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Statuette; 19th-20th century; by Mambila people from Nigeria (Africa); Musée du quai Branly (Paris)
Moais at Rano Raraku (the Easter Island, Oceania), sculpted by Rapa Nui people
Yupik mask; 19th century; from Alaska; Musée du Quai Branly

Tribal art is the visual arts and material culture of indigenous peoples. Also known as ethnographic art, or, controversially, primitive art,[1] tribal arts have historically been collected by Western anthropologists, private collectors, and museums, particularly ethnographic and natural history museums. The term "primitive" is criticized as being Eurocentric and pejorative.[2]



Tribal art is often ceremonial or religious in nature.[3] Typically originating in rural areas, tribal art refers to the subject and craftsmanship of artefacts from tribal cultures.

In museum collections, tribal art has three primary categories:

Collection of tribal arts has historically been inspired by the Western myth of the "noble savage", and lack of cultural context has been a challenge with the Western mainstream public's perception of tribal arts.[5] In the 19th century, non-western art was not seen by mainstream Western art professional as being as art at all.[2] The art world perception of tribal arts is becoming less paternalistic, as indigenous and non-indigenous advocates have struggled for more objective scholarship of tribal art. Before Post-Modernism emerged in the 1960s, art critics approached tribal arts from a purely formalist approach,[6] that is, responding only to the visual elements of the work and disregarding historical context, symbolism, or the artist's intention.

Influence on ModernismEdit

Major exhibitions of tribal arts in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries exposed the Western art world to non-Western art. Major exhibitions included the Museum of Modern Art's 1935 Africa Negro Art and 1941 Indian Art of the United States.[6] Exposure to tribal arts provide inspiration to many modern artists,[7] notably Expressionists,[6] Cubists, and Surrealists, notably Surrealist Max Ernst.[8] Cubist painter, Pablo Picasso stated that "primitive sculpture has never been surpassed."[2]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Dutton, Denis, Tribal Art. In Michael Kelly (editor), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. ^ a b c Perkins and Morphy 132
  3. ^ Folk and Tribal Art, Cultural Heritage, Know India.
  4. ^ Russel, James S. "Glass Cube Dazzles at Boston MFA’s $345 Million Wing: Review." Bloomberg. 21 Nov 2010. Retrieved 11 Jan 2011.
  5. ^ Perkins and Morphy 136
  6. ^ a b c Storr, Robert. "Global Culture and the American Cosmos." Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts: Arts, Culture and Society. 1995. (retrieved 15 Nov 2011)
  7. ^ Perkins and Morphy 133
  8. ^ Perkins and Morphy 134


  • Morphy, Howard and Morgan Perkins, eds. The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4051-0562-0.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit