Face on, face off

James Albertson's tribal-mask collection connects the ancient and modern arts

photo by lovelle harris

See Dancing Masks, James Albertson's collection of authentic West African dance masks on Saturday, November 16, at 1 p.m. at Fenix Studio, located at 2110 Del Paso Boulevard. The Fenix Drum and Dance Company will perform at 5 p.m., and Albertson will give a lecture called “Masks & Meaning” at 6 p.m. Call (916) 205-3970 for more information. Call (916) 205-3970 for more information.

James Albertson is a painter who first discovered tribal arts as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but he didn't connect that into his own work until much later. After earning his Master of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts, Albertson came to Sacramento State University to teach, and there he met an art professor who offered to trade a piece from New Guinea for one of Albertson's paintings. Now, Albertson, who currently teaches art at Sierra College and American River College, has collected masks from around the world, and he views tribal art not just as objects, but as pieces that create dialogues with other pieces of art. He will display and discuss some of his collection as part of a one-day event at the Fenix Studio on Saturday, November 16. He recently chatted with SN&R about life forces, art collecting and Abraham Lincoln's glasses.

Why tribal arts— particularly, African masks?

I had been interested in pop-cultural objects. But as I started looking at these pieces of tribal art, I saw that they had much more resonance. The fact that much tribal art is of serious intent, about serious meaning—like the meaning of life—is something that gives it more resonance than something that is made with purely decorative values.

Do the mask carvers tend to be men?

In general, the carving is associated with metal, which is associated with men's tools and with war, so that carving is associated with men.

Nowadays, taboo restrictions are released on carvers. I've got a book [that describes how] a carver [from the West African Dan tribe] has passed along the skill to his daughter. It's kind of like women in Western art, like Artemisia Gentileschi in the Baroque period: There were no women artists, but she became an artist because her father taught her.

Does your interest in these works also translate to the art you create?

It does, but generally, not in really directly specific ways. Many tribal religions posit a life force that is present in all things, even in stones. And in a sense, it's equivalent to a modern physicist's discovery that all matter is energy. That life force can be symbolized directly, metaphorically through rhythm. And rhythm is present in the visual arts as repetition of an image or a form. It's present in dance as repetition of movement and in music as repetition of beat.

My own painting comes out of my education in the late 20th century, which is based on the findings of the modernists in the earlier 20th century, so I've always been sympathetic to that kind of geometric abstraction of reality that I saw first in cubist structure.

The biggest thing for me about African art and art of other tribal peoples is I suddenly had different ways of saying the things that are common to human existence—in non-Western ways. Much of African art has this amazing dignity about it.

In March, you exhibited masks at Sierra College’s Ridley Gallery; how is this collaboration different?

The chance to get the visual backing of dancing masks here in connection with the dance studio is just a good opportunity. Generally, we see the masks as a piece of sculpture, and we forget that they are usually in motion and in performance. Even though they are not actually going to be performed [with], this will connect them a little bit more organically with that. So I've selected at least one of the basic types of masks: crest mask, face mask, helmet mask, casque mask, shoulder mask and body mask.

Masks are conceived in tribal art in three ways: as a stage prop, like in the West sometimes, but mostly in terms of spiritual intersection for the physical and metaphysical place, where the spirit can connect with living humans. Sometimes, the mask is only the vehicle for the dancer's procession, and when the dancer takes it off, it becomes just a piece of wood again. Other times, the mask is considered a power object in which the spirit always resides. In those cases, when it's taken off, it can still be used to sacrifice and to address prayers.

What advice would you offer someone interested in collecting masks or tribal art?

The best method for someone who … doesn't have much money is to buy things they can afford that they like. The thing is, you see the piece, you buy it for aesthetic reasons. I call everything else the “Lincoln's glasses effect.”

Please explain.

Gold-rimmed glasses from the 19th century might be worth, by themselves, one- to two-hundred bucks or more, depending how much gold there is in them. But how much are [Abraham] Lincoln's glasses worth? They're just the glasses, but because of the story, because of the attachment, then they become very valuable.

What if you really wanted Lincoln’s glasses?

With aesthetic objects, you're really buying the thing in itself. The super value on it comes from the story. That's beyond the visual. To me, it's got to be worth what I paid for it visually. That way, if it turns out not to be authentic, I'm not disappointed.