Ankara’s CerModern hosts ‘magical’ African masks
The collection, which he gathered during his travels to Africa over 25 years, can be seen at CerModern in the exhibition titled “Africa Magic.”
The exhibition includes nearly 500 original masks used by ethnic communities in Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Congo in religious ceremonies, weddings, and fertility ceremonies.
The exhibition is mostly made up of wood carving masks as well as ones with metal details and beads. A mask made of elephant foot skin stands out among the outstanding works of the exhibition.
Topuz, who came from Istanbul to Ankara for the opening ceremony of the exhibition, said that he collected the artifacts from auctions and in France and his travels to Africa.
He said that he went to Paris for a master’s degree in 1957 and saw the first examples of African art in the house of the poet Nazım Hikmet’s wife Münevver Hanım.
“The house was full of African masks and sculptures, like in museums. I told myself that if I go to Africa, I will collect them, too.”
Topuz said he was sent to Dakar to give journalism seminars in the early 1960s when he started to work at UNESCO. “I returned from Dakar with four sculptures,” he added.
Stating that he traveled to Africa for more than 40 times for various reasons, he said: “I traveled to the black African countries 25 times. During my 25 years at UNESCO, I went to Africa several times a year. I stayed in Congo for a year. Every time I went, I picked up a mask. It was a problem to collect them; there are some shops but they sell tourist things, it wasn’t easy to find the real parts. My friends started to help me, ‘Take this, take that, this is precious’ they said. As I became acquainted with African art, I began to understand.”
Topuz said that the authentic pieces used in ceremonies were precious.
“Africans use them only at the ceremonies. They don’t keep them in the house or hang on their walls. According to the belief of animism, they think that the mask or statue becomes sacred when the great spirits are guests. They have no value after the soul is gone. After the ceremonies, they keep the masks in a storage,” he added.
Speaking about interesting memories when collecting masks, Topuz said that he saw a ceremony in a village in Burkina Faso and at that time the masks were taken to a store but his minister friend helped him by talking to the administrator of the village.
“The administrator told the minister that he could not decide on his own but the council of elders decides on it. And after a one-hour discussion, they let us take photos,” he said.
When he came to a house full of masks in the capital of Mali’s capital Bamako, he said that he saw the host had a very impressive library.
“The library had books on philosophy, history and literature in French and English. I asked him if he sold it. He said they were his own books and did not sell them. He said ‘I studied in Paris. I am socialist, some socialists came to work in Africa, but they were not successful. I left them and went to America, joined the Black Panther movement. Then I left them and came to my hometown. I have nothing to do with anything, I read them.’ I asked him if I could take some of the masks and let me take them. He threw away my favorites. He gave me a mask of his own choice. ‘Take this, this is a unique authentic and much used mask,’ he said. I have memories like this everywhere. It was an adventure to collect them, giving my life a great boost,” he said.
Topuz said that he also collected authentic masks from auctions in France.
“It became a passion for me. Not because I was worried about selling it, just because I was curious. I thought that they could be displayed at a museum,” he said, adding that he expressed many times that he wanted to donate these artifacts in Turkey.
He said that former İzmir Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Aziz Kocaoğlu and Istanbul district Büyükçekmece Mayor Hasan Akgün wanted the collection and that they would be displayed in a museum to be built in Büyükçekmece.
The exhibition will run through June 23 at CerModern main gallery.