Aesthetics of New Guinea Art, Departures of the Norm, Criteria for Evaluating Quality of Oceanic Art Departures from the Norm An often-overlooked quality of great New Guinea art is its ability to provide the unexpected. While we find pleasure in symmetry and the careful execution of form, what often really excites us is encountering something different. A gifted artist comfortable and confident with the existing canon will often try to expand or deviate from traditional conventions to create something extraordinary. Astonishment and surprise can be an aesthetic experience when encountering an object that cleverly defeats our expectations. The following pieces illustrate the beauty created by departing from the norm, by providing the unpredictable. Most New Guinea Art enthusiasts are familiar with the bat or flying fox charms that come from the coastal area west of the Sepik River. The people here have a strong mythical relationship to the flying fox and it is a prominent design carved on the underside of flat circular dishes and small amulet sculptures which were carried in string bags. These magical figures are invariably truncated with a head atop a winged torso. However, this Flying Fox figure is the first I have seen given full anthropomorphic expression, standing tall with stout, naturalistic human legs. The known and classic has now been rendered unique and extraordinary. The mythological connection between flying fox and man has been made tangible. Abelam culture cane helmet masks with radiating eyes, called baba or bapa, can be quite beautiful but are fairly common. Wooden examples are extremely rare and pre-contact ones exceedingly so. This Abelam wooden helmet mask takes the traditional concentric eye motif to another level by stacking the eyes vertically, giving the mask an unsettling, otherworldly essence. Sometimes the departure from the norm is more subtle, maybe just a playful or unexpected change of sculptural volumes such as with this pre-contact Lower Sepik figure from the Jay Leff Collection. The majority of Sepik spirit figures convey robust power and barely contained action. Not so with this sculpture, with its large rounded belly and enormous plodding feet combined with a sweet, amiable expression. The departure from the classic and anticipated is refreshing. Tami Island wooden bowls often have a somewhat regimented and predictable composition, with the best having spirit faces carved onto each end. I have had a few with reptile motifs, but this one is exceptional for the lively movement of the double-headed creature. The artist makes a normally static object dance with life. In this remarkable Eastern Highlands neckrest, the artist allowed the natural convoluted meanderings of a tree root to dictate the composition. The carver in this circumstance acted as an editor by cropping what nature provided into something truly unique and beautiful. The neckrests of Collingwood Bay often have imaginative designs based on orderly combinations of the chevron motif. Yet in this old example, the chevrons are jumbled on top of each other in a delightfully unpredictable manner—made all the more noteworthy because they are juxtaposed against the precise aesthetic of the rest of the genre. The departure from the norm can be subtle and still give a piece just enough visual oomph to elevate it above all the rest. Mendi area shields from Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands are often colorfully flamboyant but still adhere to a few classic design conventions—combination of circles, semicircles and triangles all divided by a raised medial ridge. However, in this present example, the raised medial ridge bifurcates into two arches, creating a far more interesting visual statement than two flatly painted white triangles. This is a subtle difference but an important one when comparing and contrasting all other examples of its type. Such signs of artistic ingenuity and sensitivity are what we look for in judging the quality of New Guinea art. Finally, I want to end with this Yangoru Boiken talipun bride price payment. It combines the large stylized beehive motif surmounted by a small bird-headed taro figure. Talipun compositions are often surreal on their own, but when two are combined, the result is truly extraordinary. It is a testimony to the creativity and courage of the artist to challenge tradition, to understand what is expected and to take it a step further, to create something that stops you in your tracks, catches your breath, raises your eyebrows, makes you smile—that is the essence of New Guinea art.