George J. Craig: Hunter and Collector George J. Craig: Hunter and Collector By Crispin Howarth For the past decade I have been lucky enough to have the privilege of friendship with George Craig. Craig’s name is associated with excellent pieces of Oceanic art found in museums across Europe and America, private collections the world over and, of course, in this present exhibition. But what does any collector or institution really know about the field collector George Craig? Craig is a living piece of the Australian cultural landscape: a world-renowned crocodile hunter and expert in his field (perhaps the greatest hunter of the greatest reptiles of them all), yet he has the grace and good nature to not let awful things like ego get in the way of his passion for the art of all the islands north of Australia, including New Guinea. Collecting is a happy affliction which Craig contracted early in his life. In 1939 Craig moved to England from his birthplace of Peru shortly before the outbreak of war. Some of Craig’s earliest memories are of travelling to Holborn and Paddington, where many antiquarian and curiosity shops plied their trade in the exotic objects from the colonies. Meeting Irish whalers and watching taxidermists at work was a joy for Craig, as was visiting the cornucopian shop called Germaine’s, which was packed to the rafters with the spoils of the British Empire. One morning after a German bombing blitz, Craig remembers standing in awe at the remains of a high building—a curiosity shop cleft open by a blast with the entire front shorn away, revealing floor after floor of art from around the world, stuffed tigers, zebras, Pacific canoes, African shields and carvings: “I presumed the many huge museums from the Victorian age held all the relics brought back—I did not realise there was so much fascinating stuff from around the world that could be crammed into this one little place.” After the war, as an energetic teenager, Craig joined the Earl’s Court 1947 Aqua Show, working alongside Joe Louis and Johnny Weissmuller. Soon after, however, Craig travelled to Australia’s Northern Territory to learn the skills of crocodile hunting. Craig turned his hand to hunting crocodiles in the Northern Territory of Australia in 1951 until a 1956 Sydney newspaper advertisement, “Crocodile hunters required in Papua,” sent Craig ferrying across to the Papuan Gulf. Settling on Daru Island, near the mouth of the Fly River and the Torres Strait Islands, Craig established a store managed by his wife, Shirley, whilst he hunted the large crocodiles along the Fly River. It is here that he first encountered the arts of the region, which instantly struck a chord. For the next sixteen years he collected artifacts happily while conducting his crocodile business. The crocodile skin trade involved both hunting and visiting communities to purchase skins. This extensive travel from village to village gave Craig a perfect opportunity to collect art. In this pursuit, Craig went through a number of vessels; one of the first was a 54-foot-long Japanese-built boat unsuitable to the environment that quickly rotted and sank. But two of his favourite boats were the 30-hp MV Jesse and later the 45-foot-long MV Janis B. Usually Craig employed a crew of eight men (mainly Kiwai Islanders) on the 1,200-mile return trip up the Fly River. Each vessel would also tow flat-bottomed skiff boats powered by small 5-hp Seagull compression motors to get into remote swamp areas. Craig made repeat visits, perhaps five or six times a year, to many areas still considered extremely remote today—hundreds of miles up the Fly River, the Strickland River, into the Aramia, Bamu, Gama, Turama Rivers and sometimes venturing to the east beyond Goaribari Island. During that time, Craig’s business netted close to thirty-eight thousand crocodile skins. At the same time he collected well over a thousand objects. Craig appreciated more than simply acquiring objects: “Nothing can compare to when you first see or enter a Papuan longhouse: the smell, the light and the sense of life, at that time. Longhouses were alive; they were living parts of the people. I was not inclined to buy at first; the thought did not connect, as it was just spiritually overwhelming to be in a longhouse.” Yet, over time, in different villages, relationships were made and slowly objects were offered. In Craig’s view, opportunities to buy the art only happened when you were both well regarded by the people and the object was no longer needed by the community. This was the case with an important Irivake figure from Maiaki village now in a private collection. As Craig recalled, “The Maiaki village longhouse was unusual, for instead of facing the river or coast it ran parallel to the river. After some discussion I could only purchase the figure because, from what I could work out, the Irivake spirit was being blamed for some social problems and it was thought that the village would be better off bidding it good riddance.” Hunting crocodiles during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Craig observed old traditions giving way to modern times. This was markedly so on the Aramia River, where the Gogodala people live. Local pastors intent on importing their work scrubbed out generations of tradition by throwing ritual objects into the fire or tossing them into the bush to quietly disintegrate. Craig would revisit some villages to find all the traditional arts would be gone in a matter of a few years. When Craig had multiples of objects such as skull racks and gope boards, he would use them to decorate the sides of his boat. What finer sight than a boat protected by a wall of spirit boards? This, in part, led to the sale of objects to the rare visitors to the area interested in collecting Papuan Gulf art—such as Bruce Seaman, Linda Cunningham, Wayne Heathcote and L.R. Webb. Craig deserves better recognition not just for his extensive artefact collecting and promotion of local carvers but for his skills in capturing crocodiles—a very precarious way to earn a living. One notable piece of hunting was the capture of Gomek, a 17½-foot-long colossus of a crocodile at the junction of the Asur and Fly Rivers in 1968. Gomek was known in Motu, the lingua franca of the area, as Louma whalla coremana dikana—the evil black spirit crocodile. And Gomek was, understandably, a very real and dangerous bush monster to the local community. Gomek and other large crocodiles were kept by Craig to establish the Marineland Melanesia aquatic museum in 1972. This is where Craig’s collection of historical maritime items with a wide array of New Guinea and Indonesian arts serve as a backdrop to the most primal of creatures—the saltwater crocodile. Marineland Melanesia on Green Island, just offshore from Cairns, is perhaps as hallowed a place as the longhouses that once existed along the Papuan Gulf. It is the only place in the world where you can view New Guinea art alongside crocodiles—beasts that will quietly eye you as keenly as you eye the art. I recently asked Craig about the trepidation he must have felt in following the newspaper advertisement half a century earlier recruiting crocodile hunters for New Guinea: “I did it just for the adventure, really. It was all sort of a dream and I guess after all these years it has turned out that way.” I have heard no truer words, as the adventures Craig has experienced in hunting and collecting can only be a distant dream for many.