African Tribal Art Basketry Information

Traditional African art has long been a source of intense interest among art historians, collectors, and dealers. In addition, it is well known that major twentieth century artists such as Picasso gained inspiration from West African works of art.

Renowned South African artist  Irma Stern was also inspired by Central African works of art. However, what has received less attention is the creative and rich traditional artwork of the peoples of Southern African (such as the Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Shona, Xhosa, and others).

Increasingly, however, the works of these groups have gained the attention of museums, art collectors, and galleries around the world. Indeed, works by traditional Zulu artists have fetched high prices of late at Sothebys (New York) as well as at major commercial galleries in New York, London, and Paris.

While the media of the work of the Southern African people is somewhat similar to that of the better known West Africans (wood, clay, beads, etc.), the outcome is substantially different. West African traditional artwork tended to be more figurative, while Southern African pieces tended more towards the utilitarian and less figurative.

One other difference of note for the collector is that the size of many West African peoples (such as the Yoruba, Ibo, Dogon, and Ashanti) is vastly different from that of the Southern African peoples. Just as today, the populations of West Africa were much larger than that of Southern Africa (Maddison 2001).

Therefore because fewer people in Southern Africa were producing works of art, compared to West Africa, there is much less Southern African traditional art on the market. Thus, the substantially smaller supply, and hence greater scarcity, of objects created in the South should eventually lead to higher prices of such pieces compared to works from West Africa.

While in this short introduction it is impossible to cover all of the different types of creative work produced by all of the original people of Southern Africa, we will highlight many of the major types. In the interest of brevity, we will focus mainly on utilitarian works created by the Zulu (the major producers of artwork among Southern African peoples). In later articles we will focus more on non-utilitarian objects (such as beadwork) as well as on the non-Zulu peoples.

These works comprise most of the utilitarian Zulu (and related peoples) objects we see on the market. The prices of these objects vary considerably. Older works, especially those with a credible provenance fetch very high prices. However, as with all traditional African works of art, one must be acutely aware of fakes. With wooden objects it is important to look carefully at the patina and wear of the objects, especially if there is no known provenance.

The value of traditional Zulu art is increasing noticeably not only in South Africa, but also in Europe and America. This has everything to do with the demand and supply of these objects.

As with all works of art coming out of South Africa, the demand in the past ten years has increased markedly. With the fall of Apartheid and the ensuing democratic dispensation, there is a newly found interest in all things South African. Therefore, there is a greatly increased demand.

This is coupled with the fact that there were many fewer objects created in Southern African compared to, say, Nigeria. Therefore, the supply is very low. These two factors taken together are resulting in rapidly increasing values for traditional Southern African works of art.
Professor Kyle D. Kauffman (Wellesley College and Harvard University)

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