During one of Maureen Zarember’s first trips to Papua New Guinea, the renowned tribal art dealer was refused entrance to a House Tambaran, a sacred worship structure that only allowed men. On that fateful day, she vowed to open her own House Tambaran, which she went on to establish as Tambaran Gallery in 1979. Since then, Zarember’s Upper East Side space has become a go-to treasure trove for some of the world’s most extraordinary tribal art. Artsy caught up with the dealer about her early inspirations, recent shifts in the tribal art market, and her advice for young collectors intrigued by ancient African, Oceanic, and North-West Coast American objects, from rare spiritual talismans to fishing flies and fertility icons.
Artsy: What first attracted you to tribal art—was there a single object that inspired your interest?
Maureen Zarember: My grade school teacher Mrs. O’Riley in Melbourne, Australia, saw me fashion stone, feather, wool, and shells into objects, and it was she who took me to my first visit at the Melbourne Museum, a dark old place full of treasures that fascinated me. Also, my grandmother owned and wore a greenstone nephrite hei-tiki from New Zealand. This small, precious object (representing an ancestor) fascinated me, as I was allowed to play with it. One could say that this tiki inspired me, along with many other pieces I would see during my childhood.
Artsy: When did you first decide to devote your career to tribal art, and did you have a mentor to guide you?
MZ: After I came to New York and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology for textile and clothing design, I had an encounter with Pamela Rank, a New Zealander, and together we opened a salon for evening gowns on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. This venture allowed me to travel for textiles to India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and Thailand. It was during these travels that I would buy objects that appealed to me. My art collection ended up winning out, and I opened my first gallery on Madison Avenue in 1979.
Artsy: Has the market for tribal art changed since you started dealing?
MZ: Yes—the past was so exciting. The tribal art galleries had a constant stream of collectors and seekers, both buyers and sellers, sharing their experiences and new acquisitions. In the past, auction houses were basically for dealers, but now we compete directly for the collector.
Artsy: Do you discover the works you sell while traveling or do they come to you?
MZ: Originally, London was a major destination. Twice a year we traveled to Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s for the tribal art auctions. The focus then moved to New York and Paris. I do, however, travel to great museums to view their objects and compare collections. Field collecting was pretty much over in the 1960s and ’70s, as most major works were collected prior to that date. I also travel to see collectors in the hope that I might acquire objects.
Artsy: Do pieces ever pass through your gallery that you can’t bear to part with?
MZ: There is a piece we have sold and regretted: a small masterwork from the Austral islands, Polynesia. A rare 15-inch fly whisk which has an exquisitely carved handle depicting two miniature figures seated back to back, with their elongated faces, squared shoulders, and bent elbows resting on sharply bent knees. It is now in the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva.
Artsy: Can you describe a work you’ve handled that stands out in your mind as rare or extraordinary?
MZ: My Fang torso from Gabon, a figure that lay on its back on the floor of a glass case in Sotheby’s auction house, approximately 25 years ago. Almost discarded, not worth standing upright, not attracting attention. Bidding was slow and uninteresting—almost boring—so I won the bid. Afterwards, I was told I had bought a fake, and not to pay for it. However, I was approached by a senior collector who congratulated me and stated, “It’s published,” but couldn’t remember where. I searched books on Fang and Gabon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unfortunately without success.
Several years later, a Parisian dealer asked me if I still had that old thing, and enquired if it was for sale. I answered, “No, it is published, but I am still hunting for the book.” After several attempts, offering a very handsome profit, the dealer finally realized I would not part with it. I researched and traced the Fang to Pierre Loeb and Pierre Matisse, as it was photographed by Walker Evans for an exhibition at the MoMA in 1935. We have no record of its whereabouts after 1935 until it surfaced at Sotheby’s, a bit shabby for wear. It had traveled widely, as it was found in California, supposedly in the garbage. During my possession, it started to sweat—the libation palm oil was coming to the surface—and it acquired a wonderful dark patina. What tales we might hear if she could speak! Happily, the torso was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the “Eternal Ancestors” in 2007, and published in their catalog (plate 39).
Artsy: What advice would you give a young collector intrigued by tribal art?
MZ: Look, look, look. Buy books, ask questions, visit museums and fairs, and finally decide the type and style of art that talks to you. Make friends with one or two reputable dealers, build a trusting relationship, do not be pushed into buying something you really don’t like. Fall in love with the piece!