MATA Fair Successfully Amplified Primitive Art

  • NEW YORK, New York
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  • May 15, 2015

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Lwena mask. African. James Stephenson, New York.
Ekoi head dress. Africa. Jacaranda Tribal, New York.

Stepping across the Alexander Calder sidewalk on Madison Avenue at 78th Street and entering Arader Galleries where the MATA Ancient and Tribal Art Fair took place, visitors came face to face with a photograph of Picasso and a favored piece of primitive art. For new buyers and collectors, it didn’t take long to notice the famed Yves Kline blue (IKB) on a Lula mask. The short, impactful history of the 20th C. art was one of the prevalent themes running through the MATA Tribal Art Fair.  

Another track of the MATA Fair was that of identity, as many of the works presented were African and representative of the beliefs and lifestyle of tribes from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar. They reflected the cultures of the Dan, Tsonga, and Senufo. 

Whether African, Oceanic, Hawaiian or pre-Colombian, the works of art were created by unknown indigenous artists. Most were 19th and early 20th centuries creations. 

Splendors of the World-Hawaii offers primitive art from the ancient Americas and Oceania. Among the more commanding works was an over-modeled skull, once in the collection of Nelson Rockefeller. Taken from and honoring an ancestor, it is of the Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific. According to gallerist Jerry Bock, items were purchased by board members of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

At Jacaranda Tribal, New York, a carved, skin-covered Ekoi headdress from Nigeria was notable for its elaborate, horn-like hairstyle. Most likely it was worn in the context of a women's society responsible for the education of the girls in preparation for marriage. Often headdresses such as this were worn during a coming-out ceremony. It should be noted that nearby stood an elaborately carved head rest designed to keep coiffures in place during sleep.

Michael Rhodes, a New York gallerist, presented a varied collection of ritual masks. One standout is an orange-berry decorated Koré mask with antelope-like horns from the Bamana of Mali. The group identified with animal powers, so its masks embody animal characteristics. 


The collection at James Stephenson of New York included a magnificently carved Lwena Mask from Zambia. Another highlight is a beautifully carved Janus staff that has been the subject of much interest. Two carved faces sit back to back at the top of the stick, looking both forward to the future and back to the past. Reflecting the strong masking tradition of sedentary and wealthy African tribes is an early 20th century

The mask tradition was further carried out at Kellim Brown’s, a Brussels based dealer, whose collection included a rare narrow Lula mask with remaining blue and white pigment. With upturned nose and Spock ears, it was likely used by an advance group to announce young men returning from seclusion before the Mukanda ceremony. According to Mr. Brown  there is no academic research on how the tribe evolved the unusual facial features.

Over-rmolded skull. New Zealand. Splendors of the World-Hawaii.

Meanwhile, Patrick Mestdagh, Brussels, offered, among other works of art, an elaborately carved infant-size stilt step. Probably one of a pair, it would have been used in teaching the child to walk in a toe-down, heel-up position known as stilt-walking, both a sport and indiction of spirituality.

As always, the dealers of MATA articulated back stories and offered bits of scholarship. For those who needed more, publisher Jonathan Fogel, the San Francisco based pubisher of Tribal Art Magazine was on hand with back copies and subscription forms.

The MATA Ancient and Tribal Art Fair is slated to return in September for a fall running. Details will follow as they are released. For a close-up of the MATA Fair, please visit

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Spencer Helfen Fine Arts - Special Exhibition

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