A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Q: What do Ethiopian artifacts add to the interior environment?
A: At the moment, African artifacts tend to be on everyone's mind, and not just the more traditional things like masks and textiles. Furniture is a very interesting part of the market, and it tends to be underpriced.
Ethiopian artifacts are gorgeous pieces of furniture that mix well with other kinds of furniture. Even though they seem to be on people's minds at the moment, they're not trendy at all. They've been around since the turn of the last century when having African artifacts was a mark of a sophisticated, well-traveled person.
When people think of Ethiopia, they think of starving people. Ethiopia has a very long history of producing beautiful objects, whether it's basketry or furniture.
The furniture has a very rich patina. It's kind of chocolate-y. The wood is dark and very dense. I've been told the patina is developed by finishing the pieces off with fat derived from butter.
The surface is tooled and very worked, not smooth. It's very textural and tactile. When you see a piece of Ethiopian furniture, the first thing you do is run your hands across the surface. You can't resist it.
The forms are very simple. A three-legged Ethiopian stool feels very modern and maybe that's why it mixes so well with different kinds of furniture. The design is reductive. You won't find any curlicues on Ethiopian pieces. They're where form and function meet.
They're not these suddenly trendy hip and happening decorative objects. And they're not just black-is-beautiful expressions of cultural pride. You don't have to have a certain skin color to be interested in African art and artifacts.
Ethiopian pieces are pieces to bring in your home for the same reason you might bring in English furniture or French pieces. You don't have to be English to like English furniture. I find it puzzling that Ethiopian furniture is called "ethnic," while English or French pieces aren't.
Ethiopian artifacts mix so well with other types of furniture -- with both modern and with traditional furniture. At the turn of the century, it was mixed with very traditional furnishings and it worked. You would have some French in your home, you had English pieces and you had African artifacts, too, and it meant you had a sense of style.
Q: Can you share some tips on shopping for Ethiopian artifacts?
A: The key to collecting artifacts is determining whether a piece was actually put to use or whether it was made for tourists. You want to see evidence of continuous use by the people it was made for.
African art is hot right now. Last May, an early 20th-century bowl attributed to a Yoruba craftsman known as Olowe of Ise sold for over $500,000 at Sotheby's.
If you merely want to buy an interesting piece for your home, then you may not be concerned with how old a piece is, who made it, and whether it was made for tourists. Craftspeople today are very good at aging pieces. Most people would have a very hard time distinguishing a piece made this year from a much older piece.
There are some outstanding sources on the Web. One is africadirect.com. If you shop there, some of the money you spend actually goes back to the people who make the objects.
Another good site is www.owenhargreaves.com -- it's run by an Englishman who gets new pieces in every week. A stool starts at about $200 -- and you can find unusual pieces like coin chairs in which coins are embedded in the back of the chair.
Q: Let's talk about African furniture function for a moment. Can you recommend a few pieces that would work well in the average great room or living room?
A: A coffee table would be a good piece to start with. Ethiopia has a long coffee ceremony tradition, so you can easily find tables the right height and size. Three-legged stools and chairs are also functional and striking.
Neck rests would function as sculpture. You can have one or a whole collection. There are some people who have dozens and dozens of neck rests. Each carving and variation means something to them. Neck rests are beautiful displayed as a group.
You should fall in love with the piece you buy. It may or may not turn out to be a good investment, and at the end of the day, it's just you and the object. If you love it, then it's great if the value shoots up, but that's just a bonus.
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