Not Lost in the Jungle: Tobias Schneebaum
Not Lost in the Jungle: Tobias Schneebaum
How to describe the life and accomplishments of Tobias Schneebaum? Many adjectives come to mind: artist, traveler, author, accidental ethnographer, lecturer, collector and art lover. In fact, all of these adjectives and more apply.
Tobias’ early years are a classic New York story. His observant Jewish parents’ families emigrated separately from eastern Poland and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. An arranged marriage brought forth Tobias and an older brother. His family then moved to Brooklyn with groups of extended family members who came and went. The family ran a grocery store and another brother was born. Tobias described his early years as “agonizing,” after losing his mother and suffering unpleasant and sometimes cruel treatment from his father.1 Tobias attended City College, studying math and art, and a few weeks before Pearl Harbor he joined the U.S. military. When he returned from the war, he continued his art studies at the Brooklyn Museum with Rufino Tamayo, which inspired him to travel to Mexico, where he soon met David Alfaro Siqueiros and his circle. By the 1950s, he had settled into painting in New York. Inspired by photos of Machu Picchu he had seen at the Museum of Modern Art, he applied for a Fulbright Fellowship, which he won. That award not only propelled him into one of the world’s jungles, but also changed the course of his life and brought him fame and notoriety. It began a life of many extraordinary encounters in remote areas of the world.
Tobias Schneebaum, 1991, photo by Robert Giard
An avid writer and diarist, Tobias published several books about each “episode” in his life. The first, Keep the River on Your Right, chronicles his now well-known time in 1956 during the Fulbright living in the Peruvian jungle with the Arakmbut people (a name he invented to protect their privacy). Literally disappearing, he was thought to be dead. The events of that period and his openly homosexual relationships are described in his book published in 1969—fittingly, the year of the Stonewall riots that began the gay liberation movement.
He traveled many places before the mid-1970s, when the pull of the Asmat gripped him for the remainder of his life. By his own account, Tobias “lived at least two lives: one in New York, the other in Asmat.”2 His first encounter with the art of the Asmat region was again at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In 1962, after the disappearance of Michael C. Rockefeller in then Dutch territory, the objects Michael had collected and commissioned for the Museum of Primitive Art—the institution his father, Nelson, had founded with René d’Harnoncourt, were on display in MoMA’s sculpture garden.3 Tobias was determined to go there and finally arrived in New Guinea and then in Asmat in 1973.4 As in many areas of the island, missionaries had settled and were the contact point for visitors. The Crosier missionaries from St. Cloud, Minnesota, were established there and had collected a large number of traditional sculptures. Tobias saw a way to return and remain for an extended period in Asmat by offering to study, draw and catalogue the objects by working as a volunteer at the museum in Agats. He returned to New York and was taught the basics of museum registration at the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Two years later, he was back in Asmat, where he prepared his exquisite, detailed ink drawings and information regarding the sculpture collections in the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress. His drawings and catalogue are published in Asmat Images.
Asmat culture has pulled colonials and outsiders toward it for many reasons. For those proselytizing Christianity, it was a place to attempt conversions. The island’s natural resources still lure outsiders today. Then there were those individuals who preferred living with peoples outside of their regimented urban places. In some ways, he brings to mind Paul Wirz, a self-described “man of nature” who preferred life in New Guinea rather than Basel. Like Tobias, he was interested in the way of life, art and culture of the peoples of the Pacific.
Tobias was not only a gifted artist, he was a determined photographer. Photography in this wet, damp region was not easy and many a camera was lost to the swirling muddy water. The photographs he took in Asmat are a unique record of the years he spent there and the people he so dearly loved.5 Tobias collected classic examples of the traditional art forms, most of which stayed in Agats, though a small number he kept near him in his Westbeth apartment until his death. These had direct personal meaning to him, usually because he knew the individual who carved it or to whom it belonged. Such is the case with the drum published here. According to a photograph taken by Tobias in 1983, he owned this drum and gave it a registration number of 188.8.131.52 The corresponding documentation indicates that the artist’s name was Anetakam and it was collected (presumably by the registration number) in 1975 in Atsj village. Drums with a narrow body, undecorated center and straight handle are one type found in this region, which Tobias called Area B. The openwork carving on both sides of the handle has what is called an “open clearing in the jungle” design, or was in the local language. This same was design is also found in the nearby village of Biwar Laut with abstract representations of hornbill heads.7 The relief carving designs along the length of the body of the drum are similar to those identified as snakes, amer, or centipedes, aseinokos. They terminate at either end in motifs that are possibly spirit hands (also seen on shields).8 As is typical on drums but often missing is the lizard skin tympanum stretched on the top. What is clear is the skill of the artist and the beauty of his soft and dynamic relief carvings. A similar drum from Atsj village by the artist Mbapon was collected by Jac Hoogerbrugge in 1970 and is in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin (inv. 50406).9
Tobias has left us, but treasured memories of his time among us and the events and encounters of the life he lived remain.
Tobias Schneebaum. Wild Man. New York. Viking Press, 1979.
———. Asmat Images from the Collection of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress. Agats. Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, 1985.
———. Secret Places. My Life in New York and New Guinea. Madison. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
1 The biographical details in this paragraph are taken from Schneebaum 1979: 2–23.
2 Schneebaum 2000: 15.
3 The number of sculptures and their size were too large to be displayed at one time at the Museum of Primitive Art, which comprised two townhouses, 13 & 15 West 54th Street, owned by Nelson A. Rockefeller. They were stored at the Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills until they were first seen in this memorial exhibition in MoMA’s garden which was/is visible from 54th Street.
4 Schneebaum 2000: 13.
5 During his lifetime, Tobias gave copies of his photographs to the then Photograph Study Collection, Dept. AAOA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to his wishes, a bequest of his journals and remaining notes and photographs relating to Asmat were also deposited there.
6 The photograph is catalogued as NG-5 ASMAT N-3 or PSC 2006.78.922 in the Photograph Study Collection, Dept. AAOA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
7 Schneebaum 1985: 122, fig. m, and page 186.
8 Ibid. 1985: 184, 186.
9 See the photograph by Tobias made in 1978, his negative COP-BERLIN Roll Y-14, catalogued as NG-5 ASMAT (ATSJ) N-2 or PSC 2006.78.921.