Towers of Power: Ngol land diving rituals in Vanuatu.

 

 

Alan Bebe, the senior diver of Pangi village, has claimed the honour of diving from the very top of the gol tower. He stands before the tower with his ankle vines draped over his shoulders, spiritually preparing himself to dive. All photographs copyright David Kirkland

A man stands at the very top of a makeshift tower 15 – 25 meters (50 – 80 feet) off the ground. He dives off it head first as a watching crowd of women and children chant encouragement.

He is an experienced diver and a man of high status who has dived many times before. Out of respect for kastom, he wears only a nambas penis wrap secured to his waistband and the curved pig tusks which are a symbol of his membership of the village grade society. Photograph copyright David Kirkland

He plummets straight down, but just before this head is about to strike the ground and possibly break his neck, he is pulled short by flexible jungle vine ropes tied to his ankles and stands up to triumphant applause. So ends the Ngol, the ancient land diving ritual of Pentecost Island in Vanuatu.

The tower or gol after which the ceremony is named may look makeshift, but there is nothing haphazard about its construction. It is always built to the same pattern and represents a human body with a head, torso, waist and legs. Its foundation is a large tree with its branches pruned  to the required shape and enclosed in a scaffolding of smaller tree trunks and saplings tied together with bush vines. The tower is secured on all sides by guy lines of creepers anchored to surrounding tree trunks  to stop it from swaying too much when the wind blows and the earth at the foot of the tower is dug over to provide a softer landing than the hard ground.  The science of Pentecost land diving is a precise one. There is a specific diving platform built for each individual diver and these are positioned at different heights depending on the ability, experience and status of the diver.

.…He reaches the topmost platform of the tower, secures his ankle ropes … Photop copyright David Kirkland

During the ceremony, each participant climbs up to his designated diving platform, ties the free end of the vines to the platform, and dives off. The threat of death or seriously injury is a real one,but mir-   aculously, the creeper stretches just enough to break the diver’s fall just as his heads brushes the ground, and he stands up and walks away unharmed. This precisely calculated landing is largely the result of the skills of the specialists who measure and cut the creepers for the ankle ropes, but also due to the design of the diving platforms themselves, which   break off and hinge downwards when the diver leaps to help break his fall.A personal set of vine ropes is measured and cut for each diver with the ends beaten to a soft fibre and bound in bark so that they do not dry out out and remain flexible for safe attachment to the diver’s ankles. The aim is to have the ankle ropes just long enough for the diver’s hair to brush the earth and so fertilise the growing yams without breaking his neck,for the Ngol is a fertility ceremony performed to honour the yam god and administered by the senior members of yam growing cult in each village .

... and dives off head first to enthusiastic cheering. singing and dancing form the crowd below .... Photo copyright David Kirkland

It is a religious festival and rituals and protocols must be strictly observed or the participants will be punished by serious injury or death. Only the senior diver who planted the first corner post will have the privilege of diving from the platform at the very top, and every participant must abstain from sexual contact in the period before the dive. The divers must also wear traditional dress,  the nambas or leaf penis wrapping secured to a waistband and the curved pig tusk neck ornament if the wearer has a grade which  entitles him to wear it. Any other charm or ornament is forbidden.The land diving rituals take place in each year during March and April and the timing  is absolutely  critical. The dive can only be conducted safely when the creepers have enough sap running to remain elastic and flexible. One of the very few fatalities recorded in modern times occurred during the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 to Vanuatu in February 1974, when a diving ceremony was held in her honour before the vines were strong enough. During the diving ceremony itself, excitement builds throughout the day as the divers slowly advance up the body of the gol, starting with young boys who dive from the legs, and ending with the final hero at the top of the head. The crowd surrounds the base of the tower with the women and children capping rhythmically and cheering every diver. Men and boys are not forced to take part in the land diving ceremony. Participation is absolutely voluntary and those who want to dive train from a very young age – as young as eight years old. 

his head brushes the ground, but the vines save him

...his head brushes the ground, but the vines save him. They must be just the right length and have enough flex to absorb the weight of the divers body. Photo copyright David Kirkland

Several villages in South Pentecost stage ngol ceremonies each year and some dedicated divers will travel from village to village and dive three or four times a year.

Why do they do it? While land diving is not part of any grade ritual, it is a high status activity and one which would have been regarded as an essential tribute to the spirit responsible for ensuring a good yam crop,

It is in essence not just  a celebration  of yams, but of the fertility of human beings , pigs and the survival of the village itself. It is a religious experience for which the diver is spiritually and physically prepared and which is undertaken with awareness of the risks involved, but without fear.

Rituals in Vanuatu are protected by tribal copyright and the ngol belongs to the yam cult of the Bunlap area and  the ceremonies were traditionally centred in just five villages around Bunlap in South Pentecost. Recently, however, the leaders of the yam cult gave their permission for the Christianised  villages in the area to perform it on condition that the divers wore traditional costume only (i.e. a penis wrap) and respected the yam spirit associated with the ceremony.There is, in fact, a strong incentive to perform the dive with the correct mental attitude and respect since the elders believe that not to do so will invite accident, injury and death for the diver.

Young initiated boys jump from the lower platforms to assert their manhood. One of them waves triumphantly as he is held aloft after completing his dive. Photo copyright David Kirkland

 In reality, the skill of the men who build the tower and experience of the specialists who select, cut measure and tie the creepers is such that there are very few injuries and even fewer deaths when dives are performed under traditional kastom supervision.  Anyone who has ever watched footage of the New Zealand sport of bungy jumping, where young (mostly) tourists  leap from bridges with their  feet tied to the railing with  elastic bands, will immediately see that it derives from the Pentecost ceremony.

Kirk Huffman likes to  tell the tale of the Pentecost chief who contacted the New Zealand  government to tell them  that  they were quite happy not to charge a fee for every bungy jump, but they would like to have it publicly acknowledged that the rights to the ceremony were owned by the yam clans of Bunlap.

My thanks to respected Australian travel photographer David Kirkland, who recently photographed  this Pentecost land diving ceremony. Please note that all photographs reproduced in this article are copyright David Kirkland. To see the complete online portfolio, order prints or purchase reproduction rights, visit www. http://www.kirklandphotos.goinglive.com.au/download/LAND/

Witness the Ngol Ceremony yourself in 2014.
David Kirkland will be personally escorting a tour of enthusiasts who wish to see and photograph the Ngol ceremony in South  Pentecost lsland in March/April 2014. Further enquiries: david@kirklandphotos.com

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50 and Fabulous! The Fowler celebrates with multiple one-off tribal exhibitions.

 The Fowler at UCLA has just turned 50 and  to celebrate this milestone, they are  honoring their donors old and new by praising  the generosity that has made it possible to build up an amazing collection in only five decades.. First and foremost of these benefactors showcased  in a series of  exhibitions collectively titled “Fowler at 50″, is the Wellcome Trust, which donated the massive Wellcome collection in 1965 – all 30,000 pieces of it -  mainly from Oceania and Africa.

This outstanding harakeke (feather cloak), circa 1900, is woven in a geometric triangular pattern utilizing the bronze-green and white feathers of the fruit pigeon, with each triangle outlined in red and black feathers. This cloak has a fringe made of the feathers of the flightless kiwi bird, ref. X65.10283.

This gift is celebrated  by a showing of  some of its rarest objects. It is   titled “Maori Cloaks – Maori Voices” and presents 13 of these fascinating garments which are being exhibited by the Fowler for the first time. Many tribal art enthusiasts know the superb feather cloaks worn by persons of status on Hawaii, but are less aware of the traditions of woven and feathered cloak making among the Maori people of Aoteorea -New Zealand, who developed their own weaving and knotting techniques.

Among the Maori people, each of these cloaks would be regarded as a taonga or heirloom treasure worn by a venerated ancestor and imbued with his or her manna or  personal power.

This Maori feather cloak was made by the Whakaue tribe of the Rotorua District, Aotearoa in the 1880s. The red under-wing feathers of the large brown Kaka parrot which are finger woven into the flax fibre base of the cloak are a symbol of leadership and sacredness and acknowledge the status of the wearer. This cloak is enhanced by medallions of iridescent blue feathers and a wide, hand woven geometric pattern border called a taniko. ref. X65.8009.

Its is rare to have 13 of these priceless and fragile  objects on display in one place. and  the Fowler’s Senior Curator, Roy W Hamilton, has recruited four Maori textile conservators and tribal representatives to assist in presenting and interpreting the cloaks.

The Wellcome collection has a fascinating background story. British pharmaceuticals millionaire Henry Wellcome was fascinated by  tribal cultures from early childhood and amassed a huge personal collection with the aim of furthering international understanding  by exhibiting it  in a purpose-built museum. Forty years after his death, this dream had not been realised, and the  Trustees therefore donated the collection to the UCLA museum because it shared Wellcome’s  ideals.

This sensitive and expressive late 18th or early 19th century female ancestor from the Murik Lakes area (Lower Sepik) was gifted to the Fowler in the 1960s by Dr. and Mrs. George Kennedy, ref. X64.715.

 Of course the Fowler is much more than the custodian of the Wellcome Trust collection. Other major  donors include Jerome L Joss, who donated his extensive African and South East Asian collections, including an extensive collection of headrests published in his book “Sleeping Beauties”, and Samuel Eilenberg, who donated the world’s most extensive collection of tribal betel chewing equipment. Best of all, the Fowler continues to be supported by public  gifts of art and money  and is  still acquiring  works to fill gaps and update its collection  with contemporary cultural works  - it is a museum of living cultures as well as the past.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the second Pacific exhibition in this birthday series celebrates not one single donor, but many. Its focus is the Sepik, PNG’s river of art and, more specifically, on a period in the 1960s when American collectors became enthralled by the Sepik River as an art producing area that could rival African art for its originality and energy. Titled “From the Sepik to Los Angeles – art in migration”, it is drawn from the Fowler’s  holdings of 45,000 Sepik art works, of which a staggering 75% were individual donations made between 1963 – 1969.

What prompted this tremendous interest in the Sepik among US collectors during this 6 year period ? And how did it affect the artists producing the art in PNG as well as the American collectors who were clamouring for it with the same eagerness that gripped European collectors in the 1920s? These are some of the questions raised by the co-curators of this exhibition, the Fowler’s Roy W. Hamilton, and respected Californian field collector, researcher and art dealer Michael Hamson.

The impressive African holdings of the Fowler are also represented by two exhibitions. The first, “Double Fortune, Double Trouble – art for twins among the Yoruba”explores the power and prevalence of “two-ness” in Yorùbá art and thought -

Nor particularly old, but certainly elaborately dressed, these twin memorial figures (ere ibeji) wear elaborately beaded robes which are similar but not identical. Even though the deceased twin may have died at birth, these figures are always carved with adult faces which are not representational. Gift in Memory of Barbara Jean Jacoby, ref. X86.1085 a,b . Photo Dennis Nervig

as expressed in the famous Ibeji twin mourning figures. The Yoruba believe that twins share one soul, and that if one or both should die in childbirth or childhood, a protective statue must be carved. The statues, called Ibeji or ‘twin’, are honoured and handled by the parents throughout their lives as a memorial the lost child and  a protective  amulet for the surviving twin. This exhibition focuses on the carvers and their techniques and on the way the twin figures were treated and transformed by the families who commissioned them. It is curated by internationally renowned Yoruba art authority Henry Drewal and shows more than 150 Ibeji, an impressively large corpus of carvings of the same genre, enabling issues of apprenticeship, degrees of carving skill, style and local innovation to be addressed.

The second African exhibition, ”Powerful Bodies”, is a display of 85 mainly 19th century objects of prestige adornment created by the Zulu speaking people of South Africa and I believe that  this is, too, is the first time these rare and beautiful pieces have been displayed.

Snuff container (idlelo), Zulu peoples, South Africa, Late 19th century, Fowler Museum at UCLA Gift of Jay T. Last. Ref. X2002.2.54

They include elegantly carved snuff horn containers worn as hair or body ornaments, intricately beaded belts and body jewellery and carved sticks with decorative finials.

None of these objects is solely  utilitarian and, unlike art produced in many other regions of Africa such as West Africa, few of these objects  is restricted to a specific rank or status of person, though they do carry messages of power and status.

These carved staffs, ear plugs, snuff containers and beaded body decorations were created purely for prestige and often worn or carried by their makers, and this is one reason why they were so original in their design and remarkable in their execution.

The other is that this exhibition corresponds to  a specific post-contact period in the 18th and 19th centuries when Zulu craftsmen and women were exposed to an  exciting new range of materials, including  the latest European bead colours and sizes, brass buttons and wire,  and responded with a flowering of creativity

The guest curator of this exhibition is Professor Anitra Nettleton, Director of Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Moving from the old world to the new, the Fowler presents a fascinating glimpse of another famous collection  in ,“Chupícuaro: The Natalie Wood Gift of Ancient Mexican Ceramics”, showcasing almost 70 of the 620 works presented to the museum by the well known actor in 1968.

Polychrome female ceramic figureValley of Acambaro (Guanajuato, Mexico). 400 - 100BCE, fgift of Natalie Weood. Ref. X68W.286. .

 Like the Lapita pottery of the Pacific, which crossed a wide swathe of the Pacific , the Chupícuaro pottery of pre-contact central Mexico influenced much pottery manufacture in Mexico and even extended to the South Western USA. Boldly patterned polychrome Chupícuaro works, including figurines, jars, and mammiform tripod vessels are a distinctive and iconic art form, though there are parallels with the work produced by neighboring cultures, and these are explored in this exhibition

There are  three more  exhibition staged in honour of this birthday celebration. The first, “New World Wunderkamer”, is an installation  project by contemporary Chicana artists Amalia Mesa-Bainswhich integrates objects from the Fowler collections with contemporary cultural icons and the artist’s own works.

The second, on “Peruvian 4 selvedged cloths” showcases the techniques used by the ancient weavers of Peru to create complex pictorial designs without cutting a thread, no matter how intricate the pattern or the garment or textile being woven might be.

Tapestry panel with crayfish North or central coast (?), Peru 1150–1450 C.E.. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert L. Lucas Jr. Ref. X86.3950

This exhibition highlights selections from the Fowler Museum’s noteworthy collection of PreColumbian textiles and includes ancient ritual textiles of the early Chavin and Paracas cultures (500–100 B.C.E.) and the extraordinary garments of the Inca empire (1485–1532 AD).

The third, “From X to Why: A Museum Takes Shape”,  explores the evolution of the Fowler through its earliest collections and examines thirty-five objects sculpture, including American Indian pottery and basketry, Latin American ceremonial dress, Peruvian vessels, Indonesian puppets, and European Carnival masks.

Fowler at Fifty is a rare opportunity to see many superb artworks in the Fowler Collection which have never before been on public display. Not to be missed if you live in the LA area or within driving distance, and well worth a visit or stopover if you are traveling to or within the USA. They are on view until the end of January or early February – see the Fowler website for details and dates.

David Said

All photographs this article (except the Yoruba twin figures by Denis Nervig)  are by Don Cole and are used courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

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New book honours New Guinea Connections & Collections.

Book Review: Collecting New Guinea Art: Douglas Newton, Harry Beran, Thomas Schultze-Westrum”. Edited  by Michael Hamson, text by Virginia-Lee Webb, Harry Beran, Michael Hamson and Thomas Schultze-Westrum. Collections photographed by Aaron Fallon. Published by Michael Hamson Oceanic Art, hard cover, 224 pages. Price US$45 plus mailing. Orders: mhamson@michaelhamson.com

Michael Hamson’s previous catalogues have concentrated on specific cultural style areas (the Boiken, the Papuan Gulf, West Sepik and Massim), but his latest, “Collecting New Guinea Art”,  marks a change of direction.

 It examines the   motivations and achievements of  three well known 20th Century collectors. Douglas Newton, who died in 2001, was the Director of Nelson Rockefeller’s Museum of Primitive Art and, finally, Curator Emeritus of its successor the Met, and is

Douglas Newton Collection: Upper Karawari Rivir, pre-contact fragment of a Yipwon figure, stone carved. Collected by Nils Madsen, whom Newton met in PNG in 1967 . Height 13 ½ inches / 34.5cm. *

probably better known as an art historian and  prolific author and exhibition creator than as  field collector. Harry Beran, author and  curator, is an academic philosopher and dedicated private collector of Massim art who once owned the world’s most representative private collection from this area. Thomas Shultze-Westrum is an academic writer and film producer on culture and zoology who, as a self-appointed preserver and protector of a disappearing culture, assembled one of   the world’s largest private collections of Papuan Gulf material.

The book is divided into three parts, and each opens with an illustrated essay on a specific collector, followed by a selection of 20 – 40 objects collected by him which have been beautifully photographed for this book by Aaron Fallon.  

In this process, a fourth collector is revealed, namely John Friede, who owns or owned all of these pieces as part of a private collection that was never  part of the original the De Young gift. This book

Douglas Newton Collection: 19th century, pre-contact, stone carved Middle Sepik hand drum, Iatmul or Sawos culture. Purchased by Newton form a Los Angeles dealer.Height 34 inches / 86.3cm.

therefore documents artworks in John and Marcia Friede’s private collection which have not been published before. Some of these artworks are currently offered for sale by Michael Hamson, and they are identified in the book and on his website.

The first section, on Douglas Newton, is written by Virginia-Lee Webb, who worked with him in the Rockefeller era and knew him well. It is written with a great deal of affection, not only setting out his achievements, but also communicating the insatiable curiosity and interest in unusual objects that drove him. He made 5 trips to PNG during the 1960s and 70s and later said that “Being on the Sepik in the 1960s was the best time of my life.” Newton’s knowledge of New Guinea art was, of course, vast, but his personal collecting seemed to be both informal and eclectic – he bought pieces that pleased him, often stone carved, and he was as likely to buy them at auctions or from dealers as he was to field collect them in New Guinea.

Harry Beran, who contributes his own introductory chapter, is a philosopher by training and an academic by trade. Impeccably rational, his dedication to collecting Massim art exclusively is an object lesson for every compulsive collector whose collection has grown out of control. Beran’s collection of 800+ objects, probably the largest private Massim art collection in the 20thcentury, was orderly, analysed and studied, but he was also touched by the emotional side

. Harry Beran Collection: Mid 20th century Massim canoe end attachment from Milne Bay province collected by Harry Beran and Athony Meyer in Wagawaga villge in 1989. Length 35 3/8 inches/ 90 cm.

of collecting. His many field trips, hopefully  ongoing as his researches continue, are a highlight of his life, as are his enduring relationships with individual islanders. He recalls, for example, how touched he was to meet and talk with Kanamweya, a famous kula canoe carver on Gawa island, because this master craftsman held his hand throughout the conversation as a traditional gesture of acceptance and friendship.

Michael Hamson, who wrote the introduction to Thoman Shultze Westrum’s collection probably had the most difficult section of the three to write – for Shultze Westrum, who currently lives on a Greek Island,  is a complex and enigmatic figure driven by a deep commitment to the survival of cultures – one is not surprised to learn that he completed his education in a monastery. He had, and still has, a wide-ranging interest in cultural survival and zoology as well as film making. When he encountered the art of the Papuan gulf as a young man, he did so at a time when its survival was under threat through the relentless onslaught of evangelical Christianity. By the late 1950s and

Harry Beran Collection: Southern Massim Region presentation axe haft from Milne Bay province purchased by Beran at a Sydney auction. It was collected by a member of the Whitton Family who were traders on Samarai Island in the 19th century. The stone blade is not original. It is a replacement pre-1890 blade quarried on Woodlark Island and collected by Fred Gerrits. Length of axe 32 ½ inches/ 82.5 cm.

early 1960s, the men’s houses were either burned down, or deserted and their contents left to rot. Shultze Westrum perceived an urgent need to buy as much as he could and build up a major personal collection as a culture bank. His dedication was so complete, he underwent tribal initiation to gain the knowledge to become a keeper of traditional religious art and he was implicitly trusted by the old men who kept the secrets and wanted to preserve the objects. As a bonus, this section includes three short papers by Shultze-Westrum. The first is  on materials, techniques and the artists; the second on Kerewo agibe (skull racks); and the third on bullroarers, and all three include his own field photographs.

These three collectors are very different, but they had three things in common. First, they all more or less fell into New Guinea art by accident. Newton abandoned African art after a

Thomas Shultze-Westrum Collection: A 19th century stone carved Kope (gope) spirit board collected at Kinomere Vllage.Urama Island in 1966. (This design from Urama later spread right up to the Purari Delta). Height 35 inches / 89 cm.

London dealer showed him some photographs in a  book by Chauvet, an encounter that must have motivated him to apply  for a junior curator’s job when the Museum of Primitive art first opened. Harry Beran bought his first piece, a Dobu Island splashboard, on a holiday in PNG in 1969, and then started buying more pieces at Sydney tribal art auctions. Shultze Westrum was doing field research on a rare turtle in the Papuan Gulf when he became aware of the beauty of the art and the fact that it  was dying out –and decided that the best way to save it it from  rotting men’s houses and  the flames of the militant apostolic churches was to record its stories and  get it safely out of PNG.

Second, none of them did it for the money. Newton bought a few pieces for his own pleasure on his official visits to PNG and many items in his small collection were purchased at auctions or from dealers – usually quirky things that he liked.  Harry Beran built up an impressive collection on an academic’s salary, but he bought very carefully, sold judiciously and knew many retired officials and missionaries. He often shared his expertise with field collectors and enthusiasts in return for a share of the objects collected on joint field trips, or bought and sold non-Massim pieces in Sydney to finance the pieces he wanted to buy.

Thomas Shultze-Westrum Collection: Two Papuan Gulf lime spatulas. Left probably Urama Island, collected, right Veraibari village , Urama cultural district , both collected in 1966. Heights 12 ½ and 10 ½ inches / 32 and 27 cm).

Shultze-Westrum toowould partner with European museums, or sell pieces he had collected to finance his field studies or film making interests and he was a shrewd dealer – Hamson relates how he negotiated the purchase of an entire Pacific collection of the German Sacred Heart religious order, kept the Papuan objects he wanted and sold the rest to finance his ongoing projects. At the same time, his focus was on preserving the significant Papuan Gulf objects in his own collection, not finding and selling them.

Third, all three collections were ultimately purchased by John Freide. Friede had a tremendous respect and affection for Douglas Newton, whom he described as ‘a dear friend and mentor’ in the introduction to his book on the Jolika Collection and he valued the opportunity  to acquire Newton’s  private collection from his estate. For the Shultze-Westrum and Beran Collections, more practically, he was probably the only private collector in the world who could buy them complete and preserve them at a time when it suited them to sell.  

Shultze-Westrum’s was one of the first major collections purchased by Friede – who bought almost 1,200 pieces from him in 1980 following four years of negotiations. Shultze-Westrum sold because he and his wife  had divorced and Thomas , who had kept the

Thomas Shultze-Westrum Collection: Early 20th century Kaiaimunu (bull roarer) collected by ShultzreWestrum in 1966. Height 13 ½ inches / 34.3 cm.

private collection, had nowhere to keep it . Twenty five years later, in 2005, Friede bought Harry Beran’s collection at a time when Harry  wanted to retire from academic life, move to England and devote himself to writing and research on Massim art. For both these collectors, the decision to sell was prompted in part by their desire to keep their collections as intact as possible. Sadly, the original plan to keep the collections intact at the De Young went off the rails and many artworks have been sold, but no one would regret this more than John Friede.

Collecting histories and collections tend to fade from public view over time, especially after they have been incorporated into larger collections, where they are often often hidden in storage, or completely split up and sold. This book not only provides a permanent record of the achievements of these three highly respected collectors, but also generously gives us an opportunity to share the images and histories of almost 100 objects, almost all of which are in John and Marcia  Friede’s private collection.

*All artworks in this article photographed by  Aaron Fallon and owned by the John & Marcia Friede Clollection

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Christies Paris tribal sale raises the roof … and a few other issues.

 Sotheby’s tribal auctions have been going through a grey patch lately, with a disappointing gross turnover of around €3.7 million at their two most recent  Paris sales , but the sun continued to shine brightly on Christies. Their recent (June 219th) tribal sales, which grossed an impressive €7.89 million, presented one of the strongest tribal offerings we have seen in Paris for quite a while and was led by two remarkable pieces which together accounted for around €4.8 million (more than half ) of this record total.

The first of these was an extremely rare Mundugumor (Yuat River) roof finial de-accessioned from the Jolika Collection by the trustees of the De Young Museum, (lot 10) which sold for €2.5 million. This piece, which used to feature prominently in the Jolika’s permanent display, is so rare that there are only three  other known examples of this quality in existence, one in Cambridge, one in the Barbier Meulller Collection, and one in The Australian Museum , Sydney. (The Australian Museum actually has three of these large Mundugumor guardian figures, acquired in 1938. One is very similar to the Jolika figure, the second has a similar face, but is carved in the stance of a figural flute stopper, and the third, unusally, is female.)

The Jolika Mundugamor finial has one of the most serendipitous provenances in New Guinea tribal art history. It was donated to the Savage Club in Melbourne, Australia, an exclusive gentleman’s club in the British tradition, by an ex-colonial administrator who was a member and it was part of their extensive collection of tribal artefacts for decades. In 1977, the Savage Club decided they would have to sell the entire collection to finance a new roof that was urgently needed and they called in a noted Australian tribal art expert to value it. To their delighted surprise, they were told that they only had to sell one item, the Mundugamor figure, to pay for the new roof, and they could keep the rest, and a deal was brokered with John Friede.

Obviously the De Young have the legal right to sell part of the Jolika collection and may have had good reasons for doing so. Like the original owners of this figure, the Melbourne Savage Club, they too may have needed to raise some money to keep going, since John Friede was unable to make good on his commitment to finance the upkeep of the Jolika artworks following a series of unhappy personal disasters. However, the question of why the De Young chose to sell this particular piece is a puzzle.

The De Young is an art museum, so if they were lucky enough to be donated one of the world’s rarest artworks – in this case a rare New Guinea artwork –why would they sell it rather than keep it, treasure it and display it? Especially when there were so many other lesser artworks in the Jolika collection which could be sold?Would they have done the same with an iconic Picasso, Rubens or El Greco? One hopes the Trustees are not going to treat one of the world’s greatest collections of New Guinea art as a handy cash cow to be plundered whenever they need a few bucks – because if this is the case, John Friede’s assertion that the Trustees of the De Young represent a “ Philistine encampment” who “don’t care at all about tribal art” may deserve to be taken seriously.

The other amazing artwork at Christies, which realised €2.33 million was the most impressive of the 19 artworks from the Bartos collection and the cover piece of the catalogue, a stunning Baga serpent dance costume (lot 58). This large dance mask – 75 inches/ 195 cm tall – was carried on the shoulders of the dancer, and covered him to the waist, while his legs were hidden by a floor length skirt. The carving represents the spirit of a snake which played a key role in the religion of the Baga people of the swampy interior of Guinea. Each section of the village had its own snake costume which appeared at all important ceremonies including initiations. The spirit it represented was the source of rain, and therefore of all fertility and of life itself.

When field collectors Helen Leloup and Heri Kramer visited Guinea in i957, they were able to acquire several snakes and Leloup has described their  canoe journey transporting the snake costumes on dangerously swollen rivers -  a memoir reminiscent of an episode of Indiana Jones. This dangerous journey was indeed timely, since Ahmed Sékou Touré who became the first elected president of independent Guinea year later, immediately banned local customary practices in an effort to ”modernise” the country. As a result, the snake cult fell into disuse and only a few more of these remarkable masks were found and exported between 1958 – 1961.

There are interesting issues that arise out of this astounding auction. The first, of course, being that Christies are now clearly top dogs in the Paris tribal art world and Sotheby’s will have to stage a remarkable sale later this year to catch up. As the Christies result shows, however, it is the quality of a handful of outstanding artworks as much as the abilities of auction house that determines the success of a sale, since the Friede figure, the Baga snake and the next two most expensive African lots, a superb Dogon crouching figure and a long lost Fang reliquary figure exhibited in 1935 by Ratton), generated almost €6 million of the €7.89 million total. So if Sotheby’s can wheel and deal a couple of amazing pieces into their next sale, suckh as  the €1.4 million Mudigamor flute stopper at their December 2012 Paris sale, the tables could conceivably be turned.

The second point of interest is that  a 20th century African artwork such as the Baga snake, collected in the 1950s,  has  commanded the kind of premium  price that  is usually reserved for 18th and 19th century masterpieces with long and noble provenances that are often attributed to known master artists. Patina and provenance freaks, eat your hearts out!

Thirdly, any wealthy collector who thinks they can perpetuate their collection and their name by presenting it to a museum or gallery had better think again. Once the collection is in the museum’s hands, the ex-owner has very little if any control over its future. This not only holds true for John Friede but for just about every other collection I can think off. The Fuller Collection is now mostly hidden in the storerooms of the Field Museum and never seen as a collection, while the Oldman Collection, sold on the understanding that it would be held in one museum as a single entity, is now scattered across half a dozen New Zealand museums. (Though it must be said that the Met still honours the Rockefeller legacy and the Borroughs Wellcome Collection  is given its due defference at UCLA’s Fowler).

 One final and quite sobering thought is that tribal art  now seems to be attracting the attention of investors seeking a high price tag trophy or a portable store of wealth rather than something powerful , mystical and beautiful in its own right. Wealthy collectors like Celeste and Armand Bartos bought tribal art because the loved it passionately and proudly displayed it in their homes alongside the works of European masters. By contrast, the ‘on dit’ in Paris was that the telephone bidder who won the €2.5 million Mundugamor finial was a Russian or Middle Eastern one off buyer rather than a tribal art collector. Too sad if it ended up locked away in a safe like the Van Gogh’s Irises, after being  purchased by a wealthy Japanese investor . (Once known as the world’s most expensive painting, it has been ransomed and is currently owned by the Getty Institute in LA).

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The French Connection: Sotheby’s Tribal Sale, Paris, June 18.

 

With the exception of the three most expensive lots on offer, I was not overly impressed with the selection of artworks for sale at last month’s Sotheby’s New York tribal sale but its successor, taking place in Paris on June 18, is far more interesting.

Corlay Collection, lot 4, a janus headed Songye figure

Much of my intrigue is due to the small, but very well chosen Corlay collection (lots 1 – 50) which will be the curtain raiser to the main sale. Indeed, I wish I’d had the chance to meet Francoise and Jean Corlay, who have a deep love of African art and very good taste. They also had the good sense to confine their collecting mainly to one area –for with the exception of a half dozen Nigerian pieces, a couple of Dogon figures and a further handful from other locations, they are all from the DRC. (From the provenance notes, I suspect that the Corlays lived and worked in the DRC in the 1980s as several pieces were purchased there).

Judging by the number and variety of small pieces (20 lots with estimates under €10, 000), the Corlays have been collecting for a long time, and possibly did not necessarily have a lot of money to spend on tribal art when they first started out. I get the feeling that this collection is made up of artworks chosen carefully over a long time, and perhaps often purchased inexpensively – the reward for having a good eye.

Corlay Collction, Yaka leopard cult had rest.

The strengths of this collection are the Songye and Yaka objects, which are obviously categories the collectors favoured. There are no less than 10 Songye pieces on offer in this small collection, ranging from the most expensive, lot 14, a Janus-headed figure with a patina (possibly if palm oil?) which is catalogued as ‘oozing’ and has an estimate of €350-500K, to one of the least expensive, three ivory whistles, of which two are Songye and the third Pende, lot 22 Estimate €2.5 – 4K.  Another impressive Songye piece is an imposing ancestor figure which is around 129 cm (49 inches) tall, Estimated at €300 – 400K.

Corlay Collection, Lot 2, a Yaka ritual container.

The highest estimate for the half dozen Yaka pieces on offer is a rare  anthropomorphic headrest in the form of a leopard with a humanised face, lot 4, said to  have been carved for a chief or leader of the LeopardSociety and  estimated at €30 – 40K, but as always with Yaka art it is the quirkiness of the carver’s aesthetic and  the perfection with which Even the smallest functional piece are carved that gives them their charm, like the ritual container in human form (lot 3, €12 – 18 K .

Indeed, this collection offers many opportunities for collectors who love small and beautifully carved objects as there are no less than 18 whistles and combs on offer, as well as a couple of superb little palm wine cups, one Mbal and the other Pende, (lot 11) Estimated at €4 – 7K . I would suggest, however, that most of the catalogue estimates for these quality small items are on the low side and many will be exceeded on the day.

Moving from the entrees to the plats du jour, we are offered a menu of 70 African and Oceanic artworks comprising the second half of the sale.

Strangely enough, in Paris as in New York, there is a single monumental piece that stands well above the rest. In New York it was an extremely rare Astrolabe Bay tellum ancestor figure. In Paris it is a Yoruba royal agere Ifa bowl carved to contain the 16 sacred kola nuts used for divination (lot 93). This artwork does not have a published estimate – it is available on request – but whether this is just a marketing ploy, or whether it is simply impossible to put an estimate on a piece of this quality, I do not know. The bowl itself is certainly superb. It dates stylistically to the mid 19th century (it was brought to Europe in 1868) and has the shallow hardwood container mounted above a complex softwood sculpture depicting a central royal equestrian figure flanked by two armed male attendants at the front and two females carrying babies on their backs at the rear. As one would expect, this artwork has a substantial provenance which includes exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts “Africa, The Art of a Continent” exhibition in London in 1995.

A Kuba protective figure

After this agere ife bowl, of course, everything else on the sale is something of an anticlimax.  A couple of pieces that caught my eye were a sensitively carved Kongo fetish figure  with a stomach cavity to hold  protective  ritual substances (lot 108, €100 – E150K), and  a superb and elaborate Gurunsi mask (lot 81  €70 – 90 K) of a very rare type, the only one known with a female figure superimposed on its centre.

Turning to the Oceanic works,  of around a dozen pieces on offer the Middle Sepik ceremonial hook, lot 59 , €100 – 150 K) stands uot – beautifully carved, although possibly recent, as it was collected in the 1960s by the well known Australian collector Stan Moriarty. Two other pieces that are of interest are the New Ireland tatanua funerary mask (lot 58, €40 – 70 K) with a different profile on Each side of the face, so that the faces of the dancers would alter Each time they changed direction, and the New Georgia (Solomon Islands) nguzu nguzu

Lot 59, a Midle Sepik ceremonial hook collected by Stan Moriarty

canoe prow ornament, (lot 57, €30 – 40K) attached during head hunting raids. This  prow ornament incorporates two trophy heads (though one has lost is shell Eyes) and features superb inlaid nautilus shell detailing on the face of the main element.

This catalogue certainly holds a lot more interest for me than that of the recent New York sale, but it raises the same questions: Is the flood of fabulous tribal pieces at fantastic prices which flowed through Paris and New York in recent years slowing to a trickle? Has Sotheby’s two year dream run of tribal sales in Paris and New York comes to an End?  And how will Christies fare by comparison? Will mid-2013 be seen as a turning point in the tribal art market?  Is this the new norm? Only time will provide these answers.

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Savage memories recorded by tame descendents.

 A review of “Savage Memory ”, a documentary on the legacy of Bronislaw Malinowsi, the founder of modern cultural anthropology, produced and directed by Zachary Stuart, his great grandson, with Kelly Thomson. (Sly Productions, 2012).

A carefully posed photograph of Malinowski with a group of informants on Kiriwina.

 

Bronislaw Malinowski,(1884 – 1942), who is widely acknowledged as the Father Of Modern Cultural Anthropology, (an honour he shares with Franz Boas), was born in Poland, established his reputation in England and consolidated it in the USA. His major contribution to anthropology is the participator-observer method of anthropological research, with outcomes focussed on cultural functionalism and the way social and cultural institutions served human needs.

As Harvard anthropologist Robert A. LeVine explains in the film, before Malinowski studies of native cultures were usually based on a brief field trip which was written up back home, while Malinowski, trapped by WW1, spent years in the Trobriands on his first trip there, lived in a hut in the village and learned the language. (Compare this to Alfred Haddon’s famous study of the Torres Straits in 1898, which lasted for a year, during which the scientists lived apart from the natives – a practice disparaged by Malinowski as “tent anthropology”.

His fame rests on his fieldwork work in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea between 1914 – 1918 and the seven books he wrote about Trobriands culture, of which the two best known are “Argonauts of the West Pacific” and “The Sexual Life of Savages”. “Argonauts of the West Pacific”, his first book, described the epic kula trading voyages – long sea-going voyages in large outrigger canoes which looped around far flung archipelagos of what is now called the Massim area of PNG, seeking to trade surplus goods (clay pots or any other commodity) while at the same time exchanging ceremonial valuables with permanent trading partners, thus creating a complex web of mutual obligations which supported these underlying trading activities. Based on his four years of close observation ”Argonauts” is a source of detailed information on building and sailing ocean going canoes, the voyages themselves, and the protective and weather magic that were seen as being vital to its success. No earlier researcher had ever provided such depth.

“The Sexual Life of Savages” caused a sensation when it was published in 1929 largely because of the supposed prurience of its subject matter and Malinowski’s only surviving daughter claims that sales of the book paid for her education. It was, in fact, sub-titled An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage, and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea and set out to demonstrated that sexual and family life there, far from being a continual debauch, was as controlled by mores and conventions as it was in the western world.

Malinowski was trapped in the Trobriands in 1914 because the war broke out and he could not return home to Britain as he was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – an enemy alien. The British therefore agreed to finance his research if he stayed put in the Trobriands, which he did for the next 4 years. It is suggested in the film that the reason for this hospitality on the part of the British was that the Governor, Sir Hubert Murray, found Malinowski bumptious and arrogant, and in effect banished him to the Trobriands to keep him out of his hair. If this is true, the Governor’s dislike of Malinowski may have resulted in the invention of modern anthropology.

The presentation of Malinowski’s work in this film is good and consists largely of commentary over fascinating field photographs taken of Malinowski at work in the Trobriands or of tribal life and personalities, juxtaposed with quotes from his books, comments from contemporary anthropologists and interviews with modern Trobriand Islanders. It soon becomes clear that Malinowski’s name still resonates with modern Trobriand Islanders, even though it is doubtful that there is anyone still alive who actually met him (though one old informant claims that he did so as a child). They take pride in the fame he brought to their homeland and appreciate the fact that had his books never been written, they would not have a record of their past culture in what is today a very Christian society.

So far so good, but we still have to deal with the director’s reason for the making of this film – the attempt by a great grandson to assess the impact of having a famous ancestor on his descendants. Sadly, only one of Malinowski’s living descendants has anything of interest to contribute to this discussion – his youngest and only surviving daughter in England, who has created an archive of his life and has vivid memories of her father and mother. Everyone else is removed by one or two generations and has little or no knowledge of Malinowski or his work, while several have a definite dislike of him.

Malinowski was certainly not a perfect father or husband by today’s standards and the family feud arises mainly out of two events. The first is Malinowski’s decision to move his wife, who was dying of MS, and his three young daughters to a house in Italy, while he returned to his research in PNG. The second was to remarry some years after her death to a woman who was not very maternal and who outlived him. According to the family she stole the family silver as soon as he was dead and abandoned his three motherless daughters to be brought up by strangers.

These negative events are discussed and re-discussed for at least 50% of the film in a series of repetitive and self indulgent interviews which, to me, had all the charm of my childhood memories of being dragged to the homes of relatives and family friends to view the slide slows and 8mm home movies of their recent holidays. Fascinating for their producers, less fascinating for the audience.

There is, however, one dark moment of interest in the second part of the film – the posthumous publication of Malinowski’s personal diary by his second wife in 1967 under the title “A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Word”. I do not believe for a moment that Malinowski would ever have published the diary if he had lived – or at least not without thoroughly editing it. It is very personal and unguarded and includes racial slurs about the native peoples he studied and admissions of sexual feelings for the young island women. These ugly revelations show that Malinowski was all too human, and also that he had no one with whom he could vent his everyday frustrations in English except for his diary, but it is a pity it survived or was ever published.

Savage Memories is a film with major flaws, but also many interesting moments for the tribal art aficionado, and I would suggest watching it on CD with a finger hovering over the fast forward button. One annoying feature for me (given his family history) was the director’s ignorance of Trobriands culture. At one point he asserts that the Trobriands that Malinowski describes has been totally obliterated by Christianity, blithely unaware that the kula trading voyages described in Argonauts of the West Pacific are still taking place, even though some kula vessels have engines as well as sails. Culture is surprisingly resilient.

And the best bit for me? The elderly gentleman who was regularly interviewed by an American anthropologist in the 1970s. He explains that she always wanted to ask him about his magic knowledge, but he never told her very much simply because she never ever offered to pay him for it – and he certainly wasn’t going to degrade himself by asking for money. Oh those white savages, will they never learn how to behave properly!

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A blast from the past lifts Sotheby’s N Y Sale.

Is  Sotheby’s two year dream run of tribal sales in Paris and New York coming  to an end? Or is the latest (May 16) New York sale a temporary hiccup? It is certainly fairly safe to say that with the exception of a thin layer of cream at the top, this catalog offers much less in the way of excitement than other recent sales .

Lot 42. Statue of a mythical heroine or ancestor (Telum), Austrolabe Bay, PNG. 38 ½ inches / 97.8 cm. $600K - $900K.

In fact the whole catalog is something of an anomaly. It is not often a that a piece of Oceanic art eclipses the African and South American  offerings at Sotheby’s, but that’s the case here, with the piece de resistance being  a northern New Guinea Telum female ancestor figure from Astrolabe Bay which has a top estimate that would take the full price over a million dollars (lot 42).

The example at Sotheby’s, one of only five known examples in existence and the only one in private hands, was collected by the German explorer Hugo Zöller in Bogadjim village in 1889. These figures are thought to have originated in the proto-culture that preceded contemporary Huon Gulf and Sepik cultures. One of the other four known examples, which is ex-John Freide and currently in the Jolika Collection at the De Young, was collected by Zöller in the same village and has been carbon dated to between 1490AD – 1670AD.

Zöller was obviously able to collect several (possibly all surviving?) examples of these figures on his 18889 – 90 expedition, for he recalls how “‘with patience and friendliness we managed – by walking back from the Finisterre Mountains –  to buy a number of these old ancestor statues, which are often erroneously thought to be gods”.  Zöller, however,  was definitely not the first European to see or sketch a telum figure. Russian anthropologist, Nikolai Mikloucho-Maclay was the first European to actually live among the natives of Astrolabe Bay (between  1871 – 1833) and learn their language. He describes seeing several telum figures in the coastal villages of Bogadjim and Bongu and sketched at least one of them.

Mikloucho Maclay''s sketch of a telum in the mens house at Bongu Village

   Telum figures were apparently rare and no longer made by the end of the 19th century, but from the casual way in which Mikloucho-Maclay mentions them in his diaries he obviously expected to find them there, and the fact that they were all carefully installed inside mens houses indicates that far for being obsolete or abandoned relics of an older civilisation, the telums actually had an ongoing role in the life of the villagers. Each telum had a name, and they were apparently used in initiation and other clan rituals The example sketched by Mikloucho-Maclay at Bongu Village has a quite different face from those of the Sotheby’s example and the one in the De Young, both of which are from Bogadjim Village and presumably depict the same ancestor.

Mikloucho-Maclay was a strong opponent of colonialism, and petitioned Tsar Nicholas of Russia to annex the Astrolabe Bay region to prevent the Germans from claiming it and usurping native sovereignty over their own territory. This attempt failed, of course, and this is why Zöller was able to march in to the interior in 1889 and march out again with the telums.

It is quite a step down form this million dollar telum figure to the next major piece in the Oceanic section of this  auction – a Gara ritual hook figure from the Behinimo people of the Hunstein Mountains, East Sepik, (lot 39), described as 17th – 18th century and estimated between $150K – $250K. These abstract figures were held between the legs of initiates during coming of age rituals  and also served hunters as spirit helpers . This example has a bird’s head at one end (I would have thought this was the the top?), and  possibly – from other examples I have seen – a snake’s head at the bottom, both well weathered. Unfortunately the top (or bottom?) hook has been broken short.

Eket Ogbom headdress, Nigeria, height: 28 ¼ inches /72 cm. $400K - $600K.

Tuning to the African entries, we see the above pattern repeat itself. There are two magnificent sculptures heading the list, both estimated at between $400K – $600Kand then quite a falling off.

The first  is a wonderfully elegant Eket Ogbom headdress consisting of  a superb abstract  curved  torso  supporting a powerful human head.  It comes from the collection of the French tribal art authority Jacques Kerchache (lot 98) and was exhibited at the famous MOMA Primitivism in 20th Century Art exhibition. The Eket are a subgroup of the Ibibio of Nigeria and these headdresses are worn and danced during the Ogbon rituals which honour Ala, the earth spirit.

The second is an equally impressive Mambila female ancestor figure from the Cameroons which once graced the collection of the legendary US tribal dealer, Harry A Franklin (lot 118). In addition to its sculptural qualities, there are two other factors which add interest. The first is that this piece was sold to Europe in 1990 when the Franklin collection was dispersed, and it is now making a reappearance at Sotheby’s New York, 23 years later. The second is the suggestion that because these figures are always carved in pairs, it is the male half of a pair

Mambila female ancestor figure, Cameroons. Height 19 inches, 48.3 cm. $400K – 600

collected by Philippe Guimot before 1970 – since the Guimot figure has the same cubistic rendering of the legs and similar ears and facial features. (‘Married couple from Africa reunited by millionaire tribal art bidder’, what a Hollywood ending that would be!)

The  Pre-Columbian Art on offer includes several very attractive objects, but nothing that could stand next to the New Guinea ancestor figure or the Nigerian headdress. The highest estimate is for a rare greenstone Olmec seated figure (lot 9) estimated at $150 K– 250K, but most interest seems to be focussed on a large ( 47 inches / 119 cm) tall Veracruz standing figure of a royal personage dated between  to AD 500 – 1200, (lot 29).  This well known piece was last seen in New York at the Met’s  1970 “Beyond Cortes” exhibition. It is estimated at $80K – $120K.

Are there any conclusions we can draw from a perusal of this catalog? Judging by their photographs, many of the objects on offer seem to be unspectacular  examples, true to type but in some cases  far from the best of their type. At the same time, this does not mean that it does not contain many objects that  collectors with want and bid for, and with 120 of the 150 or so lots estimated at less than  $100K, there may be good buying to be had.

Large Veracruz standing figure, AD 500 – 1200, height 47 inches, 119 cm. $89K - $120K.

For tribal art auction watchers, however, the question is whether or not the torrent of fabulous tribal pieces at fantastic prices which flowed through Paris and New York  auction houses in recent years is slowing down? How much of it was given momentum by the large quantity of ex-Jolika pieces offered in both New York and Paris, a source which has now apparently dried up?  How much of it was due to the Euro crisis, which must have dislodged some previously  firmly held artworks form the reluctant hands of their ex owners? I suspect we will find out in the next few months.

 

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A Black Friday for the Hopi People.

“The Hopi people have been pillaged throughout their history. We stole their land, we killed them, we violated their souls and it continues. Now, their ritual objects are being put up for auction.” Jean-Patrick Razon, director of Survival International, Paris, April 2013.

Part of a unique collection of Hopi Katsina that ceased to exist after April 13, 2013, when it was broken up and sold at a Paris auction house, an act of cultural vandalism which may have far reaching repercussions.

On Friday, April 12 2013, the Néret-Minet, Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris sold a collection of 70 Native American masks dating between 1880 and 1940, of which around 65 were Hopi spirit Katsina dance masks. The masks themselves are made of wood, leather, fabric and horn and each channels an individual spirit ancestor. Some are frightening and some extremely beautiful, but all are impressive and many of the oldest glow with  pigments as fresh as they day they were applied, an indication of the care with which they were preserved. These are the masks that inspire the small Kachina dolls beloved by collectors.

The cultural significance of the objects is not seriously in doubt. They are worshipped as ancestors, treasured as heirlooms, and belonged collectively to the tribe as a whole so it was, in Hopi terms, not legally possible to sell them to a third party and there is thus a question mark as to whether or not the vendor, a Frenchman who was a long time US resident and purchased them in the States, knowingly or unknowingly acquired stolen property

It was a memorable auction for many reasons. All the masks came from one collection, and all are thought to have been collected in one reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 1940s. It was one the world’s most significant collections of Hopi Katsina masks in private hands. The auction was preceded by a court case brought on behalf of the Hopi  against the auction house by Survival International, the organisation for indigenous rights, who were supported by two Arizona museums and the American Government.

The Hopi asked the court to delay the sale until clear title to the masks by the vendor could be confirmed, but requests from the Hopi for information on the provenance of the collection were ignored in spite of the urging of the US Ambassador to France for a delay. The judge decided in favour of the auction house and the sale went ahead, although it was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, who also gathered outside the building.

The big question, which has still to still be answered, is whether or not the auction should have gone ahead – in spite of the judge’s decision. And whether or not the new owners will be forced to return the masks  or challenged if they ever try to sell them. More than one commentator has suggested a parallel with the looting of artworks by the Nazis, which were eventually returned to their rightful owners.

It has also been pointed out that it is common practice in the auction world to delay or cancel an auction when the vendor’s legal provenance to the objects on offer is challenged – as much to protect the titles of new owners as the reputation of the auction house. At least one recognised expert on stolen art has suggested that it might have been wiser and safer to delay the sale until the vendor’s title was proven.

There certainly appear to be legal grounds for a future challenge. Dr. C. Timothy McKeown, a Legal Anthropologist, points out that while there is no legal agreement between the USA and France relating to the reparation Native American cultural objects, but on th eother hand, the collection was acquired in the USA by the vendor, and may have been acquired illegally under US law at the time the masks were purchased. He also pointed to an 1834 Federal law that remains force and states that in disputes over the right of property involving an Indian and a non-Indian, “the burden of proof rests on the non-Indian whenever the Indian makes out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership”. *

There was a lot of defensive bluster in the room. One American collector who purchased three of the masks stated that the Hopi “deserved” to lose them because they had not looked after them properly and there seemed to be little understanding among the vendors of their true cultural significance tha these were not just any Native American masks. They were a specific category of mask from a specific tribe and location, which under tribal law could never be sold.

The auctioneer rebutted the Hopi claims that the masks were significant ritual objects and not artworks on the grounds that his two French experts, one of them Eric Geneste who co-authored a book on Kachina dolls, had informed him that the masks had no ritual significance except for the moment they were being danced. (Apparently, if the Hopi have any further questions about their own culture, they only have to ask these two French experts, and it will be explained to them).

The  fact that such a unique and irreplaceable collection was broken up is a tragedy in itself and one of the most depressing things about this sale is the fact that it only raised $1.2 million – a paltry price for a cultural collection that was irreplaceable and of immense significance not only to the Hopi people, but to the nation as a whole.

Why was the Museum of the American Indian in Washington or one of the two Arizona museums who protested the sale not provided with Federal or State funds to bid for the collection? Even more surprising, give the prevalence of private benevolence in the States, was the absence of a wealthy champion – a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet who could have generously gifted this bargain-priced collection to the Hopi and the nation.

As things stand, only one mask, purchased by French lawyer Quentin de Margerie who bought it with the express intention of donating it to the Hopi people, will go back to the tribe. The other successful bidders should bear in mind that any reputable auction house is likely to steer well clear of controversy and a possible legal challenge if the new owners attempt put them on the market again.

*Read Dr. McKeown’s expert opinion in full at  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/04/09/you-cant-convey-what-you-dont-have

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House of Power. House of Pain. Secrets of the Haus Tambaran of Bongiora

Book Review: ”The Haus Tambaran of Bongiora” by G.J.M. (Fred) Gerrits, 485 pages, soft cover, with 365 colour and black and white field photographs. Edited by Elizabeth Ruscone and Chrstian Kaufmann. *

The Putilago tableau is the final secret revealed to initiates and is dominated by two ngwallndu figures wearing very large waken headdresses. These powerful spirits are carved as boards with three dimensional faces and arms and legs of vegetable fibre. Photo F. Gerrits.

Abelam art has always been one of the most popular and collectable art styles of Melanesia. The larger sculptures, mainly depicting the all-powerful ngwallndu spirits, have strong, simple forms painted in bright and intricate colours and patterns that echo the body paint and ornaments worn for ceremonies by the Abelam themselves, while the tightly woven basketry masks, both the baba or helmet dance masks and the small yam face masks used to elevate choice yams to human status, are also eagerly collected.

Not surprisingly, Abelam spirit houses are as distinctive as their art. From the air, they are said to represent a bird resting on the ground because the Abelam believe their founding ancestor was a bird. They are tall A-frame buildings (up to 80 feet /24 metres high)  with sweeping wings and a sharp drop from the front to the back, or from the head to the tail of the bird.

The Lungwallndu precinct is the resting place of the ngwallndu spirits, and is only entered at the second last stage of initiation.  Two large panels carved from buttress roots stand behind the pair of ngwallndu figures on the floor, a painted ceiling rises above them and many more carvings and paintings line the walls. Photo F. Gerrits

The author of this book, Dr Fred Gerrits, is a medico by training and a tribal art enthusiast. He was stationed at Maprik Hospital in the heart of Abelam territory between 1972 – 1977 and he and his wife became friendly with the residents of the surrounding villages, attending public ceremonies, responsibly purchasing artworks and taking meticulous notes and many photographs, This book came about because Fred was approached by a local who offered to sell him anything he wanted out of the Bangiora village spirit house.

He went to have a look, found it seemingly derelict and, concerned for the survival of the art, stated that he would either buy everything or nothing. He then worked closely with two native informants and, in accordance with their wishes, he made as complete a record as possible so that their knowledge would not die with them but could be accessed by their descendents. Gerrits then had the artworks restored and persuaded the Basel and Stuttgart museums to buy the two most important ritual displays so they would be preserved.

Among the Abelam, the  yam cult is a unique  cultural institution and the focus of male existence. It  involves men striving to produce long tubers (up to a length of 6 feet /180 cm or more),  in intense competition with a long term partner in a neighbouring village. There are two major ritual cycles in Abelam life, both centred on this cult -initiation ceremonies which instruct young men in the magic and skills required to grow the prized long yams, and yam growing ceremonies and rituals designed to ensure the success of the current crop.

Long yams decorated for a yam lining with masks, headdresses and feathers were suspended from poles to be exhibited to exchange partners from the next village. Photo F. Gerrits

Gerrits found some very surprising facts about the Abelam spirit houses at Bongiora and the neighbouring villages of Kuminibus and Chiginambu where he also witnessed initiation ceremonies and took notes.

The first is that unlike other PNG men’s houses, which often function as meeting places for initiated men as well as a restricted area for initiations and ceremonies, the Abelam spirit houses were just empty shells until a specific stage of an initiation ceremony took place. When this happened, temporary tableaus would be set up for the instruction of initiates using three dimensional figures, carved buttress root panels, woven backdrops, feathers, leaves, brightly coloured fruits and many shell money rings, but as soon as the ceremony was completed, the tableau was broken up and the feathers and money rings returned to their owners.

Outside of these specific initiation stages, the spirit house was used solely as a protected location for a communal village yam growing shrine which would enhance the output of the yam fields.

Young Abelam men and boys traditionally underwent a series of initiation ceremonies in six stages which could take six year or longer to complete and each was literally staged in a different part of the spirit house and its surrounds. For the first two years, all the instruction took place outside the spirit house, for the next two years, only in the anterooms and side corridors, and only in the last two years, in the heart of the spirit house itself.At every stage more secret yam growing knowledge was revealed to them but they had to suffer first by being beaten with sticks, whipped with nettles and undergoing other ordeals.The book begins with a tour of the spirit house and its different areas where discreet stages of the initiation ceremonies would take place.

Each level of the initiation cycle is then examined, with detailed descriptions of the carvings, wall and floor decorations and body adornments which are specified for it, and the book has almost 400 field photographs that illustrate these. Fred then turns his attention to the yam growing cult itself, with chapters on yam growing, yam magic, yam shrines and the yam lining ceremony when the choicest yams, decorated with masks and headdresses, are triumphantly presented to partners from other villages. I urge anyone with an interest in collecting Abelam art or an interest in tribal rituals to buy this book, but you should be aware that it is dense with detailed information and peppered with Abelam vocabulary. It is a book that has to be studied, not skimmed. Also, the hundreds of photographs are field records, not art studies. On the other hand, anyone who does take the trouble to read it with care will be rewarded with a new understanding of what Abelam art is all about.

Please note: There are currently 16 Abelam artworks offered for sale on  my website, tribalartbrokers.net. To view them,  follow this link: http://www.tribalartbrokers.com/category.asp?categoryId=6

 * Published by Antropunti Documents, Museo delle Culture, Lugano, 2012. RRP E50. Stockists: Bookshop of the Museo della Cultura Lugano (Switzerland), Hoepli Bookstore (Italy), Maremagnum Books (Italy), and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde bookstore, (Netherlands). 

See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp

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Vanuatu: Where the wild art lives.

This Metaniele display board was hung above the entrance of the men’s house during an initiation ritual. The birds symbolise youth. Kamanlyk , Lendamboe village, Malakula , Metaniele, c.1972,wood, vegetable clay, ochrem fibre.*

 “Kastom: Art of  Vanuatu”, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 16th , 2013.

Kastom is a Ni-Vanuatu word  that  encompasses  traditional religion, values and practices, and in many parts of this island nation of more than 100 languages, Kastom still rules.  Kastom is particularly strong in the northern  end of the archipelago, where grade societies like the Nimangi society of Malekula  and the  Mange  society of North Ambrym dominate tribal existence.  

Vanuatu grade societies  represent  a freemasonry of secret knowledge and carefully delineated ranks which is impenetrable from the outside. Within  these societies, a man’s life may be described as a continual striving to attain the  highest grade he can,  an effort that persists beyond the grave since his grade is carried with him into the afterlife where the spirits treat him with respect due to his rank. 

The Rambaramp is a memorial figure for a man of high status displayed at rituals so that the deceased can witness them. This example (circa 1965) has the deceased’s over modeled cranium as its head. Height 148 cm. Artist unknown. Lempenuen Village, Malekula. Vegetable clay, bamboo, wood, fibre,bone, boar tusk, shell.*

The most powerful of men in very senior grades can even perpetuate themselves on earth after death by commissioning a life-size rambaramp statue who’s head was the deceased’s own over-modeled skull. The rambaramp was displayed at all major ceremonies thereafter so that the deceased could still witness and participate in them.

There are three of these rare figures on display at this exhibition, of which the most striking is still wrapped in its protective covering of the pleated leaves of the Vanuatu Fan Palm (Licuala grandis).

In Malekula, Ambrym and other islands in the north, Kastom, grade taking and art are closely related. Entry into each grade requires a specific artwork that can only be created by an artist who owns the right to create it and he must be paid to do so.

As the legendary Kirk Huffman, founder of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, once explained “Vanuatu traditional art is not really just something that can be taken out of essential context and placed in a glass cabinet in a white man’s museum. Kastom lives and has a life of its own.”

This striking Rambaramp is still wrapped in the protective covering of Fan Palm leaves in which it was shipped. Height 170 cm. Kavinempur, Menmenboas village., Rambaramp,1973. vegetable clay, wood, tree fern ,boar tusk, teeth spiderweb coconut shell,fibre,*

Grades are paid for in pigs, but at the same time, a grade is not something that can simply be bought. A man with a high grade rank is attributed with higher than average intelligence, wisdom; understanding of the spirit world and knowledge of kastom, and the candidate must be regarded by his peers as being worthy).

Kastom is also dynamic concept. Some years ago, the people of Amelboas, a hamlet on the coast of of Malekula,  decided to reject Christianity and adopt Kastom as an alternative, so they built  a men’s house, created a dance ground complete with standing log drums , sacrificed pigs, initiated a group of young men  and have lived a Kastom life ever since. Nor are Kastom villages the Amish settlements of the Pacific – residents do wear modern dress as well as tribal costume, own western objects which they consider useful ,visit the local market town  and ride around in trucks – but their religion and values derive from  Kastom, not Christianity.

The NGA’s  visually stunning exhibition  of more than 50  Kastom artworks has been drawn exclusively from their own Vanuatu collection by Curator Crispin Howarth . More than 30 of these objects were collected by the same person, French Linguist Jean-Michel Charpentier, who trekked  Malekula for more than a year to  either buy them from their owners or have an authentic facsimile created by the owner of the design for the NGA collection. Of these almost all are grade ceremony figures, or figures  associated with the Nalawan Society which  counts the initiation of  young men and the success of the yam crop  among its functions.

This Nampugi mask, with its protruding eyes and spider web beard, is a symbol of death and represents the deceased until his own skull is ready for over-modelling. Komaniowane, Yabkoetas Village, Malekula. Nampugi muet , c 1970, wood, vegetable clay, ochre, boar tusk, feathers, spider web*.

The artworks collected by Charpentier  are remarkable for the variety of natural materials used in their construction– wood, tree fern trunks, bamboo, vegetable fibre, spider web, feathers, coral, soft volcanic pumice, pig tusks and clay pigments are all used, often in striking juxtaposition. Malekula art is also visually challenging. Sculptures and masks  often represent  powerful and dangerous spirits, so faces tend to be grotesque or menacing and many have pig tusks protruding from their mouths and spirit children perched on their  heads.

Cone-shaped head dresses and masks are  common and are produced in many forms, and the anthropologist Bernard Deacon, author of  “Malekula, a Vanishing Civilisation in the New Hebrides” (1934 ), describes how they are made by splitting a large bamboo segment  almost to the top, and then spreading the resulting  spokes  around a hoop before covering it with vegetable fibre and  clay, modelling the face and other details, painting it with natural  ochre pigments and finishing it with boar tusks and a plume of feathers or leaves. (Incidentally, isn’t it wonderful that Deacon was wrong-  80 years after the book was first printed,  Kastom is in fact flourishing in Malekula, not vanishing).

Cone-shaped masks and head dresses are quite common on both Malekula and Abrym, but his example is a rare Meluen mask danced to mark the end of traditional funerary rites. Timothy, Dixon Reef, Malekula, Meluen c.1972. Vegetable clay, tree fern boar tusks, ochre, feathers*.

Since most of the works on show were collected by one person (Jean-Michel Charpentier) , in one place ( Malekula and its surrounding “small islands”), and in the same period (circa 1972), very few of the works on show are old by museum standards, but nevertheless these are authentic artworks (or accurate facsimiles) made by tribal artists who own the right to create them for authentic rituals. Of course, art does not stand still and every artist of note develops an individual style and signature, but at the same time, these works demonstrate a tremendous amount of historical continuity and several bear very close resemblance to  the reference collection which was made for the Basel Museum of Ethnography by Felix Speiser in 1910 -12.

It was to prevent Kastom withering away or degrading into airport art that Kirk Huffman set up the Vanuatu Cultural centre as a Kastom safety deposit  vault where secret sacred material could be placed by those who owned it, with the rights to view it restricted to their properly qualified  descendents. Kirk, who continues as an Honorary Curator, long ago handed over management of the project to Ni-Vanuatu  directors and curators, and the system as a whole is strongly supported by a network  of grassroots facilitators in Kastom areas who ensure that key artworks  continue to be placed there for  safe keeping.

Vimpuri helmet mask for the Nalawan rituals represents a dangerous spirit being whose child sits on its head. Ajningleu, Tomman Island, Vimpuri c.1972. Vegetable clay, tree fern, ochre, boar tusks.*.

 

The Vanuatu Clutural Centre i is one reason why Kastom has survived into the 21st century. Another, perhaps even more important,  is that Kastom continues to sustain  and nurture the spiritual and social needs of its adherents very well and they feel no desire for change.  A third factor is the support of the Vanuatu government, which is committed to balancing the  need to govern a modern Pacific state in a modern world with respect for Kastom.  Last year, for example, in the midst of the GFC, Vanuatu legislated to  make payment of taxes and other debts in tribal currency – pigs, shell money, etc – legal tender.

In addition to displaying the fruits of Charpentier’s labours, this exhibition also demonstrates the NGA’s ongoing commitment to Pacific art. NGA Director Ron Radford and curator Crispin Howarth visited Vanuatu last year to negotiate the purchase of a group of large older carvings, including towering house posts and tree fern sculptures from the under-collected Banks Islands in the far north and these, together with  large Ambrym tree fern sculptures purchased since 2000, and recently purchased   weavings form Maevo and Pentecost, represent  areas outside Malekula. Hopefully, the NGA will continue to grow its collection and build it into one o f the world’s great storehouses of Pacific art.

This imposing artwork is displayed in the gardens to protect the yams while they are growing. Asax, Menmenboas village, Malekula, Ndram tan mwilip c.1973. wood, vegetablke clay,ochre, feahters, boar tusks.*.

Finally, one of the frustrations of  Vanuatu art for Westerners who want to know everything about every piece is that the Mange, Nimangi, and other grade societies are secret societies and the knowledge represented by the artworks is not for public consumption. As a result, information on these pieces is only given out in a sketchy and vague form or in a version that can be disclosed to outsiders.  There is an easy solution to this problem. Stop trying to analyse them and enjoy them for their emotional and visual power – that , after all, is why they were created in the first place.

“Kastom Art of Vanuatu”, the 118 page catalogue of the exhibition, by Crispin Howarth, with articles by Kirk Huffman, field photographs taken by Charpentier and more than 50 annotated colour plates of artworks in the exhibition, may be ordered  from http://nga.gov.au/publications/ or selected booksellers and will shortly be on sale at Amazon.com.

* Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Collected by J M Charpentier on behalf of the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board of Australia. Photographs copyright  ANG. Photography: Alanna Bishop

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