Anyone who takes more than a passing interest in 20th and 21st century art knows of the great debt it owes to Tribal art. As far back as 1935, Alfred Barr — then Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art — drew a diagram tracing the influence Ethnographic art had on Cubist and Abstract work. An historic show of African art followed, profoundly influencing successive generations of European and American artists.
Masks are generally the standout feature at Tribal Art London and are the curtain-raiser at Parcours des Mondes — the Parisian fair that is the Maastricht of Tribal events, its 70 dealers set to open their stands on 8 September. Home to the great early collectors of Tribal art — including the artists Derain, Vlaminck and Picasso, and thinkers such as André Breton — the French capital has remained the centre of the Tribal Art world.
Ijo mask, Late 19th - early 20th century. Yoruba, delta area, Nigeria. Wood and pigments. 50 cm high. Exhibited by Galerie SAO at Parcours de Mondes © Galerie SAO, photo Pascal Barrier
Josef Reiss, Portrait of a native of New Britain, 1918. New Britain, Melanesia. Original photographic print. 15.7 x 11.6 cm. Exhibited by Michael Evans Tribal Art at Parcours de Mondes © Michael Evans Tribal Art
I was reminded of Alfred Barr’s prescience this week when looking at some of the fabulous pieces on show at Tribal Art London — a fair which, though smaller than its Parisian equivalent, is extremely good, and runs until 5 September.
But what one exhibit taught me was that artistic interest in tribal art had started not in the 20th century, but the 19th. On the stand of book dealer Charles Vernon-Hunt is an extraordinary book by ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, published in Germany in 1898. The 14 plates in this pioneering study of African masks and their associated secret societies is worth every penny of the £750 Mr. Vernon-Hunt is asking for it.
Ceremonial head adornment, Nyamwezi, Tabora region, Tanzania. Animal hide, gourd, brass bell and early glass beads. 55cm high. Exhibited by Bryan Reeves at Tribal Art London
Salampasu Idangani Society 'Mufuampo' Mask, Democratic Republic of Congo. Woven fibre, pigment, raffia, conical headdress in four parts, on custom metal stand. 35.5 cm high. Exhibited by David Malik at Tribal Art London
In this increasingly valued and collectable field, London’s Tribal Art Fair 2015 has much to offer — notably the Dan Mask from the Ivory Coast on founding dealer Bryan Reeves’ stand. It has remarkable presence, with masks such as these perceived by the Dan as the embodiment of the most powerful spiritual forces. Also on Reeves’ stand is a rather haunting ceremonial mask of wood, fibre and bark, coloured with natural pigments.
But perhaps the most interesting of these Masks comes from the Congo. It is of woven fibre, pigment and raffia and — surprisingly — is most likely to be a portrait of a female, with five horns representing a hairstyle once popular among Salampasu women. You can see it on David Malik’s stand.
Masks aren’t the only story: there are Aboriginal battle shields, decorative house carvings from Papua New Guinea, and beadwork crowns and feather capes worn by chieftans from South America to Southern Africa — as well as much more of significant visual and social impact.
Tribal Art London is at The Mall Galleries, 2-5 September 2015. Parcours des Mondes is in Paris, Beaux-Arts area, St-Germain-des-Près, 6è arrondissement, 8-13 September 2015. Main image at top: Pair of Zacatecas figures, 100BC-250AD. Jalisco culture, Mexico. Polychrome glazed terra cotta. 39 and 40 cm high. Exhibited by Galerie Furstenberg at Parcours de Mondes © Galerie Furstenberg, photo Michel Gurfinkel
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