The Elegance of Menace: Powerful Figurative Art in Tribal Cultures

Nothing unites mankind more than the basic need for security: freedom from hunger, protection from the elements and being shielded from unseen dark forces that roam the earth. This need is mirrored in art, most powerfully in the art of tribal cultures whose very survival hinges on nature’s bounty and the suppression of malevolent ‘spirit forces’ The primal environment in which they live produces art that has a very different aesthetic than what we are used to; beauty is not the main concern; their art has to ‘talk’ to nature and appease the spirits. It has to be elemental and powerful, as the examples below show.


NIONGOM FIGURE, Pre-Dogon culture, Mali, Africa. c. 15th – 16th century. Height: 51 cm.

This archaic sculpture depicts a standing figure with the arms resting along the body. Following the natural curvature of the tree branch from which it was carved, this sculpture is redolent with poetry and sensuality. The Niongom, a Pre-Dogon people with mysterious origins, is said to have been contemporaries and close neighbors of the Tellem, before the arrival of the Dogon-Mande on the plateau of the Bandiagara cliff in the 15th century.
TOGU NA, architectural element, Dogon, Mali, Africa.

The abstract simplicity of tribal sculptures such as this support post belies its powerful fertility message, evident in the huge breasts. Tribal abstractions in the art of Africa, Oceanic and Indonesian cultures greatly influenced the art of many modern Western artists such as Braque, Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Epstein.


PUTALI, Weathered wood, western Nepal. Photo: Michel Gurfinkel


GUARDIAN FIGURE. Dayak sub-group, East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Wood, c. 16th – 18th century. Height: 166 cm.

This figure has a riveting presence due to its minimalist archaic form. The long, heart-shaped face, large disc-shaped eyes and pronounced double brow are stylistic elements of a once-thriving but now extinct Dayak sub-culture in the eastern region of Indonesian Borneo called Kalimantan. The raised cupped hands suggest this is a supplication posture of a spiritual guardian figure.

RICE FIELD GUARDIAN, Iban Dayak, Sarawak, Borneo, Indonesia. Wood. 19th century. H: 92 cm.

The Dayaks of Borneo are master carvers of large guardian statuary figures such as this which serve to ward off malevolent spirits. This figure is missing the hands which would have been in an out-stretched position, giving the figure an intimidating presence.


AITOS, Ancestor figure, West Timor, Indonesia. 19th century or earlier. Height: 119 cm.

Aitos are totem-like figures representing ancestors. They are placed outdoors where they are regularly ”fed’ with offerings from village residents.


YIPWON, Yimam people, Papua New Guinea, Circa 1500-1700. Wood. Height: 158 cm.

Kept within the men’s ceremonial house, this distinctive hook figure known as the yipwon is from the Yimam people who live in the Korewori River region in northeast New Guinea. Traditionally, these abstract figures played a central role in hunting and warfare.
ANCESTOR FIGURE, Ramu, Papua New Guinea. Wood. 19th to early 20th century. Height: 55 cm.

With its large head, long hooked nose with flared nostrils and bulging eyes with concentric pupils, this is a powerfully carved ancestor figure, possibly representing a recently deceased person. The face and body show ritual or clan identification body ornaments painted with ochre.
FLUTE STOPPER, Biwat area, Middle course of the Yuat River, Bas-Sepik, Papua New Guinea. Wood, rattan, and mother-of-pearl. 19th century. Height: 45 cm.

As human figures go, the flute stoppers of the Biwat people are among the most powerful expression of the arts of New Guinea and one of the truly emblematic works of the arts of Melanesia. The figure represented in this stopper is asin, the son of the greater Mother Crocodile. The fearsome appearance of this figure is conveyed by its oversized head, hooked nose and the sharp lines of its menacing eyebrows.


GABLE FIGURE. Maori, New Zealand. Wood. 18th/19th century. Height: 74 cm.

This gable figure of a male is part of an architectural element of the roof of a ceremonial house (marae). The strongly sculptural body and aggressive face with the extended tongue is typical of Polynesian and especially Maori art.


FIGURE OF A WAR GOD, Hawaii. Wood. 18th/19th century. Height: 53 cm.

This rare carving represents the Hawaiian god of war, Ku-ka’ili-moku (meaning “land snatcher”), with whom the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, associated himself in his mission to unite the islands. It bears the hallmarks of the traditional “Kona” style, including a wrestler-like posture and a broad eight-shaped mouth as a display of aggressiveness. This object was auctioned by Christie’s Paris in 2017.


FIGURE (TIKI), Marquesas Islands. Basalt. Height: 16 cm (6.25 in). 19th century or earlier. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University.

The Marquesas is a group of volcanic islands in the south Pacific. The Polynesian word tiki refers to representations of the human ancestors as well as deities. This figure is only slightly taller than 6 inches but has a larger-than-life presence that befits its purpose. Such figures were used in healing the sick and as votive offerings for success in all sorts of undertakings.

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