Defining Tribal Art: An Expression of Three Primitive Cultures

As U.S. Antique Shows continues to expand its portfolio of antique and antique jewelry shows, we’ve noticed an increased interest from dealers, collectors and antique enthusiasts in tribal art.

2685b-245-native-american-wood-carvingTribal art is a term used to describe visual art that was created by indigenous people of primitive cultures. Also referred to as ethnographic art, this type of art is collected by Western anthropologists, private collectors and museums, particularly ethnographic and natural history museums.

The subject matter of tribal art often deals with matters important to the people who created it, like spirituality or religion. It can also feature sexual themes, such as reproduction and recreation. The most common examples of this art are masks, paintings and carved sculptures.

Below we explore three primary categories of tribal art: Native American, African and Oceania.

Native American Tribal Art
Native American art was shaped greatly by their nomadic, hunter/gatherer culture, as well as the way they worshiped their Gods. Native Americans were known to use shapes and geometric designs in their art, which became representative as symbols that transcended tribal language barriers and a form of communication between tribes.

The types of artwork depended entirely on the region of the United States that the Native American tribe settled in. Here’s a breakdown by region.

Southwest Region:
These tribes were masters of weaving, pottery making and fresco painting.

Midwest Region:
The traditional Native American culture of this region was developed tribe by tribe and was noted for its rich textile art as well as its famous earthworks representing animal shapes. Tribal art also included sculptured stone pipes and polished ornaments of stone and copper.

Southeast Region: This region was most recognized for its ceramics, produced despite the low quality clay. Pottery works were created and decorated in a wide range of designs, including floral and geometric, as well as for ceremonial, religious and personal use.

West Coast Region:
In California, Native Americans were known for their superb basketry.

Northeast Region:
Masks, porcupine quillwork, beadwork, wooden bowls and wampum belts were popular in this region.

Northwest Region:
This region’s tribal art was sculpture; in particular wood carvings. The totem pole exemplified the local culture.

Alaska: Alaskan tribal art was produced by the Inuit people of the Artic, commonly referred to as Eskimos. Inuit carvers would use walrus/whale ivory and bones or reindeer antlers, along with charcoal, to create intricate figures. Wood would also be used to produce masks and amulets. These pieces were used for dances and ceremonial occasions.

2497-AfricangroupAfrican Tribal Art
Africa is home to appropriately 3,000 ethnic groups or tribes, and African tribal art was (and still is) primarily used as religious art for a particular ritual or ceremonial use.

A good deal of tribal rituals are based on initiation into age groups, be that young men or old men societies, each of which possesses its separate emblems or motifs. Many carved figures and masks are associated with these societies and often symbolize patron Gods or deities, like the God of Thunder or the God of Fire. The most widespread form of African art today is the mask.

Oceania Tribal Art
Oceania is made up of the countries of Australia, New Zealand and the 12 islands surrounding including Fiji; Kiribati; Marshall Islands; Micronesia; Nauru; Palau; Papua New Guinea; Samoa; Solomon Islands; Tonga; Tuvalu; and Vanuatu.

The tribal art of Oceania is defined by the artistic heritage and traditions of the indigenous people. Although each island group had its own artistic traditions, which influenced its arts and crafts, much of the Oceanic tribal art was bound by pagan ceremonies that centered on the supernatural, spirit worship and fertility. A relatively wide range of art, including painting, sculpture, wood carving and textile art, was created with perishable materials. Therefore, apart from stone buildings and sculpture that still exist today, very few examples have survived.

Other recognized tribal art includes all Asian countries as well as Indonesia and Burma, among others.

Stay tuned for Part 2 featuring interviews with Lee Chinalai of Chinalai Tribal Antiques and Kip McKesson of Kip McKesson African Art!

Art Encyclopedia

Native American Art

Tribal Art – Wikipedia

The Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *