The Good, the Bad and the Great:The Aesthetics of New Guinea Art

February 5, 2002 @ 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm
California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco

Slide Lecture

by Michel Hamson

Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

Michael Hamson, a dealer in tribal art of Oceania, gave a slide-illustrated talk on the art of New Guinea. He divided the talk into three parts.

In the first part, he discussed New Guinea, its people and their art. The people speak over 700 languages, an indication of the long time the land has been settled. While most of the island remained unknown until World War II, since that time Australian bush patrols have subdued the entire area, suppressing traditional warfare, headhunting and cannibalism in the process. Even so, the majority of the islanders seldom see outsiders.  The lingua franca is pidgen English.

An important consideration to remember is that these pieces are seldom seen here as they were originally seen. Almost all New Guinea art is accretive, composed of the most diverse materials. As an example, Hamson showed a photo of a large yam,  Dioscorea esculenta, that had been grown by a man of the Abelum tribe, in the Maprik district. The yam was decorated with a wooden mask, surmounted by a woven headdress.  The mask, headdress, and yam were painted with bright earth pigments.  Bird feathers were inserted in the woven headdress, and necklaces of seeds and iridescent shells draped around the image. In a Western context, only the mask and perhaps the woven headdress would be exhibited;  yet, to the Abelum, these would not necessarily be the most important components – if anything, the yam would be. But more important than any one component would be the assemblage, which would be used in inter-village competitions, wherein the largest yam with the most elaborate ornaments would bear away the prize.

The second part of the talk touched on Hamson’s methods of collecting. With a backpack of basic supplies, and a ready supply of cash, he traverses the remote areas of the hinterlands, not infrequently running across people who have never seen a white man before.  He depends  on the goodwill and hospitality of the people who, according to Hamson, have these traits in abundance, gladly sharing with him their dwellings and simple food. (He has only been robbed once, and that was in Port Moresby). He inquires about any objects they might be willing to sell. They are not always eager to do so. He showed a picture of an old man with an ancient and beautiful drum, with which the man was unwilling to part. The man’s sons, however, promised to sell it to Hamson upon the elder’s demise.

The final, and principal, part of the talk concerned those qualities Hamson considered integral to great pieces, using as illustration, in part, a polychrome Abelam sculpture.

The first of these is age, in this context, something made before contact with the outside world – or, at least, before European cultures made much impact on the indigenous cultures. As European culture, in its familiar guise of guns and missionaries, led to a near immediate collapse of native culture, there was but a short transition from traditional to semi-acculturated.

A second criterion is clarity of design, achieved through deep carving and well-thought-out and balanced compositions. Even within cultures that have retained some measure of traditional values, such as the Abelam, the earlier carvings are notably more carefully articulated, and deeply carved by the stone and shell implements that were then at the artists’ disposal.

A third criterion is color. Almost all New Guinea carvings were originally brightly polychromed. While the native paint has in many instances worn off  or even, in some instances, been intentionally removed), it is desirable to find sculptures with as much pigment left as possible. Not only were the paints integral to the original concepts, but they also add greatly to the objects’ charm.

Another criterion is originality. Although tradition mandated the subjects, materials, and largely the compositions of different objects, certain artists were always willing to push the boundaries of those traditions to create something unique, and even startling. This might be expressed in myriad ways, such as exaggerated volume or asymmetry;  but the overall effect is immediately noticeable, when the piece is compared to others of its type.

Finally, there is an indefinable quality that might be called presence: that quality by virtue of which a piece appears to be staring back at its audience. The viewer is engaged with the artist through the medium of the work of art. While this may be especially easy to discern in masks and statues, it is also a trait found in the best examples of more abstracted work, including jewelry and ornaments. Indigenous peoples around the world recognize this quality which, however, they typically refer to as a form of spirit or power indwelling within the object, and infused into it at the time of its creation.