Twenty years ago, Drissa Sanogo would finish his nightly shift, washing dishes at a New York City restaurant for $70 a week, return to his solitary room and cry.
“At the time, it looked like a big mistake, coming to America,” he remembers. It did not seem to be the land of opportunity he’d heard about.
It wasn’t until 1994, when he came through New Orleans, that he saw a way to sell the art he knew from his country so he could build a life for himself and his family. Today, Sanogo not only sells African art pieces at the French Market, but travels extensively, exhibiting at festivals and contacting loyal customers in other cities to show them his most recent imports. A broad grin and a hearty laugh are sure signs Sanogo has discovered his bliss.
“He’s so full of joy,” says Sherry Adams, an interior designer from Southern California who has purchased items from Sanogo for many years. “Drissa has a passion for the art, which I also share,” says Adams, who calls the primitive works “powerful.”
Foreign tourists are often surprised to discover antique, tribal art in New Orleans and sometimes stay in touch to buy more. “European people know African art, but they don’t know how to get it,” he says. Sanogo is able to obtain unique pieces through a network of old friends in West Africa who regularly send shipments of goods varying in value from $60 to $2,500 or more. The trades are based on trust, he says.
Sanogo specializes in tribal art from Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Zaire, including ceremonial masks, woodcarvings, bronze sculptures and beadwork. In the Ivory Coast alone, there are 67 tribes, although only 35 or 40 make masks, says Sanogo who descends from the Senoufo tribe. A civil war beginning in 2002 has made it difficult to obtain artwork from Ivory Coast.
“Each tribe has a different meaning for the mask,” he says about exotically carved facial images painted in red or gold on ebony, mahogany, teak or iroko – an African hardwood. They were often used in ceremonies.
Masks have great cultural and traditional significance in African society. Sanogo’s customers often want distinctive masks from specific tribes, for example, the Baluba tribe in Zaire. Charles Perotto, a Marigny resident, is especially interested in art from Benin and bought a bronze sculpture for his home that probably dates back to the 13th or 14th century. Although it is difficult to gauge an antique’s worth, Perotto says its history enhances the personal value. “I buy things that I find really beautiful,” he says simply.
Some masks are designed to ward off evil and protect the family, Sanogo says. A human figure made of bronze and punctured with nails, which some call a fetish, could be buried in the ground at the front door of a home.
“Anyone who would do harm to you would feel that pain,” Sanogo says. He might have done well to employ a fetish to ward off Hurricane Katrina.
The hurricane destroyed the family’s Ninth Ward home and Sanogo’s valuable inventory of collectible artwork. His wife Abibata and two daughters, Mariam and Maferima, stayed in Dallas while he drove back and forth to New Orleans, rebuilding their home. But that wasn’t the first hardship Sonogo had endured.
Growing up in Ivory Coast, Sanogo never attended school, yet always dreamed of a better life. Unable to obtain a visa in his home country, he traveled thousands of miles through five different countries to Gabon to emigrate to New York. Never taught to read or write and speaking only his native French language, he earned a living driving a taxi in Harlem and the Bronx while selling artwork on 25th Street in Manhattan. Within a couple of years, he was able to send for Abibata, whom he’d married a decade earlier. Soon, he was able to start his own art business.
“There is nobody who’ll sell African art the way he sells it,” says Solomon, a French Market vendor born in Ethiopia. Sanogo knows the history of every piece and what it means, says Solomon who purchased several pieces from his good friend. “Africans don’t just carve wood and say it’s art. It is culture, spirituality,” Solomon says.
Leon Tarver, former president of Southern University System, has traveled through 24 African countries, but found unique pieces among Sanogo’s inventory.
“Many of these pieces are one of a kind,” he says. “The art is in the mind of the carver.”