Where do the terms “Primitive” and “Tribal” sit in our art lexicon? For the past few years I have understood these both as pejorative terms, but have consistently seen the labels applied to exhibitions, artworks, online and in galleries. In fact, last week I attended a gallery opening in New York and across the street was a gallery, Nasser & Co, whose outdoor signage displays the term “Primitive Art.” I later went online and found that on their website they had used the word “Tribal Art” as well. This got me thinking …

To clarify my first point of confusion, I contacted Curator Renaud Proch at the ICI (Independent Curators International) and asked him if he felt the term “Primitive Art” has a place in contemporary art. He responded:

Regarding Primitive Art, I would say that the term ought to be avoided at all costs in contemporary cultural discourse. It simply reflects a cruel worldview that has generated volumes of criticism. While I understand its use in a historical context I don’t see its relevance in today’s curatorial and art historical developments.

Wikipedia supports Proch’s assertion describing the notion of primitive throughout history as:

Westerners had long misunderstood African art as “primitive.” The term carries with it negative connotations of underdevelopment and poverty. Colonization and the slave trade in Africa during the nineteenth century set up a Western understanding hinged on the belief that African art lacked technical ability due to its low socioeconomic status.

“Primitive Art”, Nasser & Co gallery, New York

So I called Nasser & Co to find out why they had chosen to use the term “Primitive Art” on their façade. It is clear that Nasser & Co specialize in art from the past when, I assume, the term was widely used. However the discrepancy of terminology used online “Tribal Art,” led me to believe there may have been an attempt to adapt to the times. If so why not go all the way? (Am waiting on their follow up email). Its founder Ron Nasser, I read, is a well-known international specialist in African and Oceanic Art, so I thought there must be a good explanation for adopting and sticking with the term.

So I started investigating what the term “Tribal Art” encompasses, and if it is in any way appropriate to use. Wikipedia describes “Tribal Art” as:

an umbrella term used to describe artefacts and objects created by the indigenous peoples of (controversially named) primitive cultures. Also known as Ethnographic art, or Arts Primitive, Tribal art has three primary categories: African, New World or Americas, and Oceania. It can be thought of as folk art, often containing ritual/religious significance pertaining to the custom within a particular tribal culture.

An illustration of a traditional Mauri Tattoo warrior, and Tribal Art tatttoo design today

This is clearly a much broader term that encompasses any art related to tribal culture. Is there such a thing as contemporary tribal art? I found an online magazine called “Tribal Art” mostly advertising auctions of dated work, and its posting were strongly Eurocentric. I did however find a barrage of tattoo artists offering an array of “Tribal Art” tattoos. These tattoos are derivatives of tribal designs, and by being named “Tribal Art,” has reentered re-contextualized the term within mainstream culture.

Then in “Primitive Art” encompasses art from a certain era that came specifically from Africa, “Tribal Art” also encompasses the New World/Americas and Oceania regions and seems to be less time specific. It is agreed that “Primitive Art” is no longer an appropriate term in contemporary art dialogue. “Tribal Art” is still touchy however it seems to have less animosity and seems to be, to some degree, reentering mainstream lexicon.

The winner then is Tribal Art? I would suggest that, among others, Sotheby’s auction house wins the battle, simply describing the “Sale for African & Oceanic Art” choosing geography over ethnography or skill-based statements.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...

2 replies on “WTF Is… Primitive Art vs Tribal Art”

  1. Opting to identify art by geographical and historical specifications seems the most sensible (e.g., 19th Century European Art or 13th Century Sub-Saharan Art).  If scholarship allows for further detail (e.g. 18th Century European Romantic Art), that’s great, too.

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