From primitive to art back to ethnology: too much zeal, says leading collector

Eugene Victor Thaw on the transformation of tribal art


The history of art collecting contains episodes of curious paradox. Who would have thought thirty years ago, during the triumphant progress of Impessionism and Modernism, that the most flagrant academic “official” artists over whom that triumph was won would emerge as strong in the art markets today as if that victory had never taken place?

Who among collectors of what used to be called “primitive art” (now known as “tribal art,” “les arts premiers” or some other politically correct euphemism), could have anticipated that their long fought battle to have such works considered as art and the aesthetic equals of sophisticated modern works, would end by native people declaring their artifacts to be ethnological specimens after all rather than art, and only to be interpreted by natives themselves?

Even more disturbing to the custodians of the great collections of tribal material than the recent legislation in America known as NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which calls for the return of nearly anything a tribe can claims or was sacred or culturally significant, is the overeager extension of the act to prohibit non-native eyes from even seeing much of this material or to attempting scholarly studies without tribal permission.

The President of the Hopi tribe wrote a now famous letter to all the institutions who obediently reported to the Hopi nation as NAGPRA required, claiming that they were also required to turn in all books about Hopi culture, all photographs in their collections, all field notes and archives of their anthropologists. In the future, all research and study had to be done under the tribe’s direct supervision.

Quite apart from obvious constitutional issues of free speech, etc., the implications of such admittedly extreme incidents are daunting because of the climate of opinion they reveal.

Yet most collectors and institutions working in this field must believe that wiser heads will prevail since the collecting of American Indian art is now entering a “boom” cycle, with recent prices at auction in New York topping $500,000 for pieces which a year or two ago would not have fetched $75,000. It will not be long, I think, before some especially fine and showy American Indian work brings over $1 million.

Of course, this kind of trend is both good and bad. Bad because high prices encourage speculation rather than serious collecting, but good in the sense that what is valued is appreciated, well taken care of and brought to the attention of a public which, generally, takes no notice until something is certified as “treasure.”

With the North American Indian galleries of the British Museum about to open in a year or two, perhaps the approach the BM takes, with that combination of ethnology and art which it does so well, will provide the model and leadership for other collections. This will help especially in the US now struggling with apologies to the Indians and the sensitive politics of minority interests, all of which tend to overwhelm the great works of art that have survived and which, if properly presented to the world, would show the tribes and their cultures the truest and most lasting respect.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Coming full circle'