My parents started collecting African tribal art early in the 50s. Their collection became synonymous among scholars, dealers, auction houses and museums with high quality and authenticity. Before his death in 1988, Gustavo sold a large portion of it to the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. His goal was to have the collection stay as intact as possible. Unfortunately my mother, who outlived Gustavo by seventeen years, was, let us say, “parted” from the remaining pieces (which comprised the heart of the collection) by the shadowy dealings of a gentleman who befriended her at the time of my father’s funeral. But that is looking many years ahead. What I want to tell you about, really, is what it was like growing up with these very ritualistic and often magical pieces of art.
I felt different from the other kids at school for many reasons. One was my name itself: Nicole Schindler. Nicole (pronounced “knee-coll”) was as common as dirt in France, but not yet popular in the States, and Schindler was a tongue-twister, so first day of school I’d want to hide beneath the desk as roll call began. Invariably, when we got to the “S”s, the teacher would pause, and out would come “Ni-col-ee Schleindler,” and everyone would turn and stare as I whispered, “Here.” Another reason: my parents were European, and spoke with accents. Another: I had a governess. Another: we had so many dogs. Another: my mother was a painter with nude models in her studio. None of these were bad things. They just set me apart a little. Especially, at the time, the art.
Pieces like that — a D’mba — all over the house. Big fertile breasts, elongated penises, scary eyes, war-like faces.
To me, raised with these figures, it was normal. They had to do with fertility, crops, safety, war, weather, wealth, but these were not concepts I could easily discuss with other elementary school children. If I brought friends home, they’d freeze up, go very quiet, or sometimes even say “Eeew!” So I very rarely brought other kids home. In a way, acceptance of my unusual environment became a test of friendship, and here’s the sad truth: I didn’t have a best friend till I was ten. But I did have all these fabulous tribal gods, goddesses, warriors, and fetish figures watching over me. And they had power. They were awesome. They looked out for me. Years later, when I was trying to conceive a child and kept miscarrying, Gustavo gave me a small fertility fetish that I slipped under my pillow. I was pregnant the next cycle with a baby who was born on her due date. Twenty-seven minutes’ labor start to finish. My waters broke with a pop like a champagne cork and she started crowning in the car. I’m telling you, these fetishes work.