Experts Insight on Tribal Arts

To continue with our Tribal Art blog series, part two will feature interviews with Lee Chinalai of Chinalai Tribal Antiques and Kip McKesson of Kip McKesson African Art.

For Lee Chinalai, tribal antiques was not a business venture she expected to explore, but as life can be unpredictable at times, she found a hidden passion in the most unfamiliar place.

Chinalai’s story starts early in her marriage when she moved to Bahrain, a country of the coast of Saudi Arabia, with her husband, Vichai. “We moved to Bahrain where my husband opened an architectural office, and to keep his staff busy after hours (as there wasn’t much to do in Bahrain), we decided to open a plant shop. The plant shop developed into plants and handicrafts, then gifts; later on, all of the above with a restaurant.  We began to decorate the restaurant with antiques and discovered that people wanted to buy the decorations, which we then had to replace. That was the beginning of our tribal antiques business.”

TextileToday, the Chinalai’s have made it back to the states, living in New York and specialize in tribal pieces from mainland Southeast Asia and Southwestern China.

Although their collection spans a wide array of items, both Lee and Vichai say textiles are one of their greatest loves. “Textiles are some of our favorite pieces to sell. They were created with multiple patterns within one piece, therefore if you turn the textile in a different direction, the design would change. Many of the textiles were amazingly sophisticated for the tribal people who created them, especially since many of these individuals might be living on the side of a mountain or in the jungle with little light,” says Lee.

Necklace2Equal in their hearts is their collection of Hill Tribe jewelry, which consists of mostly silver and enameled silver. These are some of the first pieces that the Chinalai’s acquired when they lived in Thailand.  Their collection is made up of a variety of spiritual and functional objects and architecturals.  “Jewelry often was considered a symbol of status in tribal cultures. It was many times used as dowry piece and was the only financial security for the bride. Jewelry was also given as gifts and used during festivals and ceremonies.”

Overall, the hook in tribal antique art for the Chinalai’s is the passion, plain and simple. “Even if they’re bearers of tradition, these are pieces that were made with spontaneity for all sorts of personal and spiritual reasons: for ceremonies and rituals; to commemorate; to give as gifts; to protect; to set the cosmic universe right; to serve as the vehicles for the creation of more personal and spiritual art.” Lee continues, “These early pieces link us to the past and teach us about different cultures – about family and group bonding, status, how communities lived and what was important to them.”

For more information on Chinalai Tribal Antiques, visit

Kip2Kip McKesson is another tribal antiques dealer who’s been in the business for more than 20 years. An avid traveler, he started selling antiques after an extended trip around the world in 1989. “I did the travel with my business in mind.”

The Michigan native originally offered pieces from Africa, the Himalayas and Indonesia. However, in 1996, he began focusing exclusively on African art. “I collect authentic antique African pieces. I also sell adornment and items of beauty for everyday use such as chairs, baskets, stools and tables, among others.” He and his wife, Wambui, travel the Great Lakes region of East Africa to collect authentic pieces and have an extensive network of suppliers and collectors who facilitate their clients’ requests.

“We differentiate ourselves from other African art dealers by concentrating on decorative antiquities as well as African sculptures and masks. We sell items people can decorate their homes with, whether or not they’re an Africanist,” says McKesson.

McKesson’s goal is to showcase objects that appeal to a wide range of individuals and choose them for their form and beauty. He currently sells to museums, designers, collectors and the general public.

During our interview, McKesson highlighted some of this favorite pieces that are currently in his collection:

hats“I have Ethiopian Spirit Posts. These are figural shaped and were placed around the sleeping area in the 19th century to dispel evil spirits.”

“A collection of Tanzania medicine gourds with carved wooden stompers. These were used by the Pare people in healing ceremonies.”

“Some of our most popular items are woven cotton caps worn traditionally by the Dorze men of Southern Ethiopia. They stand out for their bright colors with unique designs and are commonly sold for wall décor.” (see image at left)

McKesson, who exhibits at major tribal art shows in the U.S., provides this advice to consumers who purchase antique tribal arts. “Buying from someone you trust is the most important. You need to feel comfortable enough to express your concerns with your dealer. I guarantee the authenticity of all my art.”

Information on Kip McKesson African Art can be found at

Let’s hear from you: What’s your favorite kind of tribal art? Leave a comment below, tweet us @USAntiqueShows, or post on our Facebook page:

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