Don't get the members of the Tribal Arts Society wrong: They admire and appreciate the work of Western artists -- Dutch masters, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists -- as much as the next group. But they also feel that too often in the past the arts of non-Western cultures in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas -- what was once pejoratively dubbed "primitive art"-- have received insufficient attention, analysis, and respect, and they've made it their mission to rectify those oversights.
"Our area is a little more esoteric," explains Dot Downs, co-founder and current president of the University of Miami-based Tribal Arts Society (TAS), "so we try to balance the focus" between Western and non-Western (or "indigenous") arts.
Accordingly the society presents a half-dozen lectures, workshops, and seminars annually, importing experts, scholars, curators, and collectors from throughout the United States to discuss everything from ancient African and pre-Columbian art to Native American art and ceremonies from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, not forgetting modern-day ethnographic photography (i.e., how to make images of tribal members without giving offense). Almost without fail, one presentation each year concentrates on local indigenous art. For example Seminole leader Billy Cypress spoke in 1992 on "Preserving Seminole Indian Ways," and Downs, author of the 1995 book Art of the Florida Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, has stepped up to the lectern to discuss the artwork and patchwork clothing of those two tribes.
Formed in 1987 in association with UM's Lowe Art Museum, the TAS, according to its modest institutional brochure, has endeavored to "assist the museum in educating the public about its [the Lowe's] non-Western collections and facilities." Downs points out that "a large portion of the museum collection is non-Western art, and we knew that there was interest in all tribal arts in the community." That "we," about 25 other enthusiasts, gathered for the inaugural TAS lecture -- "The Collector's Eye: Navajo Textiles" -- in February 1987.
These days Downs estimates that membership has mushroomed to 100. The organization, a nonprofit since 1988, supports its activities through annual dues, operating independently from the Lowe. Each event draws approximately 100 attendees, about half of them students from UM's art history and anthropology departments.
Many of them surely will be on hand when Arthur Dunkelman, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation in Miami Lakes, speaks to the TAS about the curatorial conundrum of how to exhibit pre-Columbian art. Traditionally, Dunkelman says, non-Western objects have been appreciated principally for their "aesthetic beauty as works of art." More recently, though, anthropologists and ethnographers have altered the perception by emphasizing pre-Columbian art's "spiritual or cultural values" as well as "the normative behavior" of the people who created the works. How an exhibitor synthesizes these two approaches affects how the public interprets the objects. "It's a delicate issue," Dunkelman admits. Of one thing he is certain: "We no longer call it “primitive art.'"