ALTACO brings up topics for commentary from time to time. These are relevant issues that have been picked up on the internet, in the media, or from conversations. The public is invited to submit comments by email.


Included in the scope of this forum is comments to the book “IN THE SHAPE OF TRADITION: INDIGENOUS ART OF THE NORTHERN PHILIPPINES”, which is a published manifestation of ALTACO. The objective of discussing the book in this forum is to enrich our understanding of Luzon tribal art, and therefore constructive comments - be they positive or negative - are most welcome.




In her review of In the Shape... in Arts of Asia 1, 2011, Ana Maria Theresa P. Labrador forwards a proposal, namely that “…the Bontoc do not have a tradition of woodcarving especially anthropomorphic figures. So they do not have wooden figures that represent ancestors.” She mainly bases this on the fact that Jenks (1905) does not report finding wooden figures in the area, and a comparison between contemporary human figure representation in Sagada and Bontoc.


There is not nearly as much information available about Bontoc and Kankanay woodcarving as Ifugao woodcarving. Therefore Laborador’s comment can be seen as an interesting challenge to popular conception. Actually, it is never stated in In the Shape... that the anthropomorphic figure galgalawa-en (or tinagtagu) is made in Bontoc, but it states that figures collected in Bontoc allow us to draw conclusions on the stylistic treatment of the human body among the Bontoc. This is clearly not correct if all galgalawa-en collected in Bontoc are produced by the Kankanay (and even Ifugao). 


Specifically, the figures collected in Bontoc are figure 70 on page 94 and figure 77 on page 97. Figure 76 on page 97 also appears to have a connection with Bontoc, for example because the loincloth worn by it is red rather than blue. However, the slanted interface at the feet and pedestal of figures 76 and 77 is also present for figure 71b, which was collected in Kayan (Kankanay).


It should also be mentioned that D. E. Tolentino Jr. has recently surveyed the Bontoc area for galgalawa-en / tinagtagu, but could not find a single village that could remember ever having such figures.



ALTACO: In conclusion, Laborador may be correct that galgalawa-en and other anthropomorphic figures are not carved by the Bontoc. But this would also mean that the tangkil figure 569 on page 324 is Kankanay, as well as figures 577, 578 and 579 (from Barlig) on page 328. Furthermore, the apolog figure from Tucucan described on page 132 will then be based on an original figure from the Kankanay people.


However, examples of non anthropomorphic woodcarving that ALTACO yet attributes to Bontoc are shields, coffins, containers and bowls, such as figure 271 on page 177, also from Barlig. Photograph 62 on page 79 shows a Bontoc man carving a container.


The belief among some dealers and collectors is that the Bontoc traditionally carved rough and ungraceful anthropomorphic figures (tinagtagu), which have largely been ignored in the literature. Some confusion may have arisen due to the improper use of the word tinagtagu that refers to all figures in human shape, not only house guardians (galgalawa-en).


Another problem is that knowledge about the material culture has been forgotten to a great extent in many villages.


If it is correct that the Bontoc carved roughly hewn anthropomorphic figures, then it will be a problem to distinguish between roughly hewn Bontoc anthropomorphic figures, roughly hewn Kankanay anthropomorphic figures, and roughly hewn Kalanguya anthropomorphic figures. Well documented examples are required in order to establish a basis for comparison.



Some tribal art museums today are expressing a preference for exhibiting few singular artifacts instead of extensive general collections. The motivation behind this could be based on space limitation, however, more likely it is a trend. Museums compete for recognition, and the manner in which artifacts are presented is given more and more attention.

It boils down to weather a museum should be serving art or education. If the purpose of a tribal art museum is to enlighten the public about tribal culture, then it needs a large number of representative artifacts. An example of a museum that has accomplished this is the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. Here every square inch of available space is taken into use. The overall effect is most inspiring. Series of similar objects allow the visitor to discover aesthetic trends, divergences and regional differentiation. The same approach has been used very successfully by the publisher Thames and Hudson. 

The minimalist approach, on the other hand, would call for only the highest quality artifacts, displayed with plentiful empty space in between. Although the overall effect of this is impressive, it leaves the public with a less true picture of tribal culture. It also creates unrealistic expectations.

In tribal art the initiated may argue that more is more. The highest quality artifacts may be impressive, but they should supplement, not displace.


The collector’s interpretation of ”tribal art” is not the same as the anthropologist’s. It is not important which of these interpretations is the best; it is only important to identify, distinguish and be aware of the difference. 

The divergence in interpretation stems from a difference in reaction to tribal art’s assimilation to “modern” culture. Whereas modern anthropology accepts that mainstream industrialised culture has a legitimate role in influencing development of tribal art, the tribal art collector equates assimilation with degradation. 

For example, as an organisation representing the interests of traditionalists, ALTACO only considers unassimilated tribal art as being authentic. Picasso is applauded for being inspired by tribal art, while Tagiling is criticised for abandoning his roots. Watering down of tribal art is seen as something that perhaps will eventually result in a complete disappearance of tribal aesthetics.

To the tribal art collector, Russeau’s call for “back to nature” is music in one’s ears. However, with the realisation that most tribal people yearn for the same modern comforts that tribal art collectors enjoy daily, any notion of halting assimilation is ludicrous. Nevertheless, the tribal art collector’s love for tribal style has far reaching implications. The tribal art collector argues that with erosion of culture and art comes loss of identity, pacification and exploitation. A Philippine law states that all land over a certain incline belongs to the government. Most land in the Cordillera thus qualifies as government possession. Consequently, many a tribal warrior has joined the guerrillas out of sheer frustration. Preservation of tribal art will not give tribal people their land back. But, showing apreciation for unassimilated tribal art and indigenous culture is a way of showing solidarity with tribal people.

Tribal art is beautiful, skilfully crafted, and expressive. This can be said about much other art as well. But, what makes tribal art different is its intensity derived from being part of something ancient, supernatural, yet earthy - something worth preserving.


To feed demand for "antique" Luzon tribal art, a widespread cottage industry of dyers, waxers and pollishers has emerged, mostly producing innocent low price decorative pieces. With less and less authentic tribal art objects in circulation, some Philippines dealers are now supplementing their business with decorative oldish tribal art. There is nothing unethical about this as long as it is clear to the buyer what the true quality of the item is. However, particularly on the international market, what you pay for is not always what you get. 

Not all bad deals involve malicious intent from the seller's side. For example, some American and European dealers have had to widen their spectrum of tribal art to include cultures they are not always experts in, such as Luzon tribal art, leaving them susceptible to trading fake art in good faith. 

Unfortunately it is not possible to disclose here how one tells the difference between real and fake tribal art, since giving away the expertise would only inform unethical individuals producing fakes how to make even better fakes. However, by raising awareness about fakes, it is hoped that a positive effect in stemming the trend will be achieved.

In 1989 Alain Schoffel published an article about fakes from the Northern Philippines. He categorised five types collectors should take heed of:


Type 1. This antique tourist souvenier was advertised as a bulul on the internet, and was offered for USD3,900

Fake or real? This tangkil was bought at a high price from an Ifugao man living in Bontoc. It uses a very fine Ifugao spoon handle that would have easily been valued at over USD1,000 had it been left a spoon. Normally such a figure would be carefully attached by the counterfitter in order to hide the transformation. However, in this case the figure is only tied on roughly, leaving it obvious that it is a transformation.

It is well known that carved figures from Ifugao traditionally have been used on certain Lepanto artefacts. But, it is not known under what motivation this artefact came into being. 

1. Colonial and post colonial tourist objects. These objects are made by tribal artisans, but they do not adhere to traditional tribal forms, and are not made for use. Still, some items, such as early 1900 sculptures by Tagiling, fetch high prices.

2. Less than cunning copies of traditional objects. Demand for low price decorative traditional pieces has resulted in production of low quality replicas that are easily recognised.

Type 2 to 3. This tangkil replica is decorative, and only cost about USD50 in Baguio. Well made replicas fetch considerably more in the fakes market.

3. Cunning copies of traditional objects. Some makers of replicas have become so skillful that it is difficult to recognise the difference in style. Such replicas are then processed to obtain an old appearence in order to dupe the buyer.

Type 4. The duyu is traditionally round. This oval version is an innovation.

4. Non traditional objects. Tribal art designers come up with new ideas to attract buyers. They make beautifuly crafted objects, but it is not normally beauty alone that makes tribal art expensive.

Type 5. The plain shaft of an old spoon is thick enough to allow it to be recarved into a decorative figure, but invariably the resulting body has disproportionate narrow shoulders. The intent of the transformer is to mislead possible buyers into thinking the spoon is a fine rare object. Being of old wood, and showing signs of use, the ruse is sometimes successful.

5. Transformed objects. It is very easy to transform - or "improve" - objects, increasing their apparent value considerably. For this reason transformation is common. For example, by sewing on embroidery beads to an old textile, the value of the textile may easily triple. Clearly, weather the embroidery beads are new or old makes a big difference in this case. To some connoisseurs certain transformations - or "repairs" - may be acceptable while to others they are not. The subject is somewhat subjective.

Even though ALTACO does not accept type 1 through 4 objects on its web site, it is acknowledged that there is a market for them. What ALTACO considers to be unethical is to mislead buyers regarding the true status of objects. 


Traditional tribal art from Luzon occasionaly contain components consisting of skeletal parts of endangered species. This issue is of serious concern to ALTACO, and responsible behaviour to prevent exacerbation of this situation is urged.

The primary reasons for endangerment of wildlife in the tribal areas of Luzon are high population density, pressing economic circumstances, and the ease with which trapping and killing of animals now is possible. For example, residents of Paracelis described how the area was abuntant with wildlife at the time they migrated there in the 1950's as a result of a land grant. Today there is virtually no wildlife around Paracelis. Although the main purpose for killing wildlife is to provide food, the additional income attained from selling replicas of traditional artefacts can only be seen as a further incentive.

Beaks of hornbill birds and teeth of the cayman, as well as sculls from animals such as monkeys - when used on modern replicas - should not be aquired under any circumstance. Other animal parts from wild species, for example wild boar's tusks and deer's antlers, should also be avoided when used on modern replicas.

The fact that very little is being done to prevent the deplorable use of endangered animals for medical "remedies" in countries such as Japan and PRC should only strengthen our resolve to set a good example.


As a result of population and resource distributions there will nearly always be greater international demand than national demand for fine art that is internationally known. It has, therefore, been questioned if export of traditional tribal artefacts from Philippine soil should not be made unlawful in order to keep important cultural relics at home for the enjoyment of future Philippine generations? ALTACO opposes such proposals for two reasons:

  1. International access has not only resulted in higher demand for Philippine tribal artefacts, but also for information about Philippine tribal culture, creating a stronger market for publications and photographs, a factor that will help fund documentation of an important aspect of Philippine heritage, and increase awareness domestically and internationally.
  2. Sale of important family heirlooms was generally done to generate direly needed funds for education or medical treatment. An export ban would not have benefitted tribal people, since they would merely have received less for their belongings. 

It should also be noted that considerable important collections, both in private and public hands, fortunately, are still located in the Philippines today. 

The view of ALTACO is that restricting export of artefacts is counterproductive, and that promotion of tribal culture in the Philippines is the most effective means of ensuring that as much tribal art as possible remains in the country.


It has become increasingly difficult for museums to obtain important artefacts due to the rising costs of high quality items. ALTACO recognises that public access to view cultural relics is a basic right, and hopes to see museums increasing their role in collecting Luzon tribal art. Furthermore, ALTACO hopes that governments to a greater extent will offer sufficient incentives to encourage private and corporate entities into donating artefacts to museums. Better collaboration between private collectors and museums needs also to be established, so that collectors readily will be willing to lend artefacts to exhibitions, and all museums will be willing to borrow. Museums and collectors owe this to the public.

However, unless museums also obtain additional funding needed to provide exhibition space for their archived Luzon tribal art collections, the subject is rendered moot. The locations of the exhibition spaces is also an important consideration. A priority should be to locate museums in the tribal areas, a possibility that is being seriously considered by the National Museum of the Philippines. Unfortunately, due to the high cost of providing adequate security, this has not been possible to implement.

In spite of its support for public access, ALTACO is not opposed to the commercialisation of tribal art. This is because without high monitary value, many important tribal artefacts would have been destroyed. The best example of this is the Baptist missionary practice of burning objects associated with pagan culture. When it was discovered that these items could be sold for good money, the practice was virtually abolished. It is not many years ago that old textiles from the Cordillera were used to clean silver by lowlanders. Today these people are heard lamenting when they see the prices of similar textiles in antiques markets.


References regarding the subject of private collecting, and commercial "looting" of heritage are listed at the following site: The "Looting Question" Bibliography.

First of all, it is important to underline that regarding ALTACO the subject is limited to cultural heritage heirloom articles of museum quality. These are items that were once personal belongings of private individuals. This must not be confused with archaelogical items removed from public land. ALTACO does not include archaelogical items.

The opinion of ALTACO is that in an ideal world tribal heirlooms should remain with their associated tribal people. The next best thing is to establish museums for these items, preferably not far removed from the associated tribal areas. However, because the artefacts in question are personal belongings - not public property - it is market forces that decide where these items end up. ALTACO recognises the right of individuals to dispose of personal properties as they see fit.

Nevertheless, in the case of cultural heritage properties a certain responsibility is associated. A person owning a cultural heritage object should take responsibility for protecting such an object, so that future generations may also enjoy them. In other words, a collector of tribal art should be thought of as a person holding protective custody of artefacts that in turn will outlive the collector. Eventually important artefacts will be sold or donated to museums. In this way, the path from maker to museum is a long and winding path depending on mainstream commercial culture.




In the Philippines, if one uses the word “tribe” it is often described as incorrect. Opponents to the word refer to political organization, which they argue is a factor in terms of a group of people being or not being a tribe. However, the definition of the word "tribe" does not normally include reference to political organization, and the discussion therefore ends up being nothing but a manipulation of semantics.


So why is it really that academics are so sensitive to the use of this word in connection with the Philippines? To understand this, we have to go back in history over one hundred years, when the discussion was first brought up by David P. Barrows (who preferred the term “community” and Dean C. Worcester (who preferred the term “tribe”).


The word “tribe” had been widely used in connection with indigenous Americans. Barrows wanted to avoid a comparison between American tribes, and what he described as Philippine “communities”. On the other hand, Worcester wanted to take advantage of the experience the United States had gained dealing with American tribes, and applying it in the Philippines. He therefore favored using the word “tribe”.


History has come down hard on Dean C. Worcester, and in solidarity with Philippine emancipation from colonial rule, it has become taboo to use the word “tribe” in connection with Philippine ethnography. It can thus be said that it is politically incorrect to use the word “tribe”, but it is not linguistically incorrect.


For collectors it would be perfectly OK to substitute the word “tribe” with “community” in order to avoid being branded politically incorrect. The only problem is that nobody would understand what “community art” is.


There are many synonyms for “tribal art”:


- Primitive Art (not acceptable, because tribal people are not primitive)

- Ethnographic Art (not precise, because “ethnography” refers to writings about people, thus it is a very general term)

- Indigenous Art (not precise, because not all indigenous art is tribal, and because highland minorities are no more indigenous than lowland majorities)

- Minority Art (not precise, because not all minorities are tribal)

- Traditional Art (not precise, because not all traditional art is tribal)


On the other hand, when one uses the words “tribal art” everyone (who wants to) knows exactly what is meant.


Wikipedia states: Tribal art is an umbrella term used to describe artefacts and objects created by the indigenous peoples of (controversially named) primitive cultures. Also known as Ethnographic art, or Arts Primitive. Here the word “primitive” is described as controversial, but “tribal” is not.


Until convinced otherwise, ALTACO will continue to use the words "Tribal Art" and refer to a group of people producing this art as a "Tribe".