Attic stories: strangeness and charm with Ulrich Kortmann’s Oceanic art

Written by Tom | 20th March 2020

Continuing our dedicated seller series, where we profile some of our most inspiring sellers, we visited Ulrich Kortmann and his tribal art gallery – one of the only of its kind in Germany – to find out how Catawiki helped him continue his quest and passion for Oceanic art.

Grinning, carnivalesque faces gaze down from the walls, jostling for space next to spears lined up precariously along the room. On the right, intricately patterned boards hang in harmony next to beaked statues. Straight ahead lies a stone bowl containing all the essentials needed for a shamanic ritual. This might be Dortmund, but Ulrich Kortmann’s tribal art gallery is a far cry from the greyish industrial city most people come to know. 

In Ulrich's gallery, you'll find anything from animal sculptures to stacks of jagged spears and weaponry

“You find a bit of everything here”, says Ulrich cheerfully. “I work in Oceanic art, with a focus on Papua New Guinea. We do a little bit of African art too. And a little bit of southeastern Asian art also.” There’s a breathtaking number of objects and colours on display that would stop any passerby in their tracks. I mention this to Ulrich who laughs. “I think for somebody that’s never come into contact with New Guinea art, when they come into the gallery, they must probably think, how can somebody buy something like this? There’s an element of craziness to this art”, he chuckles.  

Ulrich brings a refreshingly self-aware and dry humour to the conversation about his collection. But sat down next to me on the sofa, surrounded by his collection, there’s a gentleness that comes through as he motions to the various pieces around the gallery. “It’s definitely a niche. But for me it was love at first sight”. 

The collector

Born and raised in Germany, it was his wanderlust that first introduced him to the art of Papua New Guinea. “It was coincidental actually”, explains Ulrich. “I was travelling all over until I came to New Guinea in 1983. I was in the West Papua area, in what now belongs to Indonesia. While I was there, the locals offered me some carvings and I thought they were incredible. So I bought a few. And it just continued like that, until suddenly I had more than I could carry around as a traveller. In the end I had to build a wooden crate in a coastal town across the border in Papua New Guinea. I shipped it home and sold it all to one man”.

A spontaneous purchase ignited Ulrich's love for tribal art – he's been collecting since 1983

Ulrich was, at this point, quite a prolific traveller, having visited everywhere from Afghanistan to India. But he’d never been particularly fond of art until he got to Papua New Guinea. “I had never bought any kind of art and then I came across these beautiful carvings, which cost absolutely nothing too. They were something I’d never seen before”. I ask him that in some way, was this arguably the very beginning of his career? “Yes and no”, he says candidly. “I had wanted to start a business to fund my travels. I would travel for work but back in those days, you could work for one month and travel for one year. The old hippie days!”. 

Deciphering the faces of the many masks and statues highlights the fantastical nature of the artwork on show

Ulrich’s backstory is undeniably adventurous. His visits to Papua New Guinea usually lasted a month and he’s been 23 times, one of which involved him being held hostage by bandits; an experience he describes in words more akin to those used to describe a dull weeknight. “I lived with the indigenous people in the villages”, he recalls. “I can’t do it anymore because of my age and health. But I enjoyed staying with them and that’s one of the reasons I started this business. I loved being with the people, living with them in their villages and eating their food. Even though I’d travelled, this was totally different. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was slowly slipping into a pattern of looking for the undiscovered”. 

Oceanic art

There’s a hammering in the back room. I wander past stony-faced statues into the workshop. It’s here I find Ulrich’s team, cleaning and photographing a large earthen mask, complete with bulbous eyes and jagged teeth. 

This jagged-toothed mask is one of the many pieces Ulrich's sells on Catawiki

“Oceanic art is too strange for most people”, Ulrich says nonchalantly. He beckons me back to the main room, pointing to a tall board-like piece, complete with what looks like a nose and a body with markings carved into it. “What is that to you?” I’m stumped. My honest opinion is some kind of fantastical creature hailing from Pan’s Labyrinth. But in a bid to preserve some element of expertise and respect after having already wrongly guessed a bird sculpture as a whale, I go with the safe bet of a type of bird. Ulrich seems satisfied but leaves me with little clue as to what the object is. “It’s extremely strange”, he says happily. “It’s an anthropomorphic piece. Look at that crocodile hanging on the wall too – it’s both a crocodile and a human”. He spins around pointing back to the whale-turned-bird piece. “You’ll find birds in much of their artwork too. They’re important as they’re totem animals”. 

Art is functional in Papua New Guinea – they're even used to adorn yams in ceremonies

Spirituality and functionality are a big part of Oceanic art. Unlike in Western art which is often appraised from afar, Oceanic art is meant to be used, explains Ulrich. “For them it’s not art. It’s made to fulfill a certain purpose. In Papua, ‘art’ is utilitarian and ceremonial: think bows, weapons, shields. Masks and figures serve the same purpose as the idols we find in our churches. Take the Azmat masks, which are a part of big costumes and used for ceremonial dancing. They’re also masks for yams. And they put them on yams because they’re considered to be reborn ancestors.” He looks at me as I try to picture these mask-wearing vegetables. “To really appreciate this art, you need to be there”. 

Moving online

Ulrich is the owner of one of the only tribal art galleries in Germany. “There are other collectors in Germany”, he says. “But no dealers.” I ask him how many pieces he’s collected by now. He pauses. “Several thousand.” It’s quite a feat and the gallery is evidence of his enduring passion. While collecting and displaying these items is quite impressive, it’s online where he makes his money. “Most of my buyers are from outside of Germany. When I started selling online on Catawiki, I wasn’t even aware there were private collectors at all. I heard about Catawiki from a friend in Belgium and we’re really quite happy with the results. We’ve been selling at least 10-20 pieces a month and we’re starting to sell more. Collectors can’t survive anymore unless they move online”. 

Catawiki helped introduce Ulrich to a fellow community of tribal art lovers and collectors

“But the beauty of Catawiki”, he says, “is finding a community of fellow tribal art lovers”. Still, there’s no pattern as to what people will like. “Often the things I don’t like sell the best”, he laughs. “You can sell a beautiful authentic mask for nothing, and then something that’s far less special can go for way more. It’s unpredictable!” 

Back home

These days, Ulrich says he’s happy to stay put in Germany, even if there’s a certain draw to heading back to Papua New Guinea. There’s work to be done at home to keep authentic tribal art around, which is becoming increasingly rare. “It’s becoming harder to find high quality and authentic pieces.” He motions to a collection of spiral-shaped shells behind him. “These sell very well now as they used to be used as currency. Since the adoption of paper money in New Guinea though, they’re becoming rare. The shapes now aren’t particularly nice and they often have cracks in them. So these ones are real antiques”, he says proudly.

Ulrich is one of the very few remaining collectors outside of Oceania and museums. “When I began collecting, the locals made art for themselves. But that’s changed. Of course it’s sad, but why shouldn’t they change when the world around them is?”

As the tribal art world modernises, Ulrich is one of the few gatekeepers for it in Western Europe

I ask him, on the topic of change, how the art and his time abroad has affected him. “It changed me like it would change anybody. I formed a completely different view of my own society. The thing that people don’t tell you about culture shock is that it isn’t when you get there – it’s when you come back.”

Still, Ulrich has managed to bring back a large swathe of this branch of art and his gallery serves as a way to memorialise his time in New Guinea and all the feelings that came with it. “The gallery is just for me”, he says. “It’s not for money. It just makes me happy.”


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