Oskar Nuoffer and the Figural Taro Pounders Collected by Otto Schlaginhaufen on the North Coast of New Guinea in 1909
Oskar Nuoffer and the Figural Taro Pounders Collected by Otto Schlaginhaufen on the North Coast of New Guinea in 1909
David F. Rosenthal
From the late 1870s through the beginning of World War I, what is now the northern portion of Papua New Guinea was called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and was under German colonial control. Ethnology was a burgeoning field at the time, and German museums and their directors were in heated rivalries with one another to obtain as many objects from their colonies as they could. The prevailing belief was that the cultures in these places were inferior and doomed to extinction, and that the interests of science were being served by documenting them and appropriating their objects as quickly as possible before they disappeared. The material culture of New Guinea and surrounding islands, and particularly of that part of the region that the Germans had authority over and ready access to, was remarkably diverse, and institutions actively sought and were granted both private and state funding in support of myriad and often very competitive collecting expeditions.
It was in the context of this frenzied race to acquire and the widely held conviction that the superiority of Western culture and the White race was scientifically provable fact, that Swiss-born ethnologist and anthropologist (and eugenicist) Otto Schlaginhaufen (1879-1973) became one of those charged with the task of finding objects in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago and bringing them to Europe. He traveled there extensively between 1907 and 1909, and collected some 1500 pieces for the Dresden Museum, for which he was working at the time. Soon after his return from New Guinea, in 1911, Schlaginhaufen left Dresden to accept the offer of a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Zurich in his native Switzerland, leaving the objects he had amassed to be described and inventoried by others, and notably by his colleague Dr. Oskar Nuoffer1.
In his monograph titled Quetschkolben von Berlinhafen2 on pounders from the Aitape area (formerly Berlinhafen) on the north coast of what is now Papua New Guinea, Nuoffer examines the approximately ninety examples that he states “were among the many fine objects Schlaginhaufen succeeded in obtaining for the museum” in the course of his two-year trip. The sculpted tops of sixty-eight of these pieces are illustrated with line drawings on four plates at the end of Nuoffer’s article, and those plates are republished here.
Schlaginhaufen collected the pounders in the villages of Arup and Malol in the Jakumul and Ulau areas in 19093. Only a few from the region had been known in Europe before then. How they were used had often been incorrectly explained, or in some cases they had been misidentified as either slit drum beaters or banana pounders. As Nuoffer correctly affirms, the objects were in fact used primarily to process cooked taro – and he points out that they were used more properly for squashing or mashing it rather than for actually pounding it4. Once made into a paste, the taro was blended with coconut milk. He adds that it “cannot be ruled out that these “mashers”6 were occasionally used for the preparation of yams and sweet potatoes as well.”
It would be difficult to come up with a better example of the Melanesian predilection for the ornamentation of utilitarian objects than the taro pounders of New Guinea’s northern coast. Unlike the typically squat types from Polynesia and Micronesia used for similar purposes, the Aitape area pounders have an elongated shape, and are essentially cylindrical with a more or less thickened working end. The author describes and provides line drawings of morphologically similar pieces from Fiji, Buka Island, and the New Hebrides as well. He states that Schlaginhaufen’s examples vary in length from between 12.5 to 25 inches, and that they are nearly always decorated with a sculpted anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representation at the top of the handle end. This representation is usually of one or more figures (Janus figures in the cases of figures 7 and 8, plate 3), but only a head – animal or human (figure 16, plate 2 and figure 6, plate 3) – or two Janus heads (figures 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11, plate 4 among others) are seen on some examples. Occasionally, the ornament at the top of the pounder appears purely abstract (figures 12 and 15, plate 4 for example), and sometimes it is highly stylized but still appears to evoke an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic shape (figures 13 and 14, plate 4). In many cases, the sculpted figure displays both animal and human attributes (figure 17, plate 1; figure 18, plate 2; figures 10, 14 and 15, plate 3, among others). The figuratively sculpted part of the pounder typically takes up a quarter to a third of its entire length but may in some instances extend over as much as half of it.
Like many German ethnologists of his time, Nuoffer provides very detailed physical descriptions of the objects he investigates but delves less convincingly into the meanings and significance of sculptural works. While he expresses admiration and respect for the skill of the carvers who created the pieces, refers to them as “artists” and shows appreciation for both the aesthetic and technical qualities of their work, he makes only limited attempts to explain the importance that the pounders’ non-utilitarian dimension and their figural carvings might have had for their makers and those that used them. Part of the reason for that is certainly that reliable information on this topic would have been very difficult to obtain, particularly while sitting in an office chair in a museum in Dresden, but it remains true in general that the German ethnologists of the period, both in the field and in their institutions, spent much more time and energy on hoarding objects than on understanding their iconography and identifying the cultural contexts they were used in.
What there actually is in Nuoffer’s monograph on what or who the sculpted figures, heads and creatures on these works really represent must consequently be considered quite speculative for the most part. His assertions are based mainly on intuitive perceptions and are usually unsupported by any really solid evidence obtained through field work.
He does report that Schlaginhaufen was able to learn about myths that describe a fight between a man and a cassowary and the abduction of a man through the air and says that on the basis of “discussions [Schlaginhaufen] had with various groups”, the half-man half-animal creatures sometimes seen on the pounders probably represent “demons”. He concludes that there must be connections between the myths and the figures. Figure 2 on plate 3 for instance is described as the depiction of a man in combat with a cassowary, and figure 13 on plate 3 is another example of a man interacting with a cassowary.
Nuoffer states that the artists of the area have a predilection for rendering instances of mythical human to animal transformation. He suggests that in cases where a figure displays characteristics of both, it is this process transformation that is being evoked. In cases where an animal is depicted superposed on a human figure or vice versa, the same kind of relationship may be implied.
Nuoffer also suggests that the gestures the figures make and the poses they are in must have significance. He admits to not always being able to decipher their meanings, but then does go on to offer what must ultimately be considered very subjective and really quite naïve explanations for some of them.
Some of the gestural language he observes “makes one think of a representation of sickness, pain or grief” (figure 9, plate 2 for example), and he suggests that some representations may be of physical deformities. On the other hand, he interprets some of the figures or faces as being “humorous” (the “smiling” face on one of the Janus heads of figure 7, plate 4 for example).
He further observes that the many of the figures seem to him to be masked, and that they are often shown wearing ceremonial decorative elements and headgear – the elongated cap worn by Michael Hamson’s figure would be an example. He contends that one can infer from this that they were rendered as they would have appeared at ceremonial events. He says that when a figure is rendered on all fours (figure 17, plate 1 for example) or with flexed knees (figure 1, plate 1), or in a contorted position (figure 18, plate 1), it is dancing, or involved in playing a game, like a pantomime. He notes that pantomime was a widespread activity at ceremonial events.
Finally, where a figure is seen with its hands to its genitals (figures 8, 9 and 13 on plate 1, the figure Michael Hamson presents here, or figure 1 on plate 2 for a female example) or engaged in what he calls “making obscene gestures”, he contends that allusion is being made to sexual activity. He goes on to declare that ceremonies “routinely devolved into wild orgies”.
Nuoffer notes that at the time Schlaginhaufen was collecting, examples of figural taro pounders of various styles but generally similar to those from the Aitape area were known from neighboring parts of the north coast, and in fact from as far west as Geelvinck Bay and as far east as the Finschhafen, Tami Island and New Britain areas. He mentions that he considers those from the Aitape region to be the most artistically and aesthetically developed of all known types, adding that pounders were completely absent from the far eastern portion of the island as well as from what was then British New Guinea to the south. Given Aitape’s accessible position on the north coast of New Guinea and the comparatively early date at which it consequently had initial contacts with Europe, it is reasonable to infer that it had also been subjected to influences of many kinds, including artistic ones, from neighboring areas by the beginning of the 20th century.
Examination of the drawings in Nuoffer’s work indeed reveals a very wide spectrum of disparate style characteristics and elements in the pounders he depicts, and influences from the Humboldt Bay (figure 2, plate 2, and others) Lake Sentani (figures 9 and 12, plate 1), Sepik River (figures 13 and 14, plate 2, and others) and even Korwar styles (figure 15, plate 1) seem quite apparent in many of them. One cannot help but be reminded for instance, of well-known examples of figural sculpture from the Humboldt Bay area now in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Museum voor Volkenkunde in Rotterdam
6, by the finely crafted figure on the example from the Beasley collection which Michael Hamson presents here.
There is a great deal of ambiguity in Nuoffer’s interpretations. Most of the figures, very much including Michael Hamson’s piece, have characteristics that could allow them to be classified as belonging to more than just one of the categories he outlines. The characteristics he ascribes to those categories are moreover not necessarily clear, and what group a particular figure would fall into is in too many cases open to debate. There are also interesting omissions in Nuoffer’s text – mention of the practice of ancestor worship for instance, which definitely does have connections with Melanesian figural representations, is absent altogether.
If we were to accept Nuoffer’s interpretations without reservation, we would have to conclude that the beautifully carved figure on Michael Hamson’s pounder is rendered dancing and/or attending some kind of ceremony and is preparing to engage in sexual activity. Perhaps we’d have to add that it appears to have a good sense of humor and be in a good mood too! That analysis is obviously not very cogent. It is simplistic and incomplete at best.
Nuoffer is undoubtedly right in a more general way when he affirms that many of the figures had connections with ceremonial activities, dances and games and that they referred to myths and mythical events in many cases as well. However, at the same time as one would be justified in making use of his interpretive efforts as a departure point for further study, it is unlikely that any of the more specific and detailed explanations he puts forward can really be trusted or relied on. Unfortunately, it will in the end probably never be possible to give a truly accurate and complete account of the incredibly rich and varied iconographic vocabulary that the Aitape region figural pounders collected by Otto Schlaginhaufen in 1909 display.
1 Online searches reveal very little information about Nuoffer. He appears to have spent most of his career as an ethnologist working at the Dresden Museum and was still active there until at least 1925, when the book he is best known for, Afrikanische Plastik - in der Gestaltung von Mutter und Kind (Maternity Figures in African Sculpture), was published.
2 The article first appeared in 1917 in Abhandlungen und Berichte, Band XV, a journal published by the Dresden Museum of Ethnology featuring texts on a variety of topics in each issue. “Quetschchkolben” is a seldom used compound word that literally means “squish-piston”. The German words “Stampfer” or “Stössel” are much more commonly used for the English term “pounder”, but the author felt that they were not descriptive of how the pieces were actually used, for the reasons explained in the next paragraph of our text.
3 Schlaginhaufen did not himself publish a complete account of his travels and collecting activities in New Guinea and surrounding islands until fifty years after they were completed. He finally did In Muliama, Zwei Jahre unter Südsee-Insulanern (Muliama, Two Years among South Sea Natives), Grell Füssli, Zurich, 1959, and describes collecting ”a large group of pounders and headrests” in these places in Chapter 20, pages 202-206. He illustrates four examples of them in line drawings, figures 36 and 37. No additional information about them is provided, but he does refer to Nuoffer’s monograph.
4 As can be seen on his collection label, Beasley erroneously identifies Michael Hamson’s piece as a sago pounder instead of a taro pounder – the mistake is often made. Nuoffer maintains that field observations proved that the pounders were not used for sago. He adds that they were far less common in the coastal areas like the Sepik River Delta, where sago and not taro are the main staple food.
5 Nuoffer’s clarification (see footnote 2) on how these objects were used notwithstanding, the English term “pounder” will be used in this text.
6 See Art of Northwest New Guinea; Greub, Suzanne; Rizzoli, New York, 1992, pages 68 through 73.