ANTHONY FORGE: SCHOLAR AND COLLECTOR - Historical Figures In Oceanic Art
ANTHONY FORGE: SCHOLAR AND COLLECTOR
Anthony Forge is well regarded for his pioneering work in visual anthropology and his outstanding collector’s eye. When Forge initially set off to study the Abelam of New Guinea as a young anthropologist, it was almost unheard of to make art the central focus of a fieldwork study. His work amongst the Abelam in the late 1950s and 1960s helped the emergent study of visual culture gain acceptance as a branch of anthropology. During these trips he collected art and gathered material for a number of essays. While his essays contributed to theoretical understandings of Sepik art and indigenous art systems generally, the objects and visual documentation of Sepik material culture that he collected are equally magnificent legacies of his work.
Born in London, John Anthony Waldo Forge (1929–1991) was the only child of Kitty and Waldo Forge, both graduates of the London School of Economics. His interest in anthropology surfaced during a period of national service in 1948, when he acquainted himself with The Golden Bough, the work of Sir James Frazer, one of anthropology’s founding fathers. Shortly after, in 1950 Forge enrolled as an undergraduate student in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, a hallowed institution in the history of British social anthropology associated with a succession of prominent anthropologists, including Sir James Frazer, Alfred Haddon, W. H. R. Rivers, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Meyer Fortes, Stanley Tambiah, Gregory Bateson, and Edmund Leach. Cambridge University also housed anthropological collections in the Haddon Museum, now known as the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, including more than eight hundred objects collected by Gregory Bateson from New Guinea and Bali. During his three years at Cambridge, Forge showed considerable interest in the museum, particularly in the Bateson Collection of Sepik art (Tambiah 2002: 318). Although Forge and Gregory Bateson may not have actually met during this period, it is likely that their encounter through the museum collection planted the seeds of Forge’s interest in New Guinea. The Bateson Collection certainly became an ongoing interest and Forge later photographed several of the Bateson objects for the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
Forge enrolled as a research student in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1957. He was a student of Sir Raymond Firth, Malinowski’s successor as professor of Social Anthropology in 1944. Although Firth wrote about Maori and New Guinea art early in his career, and later discussed aesthetics in Tikopia (1992), art was never the major focus of his fieldwork, partly because at that time such an investigation was not considered a suitable fieldwork subject. Nevertheless, Firth did assemble significant museum collections for the Australian Museum and British Museum (Bonshek 2002). In an interview between Firth and Forge filmed by Timothy Asch (1978), Forge credited Firth with encouraging him to study art. Specifically, he said that Firth supported his first fieldwork study in the Sepik District of New Guinea in 1958.
Over the twentieth century, New Guinea and its offshore islands had become a popular destination for anthropologists, where there were more than a thousand cultures allegedly “unstudied” (Forge 1972a: 530). Forge’s reason for selecting the Sepik may also be related to his interest in the work of Bateson, for he believed that Bateson’s analysis of the Iatmul had been “ignored” by other scholars of New Guinea exchange systems (1972a: 539). Forge did his fieldwork amongst the Abelam of the Sepik region, believed to be “the last of the lowland rich cultures in the Australian half of New Guinea who practiced their traditional art for the traditional reasons” (Forge 1972b: 258). Living in hilltop villages of 300 to 800 inhabitants, each village contained several hamlets located along the top of a mountain ridge at the center of which was a large ceremonial ground dominated by the “ceremonial house.” The Abelam produce art on a large scale in the context of ceremonial exchange relationships, usually distinguished as the tambaran cult and long-yam cult. Preparations for these span a period of months, involving the construction of ceremonial houses featuring wood carving and painted interior and exterior panels. Having identified a village that was going to hold a major ceremony, Forge had a house built and spent fifteen months based in Bengragum village in the southeastern part of the Abelam area. As it happened, there was a lot more ceremonial activity in the surrounding villages than Forge had anticipated, since villagers had once again taken up the tambaran cult (the long-yam cult had been maintained) in the face of disillusionment with the missions and government-introduced cash crops. In nearby Wingei village, four ceremonial houses and three major ceremonies were held in 1958–1959. Forge returned to the same area in 1962–1963 because the region continued to experience a revival in traditional cult activity.
Forge’s main fieldwork requirement was gaining access to the ceremonial enclosures where artistic activity was conducted, and this necessitated his negotiation of various social relationships and the ensuing artistic production:
When I first heard that Wingei was thinking of staging the largest and most important ceremony of the Abelam cycle, it had already become obvious that Bengragum was going to produce a rushed and inferior ceremony with little production of art. To encourage Wingei, therefore, I said that if they held their ceremony in the traditional way, with all the proper art work, I would present a huge pig. At that time I had not fully considered the implications of the dual organization which is the basis of all ceremony. By donating a pig, I had placed myself in the role of initiate’s father and in the opposite half to the initiators who were going to prepare the ceremony and carry out all the painting. (1972b: 267)
Forge’s art collecting began during his first period of fieldwork. From this time he began to assemble a significant personal collection including cassowary bone daggers, shell bride-pieces, tortoiseshell armbands, spear finials, and masks. After his death, some of these objects were auctioned by Sotheby’s in London (2003), while others were donated to the Australian National Gallery collection. Forge also began to collect for museum institutions. By chance, his fieldwork coincided with a collecting expedition by the Museum of Ethnology in Basel led by museum director and anthropologist Alfred Bühler (Gardi 1960). Forge evidently made a favorable impression on Bühler, and when he returned to the Sepik in 1959, the pair went on a collecting expedition, acquiring the carved Kamanggabi figures and Yipwon hooks now in the Basel collection. Forge collected for Basel during his second fieldwork trip as well, this time acquiring the façade of a ceremonial house (Smidt and McGuigan 1993: 125). He also collected a magnificent carved wooden house post for the British Museum and the bone daggers, masks, and carvings which became part of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art in San Francisco (Friede 2005).
In addition to collecting extant objects of material culture, Forge’s day-to-day engagement with artists enabled him to create, for instance, inventories of Abelam design by commissioning artists to paint the designs they used for house façades onto rectangular sheets of grey paper. The Abelam works on paper were lent to the Museum of Primitive Art in New York as part of the exhibition Three Regions of Melanesian Art in 1960. In the catalogue Forge described how he had encouraged the artists to produce works on paper:
Initially I had the greatest difficulty in persuading Tsigula, the most knowledgeable painter of Bengragum, the eastern Abelam village in which I spent the majority of my stay, to undertake even one painting. The intention was to get him and other skilled artists from Bengragum and nearby villages to paint one example each of their traditional designs. However, the idea of paintings that would be taken away and admired by whites who were unable to visit New Guinea and see the magnificent façades of the haus-tambaran (ceremonial houses) for which these designs would normally be painted, proved very appealing to the whole village. (1960)
The New York exhibition also included the Kamanggabi figures Forge collected with Bühler along with nine silkscreen prints made from the Abelam paintings and Forge’s photographs. The exhibition exposed Forge to the logistics of museum exhibitions and display, and from this early stage in his career he understood how his research could be presented in spaces other than academic texts.
During his second trip to New Guinea in 1962, this time as a Fellow of the Bollingen Foundation in New York, Forge embarked on a more ambitious commission project, resulting in 363 works on paper by 22 artists. He took sequential photographs to document the paintings in progress and made sketches and notes in his field diaries. Sheila Korn, Forge’s doctoral student at the LSE, later used the paintings and documentation as part of an experiment to identify the formal properties of Abelam painting, without recourse to field experience or to the ethnographic data that Forge had gathered from artists about the designs (Korn 1978). This was a semiotic exercise designed to prove whether formal analysis might produce a scheme to understand how art communicated. When he later compared the results of the independent analysis with his own ethnographic data (Forge 1990), he stated that “meanings are usually highly ambiguous as in the sense of the best poetry—they allude to a range of meanings that support and reinforce each other, thus intensifying their impact on the fully socialized beholder” (1990: 30). Although the analysis was incomplete, Forge concluded the experiment by explaining that although Korn uncovered the workings of the Abelam system, she could not go any further and discover what meanings were conveyed without investigating the culture of the artists.
In this period it was not unusual for anthropologists to collect for museum institutions during fieldwork. Certainly, the practice of collecting material culture by anthropologists is now subject to higher levels of scrutiny than it was five decades ago, when Forge was active in the field. Nowadays anthropologists are highly attuned to possible conflict of interest charges and tread carefully when admitting to collecting art in the field. It is known that academic art collectors probably have greater access to the communities they work with and that indigenous artists often welcome scholarly collectors, not only for the commercial opportunities they represent but also because they circulate information to others. This is not to say that anthropologists like Forge were unmindful of the ethics of collecting or the implications of buying art while working with indigenous communities. To the contrary, Forge stands out because, unlike many of his peers, he made his collecting part of his written narratives about Abelam art and the papers resulting from his New Guinea fieldwork are infused with a sense of his collecting.
Forge acknowledged that theoretical insights came from buying art; he emphasized that exchange values and the status of collected objects were related to meanings. The following description revealed that buying art was never a discrete endeavor:
A young man of Malmba village who had found a growth on a tree that resembled in general shape the human head, had taken it home and carved on it eyes, nose, and mouth and painted it in the traditional style. When he produced it during the preparations for a ceremony at which he was an initiator, the organizers refused to display it or allow it into the ceremonial house; although the painting was in the correct style, the shape of the head was nothing like any of the head shapes of tambaran figures. His plea that it was the shape of a human head carried no weight and he was forced to wrap it up and hide it in his hut until he sold it to me in 1959. (1967: 81)
Forge clearly recognized the entanglements between objects and people; that is to say, the objects he collected mediated his engagements with people. He described another exchange, the acquisition of a bone dagger gifted to him by his research assistant, recalling, “I was handed a fine, engraved cassowary-bone dagger of the type he knew I was trying to collect; it had been left for me by Tswamung. I reciprocated with a suitable present” (1972b: 271). In this passage Forge located the dagger within a system of exchange of which he was part. The dagger was acquired without negotiations about cash value but on the understanding that Forge knew enough about local value to reciprocate the gift. By contrast, the innovative figure of the human head had no place in local exchange systems; it was an object of no local value until Forge bought it.
The bone daggers were of particular interest to Forge because they, along with other engraved objects like coconut shell bowls, had a much longer lifespan than paintings. Forge observed that daggers from the same village often displayed wide variation between figurative and abstract styles, evidence of considerable stylistic changes over time as well as of stylistic variation within one geographical area. This was confirmed by what he had observed in paintings, leading to the conclusion that in Abelam art, the dichotomy of “abstract versus figurative or representational, is misleading” and that Abelam artists often included both types in one corpus (Forge 1973b: 179).
The golden age of primitive art
Between his two periods of New Guinea fieldwork, Forge returned to the London School of Economics as assistant lecturer in social anthropology. During this time he was involved with the London Kinship Project under the direction of Raymond Firth, studying the middle-class residents of a housing estate in North London. Forge continued at the LSE when he returned from his second fieldwork trip to New Guinea and also lectured at Cambridge University and spent a term as visiting professor to Yale University in 1969. In 1968 Forge joined colleagues Peter Ucko and J. B. Donne in founding an art panel within the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI). By 1972, when Forge set off to study traditional art on the island of Bali, Indonesia, he had been appointed senior lecturer in social anthropology at the LSE. Over this period Forge wrote about Abelam art in the context of theoretical debates occupying both anthropologists and art historians, as they sought ways to analyze indigenous art systems, or “primitive” art, as it was referred to at the time. Shelly Errington (1998: 67) has labeled this period the “golden age of primitive art’s legitimacy,” characterized by an increasing number of books and articles on the subject, the appointment of primitive art specialists by art history departments, the establishment of postgraduate programs, and departments and curatorial positions in major museums.
One of Forge’s most important contributions to this field in this period was as an organizer of the conference titled Primitive Art and Society in 1967, sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. He chaired lively debates between the various conference participants, overseeing a broad theoretical shift from models based on linguistic or language-like systems to notions of art as a symbolic system (Forge 1973a: x). In this context Forge presented one of his most distinguished papers, “Style and Meaning in Sepik Art,” outlining elements of ceremonial house design and carved objects that the Abelam considered powerful, explaining that effective designs are connected to the size of the yams grown by the users of those designs. There were parallels between designs nominated by the Abelam as powerful and the ones that Forge thought were the most accomplished, from an aesthetic perspective. These designs communicated to the Abelam, “not as an illustration of some spoken text” (1973b: 189), but rather the system operated “because it is not verbalized and probably not verbalizable, it communicates only to those socialized to receive it” (1973b: 191). The notion that art communicated things that could not be talked about was central to Forge’s understanding of Abelam art:
I regard the information as to the meaning of art objects available from the culture itself, in direct verbal terms, as virtually no information at all. Should we then pack up the objects, take them home, and admire their aesthetic qualities and perhaps, after a good dinner, speculate about what they convey in terms of whatever set of doubtful human universals we may individually affect? I think not. I think we can do better than just recording names and leaving it at that. (1979: 280)
The lack of exegetical tradition among the Abelam was a significant methodological challenge during Forge’s New Guinea fieldwork, and there is little doubt that it greatly informed the theoretic frameworks he developed in arguing that art was a mode of communication independent of verbal language. In his own words, this was a question he continued to revisit throughout his career:
It is a truism that art communicates, but what does it communicate? Here the philosophers and historians, and indeed all students of art, seem to become evasive, trivial, or unintelligible, and no doubt I shall be the same, yet this is the question which must be attempted. (Forge 1979: 280)
Forge was good at asking questions, and here we are assured that despite the unlikelihood of a conclusive answer, the endeavor was nonetheless worth undertaking. In this context it is also useful to envisage Forge’s collecting and commissioning of art as a means to elicit the exegesis that could not be obtained verbally.
This position located Forge in an ongoing debate about whether visual art could be usefully analyzed as a language-like system. Forge rejected the latter proposition; he agreed that art was a form of language but said it operated on its own rules and communicated things that are not communicable by other methods. This idea was encapsulated in the quote he borrowed from dancer Isadora Duncan: “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it” (Forge 1970: 288–89). Forge explained that Abelam art operated as a form of communication on several levels:
The meaning is not that a painting or carving is a picture or representation of anything in the natural world, rather it is about the relationship between things. The meanings may well be at several levels … sometimes they are expressed in myth, sometimes in ritual, not necessarily in art. (1973b: 189–190, italics in original)
These meanings are not talked about openly. In fact, Forge said that artists might even deny suggestions put to them by anthropologists and that it was also likely that these meanings operated at an unconscious level:
I am not suggesting that the Abelam youth puzzles out for himself the answers to a sort of trick questionnaire set by his elders; rather, it seems to me that neither the initiators nor the initiates are totally conscious of the significance of the designs they paint; to them they are essential parts of the ceremony and their form is dictated by tradition. (1970a: 289)
Over subsequent decades, Forge’s explorations of meaning and communication have attracted a younger generation of anthropologists of New Guinea, including Diane Losche (2001: 158), who claimed that many of Forge’s unanswered questions remained “interrogations that would not go away,” and Michael O’Hanlon (1992), who took up the problem of verbal communication in field research and indigenous resistance to aesthetic explication. When Forge himself embarked on a new fieldwork study, spending one year in a Balinese village in 1972–73, he took many of his questions with him. Forge chose Bali because he believed the highly stratified society would serve as a valuable comparison to his previous work in New Guinea. In particular, he wanted to compare the model he had developed in an unstratified society to a highly stratified society to determine whether Balinese visual art operated as an independent system of communication, as he had argued for the Abelam.
A major career development took place in the midst of his Bali fieldwork when Forge was offered the chair of the newly established Department of Prehistory and Anthropology at the Australian National University. He relocated to Australia in 1974 with his wife, fellow anthropologist from the LSE, Jane Hubert, and their two children, Tom and Olivia. Forge remained in Canberra until his death in 1991. Forge’s research and collecting in the 1970s was devoted to Bali, and he assembled a major collection of traditional Balinese paintings for the Australian Museum in Sydney (Forge 1978). New research interests in the 1980s were partly a result of change in Forge’s personal life and his subsequent marriage to Cecilia Ng, a graduate of the Australian National University who was involved with Australian aid projects in West Timor. Forge took an interest in the study of Timorese markets and described the local market trade in silver and gold in terms of the social dimension of interactions between vendors and their customers (Forge 1991).
Forge’s written work on New Guinea art far outweighs what he later wrote about Balinese or other indigenous art and, consequently, has been far more influential within the discipline of anthropology. His studies of art systems are credited with negotiating an alternative path to linguistic theory in the anthropology of art (Campbell 2001), while his analysis of Sepik art is regarded as “perhaps the most influential of anthropological and archaeological approaches to traditional art” (Roscoe 1995). While many of his colleagues asserted that Forge’s published work did not reflect his strengths as an anthropologist, his dependence on visual sources in the field not only broke from convention but revealed his sensitivity to non-verbal aspects of culture, an assessment with which he concurred when he described his work in New Guinea as “learning to see.”
Asch, Timothy (1978). Interview of Raymond and Rosemary Firth. Interviewed by Anthony Forge, Cambridge University. DSpace. http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/183664
Bonshek, Elizabeth (2002). “Objects Mediating Relationships: The Raymond Firth Collection from Tikopia, Solomon Islands, 1928.” In: Pacific Art: Persistence, Change, and Meaning. A. Herle, N. Stanley, K. Stevenson & R. Welsch (eds.). Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing.
Campbell, Shirley (2001). “The Captivating Agency of Art: Many Ways of Seeing.” In: Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment. Christopher Pinney & Nicholas Thomas (eds.). Oxford: Berg.
Errington, Shelly (1998). The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press.
Firth, Raymond (1992). “Art and Anthropology.” In: Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics. Jeremy Coote & Anthony Shelton (eds.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Forge, Anthony (1960). “Three Kamanggabi Figures from the Arambak People of the Sepik District.” In: Three Regions of Melanesian Art: New Guinea and the New Hebrides. New York: Museum of Primitive Art.
——— (1967). “The Abelam Artist.” In: Social Organization: Essays Presented to Raymond Firth. M. Freedman (ed.). London: Cass.
——— (1970a). “Learning to See in New Guinea.” In: Socialization: The Approach from Social Anthropology. P. Mayer (ed.). New York: Tavistock.
——— (1970b). “Prestige, Influence, and Sorcery: A New Guinea Example.” In: Witchcraft: Confessions & Accusations. Mary Douglas (ed.). London: Tavistock Publications.
——— (1972a). “The Golden Fleece.” Man, 7 (4): 527–540.
——— (1972b). “Tswamung: A Failed Big-Man.” In: Crossing Cultural Boundaries: The Anthropological Experience. Solon T. Kimball & James B. Watson (eds.). San Francisco: Chandler.
——— (1973a). “Introduction.” In: Primitive Art and Society. Anthony Forge (ed.). London; New York: Oxford University Press.
——— (1973b). “Style and Meaning in Sepik Art.” In: Primitive Art & Society. Anthony Forge (ed.). London; New York: Oxford University Press.
——— (1978). Balinese Traditional Paintings: A Selection from the Forge Collection of the Australian Museum. Sydney: Australian Museum.
——— (1979). “The Problem of Meaning in Art.” In: Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania: Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Sidney M. Mead (ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
——— (1990). “The Analysis of Graphic Design.” In: Lapita Design, Form & Composition: Proceedings of the Lapita Design Workshop, Canberra, Australia—December 1988. M. Spriggs (ed.). Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.
——— (1991). “Markets in Central Timor.” In: Nusa Tenggara Timur: The Challenges of Development. Colin Barlow, Alex Bellis & Kate Andrews (eds.). Canberra: Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.
Friede, John (2005). New Guinea Art: Masterpieces of the Jolika Collection from Marcia and John Friede. Milan: 5 Continents.
Gardi, Rene (1960). Tambaran: An Encounter with Cultures in Decline in New Guinea. London: Constable.
Gell, Alfred (1992). “Obituary: Anthony Forge.” Anthropology Today, 8 (2): 17–18.
Korn, Sheila M. (1978). “The Formal Analysis of Visual Systems as Exemplified by a Study of Abelam (Papua New Guinea) Paintings.” In: Art in Society: Studies in Style, Culture, and Aesthetics. Michael Greenhalgh & Vincent Megaw (eds.). London: Gerald Duckworth Co. Ltd.
Losche, Diane (2001). “Anthony’s Feast: The Gift in Abelam Aesthetics.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 12 (2): 155–165.
O’Hanlon, Michael (1992). “Unstable Images and Second Skins: Artefacts, Exegesis, and Assessments in the New Guinea Highlands.” Man, 27 (3): 587–608.
Roscoe, Paul B. (1995). “Of Power and Menace: Sepik Art as an Affecting Presence.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1 (1): 1–22.
Smidt, Dirk & McGuigan, Noel (1993). “An Emic and Etic Role for Abelam Art (Papua New Guinea): The Context of a Collecting Trip on Behalf of the Rijksmuseum Voor Volkenkunde, Leiden.” In: Artistic Heritage in a Changing Pacific. P. J. C. Dark & R. G. Rose (eds.). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Sotheby’s (2003). Interior Decorator, Including the Anthony Forge Collection. London: Sotheby’s Olympia.
Tambiah, Stanley J. (2002). Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press.