Paris, 10 September 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).
Due to the Mayan prophecy, 2012 is unquestionably the year of tribal arts. Between the “Tribal Perspectives of London” (from 18 to 22 September 2012), the “Tribal Art Fair of Amsterdam” (from 25 to 28 October 2012), and the next auctions of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (December 2012), visitors and collectors are getting lost!
However, it is the “Parcours des mondes”’ tenth edition, international salon for tribal arts, in pride of place in Paris, which attracts attention. Considered as both a discovery and journey, the “Parcours des mondes” has been bringing together each year around sixty gallery owners specialised in African, Asian, Oceanic, and American arts in the streets and galleries of Saint-Germain-des-Près since 2002. German, American, British, Australian, Belgian, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swiss, and provincial French galleries mix and join Parisian galleries. Designed as an open and free access salon in which visitors can walk, the Parcours of St Germain has become the setting of tribal arts. Such a concentration of works and experts is exceptional: each gallery displays its masterpieces from all over the world, from the more affordable ethnographic works to the rarest works sought by collectors.
It is necessary to admit that the once so-called “primitive” art is no longer the poor relation, the outcast banned, from the traditional and contemporary markets. The craze for this art is real.
A sacred art
Tribal art works’ extraordinary presence comes from the sacred domain, whose topic is the place of mankind in the mystery of the living. The role of a cult (no matter what it is) is to enable the existence of a force fuelled by faith and whose substance acts on the being like a medicine for the soul. In the book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote that art is a power which has a purpose and must serve the evolution and refinement of the human soul. He added that art is the language talking to the soul, in a form unique to it and that the soul can only receive art under this form. He also stated that every serious work internally resounds as the words: “I am there” and that, when pronounced with calm and dignity, these words have an eternal echo. Therefore, tribal arts reveal that art, from prehistory to the modern era, appears as the expression of a mystery whose strength manifests itself at the very core of life.
The influence of tribal arts in the 20th century art
The influence of tribal arts in the 20th century’s artistic creation is fundamental. This market appeared during the early 20th century when parties sent to explore Africa and Oceania returned and with the development of the modern painting school. The work of William Rubin Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern sheds light on this topic: it enables to see photographs of tribal art works set next to masterpieces of modern painting. The two types of works are so similar that it is striking. This was a lesson of humility for the modern artist who reinvented his or her work under the influence of these ancient forms. Therefore, numerous artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Braque, and Modigliani started acquiring statues and masks to use as a source of inspiration for their works.
Change of vocabulary and Boom of the tribal arts
Modest until the end of the 1950s, this sector rapidly took off when auction houses included tribal art to their catalogues.
Then came 1990, the year of the mini revolution in France. A manifesto, launched by Jacques Kerchache, a French collector specialised in tribal arts, appears in the press stating that “The masterpieces of the entire world are born free and equal”. Three hundred signers gathered around the important art enthusiast to have the Louvre dedicate one department to African, Oceanic, American, and Asian arts. From the Louvre to the quai Branly, the plunge was taken. The works on display at the Louvre could have been transferred there but a symbol would have been destroyed. The largest museum in the French capital had to feature a room dedicated to tribal arts to be worthy of this name. The exceptional works selected by Jacques Kerchache mix with the most important masterpieces of Western art: a beautiful image it would have been regrettable to change.
Therefore, in 2000, the Musée du Louvre, unquestionably the largest and most famous museum in the world, opened the Pavillon des Sessions, located within the Palais du Louvre. A key date for art in France: one of the largest classical fine art museums in the world opened itself to creations from non-Western cultures following a century of debates and polemics. This a confrontation underlies a larger debate on the place to give to “the Other” as when anthropologist Jacques Kerchache claimed that “The masterpieces of the entire world are born free and equal” (title of the petition released in 1990 by Jacques Kerchache in the Libération newspaper), it means he assumes that the men and women who produced them are also born free and equal…
This took place on 13 April 2000: tribal arts, once qualified as “primitive”, “exotic”, and “distant” appeared at the Louvre and through the Lions’ Gate. The meliorative term “tribal arts”, referring to the arts of the early civilizations, gradually replaced the term “primitive arts”, indirectly linked to the dark times of colonialism. Now, some even prefer to speak of “primordial arts”, showing that mentalities have evolved. A very beautiful 1,200 m2 space, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, considered to be the eighth department of the Louvre, started to host objects from the African, Asian, American, and Oceanic continents; they come from every era (there is a gap of nearly 5,000 years between the small predynastic Egyptian sculpture of Amarna style from the 5th millennia BC and the Zulu spoon sculpture from the early 20th century, the two works located in the Louvre). Today, twelve years since the Pavillon des Arts premiers opened at the Louvre and six years since the Musée du quai Branly opened, an expression of both the Musée de l’Homme and the musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, the debate seems to be closed.
Debate about tribal arts
The first debate is about the topic of belonging: today, native North Americans and Oceanics demand the return of the objects which started to be considered as artworks by the rest of the world more than a century after they had been taken. The original owners wish to restore them to their original ritual vocation even if it sometimes means reinventing a long forgotten ceremony from nothing. For the record, it is useful to mention the Nok statues scandal which occurred precisely when the Pavillon des Sessions was opened. Illegally taken out of Nigeria and featuring on the ICOM (International Council of Museums) red list (listing cultural goods strictly banned from export), these three works feature among Jacques Kerchache’s selection. Curators from all over the world were touched by this situation which was settled a posteriori by a renewable convention between France and Nigeria (works are loaned for a 25 years duration). The dispute about legitimacy is already open regarding these American, African, Oceanic, and Asian ethnographic objects and artworks: should they show a universal propensity of mankind towards creation or should they serve to highlight a specific identity?
The second debate highlights a paradox: true, the sector seems to be fine but do the contemporary artists of these same regions in the world (mainly the Americas, Oceania, and Africa) also benefit from this success? For example, African art has spent three years attracting millionaire collectors. A Fang mask from Gabon was auctioned for €931,000 in December 2011, at Sotheby’s. A world record was established for a prestigious Benin Fon lion which earned more than €1m at Christie’s. On RFI – l’actualité international, Marguerite de Sabran, manager for the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s in Paris has stated: “There is a very important craze for a new generation of collectors seeking African artworks. They want the exception and aesthetic and artistic quality of works which were important in their initial context such as those, very rare, which belonged to African princes and kings. It is formidable to see African works mix with works by Picasso when it comes to records on the French market. This is a formidable recognition of the skills of the most important African artists.” However, contrary to the success of tribal art, contemporary African art, to keep the same example, does not explode. Despite high level artists at the peak of their artistic creation such as for example Chéri Samba, Romuald Hazoumé, and star William Kentridge, art in Africa, usually marked by the social and economic African situation, is like under perfusion. In twenty years, only two large collections exhibitions have been dedicated to their work: “Les magiciens de la terre” and “Africa remix” at the Centre Pompidou.
This fact is all the more surprising that one of the attractive things about this art should be the fact he has been marginalised for a long time which enabled it to escape standardisation according to Simon Njami, director of the Bamako Photography meetings (Mali).
Finally, a lot of progress has been made: after having been ranked at the bottom of evolutionary scale, extra-Western productions are now seen as cultural and artistic productions in their own right. However, to highlight something does not ensure egalitarian treatment and a lot of efforts remain to be carried out to give a real visibility to contemporary artists in these regions.