Pierre Nachbaur

Tribal turf wars — Parcours du Monde 2013

"Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues."
William Shakespeare

"He who knows how to flatter also knows how to slander."
Napoleon Bonaparte

"Freedom of Speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit."
Jim C. Hines
We are all endowed with the right to express our opinions in a fair and honest way. The slippery slope begins when the line between facts and opinions is blurred by ruthless, amoral individuals to create self-serving propaganda in their quest for authority, power, fame and, of course, MONEY! 

The current state of vetting at tribal shows and in the international market place is in need of drastic improvement. As Mark has dryly illustrated it is too often laced with odious if not reckless politics and dealer rivalries posing as sage and balanced expertise. The aim of determining authenticity is usually the lowest priority and biggest victim of the whole process.

In Paris in September 2013 an important dealer presented an impressive but unusual Dayak statue with a big price. I express no opinion on the authenticity of this piece, which I have not seen, but I feel compelled to denounce the vicious backhanded dirty tricks used to commit a rude public assassination.Disagreement is not the problem! That is, if everyone adheres to a reasonable code of ethnics, simple courtesy and rational debate. When these are replaced by rumours, lies and hearsay spread by demagogues and amplified by the cries of a kangaroo court, the common good of the entire Tribal Art Community is threatened. Beware you could be the next victim!

Opinion versus Slander
Authenticity is best decided without passion or prejudice.  The establishment of authenticity is deductive and rational. It consists of three broad fields of investigation — scientific tests and examinations, thorough comparative art historical analyses by a qualified, experienced expert(s) with no vested interest and finally circumstantial evidence concerning provenance and past history.

Obviously aware that the unusual iconography of the Dayak statue would raise questions, the presenters arrived prepared with the results of extensive scientific tests. Three Carbon 14 tests left little doubt that the wood was ancient (unless you deny the accuracy of Carbon14). Further microscopic examination and testing of the surface showed no evidence of foul play — accelerated weathering by natural, chemical and mechanical processes.

Under normal circumstances some grumbles would have been heard, it is certainly not the first time a controversial piece has been presented, but in the end it would have been forgotten and life would go on. In this case the story went ballistic, a true nuclear meltdown.

The Parcours should be a celebratory event honouring Tribal Art, collectors and dealers. The dirty, embarrassing and destructive slugfest that broke out in the alleyways of St. Germain des Prés is a blot against what Parcours stands for. Worse yet this was no isolated incident but rather the latest and worst conflict in a long simmering vicious Dayak-Indonesian Turf War. Sadly the cast of notorious culprits was predictable.  Presented with a unique opportunity — a statue everyone loved to hate — they sought to anoint themselves as an exclusive and infallible Papal junta and declare themselves the be all and end all of Dayak art. Using brilliantly manipulated gossip with limited factual content they enforced the true faith with all the vigour of the Inquisition — no mercy and no concern for collateral damage.

Law of the Jungle?
Let’s all agree on one thing - Those who make declarations of authenticity or the lack thereof are obligated to clearly articulate the grounds for their opinion. Hearsay, rumour, exaggerations, lies; false or misleading claims of neutrality, ego and vendetta have no place here! Deliberations and conclusions—must be based on sound systematic, logical investigation and research.

The public act of assassinating or lynching of an art piece without due process is destructive and counterproductive to the common good of the Tribal Art Community.

The Warning Signs
The behavioural patterns of demagogic transgressors who promote such bloody spectacles are easy to recognize:
1) Pretence, arrogance, self-righteousness, crusader-like fervour (I am saving the World!), emotional outbursts, melodrama, strutting and grand sweeping pronunciations — L’Etat C’est Moi — and finally fiery denunciations of all who disagree.
2) Exaggerations and time-tested clichés — “I know the hand who carved this!” And lies – a Balinese atelier-pumping out fakes that nobody has visited. Some falsehoods approach lunacy — secret conspiracies to defraud and cheat hatched over 30 years ago (it took that long to create the patina) by evil native geniuses in the heart of Borneo. Others are just downright stupid. “The extraordinary patina is the result of a secret process whereby a 500 year-old piece of wood is soaked in honey and eaten by ants to create the patina”. Why not aliens and paranormals? How else could these guys choose old pieces of wood long before anyone had ever even thought of using C14 tests?
3) Playing to the sycophantic kangaroo chorus. Nothing is better than a gang of cohorts when you are bent on extra-legal execution. Unfortunately in this world multiple recitation of the same nonsense by different people makes many believe that the lie is true. Even honest people smell like shit when a bucket of ordure is thrown on them. Instead of looking at who threw the excrament and asking why, the crowd demands the head of the violated victim.

Batten Down the Hatches or Stand Up?
When will the Tribal Art Community take the steps to curb the worst abuses? Serious serial violators should be ostracized and warned that their behaviour is destructive and unacceptable. How about rubbing their noses in their own follies and foibles of which there are many (an invitation for readers to list a few).

Let’s be humble and honest. Everyone makes mistakes. It is part of the process. As the legendary collector, Sammy Eilenberg once said to me, “If you never buy a fake than you are not buying enough!” This was not an instruction to be stupid or naïve but to have courage. Some of the world’s greatest collections resulted from a leap of faith. If the Avery Brundage had listened to the naysayers and not bought the extraordinary Chinese bronzes others declared fake, these priceless treasures would not be on display in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Adieu Mon Cher — RIP
In this case and for all intents and purposes the patient is DEAD. Unless there is a return to sanity we may never know if it is a masterpiece or brilliant hoax. Those who gloat at the success of the lynching seem incapable of understanding the many negative repercussions of their despicable behaviour. Chief of these is sowing of doubt in the mind of the collector and general public.

This brings to mind a true tale of a new very passionate and wealthy budding collector, who attended his first Tribal Art Show with great enthusiasm. Proud of a small collection he had bought from local dealers, the man invited various merchants to his home to hear what they had to say.

Like broken records nearly all repeated the same lyrics, “I am the only expert, you have been ripped off and all the pieces bought from others are either fake, new, decorative, ethnographic or too expensive”. The result — the guy concluded that tribal art dealers were all untrustworthy, a vicious gang of idiots and stopped collecting altogether! Bingo — we all lose.

After sifting through all the scattered debris left by this sordid event it is obvious that the statue’s biggest sin was being different – a true alien. Condemnation of the unusual iconography followed two lines. The first was oblique and referred to an alleged resemblance to Nosferatu (rather curious reference because Fritz Murnau’s 1922 classic film is obscure, to say the least, in Indonesia).
While a resemblance might be true, unless a direct link can be proven than such expressions are little more than hearsay. Art history offers numerous incidences of random or coincidental similarities between arts of different ages and peoples thus unless you can connect the dots you can better hold your mouth.

The most disturbing characteristic of this statue is it’s “other worldly” anatomy. In particular everyone grumbled about the peculiarly articulated shoulders. “Never saw anything like that — must be fake”.  Some, however, noted that these bumps might not even be shoulders at all but the remains of ear ornaments once connected to the lobes. Considering how weathered the piece is, and the Dayak custom of elongated earlobes it is not inconceivable that the middle part disappeared over the centuries. Of course this is all conjecture but this is exactly the type of discussion that is needed instead of hysterical knee-jerk executions.

As for the accusation that unique, never before seen characteristics prove and fakery — how about some consistency? In a recent museum catalogue a Dayak statue that was also like nothing ever seen before is praised as a unique masterpiece. Further evidence offered includes Carbon 14 tests and scientific reports. What’s up? Why the double standard? Worse yet is how subsequent finds with the same iconography are declared fakes also in spite of undergoing the same tests and passing.  By far the most evil occurrence is when suspected ‘forgeries’ are denounced only to be miraculously transmogrified into great art when they are sold to members of the junta!

Miscalculation and Ignorance
The presenters made a huge miscalculation in the belief that scientific tests alone were enough to prove authenticity and prove that the statue was right. Under normal circumstances they might have succeeded. Their only sin was naivety for which they have been severely lashed in public. It’s a nasty world with nasty people and when you present something major and potentially controversial you need to come armed to the teeth and even more. Like mapmaking building a strong case for authenticity requires triangulation — agreeing conclusions from multiple vantage points. Even then politics can cause an uphill battle that is difficult to win because once apiece is condemned collectors go limp – the smell like shit phenomenon. Even when you win, you lose.

Despite what anyone may claim, our knowledge of Dayak art, especially archaic Dayak art is still rudimentary. Less than 20 years have passed since anyone realized that some Dayak sculpture is truly ancient. This began after Carbon 14 tests began delivering startling results. Some people became giddy and others remained sceptical but the parallel discovery that textiles too were up to 1000 years old destroyed long held assumptions that wood and cloth could not survive centuries in Indonesia’s moist tropical environment. Enter the Brave New World.

While scientific tests and examinations are of the utmost importance they are not infallible and thus must be calibrated and reassessed constantly as the scope of knowledge expands. Current data at this point in history is still raw, random and largely unprocessed. The next step is to build archives drawing on a broad range of comparative material from different disciplines. This work takes time and serious, systematic and consistent effort. With time it will serve as the framework that will allow art historians to trace out the origin and evolution of forms and motifs.  How about this as an alternative to the current regime?

Although he has been often painted otherwise, Mark Johnson has been on the forefront of Dayak studies for close to 30 years having bought and sold many of the greatest pieces now in collectors around the world. He has one of the most impressive archives on the subject in the world. He makes no claims of infallibility but he also does not engage in dirty politics. In my experience when he talks about Dayak art it is wise to listen. He is logical, systematic and backs up everything he says. He also listens. I do not always agree with him but make no error; he is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people around when it comes to Dayak art.

Cowboys and Indians
Parcours, San Francisco, New York and wherever have no need for demagogic cowboys shooting it out at the OK Corral or putsches. No more bloodletting in the City of Love! There is room enough for different opinions but not mean-spirited misbehaviour and outrageous hypocrisy. Let these jokers open their own evil tribal art fair in the Banlieue.

The sculpture that stirred up a shit storm may be a forgery. It might also be a now potentially forever lost masterpiece. The only thing that is certain is that it was a blood sacrifice to a flawed system manipulated far too long by serial hypocritical bullies and narcissists using primitive but effective bludgeons to sow fear and doubt in their brazen attempts to establish hegemony. Call out their names! We can do better.

by Bruce W. Carpenter