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To Specialize or Not

 October 9, 2023    African Arms

As an unabashedly focused collector I am often asked by fellow collectors why I rarely obtain arms outside of takouba and very related forms. I have always felt one cannot judge a sword form on the most typical examples. Rather, it is necessary to handle as many examples as possible to form any sort of opinion that runs deeper than a cursory description. This belief, coupled with the financial restrictions every collector faces has limited my collecting. For every interesting object I see, I mentally count how many takouba that equals.

This naturally leads to a somewhat lopsided collection. While many collectors have a multitude of forms, enabling more detailed examination of cross cultural diffusion and variance, my collection is monolithic. Or at least that is how it appears to an outsider. The single sword type I collect spans an area the size of Europe. An example from Timbuktu in northern Mali to Dikwa in northern Nigeria represents a journey of some 2,600km. From Ghat in modern day Libya to Bida in Nigeria an even further journey. The takouba then is a sword type as ubiquitous to this massive region as the cross hilted sword was to medieval Europe. The point being that collecting what is often considered a single 'type' within the ethnographic world can in fact be an analog to what would be considered many distinct regional and historical forms among other collecting fields.

There is a trend I have commented on before, of collectors who seek out a representative example of each supposed 'type' to fill out a collection. This continues to reinforce the false tribalistic approach so unfortunately common among many ethnographic collectors. This is of particular concern with African arms in regions which were closely connected by trade and religion to the wider world, because it propagates the myth of the dark continent with small, isolated groups. The truth, as I have expounded upon on this site at some length is of course entirely different.

'm left then with the tricky situation of being considered a specialist by most, but in fact regarding myself as a complete generalist within my chosen field of collecting. I would be the first to admit my collecting his hardly global, even with a regional context I am selective to a certain form of sword, but I am by no means as specialized.