I have just returned from an eight month journey throughout Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, a large portion of which was spent among tribal peoples in Borneo and Irian Jaya, New Guinea. As I began to catch up on the events of the year in the metals world, one of the first articles I came upon was Bruce Metcalf’s column “Neo-primitive” in the Spring issue. (Metalsmith, “Recent Sightings”, Spring 1992, Volume 12, Number 2)
The article disturbed me, although I must say it has provoked some stimulating conversations which, I am sure was one of Bruce’s intentions. Despite Bruce’s acknowledgment that there are groups throughout the country whom he considers to be “involved in legitimate attempts to re-engage the spiritual aspect of life”, I find his overall tone with regard to this movement to be somewhat patronizing and, in certain instances, inaccurate. I also believe he is making light of what these “primitive” cultures do have to offer many of us. I am particularly sensitive to this subject because I consider some of my work to be “neo-primitive” and I also feel a strong personal affinity to other “neo-primitive” metalwork. Rather than reiterate the points already beautifully presented by Harlan Butt, (Metalsmith, “Letters”, Fall 1992, Volume 12, Number 4) I wish to address some other issues on neo-primitivism that make direct reference to experiences from my journey.
I have been drawn to these cultures and the objects they have created, my entire life, and although my art heroes/heroines range from Giotto to Jonathan Borofsky, the excitement and inspiration I derive from tribal art touches me on an entirely different level. This comes as least in part, I believe, from the spiritual intent with which they were created.
John Perreault, curator of the American Crafts Museum, made reference to this in his article, “Some Moving Points; Thoughts on the Art of Beth Ames Swartz”: “The spiritual aspect of art – which some of us believe is at the core of art-making and art-experiencing – has not yet regained its rightful centrality within the critical discourse… Yet if we look at art globally… it is certainly clear that a great many of the objects we admire, even covet, were created for spiritual purposes. We may not subscribe to the particulars of the belief systems that generated these artworks, but the power is there; what we experience is an energy that cannot be explained away by formal anthropological or political analysis.”
While many cultures also produce for tourists, this market work is, despite the fact that it employs similar imagery and materials, for me at least, devoid of this power. Something seems to happen when the artist’s intention shifts from one of spirit to money.
Clearly there were many points which Bruce made in the article which are well taken and with which I am in agreement. I also believe many people have misconceptions about the nature of these “primitive” societies and that it is simplistic to think that they are not also bound by complex codes of behavior. I also agree that for students to use this as an excuse to create poorly crafted works is a complete misunderstanding and incorrect observation of the objects created by these cultures. However, if l were to encounter either a student or friend who was operating under these misconceptions it seems far more beneficial to suggest ways they could enlighten themselves about what these cultures have to teach them, or I would question them more extensively about what it is that needs expression in their own life and art, rather than dismiss these misinformed searchers as “mall brats” or “the new generation of drop-outs”.
With reference to ritual, I disagree with Bruce’s suggestion that “An imaginary ritual…only proposes an escapist reverie”. Joseph Campbell writes in Reflections on the Art of Living, “Ritual concentrates your mind on the implications of what you are doing.” In my experience, the value of ritual, whether derived from a long tradition of a particular culture or invented by an individual to impart meaning to some aspect of her life, will be as significant or as insubstantial as the intention with which it is enacted.
Since my trip I have been re-evaluating my role as an artist/healer, particularly as a maker of intimate objects that are placed on the body. I also believe that the current spiritual awakening in this country is not a passing trend limited to a few quirky artists, but is instead a shift in thinking and awareness in people from diverse disciplines that is wide-ranging, profound and long term. I think it is extremely healthy for people to be questioning some of the values and limiting assumptions of Western society. The main reason I travel so much is that I am curious about how other peoples perceive reality and what they can teach me. To this end, whenever possible, I attempt to live among them and to learn their language, both literally and metaphorically.
We have made assumptions about what we consider to be “Truth”, in terms of our values and vision of ourselves in the world, that may be valid in the context of our society but may not be so tenable in other parts of the world. One need not travel to the other side of the planet to experience this. I am reminded of a time, on the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast, when a Muslim youth, Mohamad Abdullah Mohamad, said to me in complete innocence, “l understand that, in your country, time is money.”
While our society has obviously made remarkable strides in certain areas and has much to offer the world, it is also evident that we are vastly lacking in other equally important areas. By the same token, although it is absurd to glorify these cultures unconditionally, it is equally absurd to not recognize that they have many beliefs about life that could be of enormous value to us and are worthy of our respect.
Although I make no pretense of being an anthropological authority on the various tribes I have visited, I have had a chance to live, eat, speak, and even dance with communities (including Asmat cannibals), over extended periods of time, and I know that there is a great deal they can teach us about their attitudes toward nature, and the realm of the spirit, their sense of community and tradition, and the role of the artist in their societies.
Every culture has unique positive and negative aspects, strengths and weaknesses. The more I see of this planet, the more I am. moved by its extraordinary natural beauty and the overall kindness and generosity of the average person. For me, this exploration and respectful exchange is “Paradise on Earth”. Perhaps if we could see ourselves as more of a global community on this tiny speck in the universe and work together to integrate and appreciate the wisdom we each have to offer, instead of focusing on power, greed, and cultural chauvinism, we might all have more of a chance to savor this planet’s diverse magnificence.
Enid Kaplan is a jeweler, lecturer, and traveler residing in New York City.