Liberia, 1931-33: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk
Liberian Art Exhibition and Lecture, September 13, 2018 Fairview U. Art Museum
To discuss Alfred Tulk in perspective, one must first mention George Harley. We all have (or should have) in our libraries the works of Dr. George W. Harley: Notes on the Poro in Liberia and Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia. These two seminal studies by Harley are the basis of much of our present day knowledge of the Poro men’s secret society of West Africa and of masks and masking traditions in Liberia. Almost unobtainable in their original, an excellent hardcover facsimile reproduction was printed in 2001 as 200 numbered copies, some of which are still available.
Harley, a physician, anthropologist, and collector traveled to Liberia from Durham, N.C., in 1926, cutting his way through the bush when there were no roads. He established a clinic at Ganta in NE Liberia near the Guinea border (Mano country) and ministered to the needs of the people in the region for thirty-five years. Because of the trust placed in him by Poro initiates, and through his anthropological training at Harvard, he slowly accumulated an immense knowledge and deep insight into the otherwise impenetrable secrets of the Poro.
The American artist Alfred J. Tulk was Harley’s friend and old college roommate. He became noted as a muralist and later turned to abstract expressionism. He and his wife Ethel visited Harley for almost 2 years, from 1931-1933, staying with Harley’s family at the medical clinic at Ganta. During this time, Tulk journeyed extensively throughout this region, documenting his experiences with the material culture, art and rituals of early 20th c. Liberia, drawing and painting the natives and their secular and sacred rituals, and collecting masks, figures, and artifacts from mainly the Mano and Dan ethnic groups. Many of these objects went to the Peabody museum, and to public and private collections. Tulk carefully documented his experiences in his handwritten travel journal, chapter 9.
I became interested in Tulk when in 2001 I was able to obtain the Dan female figure that was presented to him by Paramount Chief Toweh in Toweh Town, Liberia. The presentation ceremony was documented in Tulk’s journal. Along with the figure was a copy of the journal typed from his handwrIting by his daughter Sheila. There is a handwritten label under the wooden base that states,”Collected in the Geh Country, Liberia, 1932, by Alfred Tulk. Property of Mr. and Mrs. F. Johnson. (Base added for stability).” Dr. Frederick Johnson was an anthropologist and Curator of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology in Andover, MA. I have edited and annotated Tulk’s Liberian journal (from the view of a Liberian art scholar, collector, and Poro men’s society specialist), and it will soon be published.
The upcoming exhibition at the Fairfield Museum is a welcome and overdue exposition of Tulk’s journey and his collecting, with a glimpse of Liberian art and culture in the early 1930s as seen through the eyes of an artist, as opposed to our customary readings from Harley and numerous other anthropologists, ethnographers, and scholars. I am looking forward to Christopher Steiner’s opening lecture, and to see some of the other materials collected by Tulk, as well as his drawings and paintings of the local people.
— Neil Carey