Art of the West Sepik Art of the West Sepik The art of Papua New Guinea’s West Sepik Province is some of the least known but most compelling of the country. The region is primarily mountainous and largely inaccessible with the imposing Torricelli Range cutting through its center. Besides a small section of road on the north coast leading east from Vanimo there is a mere specter of a road from Nuku to Lumi that is often unusable for years at a time. The rest of the province is reached via the sporadic and sparsely placed grass airstrips serviced by MAF—Missionary Air Fellowship. These airstrips pop up and disappear over the years depending upon the will of the villager to hack out and level 1600 feet of mountain with a few bush knives and shovels. This remoteness and inaccessibility is what initially drew me to the West Sepik. It was an obvious extension to my field collecting in the east. The East Sepik Province is where most collectors go to tap into the prolific art producing cultures of the Middle and Lower Sepik Rivers as well as the Abelam and Boiken people of the nearby Prince Alexander Mountains. But the West Sepik has been largely ignored by field collectors and the few anthropologists who have done research in the area have almost never focused on the art—Barry Craig and his work with the Telefomin excepted. So it was with a prospector’s optimism that I made my initial forays into the more remote areas of the province. What I found was an art that is challenging and austere. Unlike the classic art from the Sepik and its related areas the art from the West Sepik is largely nonfigurative. With a few exceptions the representational ancestral sculptures relatively common to their eastern neighbors do not exist in the west. What one finds is a material culture more abstract and free form. The aesthetic is both organic and thick. The pieces are often without color, black from smoke, and have an ascetic minimalism in thick contrast with the more expressive art produced in other areas of New Guinea. In the West Sepik the people seem more apt to allow the natural shape of the wood to dictate the final form of the piece. Like contemporary art that relishes in confounding our definitions of art, the artifacts of the West Sepik challenge our distinctions between art and artifact. This set of three food pounders from the Torricelli Mountains exhibit the natural, free-flowing abstraction that typifies West Sepik Art. The leftmost juxtaposes a deep vertical recess on one side with a dramatic downward pointing spike on the other. The middle pounder embraces nature’s whimsy by allowing the oddly shaped root with a void and hook form to stand on its own with slight human involvement. The right example has some deliberate incised chevrons that mimic the natural forked top. All have the thick minimalism inherent in the West Sepik aesthetic. Without the comfort of representational sculpture, one is forced to contemplate the simple beauty as produced by the wear and red staining of this large platter for preparing the paste from pandanus kernels—considered a delicacy by the Telefomin people in the Star Mountains. Here are two superb drums from a remote area of the Torricelli Mountains west of Nuku village. While the hook is a common motif in many Sepik cultures, only in the West Sepik is it pared down to such a powerful, archaic form. Totally devoid of artifice, the elegance of the drums derive from their simplicity, from the subtle volumes of the body punctuated by the sharp spike of the handle. Such powerful minimalism is rare in New Guinea art. It speaks of the enormous restraint of the carver to create such pure and elemental sculptures virtually free of surface decoration. The Gnau people live south of a steep plateau that rises straight up above Yangok mission station. While very remote, the Gnau are of one of the few West Sepik cultures in which an ethnographic account has been written. The British anthropologist/medical doctor Gilbert Lewis spent years in Rauit village in the late 1960s and early 1970s doing research on the people’s response to illness. Little of Lewis’ account deals with ritual sculpture but he does relate how carvings are fashioned to draw malignant spirits away from a sick person’s body. On this nearly eight-foot tall sculpture the composition is clear and elegant with a series of opposed projections jutting out from a central post with deeply carved chevron motifs. The top, with its long, curved point, undoubtedly refers to the hornbill bird. The aesthetic is spare but charged with the tension and electric potential created by the projections whose tips almost, but not quite, touch. Often arrows are some of the most refined and exquisite works of West Sepik art. Their extreme delicacy belies their homicidal intent. With male life revolving around warfare it is not hard to imagine the painstaking precision and thoughtful meditation of mayhem that went into carving them. While form follows function—to enter the body and resist removal without overwhelming injury—these arrows seem to go beyond that. Their long and delicate barbs have a sadistic beauty that suggest a culture where killing is an art form. I consider this hook bowl from the Lumi area an icon of West Sepik art. The two hooks coming from the stems on either side of the leaf-shaped bowl point in opposite directions creating a powerful dynamism and sense of movement. The bowl would have been filled with magical materials and was used in a ritual where two old men held it by either end and walked between the two separate lines of young men and woman anointing them with the ingredients from the bowl. It is a rite of fertility and the wellbeing of the village. The vast majority of wood food bowls from the Torricelli Mountains are of an archaic, organic form. There are only a few that have more elaborate, sometimes figurative compositions. This is the only one I have seen in the shape of a lizard. The surface is thickly encrusted from generations of storage in the rafters above the cooking fire. Like all of the best of West Sepik art the black form has both clarity and a primordial strength. The predominantly black, kidney-shaped fighting shields from the Lumi area are probably the most recognizable objects from the West Sepik. The central designs on these shields have to be some of the most inscrutable within the corpus of New Guinea art. I have yet to read an account of what these motifs mean. On this large pre-contact shield the design is deeply incised to create distinct black shadows that contrast thickly with the rest of the smooth flat surface. On some shields the design has a distinctly larvae-like quality to it that would relate to themes of metamorphosis and transformation that are surely justifiable on an object used in life and death struggles. Hopefully these pieces will serve as a brief introduction to the austere beauty of the art of the West Sepik.