For an­tique pieces with soul, hand­crafted with skill and fi­nesse, give in to the lure of tribal arts from far flung cor­ners of the world, says CARO­LINE WHEATER


Global, eclec­tic looks are on-trend, but a cen­tury ago, avant-garde artists such as Pi­casso ad­mired tribal art

Acen­tury ago, artists such as Pablo Pi­casso and Henri Matisse were wak­ing up to the bold beauty of tribal art. The artists and their friends were reg­u­lar visi­tors to the Tro­cadéro Ethnog­ra­phy Mu­seum in Paris. Here they would wan­der the dark gal­leries filled with African sculp­tures and carv­ings that ar­rived in the city in large num­bers from the 1870s, af­ter the French coloni­sa­tion of sub- Sa­ha­ran Africa. ‘Tribal art was an im­por­tant in­flu­ence on the avant-garde artists of the early 20th cen­tury – Pi­casso col­lected it, Matisse, Braque, Gi­a­cometti, Modigliani, it changed the way they painted,’ says An­tiques Road­show spe­cial­ist Ron­nie Archer Mor­gan, who as an art stu­dent was so in­spired by this no­tion that he be­gan to col­lect in the field.

‘ When tribal art is good it has an amaz­ing en­ergy – it’s im­bued with the be­liefs of the peo­ple who made it, the vi­bra­tions of those who carved it. Shapes are sim­ple, eco­nomic of line and form, but very ex­pres­sive,’ says Archer Mor­gan. ‘Peo­ple col­lect all sorts, from do­mes­tic spoons and bowls, to weapons and adorn­ments, but what they most want are the things made for high-rank­ing peo­ple that were al­ways beau­ti­fully crafted. In tribal cul­ture, the bet­ter crafted an ob­ject is, the more power it rep­re­sents.’

Col­lec­tors metaphor­i­cally range across con­ti­nents look­ing for pieces that cap­ti­vate them – Africa, Ocea­nia (Aus­tralia, New Zealand and the Pa­cific is­lands), and the Amer­i­cas in the main. Cer­e­mo­nial and sym­bolic items in­clude haunt­ing masks and vi­brant dance shields, weapons, bark cloth cos­tumes,

fer­til­ity sculp­tures and totems, and exquisitely wo­ven bas­kets for stor­ing pre­cious items. There are day-to- day ob­jects too, in­clud­ing pad­dles, el­ders’ stools, head­rests, bow rests, tex­tiles, boomerangs, dishes, bowls, spoons and hair combs.

Af­ter nearly 50 years in the busi­ness, eclec­tic tribal dealer Clive Love­less is finely at­tuned to the skills demon­strated in the con­struc­tion and fin­ish of high­qual­ity pieces. ‘Peo­ple of­ten con­fuse the word ‘prim­i­tive’ with ‘crude’, but in Paris, where there is a strong col­lec­tor’s mar­ket still, tribal art is known as les arts

pre­miers or the first arts,’ says Love­less. ‘These beau­ti­ful, tac­tile things were made by highly skilled peo­ple us­ing what they found close by – wood, stone, cane, plant fi­bres, bark, shells and feath­ers. They have a con­nec­tion to na­ture and the nat­u­ral world that’s al­most spir­i­tual.’

Uncharted ter­ri­tory

Tribal art be­gan trick­ling into Europe with the early ex­plor­ers; men such as Cap­tain Cook whose 18th- cen­tury sea voy­ages charted the east coast of Aus­tralia, New Zealand and the Pa­cific Ocean is­lands. Ex­pe­di­tions were charged with bring­ing back lo­cal items for wealthy pa­trons and museums. The crews took gifts to be­stow on tribal el­ders, and items to barter with, such as metal knives, axes and rib­bons. ‘They were bring­ing back tribal arte­facts to bet­ter un­der­stand and study the na­tive peo­ples and their ter­ri­to­ries,’ ex­plains Archer Mor­gan. From the late 1700s, diplo­mats, civil ser­vants, traders, sol­diers and mis­sion­ar­ies serv­ing over­seas all played their part in bring­ing home tribal trea­sures as keep­sakes and sou­venirs.

The study of tribal an­thro­pol­ogy grew in the 19th cen­tury and one of the most fa­mous col­lec­tors was Gen­eral Au­gus­tus Pitt-Rivers. His mis­sion in life was to study the ‘hu­man de­vel­op­ment of material cul­ture’ and, from the early 1850s un­til his death in 1900, he amassed over 50,000 ob­jects, of­ten buy­ing at auc­tion. In 1884 he gave over 18,000 arte­facts to the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, which be­came the found­ing col­lec­tion for the fas­ci­nat­ing Pitt Rivers Mu­seum. In the early 20th cen­tury, in the Pitt-Rivers mould, Cap­tain AWF Fuller set about build­ing a world­class col­lec­tion of Oceanic tribal art, de­spite never vis­it­ing the Pa­cific is­lands. He amassed over 6,000 items from Me­lane­sia and Poly­ne­sia, in­clud­ing 242 rar­i­ties from Easter Is­land, now held by The Field Mu­seum in Chicago.

To­day, pub­lic col­lec­tions hold the cream of tribal art and are places to im­merse your­self in mas­ter­pieces. Even now, with our wealth of tech­nol­ogy, a sense of awe and won­der strikes us as we look at these ob­jects, says Crispin Howarth, the Bri­tish cu­ra­tor of Pa­cific Arts at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra. ‘ Un­like the fa­mous 19th and 20th- cen­tury Euro­pean and Amer­i­can

artists whose work of­ten comes from the im­pulse for self- ex­pres­sion, the tra­di­tional tribal arts of the Pa­cific were cre­ated for com­mu­nity use, be that util­i­tar­ian, for fes­ti­vals or re­li­gious rit­u­als. At each level, they were made to vis­ually broad­cast lay­ers of mean­ing to their in­dige­nous view­ers, and with some un­der­stand­ing of tribal cul­tures, these arts pro­vide a rich aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence,’ he ex­plains.

Go­ing tribal

It wasn’t un­til the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury that tribal art be­gan to ap­peal be­yond museums to a di er­ent kind of col­lec­tor; one more in­ter­ested in style, dec­o­ra­tion and in­vest­ment po­ten­tial. ‘The first auc­tion cat­a­logues I’ve found fea­tur­ing tribal art as a semi-spe­cialised sale date back to the 1960s,’ says Archer Mor­gan. In the 1970s– 80s rel­a­tively low prices en­abled col­lec­tors to snap up the best ex­am­ples for hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, not the mil­lions they are worth now. ‘Even in the last decade, the mar­ket’s value has gone up sig­nif­i­cantly and a high-qual­ity Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal shield worth £5,000 then could be £50,000 now,’ adds Love­less.

Top col­lec­tors in­clude the late Lord McAlpine who built up a renowned col­lec­tion of tribal art and tex­tiles. Pierre and Claude Vérité of Paris, fa­ther and son deal­ers who sold masks and carv­ings from Africa and Ocea­nia to Pi­casso, amassed an ex­tra­or­di­nary per­sonal col­lec­tion that was sold at auc­tion in Paris in 2006, mak­ing €44m. More re­cently, in 2014, the African art col­lec­tion of My­ron Kunin, founder of Regis hair sa­lons, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $41.6m, with the top lot, a Sen­ufo Fe­male Statue from Ivory Coast or Burk­ina Faso, mak­ing $12m, a world record.

Re­as­sur­ingly, there’s plenty for or­di­nary mor­tals too, with the largest range of items orig­i­nat­ing from Africa – coun­tries such as Congo, Bu­rundi and Ivory Coast – then the coun­tries and is­lands of Ocea­nia. ‘My ad­vice is, make friends with a rep­utable dealer – some­one you can trust,’ says Archer Mor­gan, who has come across his fair share of fakes. Clive Love­less rec­om­mends vis­it­ing the an­nual sell­ing show Tribal Art Lon­don in Septem­ber, where over 20 deal­ers o er wares. As for prices, they start in the low hun­dreds for some­thing of good qual­ity, ris­ing into the thou­sands for star items. ‘You could buy a small early 20th- cen­tury Tutsi bas­ket for £300 up to £1,500 or more, a good 19th- cen­tury Abo­rig­i­nal boomerang for £300 to £800, or much more for an early finely in­cised ex­am­ple, and a de­cent African shield for £500 to £1,500 and even into five-fig­ure sums for the rarest,’ says Love­less.

BE­LOW Any sur­face can be­come a fo­cal point – this group­ing of wo­ven bas­kets cre­ates an in­trigu­ing dis­play on the stairs FAC­ING PAGE Be con dent when play­ing with scale – gather dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of tribal art such as masks, cush­ions and bas­kets, and tie them to­gether with a large, strik­ing piece such as an an­tique hand- carved lad­der

ABOVE When putting to­gether a col­lec­tion, look for dif­fer­ent tex­tures and shapes, such as shiny mother of pearl, carved sil­ver and bright red bead­ing FAC­ING PAGE Mix the earthy tones of your an­tique tribal fab­rics with brighter colours in­clud­ing cit­rus, saf­fron and indigo, for an eye- catch­ing colour scheme. Trop­i­cal plants bring the look up to date

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