How to start a tribal art collection

Gordon Reece tribal art collectorTribal art continues to grow in popularity and is in much demand for modern interiors. Gordon Reece, one of the UK’s leading tribal art specialists, has spent his career globe-trotting the world in search of these ancient and beautiful artefacts. He shares his experience and advice on how to start a tribal art collection.

How did you start collecting tribal art? 

I remember going to a gallery and seeing a mask in a still life drawing life and being totally captured by it. Since then I found my interest became increasingly diverted from my art course towards ethnography and even geography. At the same time I was also interested 16th and 17th-century English furniture, which took me to a lot of antique shops and fairs. In the ‘60s, tribal art – or rather the art of non-European societies – was rare. I remember trying in vain to find books on it, now my library on the subject stretches to four shelves. I was drawn to the aesthetic of the pieces and their simplicity. The first piece I bought was in 1962. It was a 24cm (10in) ivory Luba female figurine, with tattooing on her stomach from a brocante shop in Bolton. At the time it just took my fancy but subsequent research has identified it as a very important piece dating to 920-950AD. Tribal art is always functional, never decorative, and this would have been made as an altar piece made for someone of substance.

How far afield has your collecting taken you? 

All over the world, although I would say Africa and India are my two areas of expertise. I opened a gallery in the 1980s in Knaresborough, which was the first of its kind in the UK. It created a new market in antiques, alerted the public to the beauty and history of everyday objects from Asia and helped to encourage a new breed of traveller. It also spawned a whole new fashion for “ethnicity” in the world of interiors. I knew that, while not everyone would want to buy a tribal mask, everyone does need floor coverings, so rugs were important.

Mande people (Liberia) Poro mask, 19th century
Mande people (Liberia) Poro mask, 19th century

How did you grow your collection of tribal art? 

I slowly created a web of collector-gatherers who would work with me in each country I ventured into. Besides establishing this very necessary infrastructure, great care was taken regarding the criteria by which acquisitions were made. The patrimony of each culture had to be respected. Often pieces we discovered that were unknown

to the museums in the country of origin were automatically donated. In turn, we were allowed to export some exceptional pieces, many of which are now to be found in major international museums, including the V&A, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. I opened a space in Clifford Street, London, in 1997 to satisfy the increasing demand.

How have perceptions of tribal art changed? 

Immeasurably. In the ‘80s nobody had heard of a kelim, now they are everywhere. Whereas this country and Europe has for centuries enjoyed a large collecting fraternity, that was not the case elsewhere. I remember travelling to Ahmendabad in India in the early days and being told of a man who had two sheds full of ornate Gujerat furniture. I selected four pieces and started dealing with him. Now he has a business employing 650 people and a warehouse the size of Olympia. Where I went others followed.

What do you look for in a piece of tribal art? 

The thrill of discovery was always deepened by the questions that arose about the artist-craftsmen who had made it and its purpose. Pieces would only speak to me if they fulfilled a stringent set of criteria. It was not a case of buying just because they were African, old or cheap. The mask or figure had to have a presence – it might be almost crude in form but has a sense of dignity. The skills of the creator were important but it was always the conceptual power that meant most to me, and still does. There are still good pieces to be found. African carvings are not intended as artworks as such, but creations that fulfill specific roles within their communities, when placed in a different context one can appreciate their beauty and amazing aesthetic qualities.

What advice would you give to a new collector? 

Study the subject, treat it like a degree. Choose one area and learn as much as you can. Consider the iconography of the area or tribe. Most tribes have a set way of creating the form and shape of their artefacts. Much African art tends to follow a set of prescribed values and traditions. The sculptor in any community passes his knowledge on to his son and so on. Thus the traditions continue through the generations.

Kongo people fetish figure
Kongo people (coastal areas from Congo to Angola) fetish figure, early 20th century

Occasionally an individual adds something new, either he introduces a more refined form, a different pose or slightly adapts the details, which makes the piece stand out from its peers. That is when the piece becomes alive. For Western eyes it denotes the difference between the work of a skilled craftsman and an artist.

What collecting areas or regions are still to be discovered? 

When I started collecting in India I was told it had no tribes. That certainly wasn’t the case then and it isn’t now. There are still many of these tribal artefacts to be explored. There are still pieces to be found in Katmandu coming from the Himalayas. Acquiring fine African tribal pieces is in many ways a different process from acquiring other cultural objects.

Despite what many collectors and dealers will tell you, good work can still be found in Africa itself. Mostly these objects are not being used for their original purpose or in their original environments. There are a considerable number of expats, or colonial families, resident for two or more generations, who have collected pieces which they treasure. Also some tribal elders have pieces from their forebears that they still hold dear. As a collector of tribal art the secret is to look everywhere. For me, the quest to find academically interesting, undiscovered and diverse objects is key.

What are your tips for combining tribal art in a modern setting? 

Tribal art looks terrific in a modern setting. It was one of the key influences on Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and looks magnificent alongside modern art and furniture. I am sitting on a Melanesian piece of furniture alongside a 10th- century Indian sculpture, next to a Tibetan chest and three wooden 19th-century English bears in the folk art tradition. On the wall is a Francis Bacon lithograph. To me they are like old friends!


Get to grips with Dogon ladders 

The Dogon people, one of the oldest surviving cultural groups in Africa, live in the central plateau region of Mali A tribal Dogon ladderand parts of Burkina Faso. Most live in adobe villages in the rugged and inaccessible area at the foot of the sandstone Bandiagara Escarpment.

Types of Dogon ladders 

Dogon ladders are made from naturally forked tree trunks, into which the sculptors carve notches for steps, in a perfect joining of form and function. The Dogon use ladders such as these to reach the flat roofs of their houses and to enter their raised thatched roof granaries. They have two types of granaries, the shorter guyo-ya used by women to store their personal possessions, and the elevated guyo-ana used by men to store millet and sorghum. The entrances to the men’s granaries are near the roof and accessible only by ladder to guard against thieves and vermin.

Significance of Dogon ladders 

Ladders also hold cultural and religious significance, though the exact meaning and extent of this is debated. It has been suggested that the ladders, like Dogon dwellings, might be considered anthropomorphic, possessing a human-like essence. A ladder may remain in a family for generations, gaining a wonderful patination from decades of use.


Tribal Art London

A tribal art maskThis year’s Tribal Art London celebrates ten years with the largest-ever event and a special focus on tribal tattooing and body adornment

When: 6-9 September 2017

Where: Mall Galleries, London SW1

Tribal artefacts can make a striking complement to modern and contemporary artworks, and they appeal to fledgling and seasoned art buyers alike. There is also a growing interest amongst younger buyers, many of whom have embraced body adornment and tattooing, a tradition of significance for many cultures and peoples. This year’s Fair is introducing a day of lectures and events revolving around the history and development of tribal tattoos, including a talk by Dr Karen Jacobs of the University of East Anglia. Elsewhere, Martin Poole, an expert in the technique of hand tapped tattoos, will be giving live demonstrations.

New exhibitors at Tribal Art London 2017 include an international line-up of Frans Faber  from The Netherlands with fine tribal arts from Indonesia, Oceania and Africa; New York’s Mark Eglington; John-Paul Raad from London with art of the Niger River region; and Emmanuel Amelot of Belgium.


Antique Collecting magazineSubscribe to Antique Collecting

If you’re looking for advice on how to start buying antiques and art, why not take out a subscription to Antique Collecting magazine and get all the best antiques and arts news delivered straight to your door?

The latest antiques news

Packed with news from the auction houses, top events, expert advice and opinion, and in-depth antiques buying guides, Antique Collecting has been at the heart of the antiques and art market for 50 years. An annual subscription starts from just £32 a year – find out more about how to subscribe here.

Sign up to our newsletter

And why not join our newsletter and be kept in the loop about our latest offers and news – sign up here

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

We'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave us a reply