Understanding Tribal Art

September 25, 2016

The concept of Tribal art is one of the more controversial topics in the art circles. Another name it goes by - primitive art - evokes myths of colonial superiority, supremacy of Western culture, and looking at artworks from other cultures as intrinsically inferior, only to be observed as a curiosity, a product of an undeveloped society. Despite that, the influence so-called tribal art has had on Western artists in the 20th and 21st century has been so large, has given birth to a plethora of new movements and ways of expression, that it cannot possibly be overlooked, nor viewed as inferior.

Still, the idea of the noble savage is hardly a new one. The beginnings of it can be traced as far back as the Renaissance. During that time, a notion of Arcadia arose, a concept of a utopia set deep in the past, in a vaguely classical Neverland where man lived in harmony with nature. It became a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness. This later evolved into an idealized picture of "nature's gentleman", an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. American Indians and Scottish Highlanders, as well as various tribes in Africa all played the role of (what the French called) bon sauvage in the minds of the educated city-dwellers of Western Europe.

Illustration from the Joseph Wright Gallery collection, media available as print - Vector 2016
Joseph Wright of Derby - The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her Deceased Husband, 1785 - via derbymuseums.org

What is Tribal Art?

Tribal art (sometimes referred to as ethnographic art) denotes the material culture and visual arts of indigenous peoples. It is often ceremonial or religious in nature. The term most commonly encompasses African art (of the Sub-Saharan Africa), art of the Americas (e.g. pre-colonial indigenous cultures such as that of the Incas and the Mayas), Oceanic art originating from Australia, Melanesia, New Zealand, and Polynesia.[1] Up until the 1960's, tribal art was mostly approached from a purely formalist angle - analyzing and comparing only form and style, without much regard for historical context, symbolism, or the artist's intention. Luckily, with the advent of postmodernism, this has changed and massive collections in Western ethnographic and natural history museums are being reevaluated and seen in a new light.

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Mayan Calendar, relief, before 1400 - via sculptures.website.com

African Art

Sub-Saharan Africa is an area as diverse and several times as large as Europe, yet some dominant characteristics can be established throughout. Masks are an important element in the art of most nations, along with statues and figurines (often highly stylized and carved of wood). Direct images of deities are relatively infrequent, even though artworks more often than not have a religious or ceremonial symbolism attached to them. The narrative element is mostly absent. Textile arts (often featuring an abstract pattern) are prevalent in the east of the continent, while the west is famed for its reliefs cast in bronze. The Yoruba in particular have achieved a remarkable level of naturalism in the representation of the heads of their royals.[2]

Mask from Gabon / Mambila figure, Nigeria, 19th century / Yoruba copper mask of Obalufon, c.1300

Art of the Americas

Divided into three very distinct sections - that of North, Central, and South America - the art of pre-Columbian America (and that of its native population created after the conquests) is some of the most fascinating in the world. The northern part of the continent offers a diverse panorama - from floral glass beadwork in the Subarctic, woodcarving of totem poles and canoes in much of Canada and northern half of the US, carved stone tablets with zoomorphic motifs in the Eastern Woodlands, to porcupine quill embroidery in the West.[3] Mesoamerica offers a somewhat more homogenous view, with the highly developed Maya culture in the east, and (successively) West Mexican, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, and Aztec cultures in the west.[4] The situation is similar in South America where the North Andean region was dominated by Chavín and the South by what was once the largest and wealthiest empire on the planet, that of the Inca.[5]

Inca Tunic with Confronting Mythical Serpents, Peru, 800–850 - via metmuseum.com

Art of Oceania

Spread over the wide region of Polynesia, Micronesia, Australasia, and Melanesia, Oceanic art encompasses a diverse group of traditions. What unites it are themes of fertility and the supernatural - masks used in religious rituals, petroglyphs, tattoos, wood and stone carving, painting as well as textile work offer an endless array of possibilities.[6] Mo'ai, more widely known as the Easter Island heads, are possibly the most famous example of Oceanic art. Created between the years 1250 and 1500 CE, these monolithic statues are symbols of religious and political power and brilliantly showcase the simplicity and originality of their creators. Such objects and statues (which often represent the tribe's ancestors) in ancient Polynesian religions, once ritually prepaired, were believed to be charged with magical properties.

Made famous through books and print, the Easter Island Heads are possibly the most recognizable image of Oceanic art. Photo taken September 2016
Easter Island Heads, 15th century - via metro.co.uk

Primitive Art Inspires Modern Art

Around the end of the 19th century in France, while the notions of superiority of "high art" were coming down, a new generation of artists arose that was to soak up the influences of tribal art, completely reinventing the visual language of their time. They took up images from non-Occidental cultures, from folk and naive art and, through individual experimentation, infused them with new meaning. They created a new visual language, very much at odds with the traditionally representational ideals of the academy. Paul Gauguin was the first to run away from modern civilization, all the way to Tahiti. There, his post-impressionist idiom was enriched by the aesthetics of the indigenous people, creating a formula that was to give him a good deal of controversy but also great posthumous fame. Picasso came next and during his proto-cubist period developed a fascination with African masks. They served as an inspiration for his revolutionary canvas Les Demoiselles d'Avignon created in 1907.

Matisse, a life-long friend and rival of Picasso's, also adopted certain primitivist influences, ideas from art in Africa, as well as those derived from the Islamic culture. His visits to Morocco and Algeria marked an exceptionally fruitful period of his career. Another fauvist, Andre Derain, went through numerous phases, and between his pointilist and increasingly classicist idioms, adopted a primitivist look. Surrealism, argubly the most eclectic style of the 20th century, wasn't immune to influences from across the globe either. Simple yet poweful shapes taken directly from Africa and Oceania, as well as Indian sources feature prominently on the canvases of Max Ernst from the 1920's and 30's.

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Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (detail), 1907 - via wikipedia.org

Contemporary Tribal Art - Modern-day Primitive Artists

For the remainder of the 20th century, even though not necessarily a part of the mainstream, tribal art remained a source of inspiration for countless artists. It's simplicity, honesty, and inventiveness can be seen in the work of contemporary urban and street artists as well. The direct and provocative works of Keith Haring who gladly interacted with his audience, and the brightly-colored murals of Thierry Noir (who was argubly the first artist to paint the Berlin Wall) all show a strong tribal influence. The improvisational, often gigantic, distorted patterns of Zio Ziegler, Sanner's and Curiot's graffiti showing traces of Mexican popular tradition, and Zosen Bandido's vividly-colored murals all bear witness to the endless inspiration that "primiive" art can provide. Most recently, outside of the gallery and the museum space, tribal motifs and patterns have become popular with tattoo artists as well as those doing illustration, thus giving the millenna-old tradition yet another outlet.

Editor's tip: Collecting Tribal Art: How Northwest Coast Masks and Easter Island Lizard Men Become Tribal Art
Seen in the 16th century as "artificial curiosities", the arts and the material culture of Sub-Saharan nations, the Americas, and Oceania over time became a hot commodity for collectors and conosseurs, all while the appreciation grew from mere superficial fascination to deeper understanding in the 20th century. The focus of the book is on the contemporary "social world of collecting Tribal art", including the competition among dealers and amateurs to secure a rare treasure for their collection. Yet, it also discusses the preference of Cubists for sculpture in Africa, the attraction the arts of the Pacific icelanders held for Dadaists, and the influence of the American Indians on the Surrealists, or rather how Tribal arts influenced so many aspects of our own, modern and postmodern reality, from painting to tattoo art.


  1. Geoffroy-Schneiter, Berenice - Talk About Tribal Art ; Editions Flammarion, Paris, 2013
  2. Rachewiltz, Boris de - Introduction to African Art ; New American Library, New York, 1966
  3. Berlo, Janet C., Ruth B. Phillips - Native North American Art ; Oxford University Press, 1998
  4. Covarrubias, Miguel - Indian Art of Mexico and Central America ; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
  5. Stone-Miller - Art of the Andes: from Chavín to Inca ; Thames and Hudson, London, 2002
  6. Brunt, Peter - Art in Oceania: A New History ; Yale University Press, 2012

Featured images: Mwaash aMbooy mask, representing Woot, the mythical founder of the Kuba Kingdom ; Cancuen, Guatemala, representing king T'ah 'ak' Cha'an, 8th century ; Whakairo wood carving of the Maori, New Zealand ; Senufo Zoomoprhic Mask, Mali

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