Friday, April 10, 2009


Los Angeles Tribal, a local association of dealers specializing in the traditional tribal arts of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, held their first exhibition at the Helms Building in Culver City, California on March 13th, 14th and 15th 2009. Participating LA Tribal members: Anthropos Gallery (Ron Normandeau); Dimondstein Tribal Arts (Joshua Dimondstein); Philip Garaway; Mark A. Johnson Tribal Art; Leonard Kalina Fine Arts; Fily Keita Tribal Arts; Primary Source (John Strusinski); and Jerry Solomon Asian & Tribal Arts. Tribal Arts magazine were also represented.

There was a Friday night opening benefit for “The World Is Just A Book Away”, a non-profit organization promoting literacy in developing countries. On Saturday and Sunday, members of LA Tribal with Jonathan Fogel of Tribal Arts magazine held a Tribal Art Appraisal Clinic.

This untried venue turned out to be a very good place to hold a smaller and more intimate exhibition. Frankly, until set-up, we had no idea if the overhead track lights would work properly or the display cases could be easily plugged in! But, it all came together with no problems and the individual displays were first rate. In addition, the Helms Building (formerly the Helms Bakery) is a well known icon in Los Angeles, easy to get to from all parts of town, with lots of available parking.

The opening benefit and appraisal clinic were designed to draw in new people and hopefully potential buyers. Without question these were successful in bringing in new faces, and thanks to the efforts of the non-profit, a good PR team, ads, mailers, and email announcements, the event was well attended, better than expected. We had close to 200 attendees on opening night and at least that number over the next two days (mostly new people). Approximately 70 of these attendees (again, mostly new people) brought in items to be appraised. Tribal Arts magazine was able to sign up more than 20 subscribers, a very high number for this kind of show.

The bad news, which was not un-expected during this slow economy, was that sales were underwhelming. But, more disappointing than the lack of significant sales, was the lack of participation by those members of the local tribal art community that I would have expected to attend. It never surprises me who comes to these shows, but instead who doesn’t. Without question, we were able to get the word out to this community including all of the LA area collector’s councils, organizations, individuals, and museums that have an interest in tribal art, so it was extremely unlikely they would not have been aware of this event.

With the exception of the director of the Bowers Museum in Orange County (thank you Peter Keller for making the trip to LA!), I am not aware of any other museum staff that came by (I am looking at you Fowler Museum! You too LACMA!). And worse, perhaps 20% of the LA based Ethnic Arts Council (EAC) bothered to attend! This is especially disappointing considering that virtually all of the members of Los Angeles Tribal are EAC members and very supportive of their programs and events.

In the entire Southern California region, there is one regular public show of Asian and Tribal Art (the Caskey Lee show in November) a very few museum exhibitions, and this LA Tribal group show. That’s it! You would think that anyone that has enough interest in tribal art to spend money to join an organization dedicated to appreciating tribal art or work for an institution with a tribal art collection would find a little time over three days to take advantage of this rare, free opportunity to view these works up close and actually talk to people who are willing to give you information and answer your direct questions!

Despite the economic issues and the lack of full local participation, other aspects were very successful. It has been a goal of Los Angeles Tribal to hold a regularly scheduled annual show, so we will likely do this event next March at the same location.



I recently visited the Indonesian textile exhibition currently on display at LACMA. The exhibition is part of the Mary Hunt Kahlenberg collection, a former curator at LACMA and world renowned authority on Indonesian textiles. The original group was put on display (in conjunction with a symposium on Indonesian Textiles) in September of 2008 and ran until March of this year. Several pieces were removed and replaced with new selections in March. The current group will be on display until September 2009.

As a long time collector/dealer of Indonesian art and textiles, I am pleased to see LACMA take a special interest in this area. I believe their intent is to eventually acquire this collection. Textiles played an important part in the ritual life of Indonesians as well as displaying their status, wealth, and cultural identity. The collection covers most of the primary textile weaving cultures of Indonesia with a wide selection of ikat, batiks, and supplementary-weft examples from Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, Bali, and Nusa Tenggara (the outer island, east of Bali).

Several pieces have been carbon dated (C14) with ranges from 1430 to 1715! In my early days of collecting textiles from this region, it was believed that none could have survived more than 150 years, so 19th century dates were consider ancient. However, in the last decade, as more C14 tests results have come in, it is clear that many Indonesian textiles are considerably older than anyone would have imagined. Having a few of these early examples on display is an eye-opener.

There are many interesting pieces on display, but several drew my attention: an heirloom batik found in Sulawesi (dated to 1645-1695); a Lemba bark cloth blouse from Sulawesi with applied mica paint; a Tampan from South Sumatra with a single red ship surrounding by sea creatures; a Palepai banner with two red ships from South Sumatra; a large, Porisitutu cloth from the Sulawesi with bold meanders and fantastic color; a very good Pua Sungkit from the Sarawak, Borneo with serpent figures; a shawl from Timor with extremely detailed ikat motifs; and an ancient ikat fragment from Sulawesi with knelling animal figures (dated to 1430-1510).

I am not a big fan of Indonesian batiks, so I’ll admit I was not bowled over with this section, which was heavily represented. Other pieces from islands like Savu and Roti were not spectacular by any means, but these areas are not known for incredible weavings. I was disappointed to find that textiles from Borneo were so under-represented. Aside from the very good Pua Sungkit mentioned above, there were no examples of the better known and spectacular large ritual ikat blankets (Pua Kombu) from Sarawak or any good examples of the smaller woman’s skirts (Kain Kebat). In the first run, there was an underwhelming example of one ikat skirt. Beadwork was minimally represented as well, with the exception of important beaded bag from Sumba that was shown in the first run.

Regardless, of a few weak areas in this collection, the other examples are so spectacular it is well worth the visit (and re-visit). Hopefully, this exhibition will bring renewed interest in Indonesian textiles, an area often neglected by museums and collectors of important tribal art.