How Tribal Culture Changed Art History

Long before the Symbolists, Surrealists or Expressionists shocked Western eyes with work that looked beyond the visible, people without a word for “art” were creating powerful sculpture that expressed mystical life forces that guided their beliefs, behavior and society for millennia.

Tribal art is one of the most magical art forms in the world – literally so – for in tribal cultures, art is never for art sake in the way most Western art is. Rather, it is an integral part of the social fabric, a means to express deep spiritual beliefs to guide the behaviour of members of society. This spiritual focus and the lack of refined materials meant that tribal art can give the impression of being rough and primitive. But ask any serious tribal art collector, and he or she will tell you that once you look pass surface appearances, this art will ‘speak’ deeply to you in ways that are elemental, powerful and mysterious.

Left to right: Janus ancestral spirit figure from the Abelam people, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. 19th century. | Tatanua mask worn by ceremonial dancers in the Malagan funerary rituals, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Late 19th century. images: Michael Hamson Oceanic Art

Tribal art spoke to avant-garde artists like Matisse, Piccaso and Brancusi and Giacometti who incorporated elements of tribalism in their work. The females populating Picasso’s famous painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” for example, depicts Kifwebe masks from the Luba peoples of Africa, as does Giacometti’s iconic sculpture “Spoon Woman” which is modelled after the ceremonial spoons of the Dan peoples of west Africa.

Pablo Piccaso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Oceanic art spoke to Surrealists and Expressionists like Joan Miro and Paul Klee who viewed this art as a visual metaphor for dreaming and a state of consciousness far removed from the constraints of Western thought. In doing so, these artists collectively changed the course of art history. Western art is never the same again.

Left to right: Yipwon hook figure from the Yiman people, Upper Karawari River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Late 19th/early 20th century. | Large ancestor figure from the Lower Sepik River, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea. Early 20th century. | Gope spirit board from the Elema people, Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea. Late 19th century. all object images: Michael Hamson Oceanic Art
Paul Klee, Senecio, 1922, oil on canvas, 40 x 38 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel.
Alberto Giacometti, Spoon Woman, 1926-7, bronze. H: 144 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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