.

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