Importance of Color in Understanding & Evaluating New Guinea Tribal Art Color It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of color in virtually all areas of New Guinea art. For the Abelam, paint was the animating power of sculpture; without it, the carving was just a piece of dead wood. Paint was often ritually produced and magically empowered with pigments gathered from spiritually important places or plants. Sometimes the water used to mix the pigments was gathered from the subterranean holes of large land spiders, as these were thought to be conduits between the land of mortals living above ground and that of the ancestors abiding underground. The water gathered here was thus charged with ancestral power. I have seen large ancestral figure carvings lying prone in the dark of Abelam ceremonial houses whose owners secretly bathe them and retain the dust and paint-laden liquid residue to feed their growing long yams. The mixture is so loaded with ancestral potency that the long yams are thought to energetically pulse and lengthen in the ground. Color often has symbolic references, such as yellow for the Abelam, which relates to the moon and to women because of their similar 28-day cycles. The color white is male, with associations of bones, the sun and clamshell currency rings used in bride price exchanges. Among the Telefomin, Barry Craig relates how red paint is applied to ancestral bones to impart “heat” and is so imbued with ancestral power that it is stuffed into the noses, eyes and ears of young men during their initiation. Black pigment is ideally made with the soot from the interior of the ceremonial house and is thus symbolic of male solidarity and is “the color of boars’ bristles and the cassowary’s plumage, representing male aggression” (Craig, 1988, p. 56). The Wola of the Southern Highlands decorate their wood shields with red paint only if they have successfully killed in the most recent tribal fight (Sillitoe, 1988, p. 548). Because color often has magical properties and is ritually applied, the layers of pigments amount to a visual history and are a testament to the cultural efficacy of the piece. With the red Coastal Ramu River mask, one can see the crusty saturated surface revealing the numerous layers underneath. Thus, the thick buildup of pigments is akin to stratums of sacrificial offerings found on some African shrine sculptures—evidence of its ritual history and accumulation of power. Color can turn a merely good object into a great one. This Collingwood Bay lime spatula, with its intricate fields of parallel zigzag motifs and the addition of white and orange pigment, adds a level of visual complexity that makes this piece that much more striking. Similarly, with this ancient Upper Karawari River cave figure, the bold orange and white pigments remind us of the vitality these sculptures possessed during their active use. The vast majority of these we now encounter are just the weathered remains of once brilliantly painted objects. The Faiwolmin shield has a design that is compositionally looser and more organic than the more well-known examples from their southeastern neighbors, the Telefomin. Even with the masterful graphics of wildly juxtaposed spirals and triangles in the traditional black, white and red/orange pigments, the playful dash of blue is a stroke of genius. The bright yellow gourd mask is from the Huli people of Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands and was used in a ritual to cure certain illnesses. While the nose and eyebrows are modeled out of wax and tufts of human hair are attached to the chin, it is the saturated yellow pigment set off by the thin red vertical line running down the face, ending in a pool of red at the chin, that elevates this mask above all other gourd masks. The boldness of the color signifies power and action and literally arrests the eye. One of my all-time favorite pieces of New Guinea art is this Southern Highlands shield. The colors are bold and wonderfully applied. Shields in the Highlands were considered an extension of a warrior’s body and the painted design was meant to project both power and ferocity. Michael O’Hanlon quoted a Wahgi man: “The paint on the shield should be au ne (bright) and that if it was emil ere (somber or dull) one of the warriors would die.” What I find mesmerizing on this particular shield are the layers of colors, both natural and nontraditional, of different hues and levels of saturation applied in an ordered classical design but with unbelievable expressiveness and a lifeforce of its own. This Coastal Sepik or Ramu River mask collected in the 1960s by George Kennedy serves as a reminder of the bold vibrancy of New Guinea art in its original context. So often objects found in museums and private collections have a dark brown patina of age. This dark patina is often because the object had long ago lost its cultural utility and had spent decades in the rafters of a village house soaking up the residue and smoke of countless indoor cooking fires. In this manner, the mask or other once-bold and colorful ritual object becomes but a dark shell of its former self. When a mask was in use, it was almost always brightly painted and adorned with feathers, shells, leaves and flowers—an assemblage of materials valued both for their symbolism and their visual impact. The present mask retains a sense of that lively aesthetic, that magical vitality brought to life through color.