My great-grandfather got to Ojai California in 1868, before it was called Ojai. My grandfather was a forest ranger and a cattle-herder. He was a stage-coach driving, gun-toting sheriff of Ventura County. He taught me to love adventure and wild country. My other grandfather built his own house in his orchard which is now a neighborhood on Cruzero Street in Ojai. He taught me to draw. The things my grandfathers taught me to love–adventure and art–would become the passions of my life.
When Africa captured my mind, heart, and soul, my paintings no longer fit in other galleries. I was painting African people that needed to be surrounded by their own art. I cared about supporting them. So I opened Nomad Gallery and ran it for 23 years. I should say it ran me. Had I known how complicated shopping and shipping from Africa was, I would never have started.
My life as an artist had always been based on travel—each year it got more far-flung. I started exploring the Mediterranean and ended up in the Sahara Desert. I was always a solitary traveler since it was almost impossible to find anyone willing to travel to the destinations I usually chose. Then I met Charlene Pidgeon. She loved Africa and was an adventurous world traveler. In the 70’s, she had made her way from Greece to India crossing Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into India. She hitchhiked, traveling by truck, donkey cart, and train at the age of 22.
We recognized each other as kindred spirits immediately and started planning trips together. We both had a passion for Africa and we both had reasons to shop. I had Nomad Art Gallery and she an interior design business and was known as a specialist in African textiles. So we planned a shopping trip to Benin and Togo.
We arrived in Cotonou, the capital of Benin to a noxious bottleneck of noisy traffic. This was an unpleasant surprise since other countries we had frequented in West Africa had few paved roads and did not have enough cars to have traffic. Le Centre pour le Promotion des Arts was a huge marketplace where artifacts from all over West Africa were assembled. Shopping in West Africa is not like going to a store in the US. Treasures could be found in the most unexpected places, but marketplaces like the one we approached would be the best way of finding a large selection in one spot. Sometimes there was a main building of sorts, but mostly they were open-air stalls set up side by side. The prices were never marked, and negotiating obligatory.
Negotiation was an art worth developing to make any purchase in Africa. Owners of shops or stalls in buildings had a greater selection but were never able to be as flexible as the many street hawkers scattered around the markets. These roaming vendors did not have to pay stall rental. They were likely trying to sell some family possessions because they needed money. Sometimes they were desperate and the item that you casually glanced at followed you for hours. Often, I bought something I seriously did not want but weakened because I could see how important the sale was to the vendor or I just wanted to be rid of him.
Satisfied with our acquisitions from Cotonou, Charlene and I wound our way through the rain in tropical southern Togo. We filled the car with purchases in any village where there was anything to buy. By the time we made it through the jungle-covered hills to a lovely garden hotel in Nattitengo, our car was full. Our shopping finished we would head to my house a couple of days drive north in the desert of Niger near my adopted people the nomadic Tuareg and Wodaabe. But shopping and shipping needed to be done before we got to the desert.
Shopping was a pleasure and an adventure. We developed excellent, radar—able to dig through piles of apparent junk to find a treasure.
Packing up and shipping was a nightmare. There were few packaging materials available in West Africa. Instead of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap, it was rice sacks, foam (if we were lucky), and a flimsy transparent packaging tape that stuck to nothing and was known as “scotch”.
In the tropical heat of Nattitengo, we were dripping with sweat as we tried to wrap our treasures securely enough to protect them for transport by air freight back to Los Angeles. Then the search for a reliable shipper began.
A “friend” offered to help. We agreed on a price for his services and the shipping cost, but once I was home he decided it was not enough. He held our packages hostage until I finally capitulated and paid double. Once a shipment of textiles arrived in the US only to be sent back to Africa because the crates they were in had no record of being fumigated. The shipping angst was never over until the items were in our hands in California. There were pitfalls at every step.
My travels with Charlene were wide-ranging and shopping was always an important component. We made trips to India, Bali, Mongolia, and Papua New Guinea, but we always kept coming back to West Africa. We shopped together in Togo, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea Bissau and Senegal, but our favorite was Mali. Charlene had been married to Abdoulaye Diallo, a delightful Malian man and they had remained friends.
Mali was the home of some of the richest and most diverse cultural traditions in Africa. The Fulani, Bozo, Tuareg, Bambara, Bamana, and Dogon produced superb carvings, textiles, jewelry and leatherwork. Shipping, though difficult, was at least possible.
The Bandiagara escarpment in central Mali is the home of the Dogon. When Moslems invaded in the 7th century, the Dogon built their homes on the cliffs accessible only by ropes or ladders. They were easier to defend from the Moslems who wanted to convert the local population. The cliff dwellings offered protection and the Dogon managed to preserve their animist beliefs, still strong today.
Abdoulaye was our mentor in the realm of African antiquities. He had a special gift for recognizing the best carvings and had been a consultant and buyer for European museums. There was no one better to get us to the good stuff. The problem was that Dogon country, where the richest caches could be found, was mostly inaccessible by car. Only a very good 4-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser and an experienced driver could get us there. It was expensive to have a car and driver sitting around all day while we were shopping and we did not want to rush. The villages were not far apart, so we decided to have the car drive us in and drop us off. From there we would hire an oxcart to go the few kilometers between villages.
We met our driver, ox, and cart in Kanikombole and said goodbye to our fancy car. After a couple of bumpy hours, we named our ox Boom-boom. He would be our transportation for a week.
There were no shops, but Abdoulaye knew the system. Carvers and artisans abound in Dogon country and every family has some of their products. The Dogon were well known for their masked dances and all the dancers required a mask that represented their stage in life. If they felt their mask no longer embodied them or it had lost its power, they commissioned a new one. The old one was then free to be sold to the outside.
The owner took it to the mayor of the village who warehoused the treasures in his dirt-floored adobe hut. It was he who negotiated the price with potential customers. Anyone in need of cash took their family valuables to be sold by the mayor. Only those people who knew this system would show up. Some major works of art passed through each mayor’s dusty storage hut sometimes on their way to a major museum.
The Dogon, excellent carvers, weavers, and farmers were also eager consumers of palm wine. However, alcohol did not diminish their productivity. All weekly open-air markets had stalls that acted as bars and sold the homemade brew. They were frequented by people who had just made a sale in the market and were in a hurry to drink their profits.
The Dogon still lived in villages high above the valley, but they farmed and held their markets on the flat valley floor. Although the cliff dwellings were largely abandoned, most villages were not accessible by road. They were reached by steep trails over and around massive boulders. Each village was an informal market. Every intricately carved front door was for sale. Every sculpted mortar with its pestle worn smooth from use was for sale. Just ask and make an offer.
Some villages specialized in mud-cloth. This handwoven cotton fabric was invented by the Bambara, who gave it the name bogolan, but was adopted by the Dogon who became known for it. It has become prized and copied around the world and is now a symbol of Malian cultural identity. As we wove our way through narrow streets, tapestries were displayed on the exterior mud walls of the courtyards. We would come upon a woman sitting in an alcove spinning cotton into thread. In the next courtyard men with back looms wove the cotton into 4” wide strips. These were sewn together to make large blankets or clothing. Around the next corner dyed fabric would be on the ground waiting for the design to be painted on in mud. After the sun did its magic and reacted with the iron in the mud, it was washed off to reveal a rich brown-black design.
As we moved along the valley floor in the cart, our pile of purchases grew. The village of Yendou specialized in carving doors. We arrived after a treacherously steep climb through huge boulders. The houses were built on the hillside, but at least we could reach them by paths and steps, not ropes and ladders. Most houses had beautifully carved doors and smaller granary doors. There was no evidence they were for sale, but Abdoulaye explained that all the doors in this village were for sale—just knock and ask. My concern was—how do we get them down the hill to the cart? “Pas de probleme,” he replied, just ask the seller to provide transport. When I realized this would be a young boy carrying the massive door on his head, I hesitated. But then the kid took off down the hill, door on head. By the time we had made our careful way down to the car, he had been waiting 15 minutes.
I did not know it then, but this would be our last trip to Mali. West Africa would change radically with the gradual inroads of terrorism, the fall of Gaddafi, and the arms that flooded out of Libya as a result. Mali, our treasured safe place in West Africa would fall to jihadists and become a deadly place not only for tourists but for its own people. As much as I long to, I doubt I will ever be able to go back.
Abdoulaye often fears for his life or that of his family. Charlene and I do what we can through my non-profit Nomad Foundation, to help the refugees displaced by this violence survive. Abdoulaye credits that help with saving his life. He was stopped by gun-wielding jihadists who had stopped his bus and were menacing all the passengers. When one of them recognized him because he was known for delivering bags of grain to help feed refugees, they let him go.
At home in Ojai, I am surrounded by purchases I could not bring myself to sell. Some may be of museum quality, but their real value is not monetary, it is in the memories they hold.