Immersed in African tribal art

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Des Bovey with minkisi from his collection. PHOTO/ STUART MUNRO
Des Bovey with minkisi from his collection. PHOTO/ STUART MUNRO

Whanganui man Des Bovey has made many visits to west and central Africa and continues to be fascinated by its art. He talks to LAUREL STOWELL

For African people the forest spirits are fearsome while the spirits of water and the sea are more benign.

When Africans asked Des Bovey: "Are you forest or are you sea?" he had no hesitation.

"I'm definitely forest," he said.

Forest spirits had to be taken seriously. If walking through African forest for hours, you would first lay out some food for them.

"You were allowed to be in the forest, but you would have to have a kind of respect for the spirits."

Des was brought up in Whanganui and is back now after spending nearly 30 years in France. While there he felt compelled to visit Africa, and gravitated toward the forests in the equatorial west.

In time he got close enough to an extended family to win their trust. They took him to see priests and healers at work, to ceremonies, and funerals, and to meet chiefs.

On one occasion he went with them deep into the forest to talk to the ancestors, and heard something himself.

After each outing he would return to his room and record everything, in diaries and drawings. An artist himself, he no longer cares about his own art but wants to understand theirs.

"I really love the African artists - the unknowness, the lack of ego, fascinated me. I was also fascinated by the question of what beliefs shaped these objects, and were those beliefs still alive today," he said.

**

It's been a long road for the Whanganui kid - to Africa and back again.

Des is the third child of seven in a working class family. He went to Wanganui Boys' College and after finishing school was directed into a trade.

If his family had been different, he might have become an artist instead.

"I would draw in the dirt around the house with a nail. I did that for hours and hours."

Instead he got an apprenticeship at the Wanganui Chronicle and became a compositor, working in lead type. After the apprenticeship finished he worked in Auckland then returned to Whanganui and worked at Benefield's Orchard and Nursery - establishing a lifelong love of plants.

Then came travel - an 18 month horse trek through New Zealand with friends, hitchhiking around Australia, a return to Whanganui and then a really big OE, travelling to the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, London and Europe.

In France he met a man who became his partner. He was able to stay in France first on a student visa, then a work visa, then a cultural visa. He finally got citizenship after 10 years. There was no possiblity of marriage between two men at that time.

He lived in Besancon, near Switzerland, and found French culture formal and confrontational, compared to Kiwi culture.

"You have to get yourself respect, and that means observing quite a lot of formalities. When you go into a shop you say "Bonjour Madame" and she says "Bonjour Monsieur". That sets up the markers.

"New Zealand society is based on politeness and kindness, and French society is based on respect.

"The French don't like over-closeness. Using someone's first name before they have actually given permission is quite rude."

Des worked in advertising and got a name as a wildlife artist, eventually earning quite a comfortable living. He had travelled a lot, and was intrigued by two African masks he had bought, but going to Africa had never occurred to him.

One day he just woke up and said "I'm going to Africa".

He went first to Tanzania, because English was spoken there and it was said to be safest. He found it beautiful - but there was no forest, no wood, no carving and no masks.

"Carving and masks are mostly done by small tribal groups that move around in the forest."

He found the Africa that was calling him in the more dangerous equatorial west - in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo. French is spoken there, and there is forest. Both were pluses to Des.

As a young man in Whanganui he had moved through the bush, hunting and deerstalking. Living in Europe he missed the wildness of New Zealand bush, but found something like it in Africa.

"Walking through a forest silently is a very African thing. I know how to do it. Africans instinctively related to that."

He went to Africa on his own, and said being white in an African city could be tough. He's been in a a taxi that was chased, and in a vehicle that was pelted with stones and had a fire set in the middle of a road to stop it.

Being the only white person around could also be unsettling.

"You think "Who am I?" You can't bounce yourself off other white people," he said.

He' spent a lot of time alone in a cruddy room, with everyone after his money. But there would be other wonderful moments, with people amazingly friendly, hospitable and welcoming.

"You just walk down the street and everyone is your friend. What's really hard is finding a group of people that you can trust and that understand you."

He eventually found a big extended family that got to know him well.

"It took years before they finally took me to places they thought white people wouldn't want to go to. They didn't really understand what I wanted. I wanted to understand their beliefs."

The parents of Des' French partner had a collection of African masks and statues, acquired in the 1940s-60s when they lived in Africa in a series of French colonial capitals. Des acquired them later, when no one else wanted them.

During his time in Africa he bought other art works, most of them deconsecrated, and did some swapping. The works are minkisi, objects used by priests and healers in their work. He values them as art, but said through African eyes they are much more.

Every aspect of a nkisi (the singular of minkisi) is symbolic. The objects can be as big as a person. They are objects of power, and their purpose is to protect from evil forces and witchcraft.

They are tools, used by priests who ritually enter into contact with the spirit within them. That spirit could be an ancestor spirit or a nature spirit, and the nkisi's power adds to the priest's status.

In Africa ill health and misfortune are attributed to evil forces that have to be fought. The minkisi look fearsome because they have to inspire fear and be ready to fight.

In the nail fetish statues of the Congo, each nail driven in represents a request to the priest for help. Each charm of animal fur or claw added to them makes them more powerful.

But African society is changing. Fewer minkisi are made for spiritual purposes, and some are made to sell to tourists. They may become mere historic curiosities.

"There's something terrible going on in Africa. The youth are haemorraghing to the cities and the villages are dying ," Des said.

The making and use of minkisi is now with old people, in the villages he liked to visit.

**

After 30 years in France and many trips to Africa, Des returned to New Zealand five years ago. He had retired, his mother was ill and he missed Kiwi wild places.

"I love Europe but the tameness of it used to get me. There were no wild places. Even the alps were teeming with other walkers and skiers."

Back in Whanganui he's still researching and showing the minkisi in his collection. He has his own reference library about them, and is still drawing them, trying to enter into the mind of the artists who made them.

"I really am a scholar on this subject. I will never stop studying. I'm an artist but I don't care about my own art any more. I care about these artists," he said.

Minkisi: Art and Belief in West and Central Africa was shown at Whanganui Regional Museum two years ago, and in Timaru and in Nelson. Its next venues are Taupo and Palmerston North, with Upper Hutt and Auckland possibly later.

Above all he wants the works understood and appreciated.

"I want to stop them being treated as primitive local colour, curiosities. They're much more sophisticated. I want to explain and interpret and promote them."

**

Des will be giving a talk in this year's Whanganui Summer Programme. It will be about the way he obsessively records his life in writing and pictures.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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