Describing The Aesthetic of Age in Relation to Evaluating New Guinea Art Age There are many reasons why there is almost a fanatical insistence on age when evaluating New Guinea art. First among these is the issue of authenticity. While the topic of authenticity gets batted around in academic circles as an outdated and vague concept; within the harsh reality of the marketplace it is a clear-cut and essential factor. Authenticity boils down to artistic intention. Whether an artist makes a piece to sell to a hapless tourist or undertakes to carve a figure that brings to life an ancestral spirit are two drastically different intentions. And these two enormously different intentions often correspond to two dramatically different artistic results. The first will probably produce a lifeless wood carving that may be technically proficient and decorative but will be lacking the essential soul that elevates an artifact into a piece of art. Although not all pre-contact pieces have artistic strength and merit, there is a better chance of this, when the intentions are pure and exalted, that the artist can achieve an inspired and memorable piece--one so imbued with the strength and power of the ancestors, both benevolent and malevolent, that this intensity of purpose can be felt in its unwavering gaze. Let’s start with this powerful Abelam female ancestral spirit figure with a boldness and strength of carving only seen in the best and oldest examples of New Guinea art. The forms are well articulated with the arms, legs and torso cut free from the original piece of wood. While in Abelam art paint was often the magical element that animated the figure; it is somewhat of a paradox that the older carvings rely less on the pigments to communicate line and form. The more recent generations of Abelam figurative sculpture are stiffer with the limbs often not cut free from the trunk. With these, paint is brought into the service of delineating form, replacing the hard work of the carver's adze. The body is compact, and the limbs are stout giving the piece a sense of power and stability. This is not surprising given that such figures not just represented ancestral spirits, nggwalndu, but actually manifested these all-powerful beings. Nggwalndu, "father's father’s man" were the revered ancestors that ensured the well-being of both the gardens and the bush, of the individual and family, of the clan and the village. Owned by individual clans the nggwalndu served as patrons who would bestow his/her benevolence only when shown the proper respect. Kept in the cool darkness of the ceremonial houses, the figure's visual presence had to both awe and inspire their earthbound owners into abiding the will of the ancestors. As with all older, pre-contact pieces of Abelam figurative sculpture the ears and nasal septum have been pierced where string decorations would have been attached--such piercings were essential components of any living, functioning member of Abelam society. And as the culture has changed over the last three generations and these figures became less and less alive and vital to Abelam society it is the lack of these piercings that has been the clearest indication of this loss. The figure has been wrought from a dense hardwood because the piece was meant to last generations in a tropical environment where erosion and insects can turn to mulch a medium density wood in a few years. While the stance of the figure with the legs squatting and the arms flexed suggests power and action; the face has a calm and serene expression. The pose mirrors the traditional birthing posture among the Abelam whose women gave birth standing while holding onto a wood bar overhead. The ancestral figure's creative role is reinforced by the use of this pose as well as by the profusion of totemic and animal references bursting forth from this figure. The two hornbills that jut out from the top of the head are masculine and relate to the clan. The curved sections at the ears and between the elbows and knees are the beaks of cockatoos--a clever reference to the ancestor's presiding role even over the animals of the forest. Overall the figure exudes a strength and serenity befitting a being who does in fact have the power over life and death. The second piece is an Abelam maternity figure. Birth and rebirth are central themes in 19th and early 20th century Abelam art. It is the ancestor's essential role in the perpetuation of life that is often depicted in both figurative sculpture carved in wood and the many other genres of Abelam art such as carved coconuts and cassowary bone. In this ancient stone-tool carved wood sculpture, the idea is clearly and unambiguously represented with a towering female figure giving birth to a smaller but fully mature male figure with pierced ears and nasal septum. Like the previous Abelam sculpture, there are numerous symbolic references to the ancestor's role in recreating not only the civilized world but the natural one as well. As with the majority of pre-contact New Guinea figurative sculpture the limbs are clearly defined with robust and well-rounded forms. Unlike later metal-tool carved pieces there is not a straight line to be found on this figure. All lines and forms are flowing and organic. The design is complex but not decadent with traces of yellow, white, red and black pigments remaining. Neighboring and closely related to the Abelam are the Bukie culture. This small and ancient figure comes from around Kaboibus village on the southern slopes of the Prince Alexander Mountains. It is pre-contact and stone-carved. While the thick encrusted patina has smoothed the lines that define the composition one could see there are no sharp edges from metal tools. The overly large head with deeply carved septum and pierced ears stylistically confirms its archaic nature. Looking at the backside also shows a recurring characteristic of the earliest New Guinea sculptures—that they have a hollowed-out reverse. I have been told that this cavity is a receptacle for the inhabiting spirit. Even though the Papuan Gulf was contacted quite early—primarily in the 1880s—a number of pre-contact, stone-carved gope boards exist on the market. There are a couple things worth noting on this ancient example. First is the high relief carving. In older carvings the artist did the hard work of delineating design by creating form with his adze. After contact you see designs more or more shallow and an increasing reliance on paint to define form and motif. Even without the red, white and black pigments this gope would still be able to communicate its message. Secondly, the reverse of this piece is a wonderful example of stone-adzing. The deep grooving or scalloped surface can be seen on the earliest gope boards and shields. I tell my clients to judge age not by patina or a surface quality such as weathering or erosion. Such surfaces can occur within decades not just generations. It is always best to first assess age by style. Get to know what the earliest known styles looked like on particular objects. Once you know a style it becomes possible to recognize how it subtly shifts over the decades. For example, this ancient pre-contact coastal Sepik mask is of the most archaic style. There is little ornamentation, the composition is clear and powerful. The holes around the perimeter where a cane or hair beard hung or where the mask was attached to the larger costume are large and dug out like craters. Both the septum and nostrils are pierced. The mouth is open as if breathing. The expression is alive—as were all the older pieces, literally alive and this quality should still come through.