Tobias Schneebaum

Artist who went to live with cannibals
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The Independent Online

The death of Tobias Schneebaum was first reported in 1956. As a painter on a Fulbright fellowship he had hitchhiked from New York to Peru. His first stop was Machu Picchu, after which he rode an open-topped truck from the Andes to the Amazon, on a search for a Stone Age tribe. When he was officially declared missing seven months later, the New York press lamented the death of a prominent Abstract Expressionist painter who had exhibited with Jackson Pollock. But Schneebaum was not dead. He had simply shed with relief the remnants of respectable Western life.

He was born Theodore Schneebaum, on New York's Lower East Side, in 1922, the son of an orthodox Jewish grocer from Poland. He later changed his name to Tobias. His Stone Age mission was set in place by a mesmerising image in Coney Island advertising a sideshow of "The Wild Man of Borneo". The tribal nature of his Jewish heritage appealed to Schneebaum but sat most uncomfortably with his homosexuality. He switched from rabbinical studies to studying art under the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo at the Brooklyn Museum. After army service during the Second World War, Schneebaum spent several years at an artists' colony in Mexico, journeying off into deep forests for his first encounters with remote tribes.

He later took a master's degree in anthropology, but never considered himself an "anthropologist". His tribal adventures were spurred by his search for a group who could embrace who he was, sexuality and all. Men and women of the Harakmbut tribe mated to create children, but otherwise slept in huts divided by gender. Schneebaum shaved his head, stripped off his clothes, and played and hunted and slept with them.

He had walked deep into the Amazon with no map, no equipment, wearing tennis shoes and following the instruction to "keep the river on your right". In 1969 that instruction became the title of his first book, in which he sought to exorcise some of the demons from that time in Peru. Most vividly he wrote of joining what he thought was a hunting party. It was a massacre. His friends raided the hut of a neighbouring tribe, slaughtered the men inside, and roasted their bodies on a celebratory fire. Schneebaum was whirled into their victory dance, forced to spear the side of one of the dead, then eat a slither of roasted human heart. The experience broke the spell of that particular stay. Schneebaum left his tribe and walked from the jungle, naked and painted. Body painting and scarification left the New York art world seeming relatively shallow. He refocused his painting into illustrations of tribal art.

A museum display of Michael Rockefeller's collection of Asmat art captivated him with its power and ferocity. Rockefeller had disappeared during an expedition to New Guinea in 1961, presumed eaten by the cannibals of Asmat. Such were Schneebaum's kind of people. In 1973 he travelled to Irian Jaya to pay them his first visit. Once again he placed himself at the heart of a tribe who embraced the concept of physical love between men. He wrote of this episode in Wild Man (1979), the title recalling that Coney Island poster of his childhood.

The Asmat became an annual focus of his life for 25 years. For 15 years he lectured on cruise ships to the region, and from 1973 to 1983 he was assistant to the curator of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats, Irian Jaya. The way the Asmat cared for their dying blood relatives became a model for his tireless work nursing Aids patients in New York through the 1980s and early 1990s.

From 1955 the Yaddo artists' colony, in Saratoga Springs, New York, was a regular creative haven for him. Where the Spirits Dwell (1988) rounded off the trilogy of his tribal times, and Secret Places (2000) brought the story to New York. He wrote several volumes on Asmat art and culture.

In the 1990s the film-makers Laura and David Shapiro visited Schneebaum in his Greenwich Village apartment, part of the Westbeth artists' co-operative. Light filtered in through a forest of green foliage, falling on a collection of skulls given to Schneebaum by his Asmat friends. For Schneebaum these skulls were the company of his ancestors, and his apartment was Irian Jaya on the Hudson.

From the grace and gentleness of his welcome visitors could glean something of how this white man strolled into the heartland of tribal warriors and was accepted as one of their own. Despite his three hip displacements and Parkinson's disease, Schneebaum was enticed by the Shapiros back to Indonesia and to the Amazon. Old tribal lovers were met, and some nightmares laid at last to rest. The resulting film, Keep the River on Your Right: a modern cannibal tale (2000), won several awards and Schneebaum received standing ovations from packed auditoria.

He has bequeathed his supreme collection of Asmat art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Martin Goodman