An artist’s journey: Alfred Tulk’s African sojourn inspires Fairfield exhibition
At the beginning, Albert J. Tulk took to his canvas with a historian’s eye. His faithful renditions of everyday life in Liberia some 90 years ago were as painterly as they were precise. As his time there lengthened, his style shifted with his paintings and drawings gaining greater life and movement.
“In his diary, he talks about that,” says Christopher Steiner, a professor of art history and anthropology at Connecticut College. “When he got to Liberia, his style is more ethnographic. He is trying to document the people and what they are doing and how he saw them. But, he became frustrated with that approach … and has to move beyond representation to show how the African influence has affected him on a deeper level.”
It is the artist’s journey to that West African country and what he brought back with him, figuratively and literally, that informs a new exhibition curated by Steiner that opens this month at the Fairfield University Art Museum. As much as the show is a chapter in Tulk’s life, “Liberia, 1931-33: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk,” it also prompts discussion about African art’s influence on Western art, as well as how the former has been perceived as an artistic tradition.
Tulk, a longtime resident of Fairfield County, worked and lived with his family in Stamford from the 1930s to the 1960s, later settling in North Haven. He remained there until his death at 86 in 1988. A graduate of Yale University, he was a well-known muralist who created hundreds of works from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, he added to his legacy with multiple landscapes, abstract paintings and portraits.
From 1931 to 1933, Tulk, his wife and two sons, joined his friend and fellow Yale alum Dr. George W. Harley and his family, in the village of Ganta in northeast Liberia, where Harley had earlier set up a medical Methodist missionary. While there, Harley learned about the healing practices and beliefs of the local people, the Dan/Gio and Mano ethnic groups. As part of that inquiry, he began collecting indigenous art pieces and other items that would become a significant collection of Liberian masks and artifacts. It is owned today by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
It was Harley’s work that led Steiner to Tulk. Steiner, who has extensively studied traditional and contemporary arts of Africa, and teaches that subject at Connecticut College, delved into Tulk’s work and collection while working on a book about Harley’s acquisitions. This will be the first time that Tulk’s work is seen together with objects he collected, which included masks, statues, jewelry, musical instruments and household items.
The show features 21 items on loan Tulk brought back from Africa that later were acquired by institutions and collectors. There are more than a dozen paintings, drawings and sculpture he did while in Africa, as well as his dairy and field photographs, loaned to the show by his daughter Sheila Tulk Payne.
“Tulk had this sense, his notion of what authentic African art was and he definitely had a good eye,” Steiner says. “The female figure we are borrowing from Harvard, in my estimation, is one of the 10 most important works of African art, period.”
Tulk’s gravitation toward certain objects are revealed in the pages of his diary. Overall, he had given himself the permission to respond to what he was seeing with a “living aesthetic reaction … rather than realism in the bibliographic sense,” and let emotion be his guide. He was following a line of other artists who had been influenced by African art, including Picasso and Matisse some 25 years earlier. The abstract forms and shapes informed and inspired their work, even if they did not necessarily have a strong, ethnological connection to their origin.
“Tulk had an interest in the art and took a more anthropological approach,” Steiner says, noting that his diary records instances when he sees objects as more “authentic,” rather than those made for tourists. There are examples of each in the show.
Steiner surmises that Tulk and Harley, who remained lifelong friends (Harley died in the 1960s), influenced one another in their observations and reactions to the art and artifacts they were discovering during their trip.
“They were kind of the perfect team,” says Steiner, who envisions a young Tulk opening Harley’s eyes to the aesthetics and a young Harley helping Tulk to see the ethnological and anthropological import of the works. It was, in effect, a microcosm of the way African art is seen and displayed by Western museums, galleries and other art and anthropological institutions. Is it art or artifact?
“We wanted to appreciate the art and beauty of these aesthetic objects and keep in mind these were often functional or religious objects,” Steiner says. Depending on the institution and its mission, African objects may be celebrated for their beauty and aesthetic, or their cultural and anthropological context, he adds.
The Fairfield University show adds a whole other dimension. Tulk is an observer of objects and the way they are used, duly noted in his diary and through sketches and photographs. But he ultimately channels the experience through his own lens, creating artifacts of his own, the paintings and drawings of the scenes he witnessed.
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