On the trail of wild colonial toys

Collecting obsessions are wont to follow a person around the globe. Michael Visontay spills on his own addiction to statues from north-west Africa.

I THINK it was the pith helmets that got me in. Shiny, tiny, ridiculous and romantic. One look and I'm back with Bogart in Casablanca, the Raj in India, the French in North Africa. A place and time where adventurous colonials braved the desert heat in the name of empire and commerce, while locals struggled to make sense of their fair-skinned adversaries.

There they stood, two dark-skinned wooden figures wearing suits and ties, carrying suitcases and binoculars, mounted on plinths. Ready for action with nowhere to go. How could I not love them?

That's how my affair started, more than a decade ago now. They were tucked away in a small gift shop in the Blue Mountains.

The shop was called Stairway to Kevin. It was more like an escalator to Africa; to be precise, the Ivory Coast on the north-west coast of Africa.

Colonised by the French in 1893 for its coffee, cocoa and palm oil, the country achieved independence in 1960 and has lumbered through two coups and a civil war in the past 10 years - about as long as I have been collecting these statues, known as colons (pronounced "col-on", French for colonial).

They became popular during the late 1950s, towards the end of colonial rule, when foreign administrators, civil servants, soldiers and other expatriates began commissioning portraits of themselves as souvenirs to take home, according to Christopher Steiner, an American art historian who interviewed artists and traders for a book on the subject.

"This gave rise to a whole new genre of tourist art, which grew out of an indigenous tradition of representing Africans in Western attitudes or attire," Steiner says. Its popularity soared in the late 1980s following a few well-publicised auctions in Europe.

Well, I admit it. I am one of those suckers. Between Australia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, I've acquired enough to start my own private township - a collection of about two dozen that now includes a doctor, priest, soldier, sailor, soccer players, a baker, fishmonger and medical aide, as well as assorted civil servants.


At first I thought the pair I found would be enough but as I travelled around the world and found them staring at me, the urge to create a community took over. Soon I became picky about who would join my club and resisted the blind encouragement of my wife whenever she saw any old statue standing in a shop window.

Five years ago, my first trip to New Caledonia, a French colony three hours from the Australian east coast, yielded a couple of rustic gems: a fishmonger and sailor, painted in the rough chocolate-skinned tones that apparently confirmed they were older, more authentic items.

The woman who sold them to me would venture to "the Cote" once a year, adding that her men sold quickly because they were the real thing, not recent copies by artists cashing in on the tourist fad.

For a while it was easy enough to accept this explanation but now I know better. In his book African Art in Transit, Steiner claims the artists deliberately paint them in lustrous enamels but traders report that they don't sell as well as faded, older-looking ones. "Thus, when a trader purchases a statue from a workshop, they will remove a layer of paint with sandpaper. The object will then be stained with potassium permanganate. This treatment produces a darkened surface, with flaked paint, which can often be marketed as antique."

At the time I didn't know and it wouldn't have mattered. This wasn't about authenticity. I liked them - they tickled my fancy. Simple as that. I snapped them up, unaware of the hurdles that awaited me at customs on my return. Bringing foreign wooden material back to Australia is tricky; the quarantine authorities are vigilant about borers and other blights. It was with relief that I unwrapped and placed them next to my originals.

My wife's initial scepticism mellowed and she became a de facto scout, forever on the lookout for new specimens. In the next few years, she bought me a soccer player and lean, pink-coated civil servant.

In Paris, a few years ago, I spotted a dirty old pilot statue tucked away in a small boutique in the Marais, on the Right Bank. I grabbed him hungrily, having spent a full week combing the African quarter around Rue Elzevir without a single sighting of my statues.

Back home, friends began to admire the men's presence around our house. Every so often I moved them, from the kitchen to the stairs, from the lounge to the hallway - and their charm would start afresh.

One friend liked them so much that he decided to collect them, too. He built up a solid collection and rang me whenever he found a new source - in shops or on the internet. It wasn't competitive, though for a while my acquisitive urge became dormant. They were getting too popular, a bit common. My grievance was compounded by a magazine interview with the former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone, who had a monster colon statue in her lounge room. He was a mini-me of the senator: big, bulky and larger than life. I swore under my breath. Now everyone would go after them.

Out of the blue, my appetite was kick-started courtesy of an upmarket lighting shop in Melbourne, which had a beauty in the corner, a tall priest in bold black-and-white tones. He was so imposing, so different from the others - a natural sentinel in our just-renovated lounge room. Buying him was the easy part; getting him back was harder. He was too big to fit into our family sedan and we had to prevail on friends to wrap him up carefully in their people-mover.

The shop owners usually have the same story: they go over once a year and pick up a few at a trade fair, just for colour. They are never the main attraction in any one window but every person who has sold them repeats the same line: people love them, they never last.

A few years ago, when I was back in Europe for a month over summer, they must have been especially popular. The usual haunts turned up nothing and as we made our way eastwards I privately marked down 2007 as a lean year. Never mind, we'd find some Russian dolls in Prague, my wife consoled me. Whoopy do.

On the way she was keen to see Salzburg, a city about as remote from the Ivory Coast as you could imagine on the Continent. It's mittel-Europe, full of Mozart, schnitzel and lederhosen. Charming but extremely monocultural. We visited castles, gardens and the houses where Amadeus learnt about bodily functions, played bawdy games, composed masterpieces and died.

That seemed to be as close as we'd get to the earthy side of life, until our tour of the music festival hall, a delightful building built into the side of a mountain and famous for being used to shoot The Sound of Music.

Walking out, we tried to avoid another offering of Mozartkugel by nipping down a side street when suddenly we came face-to-face with a shop full of African artefacts. And there, occupying pride of place in the window, stood a veritable phalanx of colon statues. They were modest examples but with genuine chocolate tones and not too clean, either. A thrill ran down my spine. Here? Salzburg? How? Why?

As she wrapped up four of them for me (three midget with pith helmets and one elegant mid-size civil-servant type), the shop owner explained she was a regular visitor to Africa and had brought these back for years. But it was risky business. She went to Mozambique, sometimes Namibia. "They're safer," she said. "Ivory Coast is too dangerous." Even so, she always gets a driver. "And I make sure he has a gun."

My mind turned back to the film Blood Diamond, about the hidden lives lost in the jewellery industry. Could there be invisible blood on these men too? "Keep it in perspective," I told myself. "They're just wooden figures."

The gap between conscience and consumption was tested two years ago during a trip to South Africa for the World Cup. A wander down Long Street in Cape Town, in the heart of the old quarter, was like ascending to colon heaven. Shop after shop, bursting with statues of all sizes and demeanours. It was the same in the markets at Johannesburg; after a while it was too hard (and heavy) to choose and I ended up bringing back just one figure: a tall, elegant woman, the first female in my collection.

That pleasure was tempered by the giants I had to leave behind for fear of paying hundreds of dollars in postage and alienating my footballing mates, already annoyed by my frequent stops. The woman came back with a broken leg and a piece of her nose missing. I had her lovingly repaired by a retired Gepetto (the neighbour of one of my group who finally owned up to liking the figures and bought two).

One of the problems in South Africa was the mass manufacture of wooden footballer figures, tacky copies of my originals, with light skin, poor colouring and - worst of all - detachable top and bottom parts that screwed together. I was horrified and could not bring myself to look at them. But it was only when I returned home that I bothered to reflect on the lives of the people who toiled to make these goodies for rich Western tourists.

However, obsessions sit uneasily with morality. A few months ago I was in Israel and spied a quartet of dark-brown statue footballers standing proudly in an African artefacts shop in Tel Aviv. I knew they had been made for the World Cup and that they were new - the paint hardly dried, ethically speaking. Yet they were beautifully made, combining my passion for football with my love of these figures. We were leaving for Jerusalem when our taxi drove past them so I scribbled down the shop name and bought two over the phone - players from Ivory Coast and Argentina- leaving a relative to ship them back to Australia by surface mail. If they arrive intact, I will buy the other two.

It has gone full circle: from occasional collector of the genuine articles to desperate acquirer of new, cheap copies. Whatever it takes to satisfy the urge. Obsessions are like that.