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Ancient Futures and Neo-primitivism

TIM Poisson Cru

By Tim Hazell

Native art draws admiration for its universal appeal. To the sensitive eye, its aesthetic qualities may appear to exist independently from their milieu. This assumption does not account for critical standards indigenous peoples apply to the products of their craftsmanship. Much of the criteria used by healers and shamans to evaluate works such as sand paintings and masks developed as the growing uniqueness of their vocations set them apart from community life.

Neo-primitivism is limited to the conscious adaptations by sophisticated artists of authentic specimens of rustic and native craftsmanship. The first major artist to employ exotic patterns and motifs in his woodcuts and paintings was Paul Gauguin, and such works as his “Mahana No Atua,” painted during his stay in Tahiti, clearly reflect native influences. Examples of Polynesian manufacture, such as oars, arrows, and harpoons were collected by traders and shown at the Paris expositions of 1879 and 1889.

“Primitive” art, with its negation of progress, embodied the promise of new beginnings. The animistic philosophy of carvers who divined the spirit of wood and stone was expressed in the volumes and textures of their materials. German Expressionists were fascinated by the strange forms and anti-intellectualism of the images. French artists such as Matisse found a justification for abstract designs in their simplified geometry. Amedeo Modigliani came to Paris as a young painter in 1906 and succumbed to the enchantment of the Ivory Coast style that Picasso had adopted.

The elemental simplicity of Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture had its formative inspiration in the power of rustic art and bold innovations of the Fauves, dubbed “wild beasts” by their critics. Seminal works such as “Bird in Space” used bronze with such a high copper content that it approached the brilliance of gold. Like the Neo-primitives, Brancusi accepted his materials for what they were—marble for its polished smoothness and cast metal for structural versatility. Whatever the medium, the sculptor attempted to define its true nature.

Tribal artists demonstrated profound understanding of design, achieving true monumentality with simply articulated form. Native artists borrowed freely from other cultures in distant lands as trade between nations became increasingly sophisticated. Apart from their symbolic value, works that survive to fire our imaginations today are reflections of artists’ personal involvement with their materials and desires to manifest deep emotions.

Raw tuna marinated in coconut milk is a national symbol from Gauguin’s Tahitian paradise.

Poisson Cru a la Tahitienne

Serves 4 to 6



1 lb. very fresh tuna, diced in neat 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup lime juice

1/2 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup diced, peeled and seeded cucumber

4 to 5 scallions, green and white portions, split lengthwise and minced

1 small green or red chili, seeded and minced

Several tablespoons shredded coconut

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper

1 medium tomato, seeded and diced



Combine tuna, lime juice, coconut milk, cucumber, scallions, chili, coconut, salt, and pepper. Refrigerate one hour. Stir in tomato and serve immediately.



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