By Noëlle Rathmell-Stiels
In its sixteenth year, the Parisian Tribal Art fair has taken visitors on a voyage of discovery to new horizons, sailing from Polynesia to the borders of contemporary art. From 12 to 17 September 2017 a total of sixty-six exhibitors, predominantly from France, Belgium and the USA, opened their treasure chests in the ‘golden triangle’ of tribal art – just a few
streets in Saint-Germain-des-Prés – and were visited by collectors from all over
The ‘Parcours des Mondes’ is undoubtedly amongst the brightest stars in the firmament of tribal art fairs worldwide. From BRAFA and BRUNEAF in Brussels, TEFAF in Maastricht, Tribal Art Fairs in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco and in New York, the rise in rendezvous focused on tribal art has been almost exponential. Indeed, in May 2016, France even ventured into rural territory with the first Bourgogne Tribal Show in Besanceuil, which proved a real success.
At the Parcours, it seems Oceanic art is slowly gaining ground on African art. Collectors of Oceanic art are less numerous than African art aficionados, and they tend to show particular interest in Polynesian art.
The quality of items on display at the Parcours is assured by the activities of a vetting committee and the ever-increasing fastidiousness of the dealers. Pierre Moos, owner and General Manager of the Parcours since 2004, commented that, “Five years ago, eighty pieces had to be rejected during the final selection by the vetting committee, against only six nowadays; which means the dealers themselves are becoming ever more demanding”. A new trend in the market, according to Moos, is that nowadays a majority of the “big buyers” of tribal art come from a modern and contemporary art background. “Cross-collecting” seduces more and more buyers. Diversity rhymes with prosperity.
The Parcours is in fact a godsend for the exhibitors. Three years ago, in the Rue des Beaux-Arts only, transactions in African art amounted to four million Euros. One prominent local gallery owner remarked to me that he achieved three-quarters of his yearly turnover during the Parcours week. He suspects that many of his compatriots do likewise, though they are more secretive about their chiffres d’affaires.
In addition to the galleries and dealers, the Parcours hosts a series of lectures and interviews in its headquarters gallery, the Espace Tribal. This year one of the highlights was on French Polynesia, with Tahiti marking the 250th anniversary of European contact by one Samuel Wallis on board the Dolphin. There was also a visit by a cultural delegation from that country.
The Parcours also encourages individual galleries to put on special thematic exhibitions. This year, Anthony Meyer was amongst the twenty or so that did so – he had a thematic display of tapas from the Solomon Islands and Lake Sentani. One was a very large and very rare blue tapa cloth from Santa Isabel Island painted with thirteen dugongs. Another was a rare Eharo mask from the Elema people in the Papuan Gulf. This was Meyer’s fourth gallery exhibition of early tapa since 1988. This year’s coincided with the launch of the book ‘Tapa, from Bark to Cloth’ 1 which was presented by ethnologist and researcher Michel Charleux at the Parcours’ Espace Tribal. ‘Unwrapping Tongan Barkcloth’ 2 a book by Fanny Wonu Veys (2017) was also highlighted. In this book, the Oceania curator at the National Museum of World Cultures in Rotterdam (and currently President of the Pacific Arts Association Europe) narrates the past and present in bark cloth manufacture, designs and use.
Chris Boylan is the only Australia-based dealer participating in the Parcours; his gallery in the Rue Visconti – a few doors away from the Espace Tribal – was throughout the week (as ever) a buzzing hive of friendly encounters: Bruce Seaman and family, Michael Martin, Elizabeth Pryce, Sir David Attenborough, Philippe Peltier, Christian Coiffier, Crispin Howarth, Jonathan Fogel and a host of others. Some had the pleasure of a preview of the massive masterpiece “New Guinea Highlands”3, to be distributed at the end of October. Chris Boylan has contributed significantly to this volume as have several other Parcours participants such as Michael Hamson, whose stunning gallery featured many delightful pieces.
Australian Aboriginal art makes up a small but significant segment to the Parcours des Mondes. Stephane Jacob (Paris) has been a long-standing participant. A relative newcomer, Bertrand Estrangin, who opened a gallery in Brussels a couple of years ago presented ‘Gems from the remote Australian APY lands desert’. These dealers showed many examples of high quality contemporary Aboriginal art.
Even a bright star like the Parcours des Mondes is just a part of the Parisian constellation. If anyone was not totally overwhelmed by the incredible number of galleries and pieces to inspect at the Parcours, they could take a short Metro ride to the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. This museum (famous, inter alia, for the aboriginal artwork that forms part of Jean Nouvel’s architecture) has just celebrated its tenth birthday with a stunning “rehang” of its wonderful Oceanic collection. As if in a secret jewellery box, in the East Mezzanine of the museum, visitors also had access to a small, but beautifully presented temporary exhibition – “La Pierre Sacrée des Maoris” (“The Sacred Stone of the Maoris” or Pounamu). This show had travelled from the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and was on display during the Parcours. Rather narrowly didactic in approach, some said, the exhibition nevertheless showed no less than two hundred delicately sculpted objects, ancient and contemporary in the hard jade so prized by the Maori peoples. The most stunning display was a case of almost a hundred hei tiki.
With its concurrent annual fair – La Biennale de Paris, the City of Light this September was really worth the journey across the world just for itself alone.
- Chartreux, M. (ed et al.). 2017. TAPA, from Tree Bark to Cloth: An Ancient Art of Oceania. From Southeast Asia to Eastern Polynesia. Paris: Association TAPA/Somogy Editions d’Art. (Bilingual French/English).
- Veys, F.W. 2017. Unwrapping Tongan Barkcloth : Encounters, Creativity and Female Agency. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
- Friede, J., Hays, T., Hellmich C. (eds et al.) 2017. New Guinea Highlands. Munich: Prestel.