The Affecting Presence The Affecting Presence Paul Roscoe, an anthropologist from the University of Maine wrote an excellent article called "Of Power and Menace: Sepik Art as an Affecting Presence" and while he discusses the power of the art and its effectiveness within the individual New Guinea cultures that produced it. I think that this same power is an important and relevant characteristic of the piece that we in the West can sense and appreciate. The affecting presence that is found in the best pieces of New Guinea art is the sense that the spiritual being originally manifested by the piece still lurks within. It is a presence that can be terrifying and menacing or intentionally subdued and restrained but is always powerful. It is the quality that looks back at you and tells you that there is something beyond the wood, the cane and the paint. It is the presence that made the piece effective in its original context and continues to draw us today. It is the feeling that we are in the presence of something beyond normal, something once and always alive, something extraordinary. The strength of the affecting presence is most often located in the gaze. With this Abelam wooden helmet mask the radiating concentric circle eyes demand our attention. There is a difference in just accurately carving a face with eyes, nose and mouth and being able to create a piece, such as this mask, that has the power to look back at you. The gaze is considered a window onto the soul—it is both a chance to into the soul of the spiritual presence and also for a chance of that spiritual presence to glimpse your soul. The gaze is intentionally unsettling because these pieces were often considered all-powerful and all-knowing with the ability to sense whether an individual has been adhering to the spiritually sanctioned taboos. If not, these transgressions often lead to death. It is this feeling of menace, this threatening gaze, which gives this piece and the others that follow, their affecting presence. Just as important as the gaze is the breath—the sense the piece is actually breathing. This Boiken spirit face is completely hollowed out on the reverse. The space created was meant for the spirit to occupy and almost feel the air blowing out between the slightly parted lips. The expression is watchful, alert and very much alive. There is a similar feel to this ancient Lower Sepik mask with open eyes, open nostrils and faintly pursed lips. The dark gaping holes create passageways to the animating presence immediately behind. Ancestral spirits had a power that could give great aid and strength to its living descendants. That very same potential for benevolence can easily switch to malevolence if the ancestral strictures and taboos are ignored. Thus that sense of menace goes both ways. This gope board from the Kerewa area of the Papuan Gulf illustrates well the affecting presence of New Guinea art. The radiating concentric circles focus attention on the face and more specifically on the wide-open eyes. The strength of the affecting presence is often located in the gaze. There is a difference in just accurately carving a face with eyes, nose and mouth and being able to create a piece, such as this gope board, that has the power to look back at you, to demand your attention. The gaze is considered a window onto the soul—it is both a chance to look into the soul of the spiritual presence and also a chance for the spiritual presence to glimpse your soul. The gaze is intentionally unsettling because these pieces were often considered all-powerful and all-knowing with the ability to sense whether an individual has been adhering to the spiritually sanctioned taboos. If not, these transgressions often lead to death. It is this feeling of menace, this threatening gaze, which gives this piece and the others that follow, their affecting presence. This small mask with its subtle naturalism comes from the area between the Lower Sepik River and the Pacific coast. Virtually without surface decoration this mask relies upon its delicate features to convey strength. The eyes are open and alert with the eyebrows prominent and slightly arched. The nose is well defined with a large, pierced septum and a small piercing of one nostril. The mouth is small but open with the lips slightly pursed—as of blowing our air. Overall the feeling is watchful, ready, alive. This tapa mask from the Purari Delta area of the Papuan Gulf is probably a “kanipu” type that Douglas Newton notes is “used to enforce a tabu on coconuts that will be used in feasts, and the wearer haunts the groves bearing arms” (Newton, 1961, p.23). The rounded tapa cloth back is large and bordered with rows of white and red triangular motifs. The eyes are fashioned from woven cane and project out slightly from the rounded back portion. The mouth is large and startling with fierce rows of sharp teeth jutting out from the jaws. With this piece the affecting presence is concentrated on the mouth with its threating teeth. Wood helmet masks are very rare in the Abelam area. The vast, vast majority are the woven cane baba kumbu or baba tagwa type. These masks had a very similar role to the previously discussed Papuan Gulf kanipu mask. In that, the baba masked dancer would carry a spear and go from house to house assembling coconuts and other food stuffs for male initiation ceremonies—which could entail months of seclusion for the young men and their initiators. This pre-contact helmet mask is carved from a dense hardwood and has three sets of eyes placed surreally on top of each other. Abelam art is often dominated by ocular designs. The facades of their towering ceremonial houses, korombo, are without fail painted with large panels depicting the faces of ancestral spirits with huge looming eyes composed of radiating concentric circles. The multiplicity of eyes on this wood helmet mask creates the same effect—of being in the presence of an otherworldly spirit who sees all. The haunting expression of this piece is enhanced by the open mouth ringed by red paint. This diminutive female figure comes from the Yangoru Boiken area of Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik Province. Small figures from this area are very rare. Most figures were relatively large and kept inside ceremonial houses, ka nimbia. This one is of a size that would have been owned by one man and kept hidden within his house or secreted away in the bush. This figure was owned by and old Yangoru man who related this his grandfather was killed in 1929 in retaliation after using this figure as “poison” to kill another man. The piece has a beautiful naturalism rarely found in Yangoru art. While the raised arm pose and coffee-bean shaped eyes are classic for the area, the rounded volumes and subtle modeling of the face and body is unusual. The short, raised arms, the open eyes and the toothy smile have an unsettling presence that befits the homicidal nature of the piece.