A display of Polynesian objects (Photo courtesy Nasser and Co)

I received an email from Nasser and Co. in response to the article “WTF is Primitive vs. Tribal Art” where I had sited that the gallery had used both the terms “primitive” and “tribal” on their façade and website respectively, to describe the artwork they exhibit and sell. Assured that both terms did not form part of contemporary art lexicon, I was curious as to why the gallery had decided to use these terms.

Originally from Paris, Charles Moreau has been the director of Nasser and Co. gallery for the past four years. He invited me to the gallery to offered his perspective on what these terms “primitive” and “tribal” meant to him and his business over a tasty espresso.

Director of Nasser and Co, Charles Moureau, shares his insight (photo by the author)

Nasser and Co gallery was founded almost forty years ago by Ron Nasser, who traveled regularly to find interesting objects, mostly in Europe or in the United States, from collections or at auction. Many other dealers I’m told sought objects from Africa and Oceania, which Moureau explains is no longer possible after the passing of UNESCO legislation forbidding any objects to be removed from its country of origin.

Nasser and Co, Moreau assured me, also specifically selects objects that are considered “pure,” meaning they are not influenced aesthetically or culturally by a colonial presence. Moureau equates the current climate of selling “Primitive art” to the antiquity market, except the word “antiquity” is used to describe a multitude of objects.

Primitive art on the other hand is incredibly niche and complex, as the source areas are all over the world and primitive objects from each place are very specifically categorized. Moureau explains that only African art objects made before the 1930s are considered Primitive art as it is being created in the same conditions as from previous generations. Papua New Guinea has real objects in some cases as late as 1960s, whereas South America’s cut off date is before the 1800s and for North America it is before the end of the 19th century.

These dates are loosely termed most likely due to the complexity of the process of sourcing. He explains that the art terms used to describe work made currently cannot describe artwork of its time, for example the Dutch refer to their painters of the 14th and 16th centuries as “Primitive Dutch” and the same for the Spanish and Italians.

So how does he feel about the contemporary dislike of the use of the word “Primitive”? He explains:

For me I don’t give a damn. I don’t think these words are a problem. There is no proper word to describe what we sell … In our mouth primitive is not a bad word, as dealers we have spent our life working with Primitive art, why would we attribute it a bad name? It would be too ironic to make our lives revolve a around these restrictions.

And what about the word “tribal”? Moureau explains that the word “tribe” refers to a political system:

We used the words Tribal art for Nasser website as I saw people in the USA were using it — there were the different Tribal Art shows of New York and San Franscisco, and many magazine, dealers and bookstores were using it. It is the most politically correct term we have here for this kind of art. However, this is not by rights the correct term as many of the objects we deal with are from places that don’t have tribal systems, for example Cameroon has kingdoms and the Central and South Americans have civilizations. Irrespective of this, I don’t have a problem with the word.

Moureau points out that Sotheby’s use of specific continent or place names such as “Africa” is also not accurate as many objects are specific to areas, such as south of the Sahara, that is not named within these generalized and therefore meaningless geographical terms. He explains:

To call their department, like museums or others are doing: Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, doesn’t work either. Africa is never considered as a whole, only Sub-Saharan Africa can be categorized in our field. They forget most of Indonesia (200 million people) that can’t be understood as Oceania and neither can Asian tribal peoples … or the South Nagas in India, Jorai in Vietnam and in the North Siberian Eskimos and Ainu in Japan. So it is just plain wrong again.

Will he keep Primitive art on façade? He replies “its important to go back to basics and scrap the bullshit.”

Historically, London was the center for the Primitive and Tribal art market until the late 1980s and then New York’s Lexington Avenue shop windows and Madison Avenue galleries gave the art form exposure making New York its epicenter from the late 1980s until 9/11. Now Paris, a city which has always maintained a strong presence in the field, is the center of the trade. Nasser and Co is the only gallery of its kind on the street and since 9/11 Moureau explains:

Like with everyone the real estate prices increased and it became increasingly expensive to run a gallery. Now most of the important collectors don’t visit galleries on Saturday anymore, they come to auctions twice a year and dealers go to them.

A womens Xhosa smoking pipe from South Africa. (photo courtesy Nasser and Co)

He asks me where I’m from and when I say South Africa he pulls out a long pipe from the table cabinet I’m leaning on and tells me its a Xhosa women’s pipe and its designed longer than the mans as to not blow smoke in to their babies’ face.

Even though I’m childless I love this idea and the object is mesmerizingly beautiful.

NASSER&Co is on 34 East 67th Street, New York, NY, 10065

Charles Moureau gives regular tours of the gallery in conjunction with the Lexington Avenue business improvement district initiative, offering insight in to Primitive as well as Tribal art forms.

Claire Breukel

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”...

One reply on “So THIS is Primitive and Tribal art”

Comments are closed.