Collecting tips from those in the know Q I want to buy a present for a Chinese friend who expresses interest in African masks, but I'm worried about getting something inauspicious. WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: Scott Minick of Tao Evolution, the new tribal art and photography gallery, says: 'Chinese clients will often ask if a particular mask they are admiring has anything to do with death. Most pieces we sell are actually a celebration of the living, often representing fertility, coming of age and good harvests.' Once a source of inspiration for Picasso and his contemporaries, African tribal art is experiencing a fresh surge of interest, says Minick. Tribal traditions: Arab travellers in the 14th century provided some of the earliest written accounts of African masks, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that the first collections were formed by Europeans. The golden age of African art came later. Minick says: 'The French painter Maurice de Vlaminck is generally credited with popularising African art on the continent for its aesthetic value. By the 1920s, collector and dealer Paul Guillaume had opened the first gallery devoted to African art in Paris.' According to Minick, some of the best known mask-making traditions come from the tribes of West Africa, particularly the Bambara, Baule, Dogon, Punu, Lega and Fang tribes. Classified by tribal group, the masks show distinct stylistic differences even between neighbouring tribes: 'The rationale for their unique carving styles is usually based on the type of function they serve within the society,' says Minick. 'The Punu are well known for only producing masks of women in honour of a revered female ancestor who is thought to frighten away harmful forest spirits. They are popular here for their round, serene faces and Asian-looking eyes.' The most commonly used material is wood.Other embellishments are sometimes added, including brass and bronze. According to Minick, workers from the ancient Kingdom of Benin are the most famous metal workers, while the Bamana tribe is known for covering masks in sheets of brass then hammering reousse designs on them. Also, 'Pigments are applied to some, however kaolin or other vegetal pastes are often used before each ceremony to freshen the faces,' he says. NEW COLLECTOR TIPS: Imperfections are considered perfectly acceptable. In fact, African masks should look like they've been well-used. Minick says: 'Look at the patination, age cracks, darkening of the wood, oily deposits on the parts that should have had contact with the body, oxidation of materials.' He advises to buy based on stylistic purity and personal taste rather than trends. If you're not looking for a museum piece Minick says, 'There are still very interesting and stylistically significant examples of African tribal art that have been produced during the past 10 to 40 years that can be more affordable, about $3,000.' Recommended resources: The Tribal Arts Of Africa by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart ($300) African Masks From The Barbier-Mueller Collection ($360) can be ordered from Dymock's (Shop 115, Prince's Building, Central, tel: 2826 9248). Or visit Tao Evolution (G/F, 62a Peel St, Central).