On his first trip to Kenya, in 1973, Wolfe, 54, bought a neck rest and some containers "because they were very beautiful and seemed so authentic and traditional I couldn't believe they still existed." He has returned to Africa more than 40 times since.
"The dinners sometimes get a little boisterous," Diane Wolfe admits. "We had a guest, a doctor friend of ours, pick up a ceremonial knife and start cutting his wild boar chop with it." Diane doesn't reach for a coaster when a guest puts down a Diet Coke on a 1940s Senufo wooden bed from the Ivory Coast that serves as a coffee table. "The great thing about African furniture," she notes, "is that whatever happens to them then becomes part of the patina."
In Woodard's home, low seats from the Ivory Coast sit in stark contrast to a gilded chair by Los Angeles designer Rose Tarlow. It is the stools, not the decorator throne, she says, that have "the nobility. When I touch the chairs that the elders sat in, I feel like they're alive. I feel warmth and the deep energy of continuity."
Woodard became a serious collector of tribal artifacts after acquiring contemporary Shona sculptures from Zimbabwe during the filming of the 1987 TV film "Mandela." In her Santa Monica abode — a concrete structure warmed by glyphs, hand-painted walls, silk drapes and the vivacity of the actress and her two children, Mavis, 13, and Duncan, 10 — Woodard favors the work of South African painter Vusi Khumalo.
She often pauses to contemplate Khumalo's 1995 landscape of a township, a multimedia work made from paint and tin cans that her husband, writer-producer Roderick Spencer, found in the basement of a community center outside Johannesburg. Now it hangs in their dining room, where Neoclassical chairs surround a table covered in an Indian sari.
A frequent visitor to the Ernie Wolfe Gallery, as a client and a friend, Woodard also has a hands-on approach to collecting. "We use everything," she says of her African furniture, which includes a wooden bed employed as a coffee table on the patio. Throughout her home, the African influence is artfully combined with more traditional elements to create a worldly environment.
In the living room, silver English andirons from an antiquarian on London's Portobello Road gleam in an adobe walled fireplace crowned with a mantel exhibiting South African ceramics covered in woven black and white telephone wires. An Ethiopian mask sits under a modernist zebra made of wire by African American sculptor Dale Edwards. "It is a multicultural house, with a basis in Africa," Woodard explains. "I didn't realize how much so until I looked at how many pieces I have and love. That's when I knew I was a collector."
Larry Lazzaro knew that Bob Weis was a collector from the get-go. When the couple first met in New York's East Village, Weis had already filled a tiny studio apartment with artifacts, an interest developed in part by the African influences he had seen in then contemporary art stars Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat.
When Weis, a composer of avant-garde soundscapes, and Lazzaro, a business advisor, purchased their midcentury fixer-upper in 2000, there was little doubt what it would become. Inside, the only hint of the modernism for which Palm Springs has become famous is a free-standing white enameled genie-bottle fireplace and a collection of thrift-shop furniture on linoleum-tiled floors.
Almost everything else, with the exception of 21st century electronics, came out of Africa. A beaded elephant mask from Cameroon stands sentry by the front door, which opens to a slate foyer lined with metal staffs and ancient African currency that looks like 6-foot Brancusi sculptures. Ceremonial gold foil crowns surround a flat-screen TV in the bedroom, and power figures studded with nails and metal scraps surround machines in the home office.
"At first I tried to rein him in," says Lazzaro. "I was always asking, 'Do you really need this?' "
While unpacking his haul after the EBay windfall, Weis realized that what was once a hobby now could be a calling. He is mounting an exhibition of African textiles at Modern Tribal, his fledgling gallery in Palm Springs.
Lazzaro already had become a convert. "When I walk through our house, I can feel the power of these pieces and what they represent," he says. "Their spirit takes me out of the cellphone world to a plane on which everything in life was connected."
Weis and Lazzaro even share their living room with the dead. Under the light of a floor lamp that sprouts tentacles, a flea-market console serves as a small altar for 13 gleaming reliquaries from the Kota tribe of Gabon. Resembling small Cubist statues, these brass- and copper-covered funeral effigies of dead tribesmen hold bundles filled with bone fragments of the deceased.
The 13 "guests," as Weis refers to them, began arriving after he saw a 2003 exhibition of reliquaries in Paris. They are a bittersweet prize, reminders that war, genocide, famine and AIDS have brought many African artifacts to the market. "They are the most personal family objects that exist," says Weis. "And the fact that they are being sold for food and medicine is heartbreaking."
As a result, Weis and Lazzaro consider themselves merely custodians of the funerary artifacts. "It might sound a bit wacko," Weis admits, "but when they arrive, we light incense and have a ceremony, welcoming them into our home."
David A. Keeps can be reached at email@example.com.