Out of Africa

The Leslie Sacks Collection of African tribal art is an encyclopedic microcosm of a continent’s creativity and a connoisseur’s eye.

Some of Leslie Sacks’ African objects installed in his home.

Some of Leslie Sacks’ African objects installed in his home.

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When the Los Angeles dealer Leslie Sacks died at the age of 61 in September 2013, he left behind a sizable inventory of the classic modernist and blue-chip contemporary art he had specialized in for more than three decades—as well as a profound sense of loss in the Southern California art world. He left something else, too, a personal collection quite different from the art he sold: a wide-ranging, museum-quality collection of African tribal art.

The collection, which filled his home and overflowed into his office at the gallery, remains in situ. Selections from it were recently exhibited at Leslie Sacks Fine Art, and eventually it will likely go to a museum. But is now and will always be available to the public in the form of a hefty volume, African Art from the Leslie Sacks Collection: Refined Eye, Passionate Heart (Skira). Edited by independent curator Amanda Maples, with an introduction by experts Bruno Claessens and Frank Herreman and contributions by numerous scholars, the book presents the high spots of the collection in exquisite photographs, essays, provenance histories and schematic layouts that place the objects in the special contexts that Sacks envisioned for them. Beyond simply being an account of the art and material culture of various peoples, it is an account of how one perceptive connoisseur related these works to each other and to certain works of modern Western art.

Sacks’ interest in the arts of Africa was partly personal, motivated by his own origins in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born and raised and where he got his start as a dealer. It is also where he started collecting African art, although it was West Africa, where the most complex aesthetics and visual ritual language were developed, that interested him most. In particular, Sacks sought out pieces from the Yoruba culture, in present-day Nigeria and Benin, which spread its influence over the New World, due to slavery, from Brazil to the Caribbean to the U.S., in the form of syncretic religions such as Vodoun (Voodoo), Candomblé, and Santeria, among other manifestations. Among Sacks’ Yoruba objects is a wooden shrine sculpture for the god Esu/Elegba (known as Papa Legba in Haitian Vodoun), who is both a messenger between gods and men and a trickster with multiple identities. The sculpture depicts a priest of Elegba; his headdress is lined with gourd containers, symbolizing magical substances with the power to influence events, and he also holds some of these over the heads of two tiny figures who crouch in front of him.

Sacks liked to pair African art works with Western—usually modernist—works. (This pairing was sometimes notional and sometimes physical, expressed as an actual installation in home or gallery.) The Elegba figure reminded Sacks of a Picasso etching, La Source, from 1921, which he also owned. It is less directly indebted to African aesthetics than some of Picasso’s more Cubist portraits, but the profiles of both figures, Picasso’s water carrier and the Yoruba priest, have very similar outlines. Another Yoruba piece, a wooden bowl used for the Ifa system of divination, is strikingly Cubistic; Sacks paired it with a Cubist still life drawing in his collection, Nature morte avec bouteille, from 1913–14. The bowl, which was intended to hold 16 sacred palm nuts, is supported by carvings representing a bird grappling with a snake. Like a Cubist work, albeit in three dimensions instead of two, the composition seems to decompose space.

A large ceremonial figurative spoon in the collection, made by the Dan people of Cote d’Ivoire, made Sacks think of Surrealism, with its tendency to conflate the mechanical with the human, and he compared it to Alberto Giacometti’s Spoon Woman. The Dan spoon, which was a status symbol among Dan women who competed among themselves for the title of most hospitable, has its handle and base in the form of a woman’s legs, while the bowl portion is an abstracted head and torso. Another functional object with symbolic purpose, a Kongo flywhisk handle, depicts a woman cupping her breasts in her hands in an act of submission. It was probably made for a chief, intended to indicate his power over his wives and subjects. Its smooth, shiny patina is likely the result of having been rubbed with oil over a long period of time. When he looked at it, Sacks was reminded of Rodin’s Torso de femme, of which he owned a cast.

Other artists of whom Sacks was reminded as he surveyed his tribal objects include Henry Moore, Matisse, Modigliani, Marino Marini, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Not all were as directly or as strongly influenced by African art as Picasso had been, but the overall impact of African art on modernism—occasioned by the entry of colonialist spoils onto the European market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—was enormous. For a modernist expert like Sacks, this connection was deeply enriching with respect to his experience of both bodies of work. But unlike the first generation of modernists, who tended to disregard the historical, ritual and material-culture context of the works, Sacks embraced a scholarly approach and amassed a huge library of specialist works. However, aesthetic values were always central to him, and he liked to relate the decorative elements of disparate African pieces to each other. He expressed this interest graphically in a series of 4 x 4 photo-grids that he created for the book, in which 16 details are arrayed in a way that draws the eye to their commonalities, even though they may come from quite different places and cultures.

His collection is particularly strong in the art of the Baule, a farming people from Cote d’Ivoire whose works are perhaps the most prized by enthusiasts of African art. Baule figures, of which Sacks owned quite a few, have a typical stance characterized by bent knees, hands at the sides, and face looking straight ahead, the head, with an elaborate coiffure, roughly one-quarter the length of the torso (as opposed to about one-seventh in real life), as in much of sub-Saharan African art. One of the standout Baule pieces in the collection is not a standing figure but an anthropomorphic heddle pulley (a part of a loom for strip-weaving). Devoid of ritual function, it is a purely utilitarian device, but the delicate beauty of the carving shows that the Baule regarded everyday life as worthy of the best artistry they could bring to bear.

A mask in the collection, with its long nose, arched eyebrows, and crest-like coiffure, has the typical Baule qualities of serenity and austerity. It was likely used in ritual dances and may be a portrait of a particular high-status person. Another very striking piece is an Igbo “maiden mask” from southeastern Nigeria, off-white in color and baring its teeth. The white color is a reference to purity as well as to the ghostly nature of ancestors. The mask would have been worn by a young man impersonating a marriageable young girl in a ceremonial dance.

One of the largest pieces in the Sacks collection is a Yoruba door from the 19th century, carved with three rows of scenes from everyday life and war. There is no narrative here, simply representations of various types of activities typical of the time, when there was conflict between Yoruba groups and between the Yoruba and their Muslim neighbors: musicians playing, merchants at a market, a couple dancing, a mother with a child, a soldier mounted on a horse and one with a gun guarding a captive.

The 19th century was also the period in which the Yoruba, like many other African peoples, first came into extensive contact with European colonizers. An unusual sculpted figure owned by Sacks depicts an English barrister, complete with black suit, blue necktie, and umbrella, the eyes rendered in bright blue and the face chalk-white. Here we have the African artist turning the tables, casting an amused eye back at the Westerner. As a collector and inveterate looker at depictions of Africans, Sacks could not have failed to appreciate the irony.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: January 2014