Thursday, June 24, 2021


Stanley - Thursday

I've always been fascinated by attraction. What makes one person attractive to some people, but not others. As I walk through a museum or gallery, why do some paintings or other pieces of art jump out at me, and not others. Why can I listen to some pieces of music time after time, but others I won't listen to twice? What is happening inside me to elicit such responses?

Unfortunately, I have no idea. It just happens.

Certainly, I can like broad categories of art, for example the Impressionists, but dislike or am not attracted to many paintings subsumed under that name. I love African carvings, in general, but many items don't make my heart beat faster. 

As I sit in my living room writing this blog, I look around and know I like all the masks, carvings, sculptures, and various maps and woodcuts. Surprisingly, nothing has fallen out of my favour. I still like them after many years.

However, there are a handful that I love, that stand out in my mind as being something special. I keep wondering why - why them, and not others on the same shelf?

Again, I have no idea.

Over the years, I have come to realise that there are two different types of attraction for me - one of the heart and one of the mind. Needless to say, the ones that grab my heart are the ones I gravitate towards.

Let me give you a few examples.

On one wall I have three maps of Africa. The first was originally drawn in the 1570's by a cartographer named Ortelius. I'm attracted to it through my brain. It is astonishingly accurate given that the notion of determining longitude by using a clock was only proposed in 1530 by Gemma Frisius, and it was in the mid-1700s that John Harrison produced a marine chronometer that met the stringent requirements of accuracy required for accurate navigation and cartography. How did Ortelius manage something so good without accurate instruments - not to mention the problems of circumnavigating - almost - the whole continent of Africa? My mind boggles.

Drawn in the 1570s

This map was drawn in about 1700.

Drawn about 1700

And this one in 1800.

Drawnn about 1800

Opposite the maps are a few woodcuts from a collection of forty-two by the South African artist, Cecil Skotness, depicting the life and death of the famous Zulu chief, Shaka. Like the maps, they are two-dimensional. Unlike the maps, this one grabs my heart.

One of the Skotnes woodcuts

On a shelf below the Skotnes are two remarkable pieces, both from what is now Nigeria. The first is a carved ivory piece, probably used by a prominent person for holding valuables, such as jewellery. As you can see, the carving is exquisite. Also, a slight twist opens it or shuts it. It is a masterpiece of carving.  However, my heart doesn't race when I see it. It's mainly my mind that is attracted.

Ivory valuables holder from Nigeria, circa 1900

The holder opened

The piece next to it is all heart for me. I have shown it here in the blog before. It is a 500-700 year-old terracotta sculpture from Ife. I fell in love with her the moment I set eyes on her. Of course, my mind also admires her, but that's nothing compared to what happens to my heart.

Terracotta head from Ife

I have a small carving of a lion that I bought fifty years ago from one of the nastiest people I've ever met - an ex-mercenary in a number of African conflicts. The last I heard of him, he had burnt down his warehouse to claim the insurance. Since most of his art works were African wood pieces, I suspect few remained in the building when it was torched. For inexplicable reasons, my heart goes pit-a-pat when I pick it up.

My kitty cat

I have a very similar reaction when I look at a sandstone polar bear, carved by an Innuit artist, that I also bought also fifty years ago. I walked into a gallery in Toronto while hitchhiking around the States, and found it irresistible.  It is extremely heavy, and there were moments when I continued my journey that I thought my backpack was going to collapse.

Front of my bear

Rear of my bear

Finally, I have a general affinity to Mkonde spirit sculptures. They are relatively modern and come from northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania. Their tortured, grotesque figures appeal to me no end - in the heart.

I have come to realise that when I am intrigued by a piece, it is my brain that is attracted. When something takes my breath away, it is my heart. For both brain and heart, however, I've no idea what makes some pieces so attractive and some not. 


  1. You own some magnificent pieces! Where in the world did you find the terracota?

    1. For years I had admired it at a gallery in Johannesburg. I drooled over it for about 30 minutes each time I returned there. So about 30 minutes a year. Serious drooling. After recovering from colon cancer, I was at the gallery, drooling as usual, when I decided it was crazy to enjoy it so infrequently, especially as it was impossible to know whether the cancer would return (it hasn't). Despite costing much more than I ever dreamt about spending on any work of art, I rationalised the purchase as giving me unending pleasure and, if monetary problems appeared, I could always sell it. Never did I realise that I would end up immersing my self in the literature of restitution in order to figure out what to do with it, either while I'm alive or post mortem.