That’s how I described the Tribal Arts show in San Francisco to Mike and Margaret when I invited them.
I went once before with Jill, six or seven years ago, but have such vivid memories I’ve wanted to go back ever since.
Because of Jill’s condition she and I had made careful plans and decided we would stay 90 minutes. Just ninety minutes. A dear friend, Jill Cherneff was a cultural anthropologist—she did her fieldwork in the Philippines and was an inveterate collector—so tribal arts, or Tribal Arts, was right up her alley. She was already struggling with ALS…I had purchased soy yogurt and Ensure before picking her up at SFO. Her walking was a bit slow, and eating and talking were also a problem, but we had decided to forget about sickness for a while and just have fun for 90 minutes.
We were both having so much fun we stayed four hours.
How did we manage that? No idea, since this weekend Mike and Margaret and I—all three of us mostly healthy—were exhausted, if also enthralled, after our four hours at the Tribal Arts Show.
“I have a hard time seeing anything I don’t like,” said Mike, a painter, as we meandered through booths of ancient carvings.
There are dealers from Germany, Belgium, and Africa of course, and also many from closer to home. There were textiles, masks, and jewelry. Baskets. Religious objects. None of the flea market stuff that seems to come from a central warehouse, every single object here seems curated. And beautiful. There’s great people watching and people interacting. Everyone here sees the world through a very wide-angle lens.
“These are Ibeji twin figures from the Yoruba people of Nigeria,” said the dealer of the gorgeous twin wooden figures, dressed in one ornamented beaded tunic. “When someone dies, especially a twin, they make these little figures, and then care for them. Often the features will be worn because their faces are washed and they are so often handled.” No need to point out that these particular figures, maybe 8 inches high, are not worn at all.
Margaret and I stopped dead in front of Jewels booth. “I have everything that pertains to women,” the dealer said. The woman, who has studios in both Marrakesh and Santa Fe, has wooden kohl pots, eye make-up from 150 years ago, necklaces made from ancient hair Moroccan hair charms. I could happily swoop up, or wear, anything she has.
“What’s your name?” I asked after trying on four of her necklaces.
“Jewels.” Ah…Her name and the name of her gallery. Nothing here is quite what it might seem. What you think of as a religious object might in fact be a tool. A tool might be sacred.
I love it that these objects have passed through many hands and generations to be here. And I get to touch and even imagine owning them.
When Mike and Margaret return for another closer look at the Ibeji figures, we learn that someone else has fallen for them first.
You snooze, you lose, is clearly a rule that applies no matter where you are.