Tribal art

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A Punu tribe mask. Gabon West Africa
Artwork in the Museum of Indian Terracotta, New Delhi, India.[1]
Congolese Nkisi Nkondi, a female power figure, with nails, collection BNK, Royal Tribal Art
A male Kifwebe mask. Songye tribe. D.R. Congo. Central Africa

Tribal art is the visual arts and material culture of indigenous peoples. Also known as ethnographic art, or, controversially, primitive art,[2] tribal arts have historically been collected by Western anthropologists, private collectors, and museums, particularly ethnographic and natural history museums. The term "primitive" is criticized as being Eurocentric and pejorative.[3]


Tribal art is often ceremonial or religious in nature.[4] Typically originating in rural areas, tribal art refers to the subject and craftsmanship of artefacts from tribal cultures.

In museum collections, tribal art has three primary categories:

Collection of tribal arts has historically been inspired by the Western myth of the "noble savage", and lack of cultural context has been a challenge with the Western mainstream public's perception of tribal arts.[6] In the 19th century, non-western art was not seen by mainstream Western art professional as being as art at all.[3] The art world perception of tribal arts is becoming less paternalistic, as indigenous and non-indigenous advocates have struggled for more objective scholarship of tribal art. Before Post-Modernism emerged in the 1960s, art critics approached tribal arts from a purely formalist approach,[7] that is, responding only to the visual elements of the work and disregarding historical context, symbolism, or the artist's intention.

Influence on Modernism[edit]

Major exhibitions of tribal arts in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries exposed the Western art world to non-Western art. Major exhibitions included the Museum of Modern Art's 1935 Africa Negro Art and 1941 Indian Art of the United States.[7] Exposure to tribal arts provide inspiration to many modern artists,[8] notably Expressionists,[7] Cubists, and Surrealists, notably Surrealist Max Ernst.[9] Cubist painter, Pablo Picasso stated that "primitive sculpture has never been surpassed."[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tales in terracotta: Set up in 1990, the Sanskriti Museum has contextualised and documented terracotta from all parts of the country, Indian Express, 15 May 2005.
  2. ^ Dutton, Denis, Tribal Art. In Michael Kelly (editor), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  3. ^ a b c Perkins and Morphy 132
  4. ^ Folk and Tribal Art, Cultural Heritage, Know India.
  5. ^ Russel, James S. "Glass Cube Dazzles at Boston MFA’s $345 Million Wing: Review." Bloomberg. 21 Nov 2010. Retrieved 11 Jan 2011.
  6. ^ Perkins and Morphy 136
  7. ^ a b c Storr, Robert. "Global Culture and the American Cosmos." Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts: Arts, Culture and Society. 1995. (retrieved 15 Nov 2011)
  8. ^ Perkins and Morphy 133
  9. ^ Perkins and Morphy 134


  • Morphy, Howard and Morgan Perkins, eds. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4051-0562-0.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]