Call of the Wild

What made Tobias Schneebaum traverse the globe in search of cannibals, leaving everything behind except his sketch pad?.

The condition of Tobias Schneebaum’s scrapbook could make an archivist cringe. A brittle ARTnews clipping, dated April 1955, slips out: it was written by Fairfield Porter, who laments that the Maya-influenced paintings Schneebaum made in Chiapas don’t reflect the “omnipresence of death” in Mexican culture. In a yellowed New York Times review from some years later, Dore Ashton comments on the “devil-may-care” brushwork in Schneebaum’s new abstractions. There are realistic images: wrinkled sketches of jungles, villages, and tribal peoples in Borneo, Bali, the Congo, and especially Asmat, an area in West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the Indonesian part of New Guinea, which he first visited in 1973. His intricate drawings of ancestor poles, drums, shields, and other carvings of the Asmat people are considered so important to the study of their art that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has made facsimiles of 500 of them. It keeps them in pristine condition in its Goldwater Library, which is part of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.

One of Schneebaum’s many drawings of Asmat tribesmen.
Courtesy the artist

Schneebaum says that it was the 1961 disappearance of Rockefeller, whose catamaran overturned at the mouth of the Betsj River in Asmat, an area where cannibalistic peoples were known to live, that inspired him to go there. By then, the artist had already lived among cannibals and lived to tell about it. In 1955, as a 34-year-old painter in Peru on a Fulbright scholarship, Schneebaum disappeared in the jungle for so long that he was presumed dead. He had, in fact, made his way to a remote part of the Amazon, where he formed an intimate bond with members of a tribe who, one day, went to another village, killed many of the inhabitants, and cooked and ate parts of them. Schneebaum accepted a mouthful. The experience was the subject of his frank and elegant book Keep the River on Your Right, a cult classic that has been in print since its 1969 publication by Grove Press. He was so disturbed by what he had done, he said, that he soon after left the tribe without saying good-bye. He never thought he’d return.

But then, two young filmmakers, brother and sister David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, took Schneebaum on a journey of rediscovery. In 1999, at the age of 78, he found himself once again in Peru’s Madre de Dios region—and, incredibly, face to face with some of the same people he had known four decades before. “Until the last second, I didn’t want to go,” he says. “The minute I got there, I got over it. I loved watching them point out their families in the photographs I brought.” The Shapiros capture the encounter in their documentary on Schneebaum, also called Keep the River on Your Right. The film, opening in New York this month, and then nationally, has won numerous awards at film festivals in the United States and Europe. Coming on the heels of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, which alleges that Western anthropologists have misinterpreted and sometimes contributed to tribal violence in the Amazon, the film is sure to be caught up in the debate over innate versus learned behavior. And, because Schneebaum was sexually involved with men in several places he traveled, the subject of homosexuality among tribal peoples will likely be an issue as well.

The movie also raises a more personal question: why did this gay Jewish painter, a son of Polish immigrants, who grew up in Brooklyn and who once hoped to become a rabbi, spend a lifetime seeking out remote and sometimes dangerous tribes? In his four memoirs—the newest, Secret Places, is just out from the University of Wisconsin Press—Schneebaum suggests that he was trying to conquer the feeling that he didn’t fit in with his own culture. “I had thought the journeys necessary as inspiration for my painting,” he explains, “but with time I came to understand that it was the journey itself that fired me and that the canvases were not the ends but the means of nearing the source of my pleasures; I was always running from loneliness, rushing on to scrutinize the trails that led me deeper into myself, toward the wildness of the wild man.” Paradoxically, what he sought in the otherness that he encountered abroad was a kind of intimacy he was unable to find at home. When he encountered the tribe in Peru, “I shed my past as I did my clothes,” as he writes in Keep the River on Your Right. For a while, he thought he would never leave.

Schneebaum is hardly alone in projecting his fantasies onto the Indians, in equating primitivism with purity and acceptance of the outsider. It’s a theme that surfaces in literature ranging from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller (also about a Jew living with Indians in the Peruvian Amazon) to Peter Matthiessen’s novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, better known for the movie version featuring Tom Berenger as the Native American who seeks a new tribal identity in the jungle. Schneebaum, who repeated the experiment in several cultures but found his greatest and most lasting success in Asmat, had been approached by filmmakers over the years for the rights to his own story. But nothing worked out until the Shapiros turned up.

Born, like Schneebaum, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and educated, like Schneebaum, at Stuyvesant High School, the Shapiros also gravitated to the arts. David is a sculptor who shows at Chelsea’s LiebmanMagnan gallery; Laurie is a novelist whose first book, The Unexpected Salami, is being turned into a feature film. They originally went to Schneebaum with the idea of writing a screenplay based on Keep the River on Your Right. “But when we threw the camera up, we realized he was quite charismatic,” says David. “We felt, who could tell the story better than Tobias himself?” So they decided to make a documentary.

The film, which took six years to complete, begins in New York, with Schneebaum teaching a class of Barnard College students about Asmat art in the Met’s Rockefeller Wing. The Shapiros film him on a cruise to Indonesia, telling tourists about Indonesian art and culture (lecturing is one of his few sources of income). They include his appearances on television talk shows with Mike Douglas and Charlie Rose, discussing cannibalism. In Asmat, they record his touching encounter with a lover from two decades ago. And then they make their long and difficult journey into the heart of Peru.

Schneebaum, who turns 80 this month, is a slight man who comes off as shy, partly because he doesn’t stand up straight, and also because he has always been embarrassed about his looks. He seems earnest and wry, and a little wicked. He lives in a studio in Westbeth, an artists’ residence in the West Village, surrounded by a few of his own paintings and many artifacts, mostly from Asmat. He has necklaces made of human vertebrae; ancestor figures; daggers for ritual killings; teeth from dogs, pigs, and flying foxes; and several skulls, most of them decorated with seeds and cockatoo feathers, indicating that they belonged to esteemed figures. Only one skull comes from a victim of cannibalism. You can tell as much, Schneebaum points out, by the hole in the left temple made by a stone ax.

At Yaddo, the artist’s colony, where Schneebaum has been 18 times, he is something of a legend. He is the subject of “Toby’s Body,” a poem by Joan Murray that appeared in last month’s Paris Review. “He’s a secular holy man,” says the author Allan Gurganus, who
met Schneebaum at Yaddo and dedicated his book Plays Well with Others to the artist. “Tobias has the quality of your ideal Jewish uncle everyone wishes he had,” says Steven Watson, a cultural historian. “He has a sense of bemused, calm acceptance of everything. You know that literally he has seen everything. That makes a difference.”

Schneebaum was born in 1921 in a fifth-floor walk-up flat. His mother was a janitor who was back to shoveling coal the day after he was born; his father sold eggs from a pushcart on Avenue B. When he was four, the family moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Schneebaum’s father ran a candy store. His mother, beautiful and warm, died young of cancer. His father was cruel, remote, and prone to slapping Tobias and his brothers around. “Yet in the afternoon he would sit at the kitchen table,” Schneebaum recounts in his memoir Wild Man, “read the story in the Jewish Daily Forward, and weep in sympathy with the characters.”

Alienated and lonely, Schneebaum found art. “To pass the days and years, I turned the Hebrew alphabet into abstractions, sitting at the kitchen table, teaching myself to draw, learning to hide my fears and depression,” he writes. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the army and became a radar mechanic. Then he studied with Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, but didn’t like the way he taught. “He’d move his brush on the canvas, and it became a Tamayo,” Schneebaum says. Tamayo’s biggest influence on Schneebaum came when the young artist was thinking of going to Paris—and Tamayo convinced him to go to Mexico. After living in Mexico City, Schneebaum moved to Ajijic, a village on Lake Chapala, south of Guadalajara, where he stayed for three years, painting mostly figurative works influenced by pre-Columbian statues.

More influential still was his visit to the Lacandón Indians, a Maya people in eastern Chiapas. When he saw them, he recounts, he flashed back to his earliest memory: the Wild Man of Borneo, an attraction at Coney Island that had always fascinated him. “The intensity of that experience marked the path I would follow for the next fifty years,” he writes in Secret Places. “I became obsessed with looking for a people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality.”

He returned home and began working for his friend Floriano Vecchi at his silk-screen greeting-card company, Tiber Press. He moved into an East Village apartment next door to Norman Mailer; in the film, Mailer comments on how “out” Schneebaum was for the era, describing him as the “house homosexual.” Schneebaum made an accordion-shaped announcement for the engagement of Mailer and his wife-to-be Adele; when unfolded, it revealed a long penis.

After seeing photographs of Machu Picchu at the Museum of Modern Art, he got his Fulbright for Peru. He spent time with missionaries who were trying to convert the Indians. Then one day, a naked man with feathers stuck onto his face appeared, saying that his people had been attacked and murdered. “A force welled up inside me,” writes Schneebaum in Wild Man, “driving me toward those who had killed, giving me hope that the wild man existed among them.” Following the advice to “keep the river on your right,” he made his way through the jungle. When he found the tribe, he stayed—until the occurence of that unexpected incident that gave him nightmares for years.

Schneebaum made many sketches in the jungle (though he found that the Indians could make no sense whatsoever of his images). When he returned to New York in 1956, he started painting again—abstractions influenced by artists like Rothko, Noland, and Poons. He showed in the early 1950s at the Ganso Gallery, and when that closed, at Peridot. Over the years, his work was written up six times by this magazine. Critics commented as much on the exoticism of his themes as on his “deeply romantic strain,” as Lawrence Campbell put it in 1963. Between shows, he traveled. He went to Greece and Italy. He sat on a truck that took him from Tripoli in Libya to Faya Largeau in Chad. He crossed the Sahara, then went on to the Congo, Ethiopia, and Somalia. He spent two years crossing Asia, going from Istanbul to Singapore, then to Borneo and the Philippines. He particularly sought out peoples who had no prior contact with the West. And he soon learned that the safest method to show that he wasn’t a threat was to remove all of his clothing.

At home, he went around to gallery openings, to the Cedar Bar, and other artists’ haunts. “He had the allure of an adventurer,” says Dore Ashton. “Everyone was aware of that. He could tell stories. If you were in the room you’d gravitate to him because he was interesting.” To the Shapiros, he described the experience of showing his work to dealers as “like they were cutting strips of flesh off my body.” (As the film was getting long, the comment ended up on the cutting-room floor.) But Schneebaum’s decision, made about 15 years ago, to stop painting completely was less a result of his discomfort in the art world than his resistance to the limits of abstraction. “I wanted my work to be more accessible,” he says.

Meanwhile, in the ’70s, he became consumed with the artifacts the Asmat used in their rituals—paddles, drums, shields, figure carvings—which are always dedicated to someone who has recently died. (There is no word for “artist” in Asmat culture, Schneebaum notes, though carvers, with their spiritual duties, have the same high stature as a revered headhunter.) After meeting members of the Crosier Mission, an order of Roman Catholic priests and brothers who started the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in West Papua, Schneebaum went home to educate himself so that he could work on the project. He studied anthropology at Goddard College and cataloguing at the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Primitive Art (which has since become part of the Metropolitan Museum). When he returned to Indonesia, he traveled from village to village, trading tobacco and supplies for pieces for the museum. His sketches, photographs, and texts on Asmat art are considered among the most important pieces of scholarship in the field.

But he also knows that his very presence helps make the art he loves ever more inauthentic. Asmat carvers, he notes, often seek to replicate the style of objects he buys, in the hopes of future sales. So he often finds that later carvings lack what he calls the “illusive spiritual quality” of those made before Western contact.

This kind of impact—not to mention Schneebaum’s physical intimacy with the tribesmen—raises questions about whether it is ever possible for Westerners to interact with peoples like the Asmat without exploiting them. Or to understand their behavior enough to interpret it properly. These issues surface in Schneebaum’s writings, as well as in the Shapiros’ documentary—they film an anthropologist saying that Schneebaum overstates the presence of homosexuality as a natural state in tribal cultures.

The Shapiros are taking yet another look at Schneebaum’s biography now that their documentary’s success has revived interest in their idea for a feature film based on his life. Already at work on a screenplay, they have met with Schneebaum and the actor Liev Schreiber to discuss the possibility of his starring as the artist. If the exotic locales and more provocative aspects of Schneebaum’s story—sex, ritual murder, primitivism—have sparked Hollywood’s interest, dramatizing these elements in an ethnographically s
ensitive mann
r may be a challenge.

Meanwhile, Schneebaum has other projects. He has returned to figure drawing to help keep his Parkinson’s disease in check. “I hope to go back to painting in a few years, if I’m alive,” he says. What would he paint? “I would have to wait until my brush told me what it wants to do,” he says. “It’s the brush that decides.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.


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