Art of the Ramu River, Papua New Guinea

February 19, 2003 @ 12:45 pm – 1:45 pm
Main Auditorium
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A Lecture

by Dirk Smidt, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Zena Kruzick

Dirk Smidt, Curator of the Department of Oceania at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands, presented FEA with two separate lectures this evening on the art of the Ramu River. In the first he explored the art of the  Kominimung people, while during the second he explained the complexities of a Gamei community festival.

Smidt took us on a journey to the village of the Kominimung people, a matrilineal culture on the Goam River, a western tributary of the Ramu River, inland from the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea. It was here that he did not find the usual traces of outside influence on the art, such as images of crucifixes and airplanes, and for this reason decided to live in the village for six months to photograph and study the symbolic meaning of their work.

The structuring of clans in this region was accomplished through the division of the “primeval mother” into a daughter and son, ceremonial moieties of “red eyes” and “black eyes,” respectively. On the side of the red eyes we find catfish, pig, hornbill, and bamboo clans; the black eyes moiety contains the crocodile, sago grub, flying fox and coconut clans. These are the symbols that are incorporated into the art of each clan and therefore identify the origin of a particular piece. As an intriguing aside, we discovered that it is strictly taboo for a member of a particular clan to eat the flesh of the animal (or plant) portrayed by its symbol.

The carved wood artifacts of the Kominimung are of three primary types: masks, figures and shields. Male masks influence the success of hunting and warfare; female masks ensure the fertility of gardening and the harvest. One-legged figures are used in initiation rituals and are thumped on the backs and chests of the young initiates to propel them into adulthood and marriage. In the past, the carved shields embodied the spirits of the ancestors and the clan identity of the warrior, both protecting him during battle.

Mask-making is restricted to men who work in secluded spots far from the eyes of women. This is true for the carving of the one-legged figures as well, but not of the shields, since they are no longer used in actual battle, but made only for sale to westerners.

Smidt described and illustrated with beautiful slides the   making of a shield that he had commissioned. The carver was a young man who expertly wielded ax, adz, and various knives to shape the piece and carve the designs a 55 hour endeavor from start to finish. Since the shield represents an actual ancestor of the tribe, it is related to a human being and is therefore composed of symbolically similar materials. The white wood represents the bone of the ancestor, a red bark-pigmented layer is the blood and flesh, and an outer layer of mud, the black skin. When the final incised carving is painted, the shield is transformed from mere human ancestor into supernatural being, similar to the process of transformation that takes place when the villagers’ bodies are painted for ritual dance.

Asked by Smidt why the more recently created shields seemed to be getting larger, the artist replied, “The larger the shield we make, the more money we get from you.”

Moving downriver towards the Sepik-Ramu delta, Smidt brought us to an end-of-mourning festival in the Damur village. The cultures in this area are of patrilineal decent, with hereditary clan leaders who maintain order, organize feasts and rituals, and represent the interests of the village. This particular festival was organized by a “big man,” one of the clan leaders, who initiated the event as a response to insults cast upon the Damur people by a neighboring village. The purpose of this festival was to honor the recently deceased and provide closure for the living – a ‘time out of time’ when the ancestral spirits visited, strengthening the community and the position of the Big Man as a  respected leader. More important, however, was the opportunity to meet the challenge presented in an ongoing ‘prestige fight’ and secure the reputation of the Damur  people.

Complex preparations over two years preceded the three month festival. Pigs and rice were exchanged with other villages for several masks as well as skirts for the initiation of a few young girls. A house tambaran (spirit house) was built and fenced off for the privacy of the initiated mask dancers, and the personal belongings of the dead were burned to the music of sacred flutes.

Masks are associated with three distinct areas: the bush, the water (river or sea), and the village. During the festival, masker activities include asking for food, dancing, ritual killing of pigs, and comically entertaining their audience. Some maskers are dangerous and aggressive, throwing spears and threatening villagers. Others are peaceful, swaying their grass skirts to men singing and drumming. All the masks are worn and handled only by initiated men.

To conclude the festival, a tally of the proceedings was kept by pieces of sago stem tied to a rope, proudly  displayed by the Big Man as a testament to his skills in   organizing such a grand festival. The count included the number of pigs slaughtered, the number of spirits represented by maskers, spirits manifested through sacred music, and the total financial expenditure. This tally was finally presented by a neutral party to the antagonistic neighboring village as a challenge to be bested, a formidable total of 39 masked spirits and 31 pigs. The status of the Big Man was confirmed not only to his own people but to all the villages in the area.