African folklore tells a tale about a noble man, a Malawian chief who married an African queen from the Mwangawa village. The chief loved his three daughters but his heart ached for a son. And so he left his home to fast and pray in the wilderness – a wild, wild wilderness, home to leopards and lions.
No one saw him for four weeks – the village elders believed he must be dead. But, one day he returned, greeted by his wife and the news she was pregnant.
Eight months later, the chief and his elders sat together drinking mabele in the cool of the night. All of a sudden the lamp’s flame started to grow smaller. The chief shook the lamp, hearing the paraffin was plenty. The flame grew smaller still and then seemed to move away from the lamp, into the veld and slowly disappeared until the elders could not see their own hands. Moments later a bright light blinded the men and they heard a voice say, “Tonight, your son will be born, and you will name him Mark. Do not change his name.”
Soon after, the Malawian queen went into labour and Mark was born.
Anyone who spends enough time with Mark Phiri will know he’s a dreamer, an artefact expert, a man with a great smile and greater heart, who looks more like 30 than 50. What you might not know is that Mark is also a prince, of the Msungata Village in Lilongwe, an heir to his father’s throne. One day when his father has passed on or is unfit to lead he will take up his rightful role as chief.
Mark has been a part of the Amatuli family for over 20 years and has been an intricate part of the business’ growth and success. Between negotiating with dealers, helping clients and sourcing new products, we managed to keep him still for long enough to uncover his life story, his favourite items at Amatuli and what rare artefact he’s always on the lookout for!
How did you start working for Amatuli and when?
After managing my father’s farms for many years, I left my family and made my way to South Africa. I did not know anyone and had nowhere to stay, and so I slept in flowerbeds and under trees. By chance I met a Malawian man in Kyalami who introduced me to Simon and Di Valentine – Mark’s parents. I started working at Di’s PR company cleaning, cooking and baking bread.
Mark Valentine needed someone to help him with his African art business, but I wasn’t interested! I thought to myself, “Only lazy people carve wooden sculptures!” I wanted to be a journalist who travelled to every corner of the ‘Dark Continent’ and shared its stories – it’s not so dark, it’s full of good tales! But, after Mark begged I agreed to give it a try and started working for Amatuli in 1996.
Mark Valentine taught me everything I know! He taught me how to buy, what to buy and for what price. He gave me his books on African art to study. I was lonely and those books became my friends. I studied like I was about to write a big exam.
Tell us about your job at Amatuli
I network with all the art dealers in Africa. My telephone number gets around! The name Amatuli has spread through Africa and I am the link. There are always new dealers who we are connecting with.
What artefact do you keep your eyes open for?
There isn’t one specific artefact, but I am always searching for something I have never seen before, a new figure from Sudan or a rare mask. There are still undiscovered tribal artefacts, which are passed down from generation to generation, ones that you can’t find on google!
What is your favourite piece of African art?
The chair. A chair is a symbol of identity in African culture. People know you by your chair or stool. They play an important role in African culture. Only a chief sits on his chair, and it contains the powers and wisdom of the forefathers. Often the chief’s chair is decorated in leopard or lion skin. The chair looks after you and tells you who you are. Like an Ashanti stool, only you or your son may sit on it, no one else!
Do you remember any of the stories your elders used to tell you?
Of course, they told me many funny stories, always with a wise lesson – like don’t eat someone else’s food or you will turn into an animal! I was taught to respect old and young, and that loyalty makes a person trustworthy. I still hold my traditions close.
Watch this space! Each month Mark will be reviewing an interesting African artefact in a blog series called “Phiri’s Artefact of the Month”!