I’VE always said I’d rather live in a tent with an amazing piece of art than live in a mansion with no art.” Declan Ryan is breakfasting at a leisurely pace amidst his collection of masks in the Sternview Gallery in Nash 19.
Ryan is better known as the owner of artisan bakery Arbutus Breads, and previously the Arbutus restaurant, but Ireland’s first Michelin-starred chef is here in his capacity as a collector. He’s exhibiting his impressive collection of masks, a folk art treasure trove comprising masks mostly from West Africa and Papua New Guinea, for the Sternview Gallery’s ‘Meet the Collector’ exhibition which showcases a private art collection and lets the collector share their experiences.
The masks adorning the walls are objects of ceremonial power, skilfully executed in wood, leather, cowry shells and other natural materials. They radiate an exciting and occasionally intimidating presence that jars with the sedate breakfasting scenes taking place under their ancient gaze; The Sternview Gallery is also part of Nash 19’s restaurant space.
Cubism was inspired by the raw power of such artefacts, and when describing them, Picasso said he immediately recognised that “They were not simply sculptures like any other, but magic objects… They were weapons, to help people stop being ruled by spirits, to free themselves.”
Ryan surveys the brooding faces with a convivial air, as though they are family members. “That one is ‘The Woman of Woot,’ and it was only used for dances in the Kuba royal court,” he says of one mask from Zaire. “The Kuba are matrilineal, and so the dance was performed when a new king was crowned, to confirm his historic right to the throne.”
He says it’s nice to see the masks hung in a gallery, rather than crowded on the single wall they usually occupy in his home. Don’t they ever scare him? He chuckles. “I’m not superstitious about them,” he says. “Although I have one friend who works for Unicef in West Africa, and when she saw them she shuddered. To her, they mean intimidation, fear and black magic.”
Ryan bought his first mask in 1985 when, already an avid art collector, he happened upon the contemporary mud and straw masks of Cork School of Art graduate Antjepia Gottschalk. “I’m absolutely fascinated by masks,” he says. “I suppose facial features have always resonated with me.”
By the late 1990s, the cost of collecting art was on the rise, and Ryan realised that collecting folk art in the form of masks was a relatively cheap way of indulging his aesthetic urges.
Although Ryan owns a couple of contemporary and European masks, almost all of those on display are of African and New Guinean origin.
Picking them up on his travels, mostly in European cities like Paris and Madrid, what does Ryan think the people who used these ceremonial masks would think, seeing them hanging in a gallery?
“Well, many tribal groups consider the masks dead without all the other things that go with them; the costumes and ornamentation. Sometimes the masks were created for a particular function at a particular time and served no use after that. But some would inspire fear even today. To me they are objects that were created for particular reasons, with historical implications, each with its own story.”
Stories Ryan knows and loves to share; he displays an infectious delight in sharing the origins of each artefact, as well the tale of its acquisition. It’s easy to see a continuation of the respect for culture and the origins of tradition that have infused his work as a baker; a reverence for folk art almost akin to his reverence for pains de campagne.