Design & Decoration S02 ep9 : Maureen Zarember, Tambaran Polynesian Art, [New York]
Interview with Maureen Zarember
Zarember: The gallery is called Tamberam Gallery. In reality it is a men’s cold house in Papua
New Guinea and when I went there many years ago I was not allowed to enter because I’m a
woman and women were not to see any of the cultural material, ancestors. So when I came to New
York and finally opened a gallery, I opened my own Tamberam Gallery. This is called a yena and
it’s used in the yam ceremony. There would probably be two, a pair, and it would be used for
fertility, during the planting and after the harvesting. But for me this is a knockout piece or art. It
has to grab your attention, you have to look at an object and pick it up, look at the shape, the form,
who carved it, what does it mean, why was it carved for? Then the spirits of the ancestors that are
here will come to you.
Zarember: This is a raven rattle this had belonged to a Sharman and each Sharman in the north
west coast comes from … people and it rattles and it would have been danced in, no, I’m not going
to do the dance, another time, it’s possibly the most complex form of carving outside of New
Ireland, this is a frog telling the crouching man a story. It’s multiple uses and it’s part of the
paraphernalia that a Sharman would have. It depicts many faces, there’s two birds on this side,
there’s another face here and it’s beautifully executed, there are 16 known rattles of this size. This
was also exhibited in Burlington House in London in 1920.
Zarember: They were not created to be in a fancy show like this or in a museum. They were
protectors of the village. Some of them were communally owned, some of them were owned
individually, if a young man wanted a wife, he may go to a carver and tell him I want sturdy legs
to work hard in the fields, so they would carve a figure like that, many things were used in healing,
in birth, in death, that’s very fine for the anthropologists and for me I am only drawn to the art.
Zarember: Marchese Islands, every man owned a club, there was a lot of war-faring and raiding of
tribes and this is call and Oo-oo, oo-oo, it’s who, who? Oo-oo, it’s carved, it’s genus form it’s both
sides, beautifully carved, it’s acquired a beautiful patina. I had an amazing teacher called Mrs
O’Reilly in grade school. I collected feathers and rocks and lipstick cases and empty perfume
bottles but Mrs O’Reilly took me to the first museum where I saw American Indian headdress, war
shirt, I saw clubs, I saw some masks, these things were so powerful, I became very connected to
especially the masks first, especially from Papua New Guinea. This is a Fijian gun stock club, or a
head basher if you wish, both of these are. This one is not, this is a dance club, paddle, it’s called a
dance paddle, of absolutely, I you can put your camera on there you will see something absolutely
exquisite carving, very, very different from the crudeness of the Melanesia, Micronesia pieces.
This one’s beautifully inlaid and it’s a face, you can see it has eyes, a nose, a little tiny mouth
there, this is Solomon Islands and inlaid with mother-of-pearl shell.
Zarember: I opened a store on Madison Avenue, a very small shop, only New Guinea and some
Fijian clubs and things but I had exotic shell jewellery, like the whale tooth necklace over there.
That would attract a very small amount of people, later collectors came and they said you can’t
sell that stuff, you’ll never sell it. You need African, and they would give me small African
figurines to sell but my heart was in the colourful material from Papua New Guinea, or anything
shell, Fijian, Hawaiian, feather lays, it took me many years to find myself and my own eye and my
own expertise with African art. This is an incredible and large trumpet from the Mungbatu people,
this is a very old more than, certainly 19th Century tusk.
Zarember: Then you have a whale tooth necklace from Fiji. These are very rare and very
important, this one happens to be exceptional because of its’ long, the length of the carving on
each piece, so these were carved a long time ago and with very simple tools so it’s quite amazing
what they accomplished. Polynesia is so rare, you can hardly find it except weapons. New Guinea
art is becoming rare, Africa is a very big place, there are many, many carvers you can find still
beautiful African pieces. The box on the right is a Maori feather box, 18th Century, I just acquired
that from the Veratai collection, that was an enormous collection in France that was auctioned last
year. If you look at the underside, they have not finished carving it here, the owner would have
died and no one else would have touched that to re-carve it.
Zarember: I am a sculpture person, I’m a three dimensional person, I become bored with the
paintings and the paintings that I really, really do love are totally out of my reach.
Zarember: These are two pieces, they’re very famous pieces actually that I recently acquired from
an auction from a very famous collection, the Marcia & Sol Stanoff Collection, he was known for
his very small pieces. He never bought anything very large, he often carried them around in his
pocket and would pull something out
And use it as a conversation piece.
Zarember: Yes, he did, he’d say, I’ve just, do you want to see what I’ve just bought and he’d pull it
out and he probably had the greatest eye in the business as a collector. This is the top of a Congo
staff finial and you have a female seated cross legged, a male with a musical trumpet and then you
have a prisoner on the back with its arms tied and I am not an expert on the iconography of this,
but I brought these to the fair because of their refinement and their beauty. New Guinea art,
Melanesian art is different, it’s not refined, it’s rougher, cruder, it’s very, very aggressive and only
becomes more refined sometimes in the handling over hundreds of years it has, it acquires a patina.
I like to think that Melanesia and South Pacific art, including Australian aboriginal, is more
spiritual and above the earth, where I think of African art as being grounded. Grounded and the
work and the art is more used perhaps more widely within the village than the other areas. I’ve just
acquired this pair, they’re extremely rare, guru people from the Ivory Coast, there are very few
male and female pairs known, there is very little written on them but they’re sub-tribe to the
Bowlai people which most people are more familiar and they come from a very known collection
from France. The Ivory Coast are very fine carvers, can you see the patina and how, not the patou,
the patina, you see how refined this particular area of Africa are known for their figures, very
refined, very beautiful, very realistic figures. A woman is always a little more rounder as they are
in Africa, you can see how young she is, you’re going to ask me how, why is she young, you can
No, you’ve got it, you’ve got it
Zarember: 1920’s in Paris when the artists were looking for something exciting, something
different, they started to collect New Ireland, African, Oceania, Polynesia, they were looking for
something new and this art that we call tribal art was it.
Zarember: Up on the left is a Congo mask, a yambee painted black with white colon. None of my
material comes from these countries, I buy from old collections, I buy from dealers in Europe, used
to be London, the auction houses, Christies, Sotheby’s, I’ve never been to Africa. I would like to
have seen it 100 years ago and so I buy art, that’s what I buy, that it comes from Africa if it comes
from Polynesia, or New Guinea, I don’t care, it’s what talks to me and it’s what I love and it’s what
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Maureen Zarember, Tambaran Polynesian Art, New York