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.’
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.
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