Mention tribal art and the average Westerner’s thoughts will turn to African villages learned of in school. But more than 35 years ago, Tribal Art Dealer Mark Johnson found his passion on Borneo, a patch of land at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. The indigenous people of this region are the Dayak, the people that begat the more commonly known Polynesian cultures of the Pacific, the history behind the history, so to speak. And the art they were able to achieve tells the story of their beliefs, their practices and their way of life in general.
The first piece that led Johnson to his calling as a hunter and gatherer of artifacts was in fact from Central Asia -- a 19th century Ikat for which he paid $300. “It was more than I had paid for my car,” Johnson explains. “But I saw this beautiful textile on the wall and something just clicked. I was fascinated.”
That one textile led to excursions to Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. The original Ikat was soon joined by silver jewelry from China, a Tibetan wall hanging purchased from refugees in India and much more. Johnson says, despite relative success, it took nearly a decade before he realized he probably didn’t need another job any longer.
Over time, Johnson found a special kinship with the beautifully crafted and preserved pieces he would discover in Borneo and Indonesia. The dealer says he simply fell in love with the artwork of the region.
“One of the things I love about Borneo is they do things we consider to be ‘modern,’ like use negative space or show just a portion of a motif,” Johnson says. “They didn’t so much carve the wood to look like a dragon, they more revealed the dragon that was already lurking within.”
Since his early days of traveling to the region, Johnson says the modern-day tribes have become much more savvy. “In the early days, they couldn’t understand why you wanted to buy such things. You would just stumble over antiques,” he says. “But then, missionaries, colonial authorities, and travelers came through and brought new ideas and barter with outsiders became more prevalent. Suddenly, you would go to villages in the middle of Borneo and there would be a washing machine; one chief had a linoleum floor. They were status symbols for them, like their art would be for us.”
These pieces these tribal artisans created transport you to a place that, even today, few of us are likely to have visited. That said, it seems marvelous how very modern these very ancient works can appear and one can’t help but be infinitely impressed with the creativity and resourcefulness of those who crafted each piece by hand. These designs, be they funerary art, elaborately beaded hats, decorated baby carriers, or 7-foot tall human forms, all served a purpose beyond the ornamental.
Take, for example, the shaman’s stool that immediately caught my eye at Johnson’s home studio in Marina del Rey, Calif. The interesting shape and intricately carved legs clearly told a story. The substantial piece implied power and strength, not to mention literal weight, yet Johnson grabbed it with one hand and flung it over his shoulder to illustrate how a shaman would have carried it from village to village. Carved from a root, the sacred seat was remarkably light due to its need to be mobile.
The art also was a reflection of the events of a particular time. One standing sculpture of an ancestor is carved wearing a Dutch military uniform, a record of the Dutch colonial authority that crossed paths with a particular Dayak. A lighthearted nod to the native area, however, finds a monkey drinking from a coconut atop the ancestor’s head. The statue is carved of Ironwood, a hearty resource Johnson says is a primary reason so many of these pieces are so well-preserved.
Johnson says that while there still are tribes that live with the same philosophies and practices as the ancients, the goods he imports are those of their ancestors, not from modern day descendants or, naturally, forgers. He notes a reputable dealer will spot a fake 99% of the time and part of that assurance comes from cultivating relationships with trusted locals who know the business side of the trade and the regional languages, not to mention the varied tribal laws. “The clan owns things, the village owns things; there are a lot of levels,” Johnson says. “You want to be respectful.”
To help bring attention to authentic tribal art in general, Johnson was part of the group that founded Los Angeles Tribal, an organization whose mission is to promote authentic tribal art from varied regions, and also supported the founding of its sister organization, San Francisco Tribal.
Johnson says L.A. Tribal began more as an art group but has morphed into a community of specialists who now operate as colleagues and send potential clients to one another. Seems Johnson et al have taken a cue from the cultures they’ve long revered, working together for the betterment of the group as a whole, just as a good tribe should.