Home > News > Tribal pieces : art or craftsmanship?

Tribal pieces : art or craftsmanship? by Jean-Claude Herrera-Guttierez


In our Western societies and until the Middle Ages, artists remained, with a few exceptions, completely anonymous behind their works.

Indeed, it was guided by God that the hand of the craftsman transcended the material by reproducing an image directly dictated by Heaven. The skill of the craftsman only reinforced the idea that such works could only have a divine origin.

From the end of the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance onwards, workshops and then artists became "stars" of the art world and began to sign their works. The same phenomenon can be found in tribal societies.

There are of course large workshops (Lukuga or Kinkondja workshop in Luba country, DRC) and well-known sculptors (Master of Buli in DRC, Ateu Atsa in Cameroon or Olowé d'Isé in Nigeria), prior to the 20th century, but it was not until the second half of the century that the identity of an artist attached to his work appeared. This is how the sculptor Ousmane Sow (Senegal), the painters Chéri Samba (DRC) and John Mawurndjul (Australia) or the photographer Malik Sidibé (Mali) are now recognised as artists in their own right. The approach of today's artist is very different from that of the craftsman who officiates within an ethnic group and is responsible for serving as a vehicle for a supernatural power and producing an image of it.

For them, the notion of "Art" does not exist and much more than an ornament, the ritual object serves above all as a means of communication between spirits and humans. Many of these tribal societies still practise animism or shamanism, despite the intense proselytising of the 'great' religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.). This practice is either a return to the tradition of the ancestors, or has always been practised in parallel with the religion of the invader.

Moreover, we can observe an evolution of cult objects (mask, statue...) as well as everyday objects (pottery, spoons...) or instruments of power (weapon, sceptre...) according to the influences received. Thus, it is not uncommon to see in the iconography of certain sacred objects, attributes of the coloniser's religion or objects or elements of Western objects "rebranded" in the indigenous fashion. It is probably the combination of great openness and a certain fatalism that gives these societies the capacity to absorb elements of our so-called developed cultures by transforming and adapting them to their cultures.

Gunstock Warclub: Plains Amerindians (Cheyenne, Sioux, Cree, Pawnee, Mandan, Ojibwa, Blackfeet). This is undoubtedly the most amazing puzzle because of its shape inspired by that of guns. It appeared at the beginning of the 19th century. Was it made from rifles recovered from settlers? Or was it inspired by the use the colonists made of their rifles in hand-to-hand combat, once the single shot had been fired? No one seems to know the real answer, but the result is that this weapon is most formidable with its stock-like mass and especially the short, sturdy knife-edge iron, planted in the centre of the wood at the height of the hammer. 

The notion of decoration is also totally absent within the tribe and it is only when the piece enters the aseptic universe of a gallery or the secret garden of a "manic-depressive" collector that its lines take on a totally different meaning. It is then far removed from its original function and environment.

For its cultic function, the sacred object is simply required to possess the symbolic elements necessary for the rite. It does not matter how competent the craftsman who made it was or how well it was executed. The sacred will erase all the imperfections of a sculpture in the eyes of its worshippers, and whether it is an "artistic masterpiece" or a "tribal junk", the faithful will devote the same devotion to it and will defend it, even if it means paying with their lives.

As soon as a piece has completed its function (a mask, for example, following the death of its bearer), it is desecrated. It can then be destroyed or, as is often the case nowadays, sold. Thus the object will leave for a new life, towards new worshippers. Its role will no longer be to cover the face of a boisterous body moving in the middle of a laterite circle surrounded by a crowd electrified by the sound of drums. From now on, her world can be summed up in a hushed setting on the walls of an auction room or in a museum window where the heat of the tropical sun has given way to the heat of the spotlights.

Besides, apart from those who have made it their profession, few people from tribal societies pay attention to objects of their cultural origin exhibited in a gallery.

The last point that really marks a difference between our artistic canons and those of tribal societies: the ugly, the beautiful! Traditionally, we establish a scale of value that goes from "ugly" to "beautiful". This notion is completely overturned in tribal art and is similar to contemporary art. Indeed, these two notions evolve rather in parallel according to the objective of the ritual.

Obviously, an aesthetic research is undeniable in the perfection of certain sculptures and it then becomes much more eloquent and accessible for the neophytes who discover this form of art if it approaches our academism.

In contrast, we find sculptures that appear appalling because of the monstrosities and deformities they offer us. However, they are always the result of a particularly thorough research in order to symbolise the physical strength and magical power of a genius. These sculptures show an immense creativity which did not remain without echo on the sensitivity of the artists of the beginning of the XXth century such as Derain, Braque, Picasso, Brancusi...

They still have an important impact on contemporary creation today. According to the tribal spirit and with a few exceptions, the craftsmen of these societies are still very close, in their state of mind and their way of making their works, to that of a sculptor of the 12th century who, in the depths of the Auvergne, was in charge of making one of these henceforth famous seated Virgins known as "Romanesque".

Articles by the same author: Patinas on tribal pieces (1) and Patinas on tribal pieces (2)

Share this page :
14, avenue de l'Opéra
75001 Paris

* Required fields

You can upload one or more files :

  1. Click the button "Select your files" and select a file.
  2. To delete the file, click on the red cross on the right.

The information collected is subject to computer processing intended to respond to your contact request. They are kept for the time necessary to respond to your contact request and are not intended solely for the company [NAME BRAND]. You have a right of access, rectification, erasure, limitation, portability and opposition for legitimate reasons to personal data concerning you.

In accordance with the regulations on personal data, and in particular Articles 13 and 14 of the GDPR, you have the right to access and rectify, update, delete information concerning you, as well as right to the portability of your personal data, which you can exercise by sending an email to the following address: contact@fnepsa.fr or by post to the following address: 14, avenue de l'Opéra, 75001 PARIS, FRANCE

You can also request a limitation of the processing of your personal data and, for legitimate reasons, object to the processing of data concerning you at the address indicated above.

In addition, the law allows you to lodge an appeal with the CNIL according to the terms indicated on its site (https://www.cnil.fr)