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Sunday May 13, 2007

Face to face with tribal art

A couple of art enthusiasts are trying to raise awareness of and appreciation for tribal art. 

AN artist usually creates a work of art purely for the sake of art, or to convey a message. Tribal masks or bone carvings are created for functional purposes, for rituals or for daily use. Yet, they too have an aesthetic value as their creators individualise them by painting, decorating or carving them. 

Not everybody can appreciate the artistic value of tribal arts, though.  

Leonard Yiu, of Khazanah Arts as well as Art House Gallery, laments, “Tribal art is dying out. It won’t be many more years before the supply becomes completely exhausted as the older generations within the tribes die out and the younger generations live different lives. 

“While Malaysian artists have been – and still are – racking their brains in search of a national identity, our own native arts have been largely neglected and are appreciated mainly by foreigners. 

Anita Schroder and Leonard Yiu want to share their appreciation for tribal art with Malaysians.
“They eagerly snap up quality items as soon as they hit the market. Our native works are doing us proud by being traded and auctioned off in other countries!  

“We know of many nations, poor economically but rich in heritage, which suffer haemorrhagic losses of their ancestors’ treasures due to ravaging economic conditions. This is deplorable yet understandable. 

“However, for a bustling nation like Malaysia, on the way to becoming fully developed, it is unforgivable – let us not be labelled a rich country with poor regard for our own heritage.” 

Yiu is currently exhibiting some Bornean tribal arts from his personal collection at the Face to Face – Tribal Art of Africa and Borneo exhibition. This is the first time African tribal art is being exhibited here. 

The items on display include textiles, woodcarvings, musical instruments, baby carriers, gongs, knives, neck rests and ear pendants. 

Among some of the more interesting pieces of Bornean tribal art are carved skulls of the bulbous hornbill and the orang utan.  

“There is no definite answer for why the orang utan skull was carved. I dare not say I know. My theory is that it has to do with the headhunting ritual. The Ibans used to be notorious for headhunting. When the British came in and banned headhunting, the ritual needed to go on because they had been hunting heads for centuries and centuries. So orang utan heads became the substitute for human heads because the skull is of the same size. The carvings on the skull indicate that it was created for ritual use,” says Yiu. 

His collection comes mainly from Sarawak and Kalimantan.  

Other interesting items are the Bornean masks from several different tribes. While the masks, even those from the same tribe, are all different, those from one tribe would have some similar characteristics endemic to that tribe.  

For instance, Yiu explains that the Ibans always circle the eyes on the mask. In addition, the shape of the mask is oval and with a longish jaw.  

“The Selako masks are ugly. They are used in a stage play to represent evil. It is always a fight between good and evil and good always triumphs. This is for entertainment purposes. They use it once a year for functions like the Gawai Festival,” says Yiu.  

There are also masks that are used for rituals. One such mask is the exorcist mask from the Dayak Benuaq tribe.  

“It looks so evil and devilish simply because it has to be. When the shaman uses it during the exorcism ritual, the tribe believes that the evil spirit will see this mask and be frightened off. The shaman will try to scare away the evil spirit that the tribe believes is the cause of a person’s sickness. The evil spirit will be transferred from the patient to a small wooden effigy. The effigy would later be put in a small wooden boat and discarded in the jungle,” explains Yiu. 

The shaman believes that after the effigy is discarded in the jungle, the spirit is released and the effigy becomes an empty shell again. The exorcist mask, the effigy and the boat are all on display at the Face to Face exhibition, along with 67 pieces of African tribal art. 

Unfortunately, Swedish art dealer Anita Schroder could only bring textiles, jewellery and other small pieces of African tribal art from her gallery in Germany. 

Explaining a statue from the Baule tribe in the Ivory Coast, Schroder says, “This is really a masterpiece. This is a piece of art with no signature. It’s anonymous art. But the price and appreciation comes from the aesthetic and artistic quality. This is a very sensible and old sculpture.” 

Cloth of kings ... one of the pieces of African textiles brought in by Schroder.
She explains that 20th century artists were inspired by such tribal arts. The examples can be seen in the art of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani and even Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso. 

“You can see where Modigliani got his inspiration from. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 was the first painting in which masks were used,” she says.  

Holding up a small wooden sculpture, Schroder explains its significance. Every man had a woman sculpture and every woman had a man sculpture. It was believed that in order to avoid misfortune and failure, each adult person had to be married to a sculpture. One night each week they had to spend time with the sculpture by dreaming of the spirit. This was a strong belief in Africa some years ago. 

Schroder says the textiles that she brought are small pieces sewn together to form an abstract piece of art that used to be worn by chiefs or kings at ceremonies. 

The beauty in the sculptures and textiles is not in their functions but in the way the artists have deftly created them with an abstract quality. 

Also on display are necklaces, which are Schroder’s own designs, using tribal beads from Africa as well as from other parts of the world.  

Some of the other African items on display are door locks, pulleys, neck rests and terracotta bowls. 

Why bring items from two cultures that are geographically so far apart? Well, they are close in concept. Explaining the similarities between Bornean and African tribal arts, Yiu says, “The similarity is in the thinking.  

The tribal art pieces were used to repel evil spirits, always for the good of the people. I’ve never come across any black magic; all the shamans I’ve met told me that the magic they perform is to heal and to frighten away evil spirits, never to inflict evil. 

“Another similarity is that the native tribes always believe that the soul is in the head, which is why they made masks and also why the sculptures have enlarged heads. They also believed the spirits were individuals like people. That’s why they carved each differently – and this gives each piece artistic value.”  

Unfortunately, the greatest contrast between Bornean and African tribal art is in how they are appreciated. While African tribal art is already recognised in the West and sells for large amounts of money, local tribal art has yet to be recognised on that scale, though regional appreciation is slowly growing. The even greater disappointment, though, is the fact that we Malaysians don’t appreciate our own tribal art.  

  • ‘Face to Face’ is on at the Art House Gallery at No. 20-1, Jalan 24/70A, Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur. Enquiries, call 03-2300 1343. 

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