Meadows home acts as a tribute to rare tribal art

Nicole Silvertand's collection of rare tribal art is the cornerstone of her interior but she has combined it with comfortable furniture and a neutral colour palette.

Nicole's collection of tribal art is the cornerstone of her interior. Antonie Robertson / The National
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If there was ever a fire in her home in The Meadows, Dubai, Nicole Silvertand knows exactly what she would save first: her cat, and the priceless Bwa mask that takes pride of place over her television. As a long-time collector of tribal art, the Australian has a number of priceless pieces tastefully dotted around her home, but this particular item holds special significance.

Sourced from Burkina Faso's Bwa tribe, the wooden mask, a commanding piece with a conical mouth and outwardly projecting beak, has previously been displayed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The quality is beautiful," Silvertand points out. "It's also been featured in books and you can see that there are others around that have been done by the same hand."

A similar-looking mask can be found in Silvertand's dining room - but this is an owl mask from Burkina Faso's Nanuma tribe, traditionally used during fertility dances, hunting feasts and in honour of high priests.

Elsewhere, there are Kwele masks from Gabon - designed to represent spirits of the forest and traditionally used during initiation and mourning periods - Boa, Lega and Langola masks from Zaire, Sumatran Toraja figures carved out of bone and sat atop wooden staffs, a Gurunsi mask from Burkina Faso, Dogon Katenga and Malinke 'Bull' masks from Mali, and Asmat shields from South-west New Guinea.

There are also two extremely rare multi-faced masks, one of which is a Mitsogo helmet mask from Gabon, that are among Silvertand's favourite acquisitions. "I love multi-faced masks. I think they are very pretty. I've been trying to get more of them. I've been trying actively for years and I've only been able to get hold of two. Many collectors like them because they go with a lot of decors, but there were never that many made. You had to be the head of the village or a big chief to have something like that, so it's not like everyone in a village would have one. There are copies that you can get these days but a collector doesn't want a copy. They want the real thing."

Even to the untrained eye it is clear that this is a comprehensive and painstakingly-collated collection, put together over an extended period of time. But tribal art is not to everybody's tastes, Silvertand admits. "People either love it or hate it," she says.

The people at Dubai customs, for one, don't really get it. "I think they think I'm a nutter," Silvertand laughs. And although she doesn't generally have any problems getting her unusual treasures into the country, there was one noteworthy incident involving an ancient Ethiopian shield, which is now to be found lying inconspicuously on the coffee table in the centre of Silvertand's sitting room.

"They couldn't work out what it was. The guy I bought it from was an anthropologist, and it had belonged to his grandfather. And even they didn't know whether it was made from elephant or rhino skin. They knew it was a shield, made from an animal skin and it was well over 100 years old. But it caused all sorts of problems at customs. They tried to do tests on it and it took months to sort it out."

Because her art collection is the cornerstone of her interior, it would be easy for Silvertand's house to take on the cold, haughty ambience of a museum or gallery. Or, she could quite easily have fallen into the trap of overdoing the tribal theme and ending up with a safari-esque pastiche. Instead, she has created a warm, welcoming interior, where the art is an integral part of the design - rather than an inaccessible element that you are too scared to touch or get too close to. At the same time, it does not overwhelm.

Walls have been painted a soft cream colour and are complemented by cream carpeting. "The house originally just had tiles and they weren't great. I wanted to make the place feel really homely and it made a world of difference. It's the first thing everybody notices. As soon as they walk in they want to kick off their shoes."

Sofas are covered in Hebridean sheepskin throws and vases brimming with fresh flowers are to be found in every room.

Having founded her own bespoke leather company, Complete, which creates everything from high-quality corporate gifts to menus and in-room amenities for luxury hotels (recent clients have included the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, Fairmont The Palm, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray and Hyatt Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi), Silvertand, a former journalist and self-confessed "workaholic", is often to be found travelling to and from her factory in Vietnam (sometimes at very short notice) and visiting suppliers and clients around the globe. This, in turn, means that any time spent at home is to be treasured.

In fact, one of the reasons that she chose her Hattan-style villa in The Meadows is because it had a downstairs bedroom which could be converted into a home office but because of its ground floor location, would still enable her to introduce a level of separation between "work" and "home". "The fact that the office is downstairs makes such a difference. You can go upstairs and get that immediate separation," she says.

"I don't get to spend as much time here as I'd like to, so I want it to be nice. For me, a home is where you switch off; it should be your sanctuary. You should love being at home. I have to say, sometimes there's nothing nicer on the weekends than to actually just be in the house and not do very much at all."