Monrovia - Sitting atop a large twisting stone, his back slightly curved, James Freeman continually witnessed the streets hoping that buyer troops in to purchase sculptures.
“Some pieces can be bought for $20 here, and when it’s at an upmarket exhibition in Europe, it could be sold for $800 to $1, 000” – Sylvester Kimba, a local Sculptor
The gallery opened its doors over 10-15 years ago and it’s one of 10 shops that sells local sculptures in the Mamba Point, a diplomatic enclave.
There are numerous sculptures lain on the ground, awaiting to be picked up by a buyer who would purchase the works earlier in the day, as the sale would bring hope to the Freeman after a dry stretch.
Liberia sculptures like those sold at the Mamba Point Art Centre are world-renowned partly because of their medium artifacts and serpentine.
“It’s been three or four months with no sales; sometimes we go up to six months with no sales,” says Freeman, a sculptor, and dealer.
Many Liberian sculptors, like those at the Mamba Point Art Centre, are struggling.
The majority of the center’s buyers are outside the country, and business has been declining over the years, says Sylvester another sculptor.
There is no government statistics showing international tourism in Liberia neither the number of average growth along with statistics of visitors.
When buyers do come, Sylvester says, they negotiate minimal prices and resell the sculptures in Europe, the United States and Asia for exorbitant amounts.
“Some pieces can be bought for $20 here, and when it’s at an upmarket exhibition in Europe, it could be sold for $800 to $1, 000,” he says.
The arts are more celebrated internationally than at home and are known both for the serpentine stone from which they are carved and for the Cultural spiritual heritage attached to the carvings, says Sylvester.
“I have been doing this job 10 years and no support is coming from Government, the Ministry of Information has consistently promised to support us but till today’s date no support has come.”
“This business is difficult for us and we are struggling because no tourist as compare to before so our goods stay here for a very long time.”
On contract or exhibition, he disclosed that the U.S Embassy was their only source to attract buyers that will help sponsor their kids in school.
“This business is what I have been doing for years and this is what my children feed and school on, and since the U.S Embassy cancelled the trade exhibition in 2016 – which is December and June we don’t know how our arts will be sold anymore and we haven’t heard any plans this year.”
Sylvester said the market relied heavily on overseas markets for sales. Some sculptors say they face various problems that result in underpayment for their work in a field that has the potential to generate millions.
“Art is the height of investment,” says Amadu Bah. “Those who buy art now can sell it years later at a better price.”
Meanwhile, he says, the majority of artists are struggling to break even.
Bah, a sculptor has resorted to running a clothing shop with his brother, as well as a painting. Previously, he could cover his expenses from sculpting.
“We know of art dealers who came promising to develop artists in Liberia, but the dealers are now millionaires.
They are now millionaires because they use simple tricks; they take advantage of an uncontrolled situation,” says Bah.
Some pieces can be bought for $20 here, and when it’s at an upmarket exhibition in Europe, it could be sold for $800 to $1,000. Bah at the Mamba Point.
“We can’t ship because of no support from the Government so our works are only confined here, so if visitors or travelers decide to purchase and send abroad we are forced to sell at a very cheap price,” Bah adds.
Anthony says he stopped sculpting because of the low pay and now works with a Cape Hotel – Lebanese-owned.
”I haven’t been sculpting for some time because sculpting is like working for free compared to what I am doing now. "
"The Lebanese businessman says, ‘Make me rich and I’ll also make you rich, ’Anthony says.
Buyers capitalize on the difficult economic situation in Liberia, Anthony says, by approaching sculptors toward the end of the month, when the artists have debts to pay and it’s likely they will pay less.
Last year, the Director of Culture at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), Mr. Darius D. Gweh, disclosed that Liberia lost over 5,800 pieces of arts and artifacts to looters during the Liberian civil war.
Gweh spoke at the Liberia National Museum in Monrovia when an African-American, Elder Paul Cheatham, who is also a former U.S. Marine, donated three suit cases of artifacts to the Museum.
Gweh added that most of the stolen materials were smuggled to neighboring countries, with some surfacing in the African-American and Masonic Museums in other countries around the world.
He indicated that the National Museum of Liberia was initially housed in the First Executive Mansion on Ashmun Street.
It was established by an Act of the National Legislature in 1958 during the administration of Liberia's 18th President, Dr. William V.S. Tubman.
He added that it was partly funded by UNESCO in coordination with the Department of Public Instruction (now the Ministry of Education), noting that its primary goal was to obtain, preserve and display cultural artifacts and other historical items which depict the country's heritage.
Earlier, Elder Cheatham said the donation of the three suit cases of arts and artifacts was his way of identifying with the Liberia National Museum and promised to always identify with the institution.
Bah argues that the Liberia Revenue Authority has not given credence to the arts and culture sector something he said could raise funds to the nation’s income.
Responding to the assertion by sculptors and dealers, Gweh said the Ministry has asked the sculptors to form a union and have an article of incorporation along with bank account, something he said they have continuously refused.
He couldn’t confirm or deny if budgetary support is given to them but constantly said they refused to form a union to coordinate their activities.
“We are supporting the Movie Union because they form themselves in a group, but they (sculptors) are under the union of artist, and they had a clash in their union, and haven’t settles it so they refused to follow our route in getting an article of incorporation and a bank account.”
Gweh said: “we can’t give money because we must be accountable for the money we spent.”
The Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs, and Tourism was established by law on May 11, 1972, and statutorily charged with the responsibility of developing and disseminating factual information about Liberia at home and abroad. The Ministry is also tasked to promote national cultural and tourism values through various cultural groups and tourism centers.
In its Achievements (FY2015-16): the Ministry disclosed that it only organized celebration of the international World Tourism Day, in Buchanan City.
The budget of the Ministry of Information and Cultural and Tourism shows that FY 2014/15- US$2,227,924 was given to the Ministry of which US$5, 058 was given to the Cultural and Tourism section, 2015/16- US$3,546,914- US$142,421, while 2016/17 US$3,745,713- US$62,015 is in the current budget.