Original Research and Commentary on Oceanic Art
The wooden shields of the Elema people of the Papuan Gulf in southeast New Guinea are known as Laua. Their function was to protect the body of an archer while their bow arm would be extended through the upper cut-away aperture. According to LMS missionary John Henry Holmes, Elema warfare was conducted according to a set of governing rules; often the conflict took place upon a cleared beach where archers (presumably protected by such shields) would fire their volleys of arrows upon....read more.
Garra (gē ‘rä) (no plural) is the word used by the Bahinemo (bä ‘hē nǝm o) people for a traditional set of religious artifacts. These include the famous hook carvings, but also bamboo flutes and pipes kept and played to please them, and the “tamberan house” or “men’s cult house” where the men practice this religion. The most important artifact they have is the garra homu, the artistic hooked figures, of which we are concerned here....read more.
When a museum object loses the tether of its acquisition history, it is in danger of being cast off as undocumented property. Such is the case for the present Massim figure recently deaccessioned earlier this year by the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Fortunately, once I had the piece in hand, I noticed the remains of a lightly penciled inventory number on the figure’s back shoulders. This allowed the current museum’s staff to research its original accession. It turns out that the piece was donated in 1904 by a beautiful young woman with a sad history....read more.
The Mountain Ok (ok means water/river), speaking several closely related languages, live in villages located on the headwaters of the Fly and Sepik rivers of central New Guinea. The main Papua New Guinea administrative centre is at Telefomin in the territory of the Telefolmin. Among the Mountain Ok, carved and painted boards were fastened to the small entrance of houses, and/or several narrow carved and painted boards were fastened on each side of the entrance. House boards were large thick boards about....read more.
The name Lajos Bíró (1856–1931) and the Bíró Collection in the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest will sound familiar to Oceanists and to collectors who appreciate the art of Oceania, although few will be able to match his name to a face, an object or a story. It is generally known that Bíró was a Hungarian naturalist (entomologist and ornithologist), who spent six years (1896–1901) in what was then German New Guinea, collecting items of natural historical and ethnological interest on behalf of....read more.
Lightweight yet durable, superbly crafted yet eminently practical, the shields of the Solomon Islands form a distinctive tradition within Oceanic art. Until the early decades of the 20th century, shields were widely made, used, exchanged, and distributed throughout the Western and Central Solomon Islands.1 Before the introduction of firearms in the late 1800s, they were the quintessential defensive weapons in traditional warfare, a vital element of warriors’ fighting equipment....read more.
In 1887, only three years after the founding of the German colony of New Guinea, the Protestant Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft opened its first mission station in Astrolabe Bay near the village of Bogadjim. The mission’s activities there had little success at first. There were a number of reasons for that: the unknown languages, the extreme variations of those languages, the foreign indigenous mindsets, the absence of any infrastructure by European standards, and the high mortality rates caused by diseases, especially malaria. Fully half of the mission’s personnel died of it in its first twenty years of operation! And it was only in....read more.
At the dawn of humanity, which is to say in prehistoric times, man needed to fashion weapons of wood and stone to defend himself against his peers as well as against the large animals that inhabited the earth at the time. These weapons were very rudimentary at first, but over time and with the passage of centuries, they came to be better made. Men began to give them certain shapes and to embellish them and these first finished wooden clubs certainly existed in the Neolithic era. They were still used until recently by the indigenous peoples of the....read more.
Some of the classic and most recognizable objects of Boiken material culture are the circular, shallow wooden plates with carved designs decorating their bases. While once fairly common in nearly all Boiken households, they have by and large been replaced by plastic and aluminum cookware bought in nearby Wewak. Even so, it is not uncommon to see old wooden plates stacked in the rafters or on low shelves near the cooking fire in many of....read more.
The very first marupai I encountered in the Papuan Gulf was owned by an old magician near Biamaru station. I was fortunate that my friend and guide, Kaiya Rove, knew the man personally or it probably would never have been shown to me. It was carved, as most marupai are, from a dwarf coconut with distinctive eyes, symmetrical design and a slit mouth cut in from the side. This was also the first time I heard an impersonation of the eerie high-pitch sound....read more.
Within the realm of Oceanic art, Micronesia—including the Marianas and Guam, Palau, the Carolines, Marshall Islands, Kiribati or Gilbert Islands, and Nauru—still remains less well known. This is due, in part, to lack of specialists, even though important public collections exist, especially in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and notwithstanding exhibitions that highlight this region of Oceania, such as the exhibition in 2009–2010 at....read more.
The stilt steps (tapuvae) of the Marquesas Islands are one of the most distinctive art forms in all of Oceania. Made in pairs and richly adorned with tiki (human images) shown in a number of poses and styles, stilt steps were functional objects that served as the footrests on Marquesan stilts. Carved from a dense hardwood, stilt steps were lashed to separately-made poles made from a lighter wood to create....read more.
In his paper on “Huon Gulf Collections and Collectors,” R. L. Welsch (2016:16) deplores that “The Huon Gulf is one of the areas on the mainland of Papua New Guinea that was contacted by Europeans earliest, and yet the region and its art are among the least-well-known of the major art-producing regions of New Guinea.” This statement applies just as well to another part of former German New Guinea, the Astrolabe Bay. The Papuan villages and colonial settlements alike are mostly....read more.
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....read more.
In the second half of the 1930s, Pater Georg Höltker paid a visit to his SVD counterpart Joseph Schmidt at the Murik mission station located on the mouth of the Sepik River. Based in Murik since the end of the German period of New Guinea, Schmidt had published some articles about Murik ethnography and linguistics in the SVD journal Anthropos (1923/24, 1926, 1933), defining the region as....read more.
The words “Ottilien Fluss” appear in faint and faded script on the back of a mask recently owned by Michael Hamson. This tells a great deal about the piece because, as will be seen, it indicates that it was acquired at an early time of the Western exploration of this part of the world and most probably before 1900 since this river’s name changed at that time to become the Ramu River. The Ottilien River was so named in 1886 after a....read more.
The following essay is a description of the materials, tools and techniques used by the Papuan Gulf artists in the Kerewo, Gope, Urama and Era-Kipaia ethnic districts that I studied on my extended trips to the area between 1959 and 1974. I use the term kópe to refer to the spirit boards often referred to as gópe. Wood, bark, cane, gourds and dwarf coconuts were....read more.
The talipun is an artifact unique to the Yangoru Boiken and Plains Boiken (Saussia) people of East Sepik Province. It is an important item of ceremonial exchange, particularly in bride-price payments. An image of a talipun is included on the design of Papua New Guinea’s 5 kina banknote. The talipun consists of...read more.
This figure is an example of a sculpture that has been associated with the Humboldt Bay and Wakde Island. The color scheme of red, black, white and natural wood; the carving style without arms in slight relief; and the characteristic treatment of the eyes are reminiscent of the “Wakde-Yamna” style area. “Humboldt Bay style” has long been used to refer to the entire northern coastal area of New Guinea stretching from...read more.
Even to the fairly knowledgeable admirers of New Guinea art, when one thinks of the Papuan Gulf one object inevitably comes to mind—the gope board. And yet, as ubiquitous, and familiar as gope are, very few of us have much more than the thinnest knowledge of their use and significance. Thus, I thought it useful to write a brief overview of this iconic, but little understood, form of New Guinea art. The flat oval slabs of wood commonly known as gope boards in the West are found throughout...read more.
Photographs depicting the traditional arts and cultures of the Papuan Gulf provide a window through which we can understand the meaning, context, style, age and provenance of the tangible art now in museums, galleries and private collections. Early photographic images made by explorers, missionaries and adventurers present us with an unadulterated look into the communities of the Papuan Gulf and provide a foundation and a timeline upon which we can construct biographies for the artworks. The corpus of photographs is...read more.
New Ireland is a long and narrow volcanic island in the Bismarck Archipelago running from north-west to south-east. The central part of the island is made up of the thousand-meters-high limestone Lelet Plateau, with karst slopes covered with thick tropical forests. A dense web of rough tracks connects the villages located on the slopes of the plateau to the plateau itself and to the coast. In the early 20th century, it was already a densely populated area. The inhabitants from...read more.
The Markham Valley is a little-known area and home to the Azera and the Lae Womba people, the latter group naming the former as “those living upstream,” the literal translation of Azera. The 180-kilometer-long but shallow Markham River could be navigated for only a short distance, and for the Neuendettelsau Mission it took ten years after building a station near Lae on the river’s mouth in 1910 to push up the valley to the headwaters, the habitat of the Azera, the much-feared cannibals...read more.
A definite homogeneity is clearly apparent in the artistic works produced by the peoples that inhabit the so-called Huon Gulf region. The art of the area can rightly be seen as a conglomerate of different styles. The small Tami Islands, located near the Huon Peninsula, were the center of the wood-carving arts until the advent of European times, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of the Huon Gulf style area melded with that of the Tami Islands style area. The Tami Islanders produced very impressive headrests and betel mortars, but are undoubtedly best known for their beautifully decorated bowls...read more.
Students of the remarkable artwork created by many of the world’s small-scale communities have commonly tried to make sense of it in terms of symbolic or semiotic analyses. In New Guinea, one of the premier theaters of such production, for instance, anthropologists have suggested that face painting, ceremonial headdresses, the art and morphology of spirit houses, and the designs on shields connect symbolically to, or communicate covert “messages” about...read more.
Readers of the Provenance section may have noticed that many colonial residents in German New Guinea proudly displayed state decorations in their pictures. This section will explore this decoration craze and how ethnographic collection activity was complicit in this fad. To understand this craze, one has to turn to German history. This country saw unification late in 1871. However, most states that made up this union--kingdoms, duchies, and principalities--retained a limited degree of autonomy, including the ability...read more.
One of the broad appeals of tribal art is that it grants us a window into a time and place excitingly unlike our own. The tribal object serves as the material manifestation of an idea and way of life often unfathomably different from the one we live or ever conceive of living. It is that striking difference, that enormous gulf between mindsets, that, when beautifully rendered, makes a tribal artwork so compelling. This, in part, is what makes Abelam yam masks so intriguing...read more.
From 1959 till 1970 I collected some of the most important individual skull racks, agíbe, being preserved in the Kerewo ethnic district of the Papuan Gulf. It was after the murder of the Rev. James Chalmers and his companions at Dopima village on Goaribari Island in 1901 that the outside world took sudden notice of the headhunting practices of the Kerewo. Before setting fire to dúbu daímu longhouses, members of the punitive expedition counted...read more.
Unlike figurative arts from Melanesia and Polynesia, utilitarian artefacts have often languished in the shadows of research and been neglected by collectors. That has to be deplored because often such objects were intricately linked to the lives and beliefs of their owners and can document complex patterns of exchange and human interaction. Kava bowls from Western Polynesia are an excellent example...read more.
The Galerie Surréaliste opened in Paris in March 1926 with an exhibition titled Tableaux de Man Ray et Objets des Iles. Preceded by his Dadaist credentials, Man Ray had arrived from New York five years earlier and was quickly welcomed into the avant-garde community and the embryonic Surrealist movement. The choice to feature the American artist alongside objects from the South Seas in the inaugural exhibition of the Galerie Surréaliste was notable. While the previous generation of vanguard artists had embraced African art as a vehicle to reinvigorate their creative...read more.
While the topic of authenticity gets batted around in academic circles as an outdated and vague concept, within the harsh reality of the oceanic art marketplace, it is a clear-cut and essential factor. In my opinion, authenticity boils down to artistic intention. Whether an artist makes a piece to sell to a hapless tourist or undertakes to carve a figure that brings to life an ancestral spirit, these present two drastically different intentions...read more
For those well acquainted with the full power and range of New Guinea art, it might be hard to fathom the potential importance of a lime spatula. In a land where many cultures produce figurative sculptures of bold forms and expressive demeanors in often monumental scale, a lime spatula in comparison can appear rather insignificant—especially since in most New Guinea cultures lime spatulas are fairly straightforward utilitarian objects. But in the Collingwood Bay area...read more
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...read more
Christin Kocher Schmid
High up on the northern slopes of the Finisterre Range of the Huon Peninsula live the Yopno in the Yupna valley and their closely related neighbours of the Nankina valley. The area is steep and rugged, extending from about 600 metres above sea level up to well over 2,300 metres. Their artistic expressions focus on the careful composition of separate elements into striking ephemeral showpieces. Although painting on bark cloth does produce durable artwork, its manufacture follows the same...read more
To explain the significance of this ancestral, “Hohao” from the Elema area of the Papuan Gulf I must start with a seemingly unrelated story that took place fifteen years ago on the other side of Papua New Guinea in Popondetta in Oro Province. Before embarking on a field collecting trip down the coast, I stayed one night in a guesthouse near the beach...read more.
For anyone with more than a passing interest in New Guinea art, it does not take long to come across the name of Dr. George Kennedy. Normally it is in an exhibition catalog listing the provenance for some old and significant figurative sculpture from the Abelam or Karawari River areas. Kennedy was a prominent geophysicist from the University of California at Los Angeles who made a number of collecting trips to New Guinea...read more.