Aesthetics of Integrity in New Guinea Art Aesthetics of Integrity in New Guinea Art In my very first catalog in 2006 entitled "The Elegance of Menace: Aesthetics of New Guinea Art" I outlined six aesthetic criteria important in assessing the quality of New Guinea art. In this essay from the catalog of the following year, I wanted to continue to flesh out those characteristics that separate the great New Guinea art object from the merely good by suggesting one additional aesthetic quality for consideration. I call it the aesthetic of integrity. In reference to people, the term integrity refers to honesty and strength of character. It connotes forthrightness and being true to oneself. In the art of New Guinea certain pieces possess similar traits, where everything about the object, down to the smallest details of form, expression and surface are completely true to an object's function. This quality is often encountered in pre-contact pieces where objects are often free from any hint of decadence or any whiff of ulterior motive. In the hands of a gifted artist the sculptural form initially created will manifest this purity of intent. The aesthetic of integrity continues after the original work is composed and can be seen from the patina, the layers of pigment and the proper wear after generations of field use. That the object has spent extensive time in the field serving the needs of the people who made it suggests a cultural soundness and compatibility; it has been deemed worthy and appropriate by the culture that produced it. When a work of art has integrity everything about it seems right and correct, from the heft of it in hand to the smoothed surface where it was gripped. It is all those tangible elements showing that every line, curve, and volume fit the original composition while all the wear, patina, piercings, attachments and pigments confirm its long traditional use. Integrity can also be found in all the intangible qualities such as expression, character, and the sense of magical or spiritual weight, where the original animating presence is still vital, where the ancestral fire within still burns bright. When a work of New Guinea art has integrity, it does more than confirm our expectations, it redefines them. The honesty of the piece tells us more about the art, the culture and the people than we knew before. And this is what I hope you find with the following pieces, art that is not only beautiful but full of character and uncompromised aesthetic integrity. Sawos Suspension hook Sawos culture, Sepik Plains, 19th century or earlier, 38-1/2” in height, ex. Australian private collection, Mike Glad Collection Great pieces of new Guinea art have a presence and monumentality to them that cannot be washed away by either time or the elements. This suspension hook from the Sawos people living in the grassy plains north of the Sepik River was obviously a very important ritual object many generations ago. It is carved from a dense hardwood with stone and bone tools and has the detail and composition that only a master-carver could accomplish. Because of its elaborate form with hornbill birds, snakes and subsidiary ancestral faces I would assume the piece told a creation story of paramount importance to the village. But in the ensuing generations the object has fallen on hard times, probably due to the unrelenting missionary activity of the last 100 years. The sculpture now has a surface only acquired from decades of exposure to the weather after being either discarded or hidden in the bush, often against the tall buttress roots of giant trees. Such a carving relating a creation history in opposition to a Christian version would be a prime target for missionaries—there are obvious scars of defacing as well, leaving only the piercing eyes to convey the power of the presence living within. Luckily the strength of the wood and the skill of the carver enable us to still experience a piece of historical importance. Yangoru Boiken Figure West Yangoru area, border between Abelam and Yangoru Boiken, 19th century, 76” in height, collected by Dr. George Kennedy in early 1960s, ex. California private collection. Of course, the primary role of the ancestral spirits is the perpetuation of life. Their beneficence is bestowed upon those who observe their guidelines and taboos. Such rules create order and foster harmony within the human community. The ancestors influence the winds, the weather, the gardens, hunting and warfare. With their good graces their descendants live and prosper. One of the most apt forms to portray the ancestral spirits is the paired male and female couple. This solidifies in a clear visual manner the complementarity of the sexes, their dual roles and their inseparability in the continuance of life. That the male and female are represented joined at the groin only make this message the clearer. In this pre-contact, stone-carved figure the male and female ancestral spirits are portrayed with haunting, other-worldly expressions. It is important that representations of ancestral spirits are both like us and not like us. They must be basically human in form so that a personal one on one relationship is possible, but the spirit must also be no like us, in the sense that special, above normal, supernatural powers are not the realm of mortal beings and thus cannot be possessed by someone who looks like your neighbor. Thus, the figures in this sculpture have the basic human anatomy but the elements are anything but human. The torsos are thin and elongated, almost reptilian. The limbs are similarly attenuated and are contorted in impossible positions. The head is round but the facial plane is sunken. The eyes and mouth project out like they are on stalks. The chin is tucked in and the heads rest squarely on the torso without the hint of a neck. RupRup Island Male Figure RupRup Island, Schouten Islands, 19th century, 6” in height, Sam and Sharon Singer Collection The Schouten Islands that lie off Papua New Guinea’s north coast are home to some of the most prolific and skilled carvers in the country. Yet, figurative sculpture conclusively attribute to the islands is very, very rare. This little figure has a wonderful form with a torso that is wide in the front but very narrow from the side. The buttocks have great shape and support two stout legs. Unusual for Sepik figures are the distended earlobes—normally found on figurative sculpture well to the east down in Astrolabe Bay and the Huon Gulf. The surface patina of this figure is dark chocolate brown and very glossy from generations of reverence. Such figures were held by individual men and were associated with fishing and the sea. Bartle Bay Lime Spatula Wedau Village, Bartle Bay, Mainland Milne Bay Province, Massim culture, southeast Papua New Guinea, 19th century, 9-1/2” in height, ex. Australian private collection, Jolika Collection Most people familiar with Massim lime spatulas will have seen a very similar spatula to this in a line drawing published by Harry Beran in his book “Betel-chewing Equipment of East New Guinea” on page 25. Massim figures with this distinct elongated, almost snout-like, face have long been attributed to Bartle Bay and this particular lime spatula confirms such attribution. It is hard to imagine a more charmingly composed spatula than this. The figure sits quite casually and relaxed with arms draped over his knees. There is a gentle slope to the back and the over-large head sits squarely on the shoulders. The eyes are pinpoints centered in lime-filled circles, the nose is a raised ridge and show signs of having been pierced in the past (a detail found on only the oldest Massim lime spatulas). The mouth is filled with clearly defined teeth but the expression is more sheepish than threatening. Boiken Bone Comb Fragment Boiken culture, coastal Prince Alexander Mountains, 19th century, 7” in height, Jolika Collection This wonderful object is the top section of a Boiken culture bone comb. These are very rare objects with only a small handful known. Their exact function is a mystery excepting one still being used in the field as a healing object. The aesthetics of this piece are exceptional with a large smiling ancestral face carved in high relief on the surface of the undulating section of bone. The lines are clear and true, carved without hesitation by a master from long ago. The surface of the piece is a dark glossy brown and the patina is complete even over the long missing tines—suggesting many generations of usefulness after its ability to be used as a comb had been lost. Boiken Plate Boiken culture, coastal Prince Alexander Mountains, 19th century, 16-1/4” in diameter, Alan Grinnell Collection The round wood serving dishes of the Boiken speaking people are far from rare. Each household over a large geographic area traditionally had a number of these. Helen Dennett has personally taken rubbings of the carved motifs on the underside of over 1100 such plates. I have personally field collected over 300. While virtually all of these have some form of carved design very few make the leap from artifact to art object. I consider this one of the greatest of these plates because of its understated elegance. The classic frog design in the center is contained within the other classic motif—the star. The plate is pre-contact, having been carved with traditional non-metal tools. The composition is clear and done in confident high relief. On one side is a beaked-nosed ancestral face carved in the round. The patina is glossy over encrusted from generations of use. Kwanga Drum Kwanga culture, Nungwaia Village, 19th century, 39-5/8” in height, ex. American private collection, Jolika Collection Well to the south of the southern Abelam area known as the Wosera is a large village called Nungwaia. Figurative sculpture from this village is similar to Abelam in style but with subtle differences. The face of the ancestral spirits often have arched eyebrows and the figures have torsos with well-defined ribs. It is possible to see some of these traits in the pre-contact, stone-carved hand drum—one of the finest I have ever seen. The carving is extremely well executed with the clarity and confidence of a master artist. The surface is a golden brown with a glossy patina from generations of careful handling. Huon Gulf Bowl Umboi Island, Vitiaz Straits, Huon Gulf, 19th century, 20-1/2” in length, Sam & Sharon Singer Collection The wood food bowls of the Huon Gulf are found high in the rafters in most traditional households, from West New Britain, Umboi Island, Siassi Islands, Tami Island and the New Guinea mainland south of Finschhafen. Thus, these bowls are not rare. But of the thousands produced over the last few hundred years there are a few great ones. I submit this example as one of the best. The composition is elegant and straight forward with the classic ancestral spirit face wrapping around one end of the bowl with its traditional three-pronged headdress radiating out toward the other end. The carving of the face is clear and exact. The ridge of the nose is considerably raised and connects to the eyebrows, also carved in high relief. The nose is deeply pierced—a trait found on only the very oldest examples of Huon Gulf bowls. The mouth is filled with sharp menacing teeth, another characteristic of early Vitiaz Straits material. The surface patina is thick, black and glossy with traces of red and white pigments in the recesses of the flared edge along the length of the bowl. Boiken Mask Kubalia area, Boiken culture, Prince Alexander Mountains, 19th century, 22” in height, Sam and Sharon Singer Collection This old mask from the Boiken culture fully exemplifies the aesthetic of integrity I have been attempting to define in this essay. The form is archaic with an extremely long nose that curves down and in. The facial plane is sunken, the mouth slightly open and the eyes wizened. The carving style is clear, confident but with the rough-hewn quality from using stone tools. There is a kaleidoscope of colors and pigments in many layers suggesting a long and successful ritual life. The reverse has an ancient patina over a dimpled surface of pre-contact adze marks. From the shape and the composition down to the patina and the pigments, all combine to produce an elegant, refined but extremely archaic piece of New Guinea art. Coastal Sepik Mask Coastal Sepik area, 19th century, 10” in height, ex. Sydney collection, Sam and Sharon Singer Collection Some masks from the Sepik basin have long ritual lives well after their time of being danced has passed. I have seen similar small, hardwood masks with aged brown patinas that were kept on personal shrines; their essence was considered so powerful that the residue from washing them or tiny scrapings taken from the inside could spiritually supercharge any magical undertaking. Such is the case with this mask whose dark black aged patina can be found inside the holes around the perimeter and in recesses underneath some of the carved details. The eyes slant towards the back but bulge out to the front, the nostrils have multiple piercings, and the mouth is agape in readiness. The smooth elegant lines with a glossy brown patina combine to create a masterpiece of Sepik art. Massim Praying Mantis Lime Spatula Wedau Village, East Cape area, Massim culture, 19th century, 12 ½” in height, ex. Australian private collection, Jolika Collection One of the categories Harry Beran enumerates in his book “Betel-chewing Equipment of North East New Guinea” is of Massim lime spatulas with animal or insect motifs. The present example has a large, wonderfully composed praying mantis figure with bent arms resting on its knees. The figure has a long beaked nose that arches down all the way to its feet. The limbs are fine and attached to the underside of the beak. There is a very fine surface detail worn smooth with an overall black, glossy patina. Vokeo Island Lewa Mask Vokeo Island, Schouten Islands, 19th century, 14 ¼” in height, Mike Glad Collection The masks from Vokeo Island come in two distinct types—the male with a long, curved nose and the female, such as this one, with a short nose and a round scroll nose piece through the nostrils. They are both called lewa and represent tangbal ancestral spirits. I had this particular mask in my private collection for over a decade because it is a beautiful example and one of the oldest I have ever seen. The carving is deep and clear but with an aged smoothness to it. The nose is robust, the mouth pursed and there is a raised ridge coming down from the ears under the nose. The patina is thick and black over layers of traditional pigments—hints of blue, white, red and orange are visible upon close inspection. The reverse of the mask is unbelievable with all the ancient irregularities and smoothness covered by a thick glossy black patina one would expect of a pre-contact piece.