Uncommon Beauty: The Aesthetics of Tribal Art

A first encounter with tribal art may be a strange and even unsettling experience. But if you love art, keep an open mind, and are willing to spend time looking at the art and try to understand their cultural context, there is a fair chance that tribal art will grow on you, as it did for me.

I have been a collector of tribal art for over 30 years, specifically of old, authentic works from the many islands that comprise Indonesia. But in this post, I will focus on the aesthetic aspects of tribal art from Papua New Guinea (PNG). This is not because tribal art from other places are less compelling but because of the incredible variety of sub-cultures found on this large and remote island.

But first, a few words to set the context of this exhibition. To ‘understand’ tribal art, one must understand that most tribal cultures revolve around animistic beliefs and ancestor veneration and the myths that animate those practices. For this reason and unlike Western classical and contemporary art, authentic tribal art work are ‘different’. They possess a unique ‘spiritual quality’ that is designed to communicate a tribe’s constellation of beliefs, ancestral traditions and myths to all members of society. Often, they must also embody a certain ‘aggressiveness’ or power in order to appease or frighten spirits that may otherwise bring harm to the community, and this includes the spirits invoked by marauding tribes during warfare.

The following photo essay comprises art works that are singled out because they are aesthetically pleasing in terms of (a) age, (b) clarity of execution (c) color and (d) deviations from the norm. These are criteria that Michael Hamson, an expert and dealer in PNG art considers when he assesses art works that stand out. The accompanying commentaries on each piece are taken from an online essay by Hamson, with minor edits by me. See ‘Notes’ at the end of this post.

On the Aesthetics of Tribal Art: A Photo Essay


Age is related to authenticity. Authenticity boils down to artistic intention. Whether an artist makes a piece to sell to a hapless tourist or undertaken to carve to a figure that brings to life an ancestral spirit are two distinctly different intentions… and often correspond to two dramatically different artistic results. The first will probably produce a lifeless woodcarving that may be technically proficient and decorative but will be lacking the essential soul that elevates an artifact into a piece of art.

This small and ancient figure is a gope board and comes from around Kaboibus village on the southern slopes of the Prince Alexander Mountains. It is pre-contact and stone-carved. While the thick encrusted patina has smoothed the lines that define the composition, one could see there are no sharp edges from metal tools. The overly large head with deeply carved septum and pierced ears stylistically confirms its archaic nature. There are a couple of things worth noting on this example. First is the high relief carving. In older carvings the artist did the hard work of delineating design by creating forms with his adze. Even without the red, white and black pigments, this gope would still be able to communicate its message. Secondly, the reverse of this piece is a wonderful example of stone-adzing. The deep grooving or scalloped surface can be seen on the earliest gope boards and shields.

Back of gope board


The quality of clarity is the ability of a piece of art, through the power of its form, to communicate effectively. This results in a purity of composition and a lack of excessive surface decoration. The mark of a true artist is the ability to do much with less.

Left: A pre-contact inland Turubu Barak mask from the coastal area between PNG’s north coast and west into the Sepik Plains. Right: a pre-contact Lumi ritual bowl from the West Sepik Province of PNG.

This rare abstract sculpture comes from the Torricelli Mountain region, a remote area of the west Sepik Province of PNG. They are used as healing charms. This one exemplifies all that is great with PNG art – abstraction, power, elegance and an undeniable spiritual presence.


It would be hard to emphasize the importance of color in virtually all areas of New Guinea art. For the Abelam people, paint was the animating power of sculpture: without it, the carving was just a piece of dead wood. Paint was often ritually produced and magically empowered with pigments gathered from spiritually important places or plants. Sometimes, the water used to mix the pigments was gathered from the subterranean holes of large land spiders, as these were thought to be conduits between the land of the mortals living above ground and that of the ancestors abiding underground.

Color often has symbolic references. For example, yellow for the Abelam relates to the moon and to women because of their 28-day cycles. The color white is male, with associations of bones, the sun and the clamshell currency rings used in bride price exchanges. Among the Telefomin people, Barry Craig relates how red paint is applied to ancestral bones to impart “heat” and is so imbued with ancestral power that it is stuffed into the noses, eyes and ears of young men during their initiation. Black pigment is symbolic of male solidarity and is the “color of boars’ bristles and the cassowary’s plumage, representing male aggression”.

This bright yellow gourd mask is from the Huli people of PNG’s Southern Highlands and was used in a ritual to cure certain illnesses. The nose and eyebrows are modelled out of wax and tuffs of human hair attached to the chin. What elevates this mask from other gourd mask is the saturated yellow pigment, which is set off by the thin red vertical line running down the face that ends in a pool of red at the chin. The boldness of the color signifies power and action and literally arrests the eye.

Red is the color of this Mendi shield from the Southern Highlands of PNG. The surface of shields, like this one, are often painted with stark colors to scare off enemies. This white amorphous pattern is highly suggestive of a stylized ancestor.

Departures from the Norm

An often overlooked quality of great New Guinea art is its ability to provide the unexpected. While we find pleasure in symmetry and the careful execution of form, what often really excites us is encountering something different. A gifted artist comfortable and confident with the existing canon will often try to expand or deviate from traditional conventions to create something extraordinary. Astonishment and surprise can be an aesthetic experience when encountering an object that cleverly defeats our expectations.

Abelam culture cane helmet masks with radiating eyes can be quite beautiful but are fairly common. Wooden examples are extremely rare and pre-contact ones exceedingly so. This Abelam wooden helmet mask takes the traditional concentric eye motif to another level by stacking them vertically, giving the mask an unsettling otherworldly essence.

The neckrests of Collingwood Bay often have imaginative designs based on orderly combinations of the chevron motif. Yet, in this old example, the chevrons are jumbled on top of each other in a delightfully unpredictable manner.

Departure from the norm can be subtle and still give a piece just enough visual oomph to elevate it above all the rest. Mandi area shields from PNG’s Southern Highlands are often colorfully flamboyant but still adheres to a few classic design conventions – combinations of circles, semicircles and triangles, all divided by a raised medial ridge. However, in this present example, the raised medial ridge birfucates into two arches, creating a far more interesting visual statement than two flatly painted white triangles. Such signs of artistic ingenuity and sensitivity are what we look for in judging the quality of New Guinea art.

Tami Island wooden bowls often have a somewhat regimented and predictable composition with the best having spirit faces carved onto each end. I have had a few with reptile motifs, but this one is exceptional for the lively movement of the double-headed creature. The artist makes a normally static object dance with life.

Further Study

The writeup for this post is abstracted from the following essays by Michael Hamson: “Aesthetics of New Guinea Art: Introduction” and “Departures from the Norm”. For the full essays, visit his website at www.oceanart.com.

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