Fine Furniture and African Art
Jungletraders is a gallery specializing in furniture made from recycled African railwoods and African art from virtually the entire continent. Although the gallery occupies only a little more than 1,300 square feet of space at 424 Main Street in downtown Half Moon Bay, it showcases literally thousands of artifacts, masks, statues, and furniture made from rich African hardwoods. The gallery is supplemented by an enormous warehouse which has many times over again as much inventory as can be contained within the gallery itself.
A walk through Jungletraders is a dizzying sensory experience, encompassing things as diverse as stone sculptures made by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to bottle openers made with warthog tusks and brass, from 10-foot dining tables made from solid Rhodesian teak salvaged from African railways to photographs of lions, elephants, and giraffes taken during the proprietor’s many journeys through the African bush. The artifacts on display range from life-size statues carved by indigenous African tribes to hundreds of African masks used in a variety of tribal ceremonies. Indeed, if one stops to read the stories which are attached to most of the items in the gallery, a stop in Jungletraders can turn into an hours-long anthropological journey into the myriad of cultures represented within its walls. The stories add color and life to the already fascinating objects in the gallery, providing the reader with name of and information about the tribe which made the object in question, as well as the context in which the object is typically used.
According to Josh Simpson, the owner of Jungletraders, African art “comes from ancient tradition of artists, yet it does not exist apart from the culture in which it was born, but as a vital, functioning organ of the culture itself. The art was not created for its own sake, but to mark and give shape to events – harvest, hunting, birth, initiation, marriage, maturity, life, and death. African art is not the bark giving adornment to the tree, but rather it is the rings of the seasons of growth within the tree itself.” Perusing the many curios to be found within Jungletraders yields a trove of information about objects related to fertility, animal spirits, ancestor worship, fetishes, and many other aspects of African culture which have survived centuries of colonization and the impact of western religious proselytizing.
The appeal of African art for Simpson lies partly in its unselfconscious beauty. It is not the product of an over-studied and intellectualized artistic tradition, nor is it meant to be ironic. Rather, it responds to organic human needs, and it represents very real aspects of African culture. African art represents man’s attempt to understand his life and his death, and also to control it where possible. It is man’s attempt to communicate with the seen and the unseen, both within himself and in the world around him. It is used by the community in which it is created to teach, to protect, to celebrate, and to heal.
Simpson goes on to say “Perhaps the reason I love African art is precisely because it cannot be readily quantified or qualified with any accuracy or precision. It resists objectification. African art is like a zen koan, those puzzles of logic with no true answer, the purpose of which is to simply exhaust the rational mind so that it gives up and allows the more intuitive, feeling aspect of our nature to awaken and come forward to embrace our world.”
Some of the countries from which the art comes from include South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana. Indeed, if one does not have the time or money to travel to Africa, the next best thing would be to visit Jungletraders to enjoy a taste of its rich cultural diversity, as well as the many images of the beautiful animals to be found there. Mr. Simpson’s commitment to preserving this rich legacy is underscored by the fact that 10% of the profit from the gallery sales are sent directly to the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), to help preserve the highly endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, whose numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years as the result of war and political instability in the region.
All of Jungletraders' furniture is made from recycled African railway sleepers (in the U.S. they are called railroad ties). These sleepers were laid in the African soil over a hundred years ago, and the trees from which they were milled had been living another 300-600 years before that. As the aging railway lines are either upgraded or discarded, this wood (once used as firewood) finds a third life in the hands of the African craftsmen who expertly shape it into beautiful heirloom quality works of art.
The builders of the African railways selected these woods for their weight and density, since they needed to survive the rigors of the harsh African climate without the use of any chemical preservatives. The color and character the wood has acquired from a century in African soil is rich and deeply shaded, which gives each piece of furniture an absolutely unique look and feel. “Beyond its obvious physical beauty, the wood to me is a tangible link to a different era and to a wilder, more untamed place”, says Simpson.
This is perhaps the only opportunity to own furniture made from trees that may have been living in the 1300's and 1400's, before even Columbus sailed to America. This wood virtually throbs with the life of the dense, old-growth, hardwood jungle from which it came. Unlike most exotic hardwoods today, its re-use as Jungletraders' furniture in no way contributes to the destruction of any fragile ecosystems. It is estimated that in the next decade the supply of these used timbers will be exhausted. There will never be any more like them.
If you wish to tour Jungletraders, you can find it at 424 Main Street in Half Moon Bay. Or you can find it on the web at www.jungletraders.net. The gallery is open seven days a week from 11:00 am to 6:30 pm. It is also open by appointment, which can be arranged by calling Jungletraders directly at 650-560-9955.