Concept of Clarity as An Aesthetic Criteria for Evaluating Quality of Oceanic Art from New Guinea Clarity The quality of clarity, like all of the aesthetic criteria I will undertake to describe, is very subjective. It is important to remember that pre-contact New Guinea cultures were without a written language, thus art served as a very real form of communication. The quality of clarity is the ability of a piece of art, through the power of its form, to communicate effectively. This results in a purity of composition and a lack of excessive surface decoration. In my experience many superior pieces of New Guinea art are able to communicate form through the barest essential sculptural elements. The following pieces are, in my mind, masterpieces of clarity. The mark of a true artist is the ability to do much with less. Abelam Cassowary Bone Dagger When an object is carved with details in high relief the contrast created by the light falling upon the raised areas and the shadows formed by the recesses is strong, clear and indelible. Paint can wash away or fade but the graphic quality and high contrast created by deep carving can last for centuries. Such is the case with the stylized figures carved on the front of this cassowary bone dagger from the eastern Abelam area. Two West Sepik Drums from the Nuku area These two drums come from a remote area near Nuku and east of Angugunak in Papua New Guinea’s West Sepik Province. With their narrow bodies, slightly swelling bases and single hook handles these two drums are virtually devoid of artifice. Their elegance derives from their simplicity and from the subtle volumes of the body punctuated by the sharp spike of the handle. Such powerful minimalism is rare in New Guinea art. The integrity of the form speaks of the enormous restraint exercised by the carver to create such pure and elemental forms virtually free of surface decoration. Barak Mask Barak masks come from the coastal area between Wewak and Kaup Lagoon on Papua New Guinea’s north coast and west into the Sepik Plains in an area known as Inland Turubu. Barak masks were kept in small bush houses separate from the village where they served as shrines to help their owners settle disputes, achieve success in hunting and other endeavors where ancestral benevolence was needed. While I have owned many great examples or barak mask, this particular one strikes me as one of the best with its simple, refined elegance. All the curves and lines are clean and crisp. The wrap-around channel above and below the fine, slit-eyes gives a certain intensity to the gaze. The remains of pigments are in swept-back chevrons that complement the tight, efficient lines of the mask. Middle Sepik Suspension Hook While there is an ingenious quality to the composition with the multiple zoomorphic heads forming the bottom hook, there is also a refreshing lack of surface decoration such as scroll motifs that often adorn Sepik suspension hooks. Thus one’s attention is drawn to the power of expression shown on the spirit face with its raised eyes gracefully connected to the deeply pierced nostrils. The body is flat and triangular, delineated by a sharp raised ridge. The carver cleverly directs our attention to what he deems worthy by minimizing everything else. Other Examples Yangoru Boiken Talipun with graceful teardrop-shaped face attached to a cut and polished curl of a green turban seashell. There is a simple harmony to the repetitive curves in this example that is pleasing to the eye. Pre-contact Lumi Shields most often have designs carved in relief. Yet this is an exception with this its motif deeply incised into the surface of the shield. The dark shadows from these deep recesses contrast boldly with the smooth, light-attracting front of the shield creating a composition that jumps out at the viewer—one’s unfortunate foe in its original context. With this ancient pre-contact, stone-carved Abelam or Boiken Wooden helmet mask the overhanging brow shadows the black eye holes. The facial plane is concave with a raised nose, two black nostril holes and a mouth cut through producing an inky black that is in stark contrast to the light-reflecting, unblemished curves dominating the bulk of the composition. Simplicity and clarity are not the same thing. This pre-contact Boiken figure has a complex composition with limbs both jutting forward from the torso at the same time as bowing around the chest. The large ovoid head projects forward while tilting backwards. The deep recesses of the mouth and pupils create black shadows that contrast sharply with the pale pigmented surface. The overall effect is sophisticated but archaic and still very coherent—true hallmarks of great tribal art.