“Myth + Magic; Art of the Sepik River”, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until November 2015.

Four impressive Malu plaques from Australian museum collections are at the heart of the Myth +Magic exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Malu plaques from East Sepik Province are objects of mystery, since these obviously important ritual carvings ceased to be used more than 100 years ago and little is known about them. Some believe them to have been carved by the Sawos people and traded into Iatmul men's houses for use in mortuary or initiation rites or in ritual skull displays. Left to right: 1. Malu plaque, 19th century , wood,181 x 57 x 8 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, acquired from Anthony Forge,1977. 2. Malu Plaque, 19th to early 20thcentury, wood , ochre, 187 x 46.8 x 7.5 cm, on loan from Museum Victoria X42471,acquired form George William Lambeth Townsend, 1935. 3. Malu Plaque, Torembi Village, 19th to early 20thcentury, wood ,ochre, 138 x 24.5 x 7 cm, on loan from Museum Victoria X42470,acquired form George William Lambeth Townsend, 1935. 4. Malu plaque ,19th or early 20th century, wood, ochres, fibre, 154.4 x 46.5 x7.4 cm, on loan from the Queensland University Museum of Anthropology, 23100.

Many Oceanic art lovers are aware of  the big  Sepik  art exhibition staged consecutively in Berlin, then Zurich and currently in Paris, where it is on view at the Quai Branly until the end of January 2016. It was originally launched in Berlin as Tanz der Ahnen or Dance of the Ancestors and displays around 200 works, (the number varies slightly from city to city), mostly 19th century examples of Sepik art drawn largely from the impressive collections of the Berlin and other German museums.

You may not be aware, however, that there is also a second smaller show that celebrates the legendary art of this celebrated PNG River with a different point of view and an impact way above Its size.  It is called Myth + Magic and is currently on view at the National Gallery of Australia till the end of October.

At first glance, the gulf between these two exhibitions seems to be unbridgeable. One draws initially on the 60,000 strong Oceanic collection of the Berlin Museum of Ethnography, the officially designated collection point for ethnographic material gathered in all the 19th century German colonies and spheres of influence in the South Seas, and displays around 200 artworks. The other features 85 artworks drawn almost exclusively from Australian museum collections, with a small number of important loans from the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery and a handful of  artworks from private collections.

19th century ancestor hook

PNG East Sepik Province, Torembi Village, Kipma Tagwa (personal name), ancestor hook, mid to late 19th century, wood, shell, patina, 104.5 x 60 x 4.5 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Purchased 2014. This rare example of a 19th century ancestor hook was stone carved and fixed to one of the main poles of the Yaminaba Clan men's house, high up near the rafters. Kipma Tagwa depicts a primordial female ancestor crouching in the act of giving birth above two hooks possibly used to hold skulls,

The European exhibition  is curated by a  troika of household names – Markus Schindlbeck, immediate past curator of the Berlin collection and Philippe Peltier, of the Musée du quai Branly, with  Christian Kaufmann, ex-Basel Museum, as a guest curator, the other is curated by the NGA’s Crispin Howarth, now staging his fourth exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Quite a contrast, but I venture to suggest that the Canberra show will not leave visitors feeling disappointed or fobbed off with second best.

How  is this possible? How can a relatively  young museum with a 20th century colonial history and  far more limited resources present a show that can stand  comparison  with an exhibition  staged in concert by three of Europe’s greatest museums and curators?  Mainly, I suspect, because of the power and resilience of Sepik art, but also because  the negative impact of colonialism on Sepik art in the time between the German annexure of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland in 1884, the subsequent 1914 invasion, the post-WW1  British-Australian takeover as a UN Trust Territory, and  up until  WW2 was fairly light. Politically, the Sepik was not a single political entity, but a series of language groups and small villages which was difficult to control from a central point. In fact, the Sepik was not even governed as a separate area until 1924, while the upper reaches did not come under full government control until the 1960s. Colonial influence was slow and limited -  even that of the missionaries who could not expand quickly without government support and protection. The German authorities barely scraped the surface of Sepik culture, and the British and Australian trustees were limited by the financial and other demands of post-war reconstruction.

“]Brag Mask

Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Gweim [brag mask),mid to late 19th century wood, ochres, cane, shell104 x 28 x 26 cm PNG National Museum and Art Gallery. Brag masks are powerful ritual masks from the Murik Lakes area of the Lower Sepik and represents a specific war spirit (or brag) and htis example has th epersonal name of Gweim. Brag masks were traditionally worn by masked performers, but because of its size, Gweim would have been displayed on a cane framework in the men's house, Brag masks were an essential feature of head hunting and war rituals and would symbolically drink the blood of enemies killed in head hunting raids.

There were several German scientific voyages up the Sepik and a fair amount of material collected, but very little colonial settlement – the white colonists preferred to establish plantations on the coast and offshore islands rather than on the Sepik, which was  regarded as a steaming, insect-ridden wilderness, with indentured coastal plantation labour as its only ‘export’. In 1914, when Australian troops invaded on behalf of Britain, there were less than 750 German nationals in all of German New Guinea.  In fact, it was possibly an Australian naval officer who changed the river’s name from the Kaiserin -Augusta fluss to the Sepik River, which he understood was its native name. 

Since the motivation for the creation of Sepik art was religious, and this religious practice  continued largely unabated until at least the 1930s, carvings and other art forms from the Sepik created during this period for ceremonial use were  remarkably unaffected by colonial influences.  (Inland British New Guineas was no different – the famous anthropologist F E Williams was recording complex Hevehe ceremonial cycles there in the 1930s). Almost all Sepik traditional carvings were conceived as loci for powerful spirit entities that would encourage a spirit to take up residence  in the men’s house or village  for the duration of a ceremony, or perhaps longer, and within  conservative Sepik  Tribal societies, this spiritual role survived for decades under often nominal   white control. When the Field Museum’s A B Lewis visited the Sepik in 1912 he declared that the area had been cleaned out of artefacts by collectors – only to be proved wrong thousands of time over in following decades. 

Another factor is that collection dates are helpful,  but often misleading. We now know from John Freide’s pioneering carbon dating of New Guinea art that many Sepik sculptures can be several hundred to more than 1000 years old. What  20th century collection dates really show is that  traditional owners often held on to older chip-carved and even pre-contact  carvings  until they lost their relevance, well into the 20th century.

It is worth noting, vis a vis the endurance of Sepik art in general and this NGA exhibition in particular, that these were not the only 85 old and outstanding  pieces Howarth could scrape together in Australia for this exhibition. His problem was lack of space in the NGA’s temporary exhibition area rather than lack of candidate pieces.As Howarth  says, he could have shown at least twice the number of outstanding Sepik artworks if he had double the space to show them in. Certainly a veritable river of Sepik art poured in into Australia between 1890 and 1960, a time when Australian and German labour recruiters, kiaps, traders and dealers were active as art dealing middlemen. Howarth was frankly amazed at the treasures he discovered resting quietly in the storerooms of   both well known and obscure Australian museums, much of it not on display.

One other special feature of the Canberra show is the fact that it includes five large artworks on loan from the PNG National Museum, the first such international loan ever. The highlight of this rare cultural loan is the 6 metre (20 foot) Karawari crocodile, but the  three large  figures that accompany it are almost equally impressive.

Melanesian societies are generally thought to be fairly male dominated , but I was surprised at the number of powerful carvings in this exhibition featuring female subjects in hooks and figural carvings. One of the most impressive of these was this Lower Sepik carving of a woman giving birth from the South Australian Museum Collection, which continues to have more Melanesian and Polynesian art on permanent display than any other Australian institution. Birthing figure, 19th - early 2oth century prior to 1937, wood, patina, on loan from the South Australian Museum,A39144.

One major point of difference between thethe two exhibitions is that Myth + Magic adopts an art gallery approach to   the exhibiting  of Oceanic art. As you can see by visiting Youtube -(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afFYEKAecHE) the Berlin staging of Tanz der Ahnen is an absolutely classic museum installation. It opens with documentary footage and contemporary interviews and its objective is clearly didactic, to teach Europeans about  human existence in the South Seas and the ways in which the displayed objects interact with everyday life and beliefs.

By contrast, although Myth + Magic follows a logical sequence of style areas  tracing the Sepik and its main tributaries from the Murik Lakes near the mouth  to the Keram and Yuat Rivers and then onto the Iatmul and Sawos villages of the Middle Sepik and the Korewori region of the Sepik uplands,  these  areas flow into one another like the river itself. All the artworks are displayed against dark coloured walls or on dark plinths and lit for maximum impact, with fairly minimal labelling – the objective is to convey the visual impact of the pieces, rather than provide a survey of Sepik style areas.

Tanz der Ahnen and its successive iterations in Zurich and Paris  are a wonderful and extensive celebration of Sepik art, enhanced by the experience and knowledge of three of the most respected Oceanic Art curators in the world today. It is also a fitting coda to the dedicated curatorship of the Berlin collection by Markus Schindlbeck.  Above all, however, it draws on the power and magnificence of Sepik art and native resistance against an invasive  colonial administration and active missionary activity  by the people of the Sepik during the first 100 years of colonial occupation. Myth + Magic at the NGA is a smaller, but no less emphatic statement, focussing on art rather than ethnography , and the result is with two very different voyages exploring PNG’s  great river of art.

For those who cannot make it to Australia, the NGA has produced a handsome catalogue of background  essays and photographs  as a record of Myth + Magic. And for those who might miss it in Europe, there is an equally rewarding catalogue in German (‘Tanz der Ahnen’). I suspect that neither of these will replicate the experience of walking through these exhibitions in person, but you could find it entertaining to compare the photographs in each book – David Said, Sydney, October 2015


 Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Korewori River, Kundima village.19th century, wood32 x 631 x 32 cm. PNG National Museum and Art Gallery The centrepiece of Myth+ Magic, in terms of size and impact alone, is this 19th century Saki or carved ceremonial crocodile from the Ambonwari people of the Korewari River. The figure, which is more than six metres (almost 20 feet) long was once one of a pair that guarded the village , hidden from the view of the uninitiated and “fed” betel nut, food and even human heads (following successful raids). These crocodiles played a vital role in initiation and other important ceremonies, when they were paraded through the crowded men’s house carried on the shoulders of many men on thick bamboo poles inserted into the holes at the base. This is the first time this sculpture has ever left PNG “Saki [spirit crocodile], Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Korewori River, Kundima village.19th century, wood32 x 631 x 32 cm. PNG National Museum and Art Gallery




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