Art of the craftsmen:
“Black African Art”
The Folkart Gallery is set to display for one last time the “Black African Art” exhibition before the pieces are placed in a museum. A doyen of Turkish journalism, Hıfzı Topuz has been acquiring the 400-piece collection, made up of one-of-a-kind African masks, at auctions in France since 1961.
What would you do to hide yourself or not to be recognized in a large crowd? Let us phrase it in a different way: What method would you employ to instill in your own body a impalpable ghost, which you believe is strong, but you do not have an idea about its character or proportion? Moreover, you would have to do this at the ground zero of technology.
And, what comes to your mind when it comes to masks? Kızıl Maske… Zorro… Jim Carrey… Batman, or Guy Fowkes, the hero of V for Vendetta? What about the Africans? Art-pieces like African masks, made of stone, fabric, earth, wood or metal, in contrast to today’s plastic heroes; those belittled ones that are not even noticed in the first place… A modest, as well as fantastic reflection of a culture; they are made by craftsmen not concerned about creating an art piece, but to have spirits enter into them so as to bring healing power for ailments. A brief statement on the lives of suffering inhabitants of a rough territory./p>
The moment of truth for a mask is when you find out whether it's going to crack or not. The wood is left to dry first, and if it doesn't crack, it is used to make a mask. African masks, made from the wood that passes the "cracking test," usually represent the spirits of gods and ancestors, and dancers wear them during ceremonies, war preparations, weddings, funerals, or the harvest season. The sounds from musical instruments with tam-tams in the leading role are an essential part of these ceremonies. Sporting a considerably long and deep-rooted tradition, the masks signify diverse meanings such as a person's psychological and moral state. Wisdom, courage, strength, love, and independence are added through wearing them.
An essential element of religious rituals, entertainment, and theater since prehistoric times, the masks have become priceless art works. Masks, especially figurines, hand-made articles, and toys made by the indigenous people of Africa, made their way to Europe in the hands of medieval seamen and travelers. Regarded as ethnic souvenirs at first, these items gained recognition as art after acclaimed artists of the era such as Matisse and Picasso showed interest in them. Moreover, mask and sculpture hunting became a popular fashion of the time.
Rituals related to masks no longer draw interest today in the aftermath of socially destructive colonialism, civil wars, and severe impact of the diversification of cultures on African tribal life. Upon the destruction of tribal culture, their popularity is now dwindling. They still remain, though not as in the past.
“Kara Sevdam” (My Black Passion) by Topuz”
Hıfzı Topuz worked as a correspondent for the Akşam newspaper, while also getting his master's degree in Paris. He fell in love with African artworks at first sight, and pursued them tirelessly for many years. He built an unparalleled collection with the pieces he acquired at auctions every time he travelled to Africa. He explained his passion, or “My Black Passion” in the preface of the book, titled “Black African Art.”
“This is how I began to develop an interest in black African art: Once I went to an apartment across from the Saint-Germain Cathedral in Paris, belonging to acclaimed writer Tristan Tzara, considered to be the master of Dadaism and Surrealism, when I was working as a correspondent for the Akşam newspaper, while also getting my master's degree in Paris in 1953. My goal was to get from him the royalties for the poetry book by Nazım Hikmet, published at the time by Les Editeurs Réunis publications. His poems were translated into French by Sabahattin Eyüboğlu under the pseudonym Hasan Güre. Living in Moscow at the time, Nazım Hikmet wanted the royalties to be sent to his wife Münevver Hanım. Abidin Dino delegated this duty to me. In those years, Tzara was a close friend of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Aragon. He had been an acquaintance of Abidin for many years as well. Tzara greeted me amicably at this apartment and gave me the royalty fee. As I was talking to him, I couldn't help looking at the masks on the wall. I hadn't seen anything like them before in my life. I couldn't stop staring at them. Having realized my interest in the masks and sculptures, Tzara briefly told me about African art, and I was spellbound. This is how my Black Passion began. Six years after that meeting, I was worked at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, and I went to African countries at every chance I could find over 25 years of my life. I came back with masks and sculptures from every place I visited. I participated in auctions for African articles, held in Paris and surrounding cities occasionally. Renowned art history professor Claude Verit would take part in the sales as a consultant, and at times he would offer me advice. I benefited from him greatly as well. So, this is how my African collection came to be. All are the result of a coincidence each... The number of ethnic groups in Africa must be over 1,000. In Congo alone, there are nearly 300... Ivory Coast and Mali also have a diverse number of ethnic groups, each with its own art works. The number of ethnic groups that have created significant art pieces is around 200. You can't find all of them in one place in any museum. I have managed to acquire artworks by only about 50 ethnic groups. The book comprises only of them. I did as much as I could…”
An exclusive exhibition
More than 400 masks and sculptures, depicting Black Africa's fear, joy, sorrow, and excitement, await enthusiasts on the floor he set aside for them in his apartment. Topuz said his greatest desire is to display them for the public. “I've collected these pieces over about 50 years. I've preserved them meticulously. I don't have an interest in capitalizing on the hard work of African people. My greatest desire is to display them for the public. So, I'm prepared to donate them to interested parties so that they can be handed down to future generations. After the exhibition has been completed, they will once again end up at the floor I allocated for them in my house. That's no good for anyone in that,” he spoke.
A 400-piece Hıfzı Topuz collection made up of one-of-a-kind African masks and sculptures will be on display at the Folkart Gallery, Turkey's biggest, for Izmir residents between December 18, 2015 and February 14, 2016.