In the basement vault of the Art Gallery of Ontario one morning last week I found myself staring, for perhaps the 100th time, at a grotesque helmet mask, made out of antelope skin by an artist of the Ekoi tribe in Nigeria, around 1850. This has been among my favourite art objects for a long time. In the past I've seen it mainly in the home of Murray Frum, the art collector, but it now belongs to the public, having been included along with 76 other works, worth some $12-million in all, that he recently donated to the AGO.
Triple-Faced Helmet Mask, as the catalogue calls it, is a work of infinite mystery. You have to walk around it to pick up even a hint of what it means. A man's emaciated face, with deep eye sockets and distorted teeth, grimaces from the front. Two women's faces, strikingly different, look out from the sides and back. The mask was made to be worn by an important man during a ceremony. The male face represents a fierce warrior, and the women represent two sides of nature, good and evil -- maybe. Or does it say that within every man there is also a woman, or two women? Is there something here about multiple personalities? We can't know. As with much African art, we can only wonder, and marvel.
I've been wondering about Triple-Faced Helmet Mask for decades, ever since Frum added it to his collection. A former dentist who became a land developer, Frum began many years ago to collect Canadian paintings (his walls still hold work by Betty Goodwin, Jack Bush, Michael Snow and others). In the late 1960s he bought, without very serious intent, what he calls "a good but far from great" piece of African art. A little to his surprise, that proved a decisive move. In the next few years he turned into a serious collector, a presence in the major auction rooms in the U.S. and Europe. After a while, museums in Paris, Washington, New York, Cologne and several other places recognized the value of what he owned by borrowing pieces for exhibition. One day in the 1980s, walking through a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I had the delightful experience of coming face to face with an 18th-century Dogon piece from Mali titled Primeval Couple, a monumental wooden sculpture I'd known for a long time in the Frum house. It's thought to represent the beginning of humanity, a Dogon equivalent of Adam and Eve.
It happens that my wife, Geraldine Sherman, and I had often visited the Frum house as close friends, before African sculpture began appearing there. This new interest was startling and deeply engaging. Watching that collection grow was like being present as a museum took shape, piece by piece, month by month, over three decades. It is one thing to see a great work of art occasionally in a gallery, it is another to see a photo of it in a book, but it is an altogether unique experience to see it again and again in private as part of the background, glanced at idly during conversation. That taught me why people collect, why serious collectors work so hard to acquire a specific piece, and how ownership creates an intimacy with art that's otherwise unavailable except to art professionals.
On Dec. 8, Frum changed the AGO forever, making it the only museum in Canada with a fine African collection. But over the years African art changed Frum. It gave another dimension to his life. In that world of collectors, he became a hunter and gatherer. After 1972 or so, he plunged deep into the jungle of the auction houses and returned not only with precious objects but with meaningful stories and deep attachments to friends in Paris, New York, Brussels and London. It was a pleasure to watch this process. An intelligent man became more intelligent under the sophisticated demands of the art he was studying and assembling.
Barbara Frum, who was in the same period becoming a great broadcast journalist, found space in her life for an enthusiastic interest in the collection. Barbara died of leukaemia in 1992, at the age of 54, mourned more deeply than any other journalist in Canadian history. In 1994 Murray married Nancy Lockhart, who has become his thoughtful companion in the museums and auction houses. In a brief talk he gave at the AGO last week, he mentioned Barbara and Nancy and their places in this adventure, his voice breaking as he spoke their names.
Studying African art takes you to the roots of modern visual culture. The arrival of African pieces in Europe around 1900 was a pivotal event in the art of the 20th century -- a kind of reverse conquest, the pre-literate world's invasion of the European imagination. In the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art remade European culture. What Greece and Rome were to the Renaissance, Africa was to the modern world.
African sculpture brought Europe new energies and a new repertoire of forms. It introduced powerful distortions that Western artists have used ever since. Picasso eagerly collected African art in his 20s, and with Braque he used African inflections in Cubism, the most crucial art movement of the century. Through those artists and others (Matisse, Modigliani, Brancusi), African ideas altered the sensibility of everyone who makes modern art or looks at it.
Enthusiasm in the West for African art subsided after the 1920s, perhaps because its images were overworked in advertising and design. It revived in the 1960s when a new generation of scholars, curators and collectors began to see African art less as a precursor to modernity and more as a set of traditions that stood on their own.
In 1981 the Art Gallery of Ontario showed the Frum collection. William Fagg, who had established himself as a brilliant scholar in this field during 35 years with the British Museum, came to Toronto to write African Majesty, the catalogue of that show. He visited the Frum house every day for weeks, and as he examined the pieces he speculated aloud on their meaning and talked his way slowly through his ideas about them. As Frum recalls, "It was one of the great moments of my life, a continuous tutorial." (One night my wife and I were at the Frums for dinner with Fagg. What I remember most vividly is his narcolepsy. From time to time he fell asleep at the table and left us, then returned 90 seconds or so later. He was not the sort of person who could be stopped by a little problem like that.)
Frum's collection gave me a heightened sense of the diversity of African art. One kind of African culture can differ from another as much as Russia's differs from England's. The magnificent bronzes produced for the royal court of Benin in south Nigeria (whose art was flourishing when Leonardo and Michelangelo were at work in Florence) emerge from a world totally unlike the culture that produced the shining black wooden figures of the Hemba society in Zaire -- and these again represent a sensibility utterly different from that of the Dogon culture of Mali, where the remarkable Horse and Rider in the Frum donation was made, sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.
There's little documentation for most of this work: There are no letters to tell us what the patrons wanted or what the artists thought they were delivering. The African arts must speak for themselves -- of lost rituals, buried kingdoms and imagery's power to animate the spirit. Today, because of the Frum donation, it can speak more clearly in this country than it ever has before.