On permanent loan from the Collection of the Salgo Trust for Education
Study Area, 9th floor, Axinn Library
(Ended March 2000)
Of the three South Pacific culture areas, the 2,500-mile double chain of islands named Melanesia ("Black Islanders") is the most culturally varied and complex. Less than Polynesia in spatial sprawl, but considerably larger than Micronesia in island size and population diversity, Melanesia today holds several island nations and a few "colony" provinces of other nations. Its largest island is New Guinea, some 1,300 miles long (the world's second largest island) and immediately north of Australia, separated from it by the 100-mile wide Torres Straits. The western half of the island of New Guinea is a province of Indonesia, West Irian Jaya. The eastern half, Papua New Guinea, became an independent nation state in 1975. It is from Papua New Guinea that most of the Salgo Melanesian materials derive, particularly the Sepik River district. In 1989 Papua New Guinea's 3,736,386 population had 715 indigenous languages spread through the country's 415,710 square kilometers of territory bordered by 5,152 kilometers of coastline. The northeastern flow of the Sepik River extends hundreds of miles and remains one of the major ground transportation paths for the country (of whose 19,200 kilometers of roads, only 640 kilometers are paved). Villages among the Sepik are bounded by rainforest and, in traditional times, friendly contact between neighboring settlements was rare. Hence along the Sepik, many regional variations on common cultural themes and artistic styles can be found. The modern world has yet to intrude parasitic layers of technology between the Sepik peoples and their physical environment. While they can be considered "primitive," living in close harmony with nature, their artistic motifs and methods represent the sophisticated relationship of their myths, history and moral beliefs with their daily lives.
The Art of New Guinea and the Sepik River District
The highest form of material culture for the peoples of New Guinea, "art," as Westerners now properly term it, is linked to their fundamental needs for survival and security; continuity and stability; equilibrium and balance. All complex species seek the survival of their kind and a real sense of security from known and unknown forces. For most people in the Primitive Tradition, nature was the repository of the unpredictable, capricious elements and from these, the people desired protection and the security it brought. Hence, one of the motivations for the manufacture of art was its ability to protect, to help assure survival and security through an apotropaic function: to guard against caprice and to nurture the good, the "people." Once somewhat assured of survival and security, complex species and societies strive for continuity and stability. Social organizations and their members seek continuation beyond any individual's life, and if this perpetuation appears assured, a stability in organizational goals and norms often is achieved. Hence, a second motivation for art among peoples of New Guinea was for it to serve as an agent of socialization, a symbol of the people's attitudes, values and behaviors to unite the generations. Once linked by the processes of socialization, the succeeding generation continues the norms and beliefs of the preceding one whose members have passed into the world of ancestors.
The continuity of one generation with the next, and for that matter, with all generations obliges a living presence of ancestors from all ages. This, then, is the equilibrium and balance that all humans desire for their history and its actors. For the peoples of New Guinea, the most memorable actors are mythical and genealogical (historical) ancestors of importance to clan lineages. Apparently, important equated with recent, those with the most contemporary experiences in both natural and spiritual worlds, for example, the newly dead. The Sepik River peoples of Papua New Guinea were absorbed with achieving an equilibrium between the past and the present and their art was motivated as much by the resolution of this psychic need as it was by its use to help assure survival and security as well as social continuity and stability. With equilibrium of past and present, ancestors and humans, the spirit world and the earthly realm, all the elements of human existence were to become in balance. To achieve satisfaction of the totality of human needs and desires through objects of art is a heavy demand, so heavy that trust in the job was relegated to the supervision of elders. Often the precise meaning, the content or subject matter of an individual piece, was the intellectual property of a clan's few elders, and we will not know what their minds inherited or intended the exact meaning to be. They did not wish us to, for their art was to serve their "people" and not those who would threaten survival physically, continuity economically, and equilibrium morally or religiously.
As part of the primitive tradition, New Guinea's art and its complex functions were grounded in what the people found, figuratively and literally, in nature. While motivation, function and meaning are figurative messengers of cosmological beliefs, forms and materials literally represent their natural environment.
Much New Guinea and Sepik art is sculpted from locally available woods. Sculpture--frontal principally, but in the round often for utilitarian objects or sacred objects meant to be seen in open space--was their chief medium, and both colors and materials were added to the wood to bring the finished piece to full significance. Colors came from earth and vegetable pigment; added materials were shells, seeds, feathers, fur, grasses and flowers. Much of what we see has lost the added materials, and colors have faded. When in original New Guinea/Sepik context, artistic objects were renewed to full significance by the application of fresh pigments and materials when judged necessary by their trustees. The style of New Guinea/Sepik art is curvilinear--painted and sculpted curvilinear patterns on plastic, sculpted surfaces or the less familiar 2-D shields, banners or palm spathe paintings. The curvilinear patterns, applied with geometric sensitivity to surface shape and the need for acceptable meaning, often have spiral hooks meandering over surface sections; when spiral hooks meandering or connected are absent, concentric circles appear, again with a sensitivity to surface.
A few figures in the exhibition at Hofstra exemplify a substyle of the more prevalent New Guinea/Sepik artistic language, and that is the "Beak," a regional variation of the lower Sepik and environs. In these areas, a figure's nose descends into a prominent tip occasionally reaching to the chin or further into the lower anatomy. Complimentary to this distinctive representation of nose is narrowing of the face along a perpendicular axis with corresponding slanting eyes. Lost in history is the reason for this unique facial appearance; over the current century, Western scholars have postulated the nose "beak" as a sign of clan identification with the totem hornbill bird or as a provincial adaptation of the Hindu/Balinese Ganesha elephantine god of wisdom and scholarship.
The placement or location of these objects varied, but most often the Tambaran Men's House was the residence. The Tambaran secret men's society and house have been defined as an embrace of tradition, community, ancestors and the dead. Frontal sculpture was placed along the interior walls, and similar ancestor forms also appeared on smaller suspension hooks to hold substances and objects up among the rafters of the saddle-shaped roof which could rise as high as 50 feet.
Sculpture in the round frequently was laced on the tops of the exterior gables as finials, clear announcers of the house as "Tambaran" and over protectors of the house's ancestral and living users. Raised on sturdy piles to surmount seasonal Sepik floods, the Tambaran House was the dominant physical feature of the environment, and often the landscaped adjacent clearing served as the arena for the performance of masquerades with masked dramatists in ancestral roles, important to socialization and the continuity of Sepik life.
The Tambaran House is the Sepik equivalent of a Western Fine Arts Museum turned into a religious shrine. For the West, the best of the past is preserved and displayed for those with occasion to view and debate. For the Sepik peoples, their Tambaran Men's House joins the mythical and ancestral past with the living world of the present to make them one entity, one world of sculptured mythical and genealogical ancestors united with the "people" in the Earth Mother's Tambaran house womb. This unity of spirit and flesh no longer has salience for the Western tradition, but the display of the Museum's Melanesian collection allows an evocation of a people's need for unity of mind, body, spirit and nature.
Director, Hofstra Museum