Meeting of Minds | Dr. Reimar Schefold & Steven G. Alpert

 
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In celebration of the Art of the Ancestors project launch, Steven G. Alpert, the founder, and Dr. Reimar Schefold, the scientific advisor, speak on the state of fine art from Island Southeast Asia in the digital age.

 
 
 

The internet is rapidly transforming and facilitating access to many buried treasures and valuable resources. What are the advantages of the digital medium vis-à-vis art appreciation?

 
 
Steven G. Alpert

Steven G. Alpert

 

Steven G. Alpert: Nothing can ever replace the long years of handling objects, learning personally from masters, and intimately studying the cultures that produced any given type of art. In one serving, digital platforms can shows us an immense amount of related material. Connoisseurship begins with comparisons and knowing exactly where the masterworks are currently housed in the public domain. 

Let's start where timeless artworks from the apogee of a culture, or from the imagination of a superior hand, can be seen. The digital medium can greatly assist in foundational knowledge, like getting the checklist of all your gear in order before embarking on a long and marvelous trek.

 
 
 
 

Dr. Reimar Schefold: A major advantage of the digital medium seems to me that the artworks are getting more accessible to the members of the ethnic groups themselves, in which they were once created. Books are usually hard to find where these groups live, while most members have access to the Internet today.

They can also, and this is a second advantage, contribute their own comments and express their opinion on the works that the editors have chosen or that they think are missing. This second point, of course, also applies to the general public.

Dr. Reimar Schefold | © Hans Kleijn

Dr. Reimar Schefold | © Hans Kleijn

 
 
 

Please detail some of your treasured memories regarding your interplay with the arts of Island Southeast Asia. When and where did you develop your art expertise?

 
 
Art of the Ancestors Steven G. Alpert

Steven G. Alpert: Saul Stanoff, the great collector of African art always said, "you have to have some innate sensitivity or skill, but the rest is a lifetime of learning." Make no mistake, art is a humbling experience. My parents, particularly my Mother, long summers in the woods learning every leaf or how to tie the best fly for fishing with my Grandfather — showed me at an early age that all art is just a paradigm of something marvelous from nature.

My own good fortune was to arrive in Indonesia with language skills and to be able in those first precious years to meet some of the very last traditional kings, headhunters and dreamtime weavers; all who had come of age before the onset of modernity, colonialism, or misfortune. I am indebted to their wisdom, their humor and insights and it has helped me to understand their creations in rather unique ways. There are so many that I owe learning-curve debts to that it could fill a page. Suffice it to say I sought out and learned from the best.

 
 
 
 

Dr. Reimar Schefold: My interest in the arts of Island Southeast Asia started during my work as an assistant of Professor Alfred Bühler at the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, where I had to catalogue the spectacular new arrivals from that region.

This work resulted in my dissertation on the art of Sepik in New Guinea, and when subsequently I began my two-year fieldwork on the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia, the flourishing living art and its producers  proved to be a fascinating experience after my years of desk work and became naturally a central area of attention. 

Art of the Ancestors Dr. Reimar Schefold
 
 
 

From your perspective, what are the attributes of a masterwork? What separates good from great?

 
 

Steven G. Alpert: Wonderful question — and a much abused word, particularly in the hands of glib merchants or misguided collectors. A 'masterpiece' is in fact something quite rarified, just to the left hand of a miracle. The dictionary might call it a coup, a wonder, a showpiece, gem or paragon of sort, but a masterpiece for me is something that is timeless to the human experience. It is not only truly beautiful, beatific, or edgy, but tells multiple stories of what we make, who we are, and what we would like to be.

Look at the memorial board from Mentawai on this site, collected by one of my closest friends and greatest mentor, Reimar Schefold. We have been recording our hands as markers of memory for over 40,000 years. Here, the hands of the deceased are outlined, the circles depict the passage of time, and the footprints are the feet of a loved one embedded in the river's muddy banks, never to be forgotten. This is a conceptual and visually arresting masterpiece. We can equal such an eulogy in art history, but cannot excel it.

A great piece of art then is something that can perhaps be equalled within its corpus or canon, but cannot be excelled. Lastly, art is like digesting food: How long does it take for you to enjoy, digest, forget about your last meal and then move onto the next one? A great work of art is to be savored intellectually, visually, even spiritually. If you have done your homework, and if after a long time you have not wholly digested it, then perhaps you have found a profound object d'art.

Memorial Board Representing Deceased Family Members | Kirekat © The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA
 
 

Dr. Reimar Schefold: Each art style has its own characteristics that often attracted the eyes of Western artists. However, it is only a comprehensive overview of the products obtained that makes it clear which piece of work, in addition to a technically flawless execution, is particularly distinguished by its formal ingenuity and creative power. 

 
 
 

Who are some of the art collectors of the past whom you most admire and why?

 
 

Steven G. Alpert: The postwar period with its general peace and prosperity was a particularly fertile era for collecting traditional arts in the United States and in Europe. It was a time when many collectors of note began amassing expertise and building magnificent collections. In the realm of art, this embodied a self-reflective process of trial and error, learning about the the pursuit of excellence, and as survivors of a great depression and world wars, many were motivated by just getting on with life and living well. As collectors, this included the search for beauty, or as the poet Keats penned it, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." There is a voluminous list of gifted and dedicated collectors who have made a difference, and many of their treasured items are today enshrined in public museums worldwide.

For the sake of brevity, I would like to acknowledge the spirit of five persons, each of whom I knew well, and each of whom were kind enough to influence and encourage my own path in life and art. Although they now reside with the ancestors these masters of the art of collecting will not soon be forgotten.

 
 

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

— John Keats

 
 

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller was a highly accomplished collector of art from non-Western civilizations and a champion of Indonesian art par excellence. He was a true impresario and his voluminous publications on the subject filled a giant gap in the field and are still among its major reference titles. Barbier's Art of the Archaic Indonesians (1982) set the standard for aesthetic quality that all books that followed — that had the aspiration of exposing beautiful Indonesian objects — had to be measured against.

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller | © François Wavre

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller | © François Wavre

 
 
 
Dr. Samuel Eilenberg | © Paul R. Halmos Photograph Collection

Dr. Samuel Eilenberg | © Paul R. Halmos Photograph Collection

Dr. Samuel Eilenberg built a superb collection of metal objects from South and Southeast Asia and taught rigorous rules for separating fine objects from those that were spurious. He assiduously studied bronzes with an elevated sense of precision and discernment. He was a renowned mathematician who delighted in composing complex formulas while we attended baseball games together. One day, I asked Sammy if he could explain in lay terms algebraic topology, and in his thick Polish accent he replied, "Ach, you never understand!" However, Sammy did give me a rule that as time went on and I more fully absorbed it, helped me to make fewer mistakes. He called it the "Sherlock Holmes Rule". Basically, there are two columns; everything on the left is what makes something desirable, everything on the right something to be cautious about. When looking at an acquisition, if anything conjured the orange caution light, one had to have enough discipline to say no, let go, and wait for better opportunites.

 
 
 
George Ortiz | © The George Ortiz Collection

George Ortiz | © The George Ortiz Collection

George Ortiz, the great Swiss-based collector was perhaps possessed of the finest eye of all and through his avid pursuits traced our noblest gestures and collective creativity. It was not easy to gain consistent access to George's inner sanctum in Geneva, but if he felt that you were capable of seeing and learning, he was extremely kind, open, and generous. The intensity of the Ortiz approach to unraveling an object 360 degrees in the round, down to its minute details, still makes me smile.

 
 
 
Saul Stanoff | © Tribalmania

Saul Stanoff | © Tribalmania

Saul Stanoff was a collector imbued with the deepest reservoirs of passion for art and a truly beautiful eye. No one saw small objects better than Saul. He always kept one in his pocket, palming it as if to ground his boundless energy. He came of age having endured harsh circumstances, and even when he became very successful, he was always a humble man.

Like all truly great collectors he saw art as paradigmatic to the natural world. He reveled in plants, butterflies, and there was no pleasure finer than sitting outside with him on a beautiful southern California day with a simple table and two chairs enjoying a great piece of art among his orange trees. "You see this orange tree. Isn't it beautiful. Isn't it a miracle." That was Saul.

 
 
 

Finally, there was Ray Wielgus for his cool analysis and perfect taste, a true arbiter ahead of his time. He began collecting in the 1950's. I grew up in Chicago and was privileged at a young age to meet important collectors like Ray and James Alsdorf (the great collector of Asian art), and scholars with great aesthetic sensibilities like Allen Wardwell. Perhaps, the kindest compliment I have ever received was when someone with superior discernment said, "Steve, I may not want to own every piece you have, but I perfectly understand the raisons d'etre for everything you acquire." That accolade truly applied to Ray Wielgus. If one looks at Affinities of Form, the virtuosity that runs through the masterworks from the Wielgus' collection from Polynesia, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas remains a poignant revelation of a great collector's eye.

Ray Wielgus | © ArtTrak

Ray Wielgus | © ArtTrak

 
 
 
Hans Himmelheber | © Angelika Böck

Hans Himmelheber | © Angelika Böck

Dr. Reimar Schefold: One of the most gifted collectors, especially of African art, was Hans Himmelheber, who not only had a keen eye for the quality of the works of art he had acquired, but in his writings also detached the artists themselves from their anonymity and made their ideas accessible. His work lives on and is further elaborated by his son Eberhard Fischer, the Director of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, author of African Masters

 
 
 
 

You both have an enduring history in the art world and with the Malay Indonesian archipelago. What are the benefits that you hope will be attained by sharing your insights and experiences on Art of the Ancestors?

 
 
Dr. Peter Kedit

Dr. Peter Kedit

Steven G. Alpert: We saw something fleeting, something on the edge of a knife, glimpses of the ways we have collectively lived and perceived the world around us for thousands of years — in contradistinction to our contemporary dystopian world that is sometimes intent on eating itself and devouring its resources at an unprecedented rate.

For a larger audience, it is about digitally revealing, really for the first time, wonderful artwork taken from the reserves of world museums that has seldom, and in some cases, never been seen.  There is a joy in pursuing and exposing excellence, and if Art of the Ancestors succeeds in doing that — making us all stretch a bit, that is something small, but something special.

Mostly, this site is for the descendants and stakeholders of the creators of these traditions. May they serve as markers of pride, accomplishment, and inspiration. It is also in honor of the many parents and grandparents we knew and the beauty in which we were privileged to walk that this site exists.  Lastly, Art of the Ancestors is in response to the words of my very dear friend, and mentor, Peter Kedit, the former Director of the Sarawak Museum: "Place our art in the greatest museums, put it next to Picasso, show that we exist."

 
 
 

Dr. Reimar Schefold: The website has a twofold goal in my view: it opens the wealth of publicly accessible artistic masterpieces in Southeast Asia to a general public, guides it where to find them and stimulates their developing and voicing of own ideas about them.

At the same time, it can help today's descendants of the local traditions to recognize their artistic heritage, which often threatens to be forgotten, but could generate a new pride in their culture. The nicest response I ever got to Toys for the Souls was the comment of a young Mentawaian on Facebook: "Ini awal kebangkitan jati diri Mentawai", "This is the beginning of the resurrection of Mentawaian identity."

Toys for the Souls Life and Art on the Mentawai Islands Dr. Reimar Schefold