More about tourist carvings

wood sculpture of head
wood sculpture of head

A few days ago someone sent pictures of this carved head to African_Arts, the Yahoo discussion group. She was asking for more information about the piece. (It reminds me of some masks that have been sent to the Mask Man.) One of the group’s members wrote the following answer, which I found very interesting, especially after just writing the previous post. Here it is.


I agree with everyone else that this is a tourist piece, but I don’t think it was actually made in the Virgin Islands.  It’s a type that turns up a lot in flea markets around the US (also on Ebay), and seems to have been widely-available in the late 50s and early 60s.  In any case, judging by the look of it and the wood these pieces are usually made of, I think the bust was probably manufactured in the Philippines or somewhere else in South-East Asia, both of which mass-produced a lot of “primitive-looking” carvings during that period to feed the U.S. “exotica” craze.  As a historian of material culture, I’ve got to admit I wish we knew more about the history of objects like this.  While they will never be worth much except as period pieces, they probably *do* have something to tell us about midcentury ideas of the “primitive” and global commercial networks, particularly those connected to tourism.  I think it’s pretty wild (and revealing), for instance, that such a piece would be marketed as an “authentic” souvenir of local culture in the Virgin Islands.  I’m sure we see similar things in Africa, Hawaii, you name it.  There’s quite a story there for some intrepid PhD candidate.  John Monroe       

African_Arts at Yahoo is a discussion group for anyone interested in African masks. Some of the members are collectors, dealers and academics who know a lot more about African tradition art than I. You can participate by going to there site at

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