A tribal art fair is not just an occasion to sell art from Oceania, Africa, Asia and the Americas. It is the opportunity to breathe life into these objects, which may have been involved in sacred rituals, worn as jewellery or garments, or used for functional purposes. Founded in 2003 by Finette Lemaire, the owner of Amsterdam’s Galerie Lemaire, Tribal Art Fair Amsterdam is an initiative to promote tribal art in its own right.
The fair is located in De Duif, a nineteenth-century Catholic Church in Amsterdam. Standing on the organ balcony allows you to observe the ebb and flow of people amongst the different stalls and the exchanges among them. Participants in the ‘Sweet Sixteen’ Dutch-language tour – a tour that celebrates the sixteenth edition of the fair – stop in front of selected objects that have been used to celebrate different transitions in individual’s lives (including that from life to death). The occasional visitor picks up an object and inspects it closely, or quickly picks up a sweet from a bowl placed outside Galerie Lemaire’s stall. The murmur of conversation in French, Dutch, German and English fills the church. Bas–relief statues of the Virgin Mary, distressed murals depicting scenes from the Bible and stained glass windows provide the literal backdrop for a cacophony of tribal art objects from every corner of the world. Tribal Art Fair Amsterdam is a relatively small fair, but it is easy to get lost in the crowds of objects provided by twenty-one international galleries which appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.
After noticing a miniature Alaskan figurine lying in a carved spoon- whose whereabouts are unknown – in the UK dealer Adam Ethnographic Art’s stall, I asked whether these objects were sold together like that. Adam Prout from Adam Ethnographic Art laughed and explained that they do not – however there are endless opportunities for displaying tribal art. Indeed, this can be seen in the variety of approaches of each gallery – which may display their collections in a minimalistic fashion, add coconut trees and exotic flowers amongst the objects or arrange dissimilar objects from different geographical locations next to one another.
According to Adam Prout, Tribal Art Fair Amsterdam has a different character to Tribal Art London. Whereas in London, visitors generally bought something that caught their attention in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on it, Dutch collectors were more discerning, knowing exactly what they came to buy. However, those with little knowledge of tribal art – or little money in their pocket – also have reason to visit. Ethnographic Art Book’s stall offer books from as little as five euros, which give anyone the opportunity to begin reading up on tribal art in all its forms. The vivacious facial expressions of various figurines and masks provide endless amusement and fascination as you circumambulate around the stalls.
All in all, Tribal Art Amsterdam 2018 can be considered a rite of passage for tribal art aficionados. But it can also serve to shed light on tribal art for those who are merely curious.
Antonia Dalivalle 26th October 2018
Photo by author.