African art market ekes out existence in Manhattan

It’s an unlikely African art market: a Manhattan storage depot; but over 15 years dozens of art dealers have transformed these dusty steel cages into the home of a daily art fair.

African women in native dress lingering on 27th Street close to the Hudson River betray the entrance to the informal market housed in the Chelsea Mini-Storage.

Inside, among the corridors of storage cells rented monthly, more than 250 African art dealers wait for clients who come from across the country in search of masks, sculptures, pottery, or fabrics.

“It comes from all over Africa,” said Dabo Sory, a Guinean “African Art Dealer,” whose business card boasted an address in Conakry, another in the Bronx, and a third at the Mini-Storage: 615 27th Street.

“Some guys sell stuff from Zaire, Cameroon, Senegal. I go often to Kinshasa (Congo), and my nephew in Conakry sometimes sends me stuff.”

“I buy pieces made in workshops, but I also go out into the bush to find village antiques. Our clients are collectors, and gallery owners. Some come from as far as Chicago and California; they come from all over to buy stuff here,” he added.

The ground floor bins have been transformed into booths, filled with all kinds of African bric-a-brac, most of which can be bought pretty cheaply. Signs banning “African salesmen” from selling their wares here or risk being fined, are gleefully ignored by the merchants.

The upper floors which can be attained on request, shelter rarer works. “There are people who have upstairs store rooms that are full of all kind of things,” said Jerry Vogel, a regular, and a curator at the New York Museum of African Art.

“Some are full of archeological pottery from Western Africa. Wholesalers go there, collectors, gallery owners. People in the field know about it.”

“The bottom floor is really what I’d call a tourist trap… But I like the atmosphere a lot, it’s really like being in Africa.”

In a corner of the building, women hover over fragrant pots of stewing chicken and pine nuts, which is consumed on plastic plates with cans of Coca-Cola. When business is slow, the dealers gather here to discuss Senegal’s performance in World Cup soccer.

The market was started more than 15 years ago when the first wholesalers were looking for a clean, safe place to display their African wares. Over the years, often through family connections, the market has grown by leaps and bounds.

“It’s cheaper, as opposed as getting a shop: you don’t have to pay electricity,” said Mike Johnson, sales representative for Chelsea Mini-Storage. “The rents range from $100 to $400 a month. For years all the customers know that it’s the place to go if you’re looking for African art. It’s the main area.”

Abdramane Tandia, from Mali, spends two months in front of his box number 7167, then two months in Bamako at a time. He sells fabrics and pearls. “Business has been dead since September 11,” he complained. “I’ve been here for six years, and this has really been the worst stretch.”

“The problem,” said Sory, “is that shoppers have to be in a good mood to buy. When they’re angry, and New Yorkers since the fall have been angry, they don’t buy. What we sell doesn’t even break even…”

In a neighbouring booth a Kenyan buyer negotiated to buy six masks and everyone joined in the haggling: they laughed, they got offended, they thundered, threatened, then, they shook hands. The final price: $60. - Sapa-AFP

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