How to decorate with tribal art and antiques

Celebrate the bold beauty of tribal arts and discover how to introduce handcrafted antiques into your home

A century ago, artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were waking up to the bold beauty of tribal art. The artists and their friends were regular visitors to the Trocadéro Ethnography Museum in Paris. Here they would wander the dark galleries filled with African sculptures and carvings that arrived in the city in large numbers from the 1870s, after the French colonisation of sub-Saharan Africa.

For antique pieces with soul, handcrafted with skill and finesse, give in to the lure of tribal arts from far flung corners of the world with these seven decorating tips. 

 

1. For over a century, tribal art has enthralled artists and collectors intrigued by its energy and craftsmanship. Create a captivating corner in your living room with a rustic table arranged with intriguing tribal artefacts for a multi-textured display

Did you know that the symbolic antique mask (pictured under the table) once belonged to the Mende people in Sierra Leone? Around the age of 15, the young girls of the Mende village leave home and live together in the forest for several months. Here, they learn all the practical skills which they will need as adults - from farming and spinning, to childcare, medicine and moral values. Once their learning is complete, they return to the village as adults, clad in a special costume and one of these ornate masks.  

Walls painted in ‘Sudbury Yellow’ Estate Emulsion, £43.50 for 2.5l, Farrow & Ball. Feature wall papered in ‘Reeds’ in ‘Taupe’, £95 per roll, Zoffany. Antique console table, £745, I & JL Brown. On console table: antique ceremonial adze blade (part of a set of three), Papua New Guinea, late 19th-century or early 20th-century, £3,450, Peter Petrou; antique flacon (with beetle), £85, Maison Artefact; antique coral stone mask, Timor, South-East Asia, c1940, from £280, Cubbit Antiques; antique prestige miniature lidded basket ‘igiseke’, Tutsi tribe, Rwanda or Burundi, early 20th-century, £650, Clive Loveless; antique whalebone kotiate club, New Zealand, £9,900; antique Fijian presentation whale tooth ‘tabua’, from a selection, £1,800–£2,900, both The Jackson Collection at Nicholas Wells Antiques; small antique lidded basket, Lozi or Barotse, North-West Zambia, c late 19th-century, £650, Peter Petrou; ceramic shell, £24, Rockett St George; ‘Coast’ lamp, £85, House of Fraser; Ethiopian fertility necklace, £180; tribal beads (on lamp), £130, both Joss Graham; antique Oceanic mother-of-pearl necklace (on lamp), £1,250, The Jackson Collection at Nicholas Wells Antiques; ‘Kebaya’ mug, £12, Anthropologie. Under console table: decorative gourd, £40, Rockett St George; antique Chinese ginger pot, £50, Cubbit Antiques; antique Mende helmet mask, Sierra Leone, c1950, £8,600, Peter Petrou. Antique Dutch easy chair, De Ster, c1950, £3,200, Howe. On chair: ‘Maroq’ cotton throw, £90, Cox & Cox. On wall: antique wooden Ethiopian cross, from £105; round antique woodblock, £24, both Joss Graham; antique whalebone club – patu, £8,500, The Jackson Collection at Nicholas Wells Antiques.

 

2. A wooden ladder propped against the wall is a clever and eye-catching way of displaying your favourite fabrics, both old and new

Ladder, stylist’s own, find similar at All Things Brighton Beautiful. Fabrics (from top): ‘Festival Stripe Embroidery’, £125 per m, Mulberry Home; woven cotton wrap ‘Bidang’, Borneo, c1950, £395, Joss Graham; ‘Bernwood’ in ‘Citrus’, £76 per m, Sanderson; embroidered ‘Raplia’ panel, DR Congo, £220; woven cotton ikat textile, Indonesia, 20th-century, £450; woven cotton women’s wrap, Ivory Coast, c1950, £800, all Joss Graham. ‘Cactus’ planter, £20, House of Fraser. Antique confit pot, £149, Cubbit Antiques. ‘Geo’ basket, £25, Olli Ella. Plants, from £3, Ikea. On wall: antique Tongan club, 18th-century, from a private collection; antique New Caledonian club, £3,900, both The Jackson Collection at Nicholas Wells Antiques.

 

3. Arranging a selection of woven straw baskets together creates wall art with impact. Team them with an oversized circular woven pendant above the dining table to create a cosy, intimate atmosphere

Walls papered in ‘Drift Texture’ in ‘Biscuit’, £50 per roll, Harlequin. Antique dining table, £4,774, I & JL Brown. Antique French metal chairs, £1,500 (set of six), Puckhaber. Antique Chinese stools, £120 each, Orchid. Cushions (from left): ikat cushion, £47.50, Bohzaar; blue cushion made in ‘Lady Mendl BK’ in ‘Indigo’, $78 (approx £60) per yard, Robert Allen; cushion (just seen) made in ‘Aucuba’ fabric in ‘Paprika/Ochre’, £67 per m, Harlequin; cushion made in ‘Fleur Raffia’ in ‘Indigo’, $230 (approx £177) per yard, Beacon Hill. Cotton waffle throw in ‘Mustard’, £65, Cox & Cox. On table: runner made in ‘Boho Flowers’ in ‘Magenta/Multi’, £104 per m, Sanderson; large white antique French plates, £45 each, Maison Artefact; yellow side plates, £25 each, Nimmo & Spooner; patterned ‘Adele’ plates, £24 each, Anthropologie; blue Antibes vase, £55, I & JL Brown; antique yellow confit pots, £50 each, Puckhaber; tall Kikapu basket vase, Swaziland, £90; Namibian straw bowl, £265 (for set of three), both Raj Tent Club; antique wooden bowl, Ethiopian, £55; silver lassi cup, £48, both Joss Graham; large confit jar, £149, Cubbit Antiques; cutlery, find similar at RE. Yellow dipped belly basket (on floor), £29, Olli Ella. Plants, from £15, Ikea. On walls: Batonga straw platters (below and far right), from £40 each, Raj Tent Club; ‘Kamina’ orange tray (in middle), £30, House of Fraser. ‘Croft’ pendant shade, £85, John Lewis.

 

4. Any surface can become a focal point – this grouping of woven baskets creates an intriguing display on the stairs

The beautifully crafted basket in the forefront of the above image comes from the Lozi people, who live on the Zambezi River floodplain. Woven from the root of the Makenge bush, the tribe use these strong and lightweight baskets to carry their possessions up to higher ground during the flood season.

On top step: Namibian straw bowl, £265 (for set of three), Raj Tent Club. On middle step (from left): antique miniature ceremonial bowl, ‘agakoko’, Tutsi tribe, c1900, £400; medium lidded basket, ‘igiseke’, Tutsi tribe, Rwanda or Burundi, early 20th-century, £800; large prestige lidded basket, Tutsi, Rwanda or Burundi, early 20th-century, £1,200, all Clive Loveless. On bottom step: antique lidded basket, Lozi or Barotse, North-West Zambia, c late 19th-century, £625, Peter Petrou. On wall: artisan wall hanging, £49, Rockett St George

 

5. Be confident when playing with scale – gather different elements of tribal art such as masks, cushions and baskets, and tie them together with a large, striking piece such as an antique hand-carved ladder

Wall papered in ‘Zardozi’ in ‘Rose Gold’, £100 per roll, Black Edition. Walls painted in ‘Shaded White’ Estate Emulsion, £43.50 for 2.5l, Farrow & Ball. Antique chair covered in ‘Sundance’, £95 per m, GP & J Baker. On chair: cushion made in ‘Orion’ in ‘Indigo’, £129 per m, GP & J Baker; antique handwoven cloth from Mali, £120, Raj Tent Club. Antique Kenyan stool, £625, Joss Graham. On stool: lassi cup, £48, Joss Graham; tall Kikapu basket vase, Swaziland, £130, Raj Tent Club; antique books, £120 for a bundle, Nimmo & Spooner. Antique Swedish doors, £550 for a pair, Maison Artefact. On wall (from left): Tribal Dan ‘Dean Gle’ mask, Ivory Coast, Liberia c1900, £850; female Songye Kifwebe mask, Congo, c1890, £550, both Robert Young Antiques; carved ritual mask, Fang tribe, Gabon, £120, Raj Tent Club. Antique ladder, Dogon tribe, Mali, c1890, £3,200, Robert Young Antiques. Plants, from £15, Ikea. Tasselled belly basket, £35, Olli Ella. ‘Ouazarzate’ wedding blanket (seen here as a rug), £380, Raj Tent Club. Blue tasselled cushion made in ‘Handira Stripe’ in ‘Indigo’, $490 (approx £379) per yard, Beacon Hill. ‘Safira’ cushion in ‘Orange’, £88, Anthropologie.

 

6. When putting together a collection, look for different textures and shapes, such as shiny mother of pearl, carved silver and bright red beading

Clockwise from bottom: antique Oceanic mother-of-pearl necklace, £1,250, The Jackson Collection at Nicholas Wells Antiques; antique Ethiopian silver ring, £65; hippo’s tooth and clamshell necklace, West Africa, £165; silver lip plugs, East Africa, £75 each; red and silver Ethiopian fertility necklace, £180, all Joss Graham. Bottle, £20; antique book, £120 for a bundle, both Nimmo & Spooner.

Another intriguing piece in this display is the stone 'Adze Blade' from New Guinea (bottom of image). Possession of such a piece provides status within a tribe, and stands at the centre of economic, social and ceremonial life. Shaped by striking with a hammer stone and then smoothing with sand and water, these highly prized stone blades were often presented to a partner in another village to form bonds of friendship.

 

7. Mix the earthy tones of your antique tribal fabrics with brighter colours including citrus, saffron and indigo, for an eye-catching colour scheme. Tropical plants bring the look up to date

Walls painted in ‘Sudbury Yellow’ Estate Emulsion, £43.50 for 2.5l, Farrow & Ball. Feature wall papered in ‘Reeds’ in ‘Taupe’, £95 per roll, Zoffany. ‘Burdock’ bed frame, ‘Contemporary Plain Texture’ in ‘Desert’, £545; pocket sprung mattress, £545, both Button & Sprung. On bed: ‘Indah’ pillowcases, £55 (for a set including double duvet cover), John Lewis; ‘Risa’ quilted bedspread, from £148, Anthropologie; orange cushion made in ‘Cupola’ in ‘Paprika’, £49 per m, Harlequin; grey cushion made in ‘Handira Stripe’ in ‘Ash’, $490 (approx £379) per yard, Beacon Hill; yellow cushion made in ‘Lunette’ in ‘Zest’, £52 per m, Harlequin; pink cushion made in ‘Palladio’ in ‘Framboise’, £79 per m, Manuel Canovas; antique red and black Khasa blanket, Niger Bend, c1940, £475, Joss Graham; yellow throw, £80, House of Fraser; embroidered throw made in ‘Shaftesbury’ in ‘Blue/Lovat’, £115 per m, Mulberry Home. On wall: antique handwoven cloth from Mali, £120, Raj Tent Club. Antique wooden Nigerian stool, £595, Joss Graham. On stool: beaded antique belt, South Africa, £180, Joss Graham; industrial antique lamp, £390, Nimmo & Spooner; postcards, stylist’s own. Straw pouffe, £60, Raj Tent Club. Orange dipped belly basket, £29, Olli Ella. Plants, from £15, Ikea. Antique books, £45 for a bundle, Maison Artefact. Antique wooden bowl, £250, Puckhaber.

 

The full feature on decorating with tribal antiques appeared in the July 2017 issue of Homes & Antiques. Back issues are still available. To purchase a copy click here.

Photographs: Katya De Grunwald 
Styling: Anna Malhomme De La Roche

 

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