The value of tribal art, particularly oceanic, is on the rise. Since 2004, the median price at auction for African art has more than doubled and that for Oceanic art more than quadrupled. Specialist Maureen Zarember, of Tambaran Gallery, in New York, attributes the escalation in value to the increasing scarcity of objects, as well as to the devoted base of serious collectors willing to pay up for them. “There is not a huge amount of oceanic art,” says Zarember, “but some very major and rare pieces with great provenance do come on the market.” Case in point: this month at Sotheby’s Paris, twelve Papua new Guinean objects from the esteemed John and Marcia Friede collection hit the block. "When such important works appear," says Jean Fritts, head of African and oceanic art at Sotheby’s, "it inspires buyers to raise the level of their collecting in the field” and cross categories. “Most buyers of African and oceanic are quite specific about what they like—only Polynesian or only ivory coast—but we are seeing that when the quality of the material reaches the level of that of the Friede collection, people from across the spectrum jump in.”
The Best Disguise
If you ever wondered why modern artists were so taken with tribal art, don’t miss “Masks, Mysterious Forces,” a show of 40 rare examples from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas, dating from 100 b.c. to the 19th century. Each face demonstrates how a simple carved line or the shape of an eye can convey extraordinary expressive power.
Beaks, snouts, fangs and jutting brows confront one another along the walls of Tambaran Gallery, a tribal art specialist at 5 East 82nd Street in Manhattan. “Masks, Mysterious Forces,” reveals how members of tribal societies from Borneo to Peru to Alaska have used wood, stone or metal headgear to make themselves look more powerful, scarier or prettier during ceremonies.
Javanese dancers put on serene, smooth wooden faces painted green, which represent princely incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. Ivory Coast villagers carved “forest spirit masks,” based on faces seen in tribal leaders’ dreams, with cylindrical eyes and egg-shaped cheeks bulging past the nose bridges. Guatemalan revelers, while mockingly dressing up as Spanish plantation owners during festivals, painted their masks with sunburned cheeks and scowling mouths, and Ingaliks in the Yukon would come to feasts disguised as long-eared, snaggletooth wolves.
Tambaran is displaying 42 masks, which the gallery founder Maureen Zarember has collected over the last 25 years. Many have original fiber headdresses and chin ribbons, as well as signs of heavy use. On an Inuit bird mask, cracks and attempted repairs are visible across the unpainted pine surface. “He has a copper staple in his forehead and two old nails in his beak,” Ms. Zarember said. “Some people would have him restored, but for me that’s all part of his history, his harsh life.”
International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show
Tambaran features a squat wooden Maori deity who glares fiercely with nacreous eyes, as if to rebuke modern gawkers for their godless ways.
Troy Segal for IN New York Magazine
Some collectors crave jewelry with a designer name. Others, whose ranks have included Andy Warhol and Jackie Onassis, like their baubles to of the anonymous pedigree, such as items in the Adornment exhibit at Tambaran, a gallery specializing in tribal art. Spanning the globe (from Africa to China) and the centuries (from 600 AD to the 1950s), the boldly hued pieces are exotic (prayer boxes, ritualistic masks), but also make contemporary fashion statements. For example, a turkmenistan carnelian-studded cuff wouldn't be out of place on the catwalk during Mercedes-Benz fashion week.