Think of Western Modernism, and names like Picasso and Matisse come immediately to mind. But for a true understanding of this radically inventive period in art history, scores of unnamed artisans and craftspeople must also be credited. They are the people from communities in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, who made the statuary, masks, and other objects that profoundly influenced modernists in the West. To appreciate these works on their own terms, stop by the AOA Tribal Fair, presented this week at New York’s Tambaran.
Founded in 1979 by Maureen Zarember, Tambaran is among New York’s most established galleries focusing on African, Oceanic, and Native American art. The gallery takes its name from that of the traditional ancestral house of worship—a haus tambaran—used by the people of Papua New Guinea. As Zarember has explained, it was her refusal from such a house that sparked her to create her own space: “On one [of] my early trips [to] Papua New Guinea I was forbidden to enter a House Tambaran because I was a young woman. Only initiated men could enter because that’s where cult objects were stored. As I backed away I uttered the Australian expression ‘no worries no worries’ and added ‘I’ll have my own House Tambaran one day.’”
She has now opened her house to an international group of galleries and dealers for the AOA Tribal Fair, and to anyone—from serious collectors to simply the curious—who wishes to revel in the remarkable craftsmanship, ingenuity, and beauty of the works on offer. Among these is a Maori wooden hand club, being shown by Tambaran. Like a study in contrasts, its smooth, unadorned paddle tapers into a short handle, which is then topped by an intricately carved knot composed of whorled and twisting forms. This little topping—the sole embellishment on an otherwise utilitarian-looking piece—grabs the eye and reads as a roiling ball of energy. So many of the works on view are full of such life and surprising turns of form that it’s no wonder they grabbed the attention of the modernists and helped shaped their vision for a brand new direction in art.