Whose lives? Whose art? Whose Fiji?

Some thoughts on “Fiji, Life and Art in the Pacific”, on view at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich until February12,  2017.

Inlaid ceremonial throwing club, iUla tavatava vonotabua. A large ceremonial version of the famous Fijian short throwing club. This ornate royal prestige object is decorated with multiple whale ivory inlays of stars and crescent moons. It was the property of King Cakobau who gifted it to a Methodist missionary, Reverend James H.S. Royce. (Trustees of the Fiji Museum)

This soon-to-close exhibition of more than 270 objects is a joint project of the Sainsbury Centre  and the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (CMAA),with the participation of the Fiji National Museum and the support of several  other  British and European museums as lenders of significant individual artworks. It is billed as the biggest collection of Fijian artworks ever presented.  

Priest’s dish for yaqona (kava) in the form of a duck. Figural kava bowls, like such as this rare duck, collected in 1849 and the man-shaped example also shown, predate the well known round communal bowl, which is a more recent introduction from Tonga. They were reserved for their priestly owners, who drank yaquona or kava (a mild narcotic) to channel he ancestor spirits. (Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art)

In fact, however, this exhibition is not entirely new. It’s genesis was a 2013 – 2014 exhibition that was conceptually far more contained  and  much more modest. It was titled  Chiefs & Governors: Art and Power in Fiji and curated by  the CMMA’s Anita Hurley. The occasion for that event was the celebration the CMAA’s centenary at its current home – the relevance being  that the foundation collection  of the CMAA was donated  by the first British Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur  Gordon, and his close friend Baron Anatole von Hügel, who became the CMAA’s first Curator.

Whale ivory double-figure hook. Virtually all Fijian ivory figures are Tongan carved, but they were readily adopted by Fijian chiefs as vessels for their own gods. This rare carving shows two female figures back to back above a multi pronged hook to hold offerings is one of only three collected in Fiji. H. 17.8 cm. (University of Aberdeen Museums )

 The current incarnation of this  exhibition, Fiji – Life and Art in the Pacific, has morphed into a more ambitious and perhaps more loosely focussed  exhibition incorporating old and recent objects from the Fiji National Museum  collection and significant loan items from Europe and the UK.

The exhibition features  some of the most famous Fijian artefacts ever displayed or published and many less well-known artworks. Masterpieces on display include a carved whale ivory  offering hook featuring twin  goddess figures,  plus several other rare carved wooden divinities and a mouth watering section of  clubs  and other outstanding  Fijian masterpieces, such as early sawn whale ivory breastplates and other body adornments, priest’s sacred oil dishes and many more. Nothing at all wrong with these, but  the shift of focus from  19th century personal relationships to a wider examination of Fijian art does rather beg the question of whose art and whose  lives  are being  projected?

Is it the Fiji represented by the cruise ship brochures as a tropical Garden of Eden of lush forests, coral seas, secluded beaches and happy friendly people living an idyllic life in a tropical paradise? 

Or a celebration of British colonialism at its paternalistic and enthusiastic best after Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874 by King Kacobau, who united the islands under his rule?  

Earthenware Water vessel (saqa moli), Fiji, mid-19th century These attractive, multi-lobed earthenware water vessels are unique to Fiji. The water was poured directly into the mouth like a wine skin, and evaporation from the outside might have cooled the water. H. 16,5 x w. 16.8 x d. 18.5 cm. (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts , University of East Anglia)

Or is it  a  tribute to the missionary zeal which Christianised 19th century Fiji, even though  many irreplaceable artworks were burned or  destroyed by enthusiastic converts in the process. ( Fiji was  successfully Christianised in a relatively short period of time after the British intervention and today more than 65% of Fijians claim affiliation to a church, compared to only 11% of  UK citizens).

Or Is it a coda to a once flourishing  Polynesian society based on autocratic divine rulers,  rigid social structures, heroic marine  voyaging and  endemic warfare?  A culture of which the are the most visible survivals are the  language, a still fairly rigid class system, a tradition of male tatooing and the creation and presentation  of art objects such as tapa and  fine woven mats created  mainly  by women and used  to honour social obligations?

Breastplate, Fiji, earlyto mid-19th century. Composite whale ivory and shell breast plates were yet another Tongan status symbol eagerly adopted by Fijian chiefs. They were built on a foundation of black oyster shell (the dark centre), usualy surrounded by a frame of whale ivory with a serrated edge, with a further ivory graphic element in the centre. Whale tooth ivory was once rare and precious in Fiji, but becam eplemntiful when Europeanand Ameiocan whalers started puitting into Fiji to tak eon water and food.This example is made up of no less than 10 separate pieces of ivory. The components were tightly butted to one another and attached the underlying shell by means of pegs or sennit string, but the fastenings were only visible from the back. H. 333 x w. 280 mm. (CMAA, Cambridge).

 My impression is that the Fiji  being commemorated here is largely an 18th century invention of the self-created King Cakobau, the ambitious chief  who  outmanoeuvred  his rivals to declare himself  king of Fiji, plus the Christian missionaries who backed him, and  the British colonial administrators who perpetuated  his supremacy  after some initial misgivings. And even this  is possibly an oversimplification that ignores the very  Balkanised nature of Western Polynesia reflected in the  turbulent and far from  homogenous history of the Polynesian triangle of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

The  political  and social outcomes of the British intervention in Fiji were certainly dramatic. Tonga, which had at times  controlled and exacted tribute from large areas of Fiji was finally excluded from the  islands, while many Fijian chiefdoms were downgraded in status by Cakobau’s ambitions, a process that  generates ill feeling among their descendents to this day.

Two  consequences of these transitions that would have  affected the creation of traditional art in Christianised Fiji were the  breaking of the powers of the divine chiefs  and the traditional priests, which had been  the motivation for almost all serious  art until then, and the end of  intertribal warfare, which saw  Britain flooded with  superb war clubs for  which there was now no practical use. A third factor was the growth of the  whale oil and baleen trade, which resulted in large quantities of whale ivory becoming available in Fiji.

At the same time, the evolution of Fijian art and culture was never exclusively Fijian. Fiji was a part of the well-connected Western Polynesian Triangle formed  by Tonga,   Fiji and Samoa, a relationship  that was often  politically dominated by  Tonga. The Tongans had the political clout  to import  Samoan carpenters and boat builders to work the tall timber of Fiji and as result many Fijian art forms show influences from Tonga and Samoa. The finest clubs, for example, were fashioned by descendents of  Samoan boat builders, while many  ornate whale ivory carvings adornments were actually fashioned by Tongan specialists.

Man-shaped dish for yaqona (kava). An extremely rare man-shaped priestly kava bowl for ritual consumption of yaqona by the priest to aid in channeling the spirits through his body so that he could receive messages from them for the chief. (Trustees of the Fiji Museum)

It could also be argued that the true legacy  and achievement of western Polynesia is the discovery and wide spread settlement of Polynesian societies from the Marquesas to New Zealand and Tahiti which created  a new world called Polynesia. Samoan-built and Fijian and Tongan crewed  drua double hulled  canoes were the largest vessels sailing in Oceania in the pre-European era, hence the inclusion of a traditionally built drua replica 8 metres long  on display in Norwich to symbolise the original  ocean going sailing vessels, which were up to 130 ft (40 metres) long,  carried 200 persons and could easily outpace a 19th century European sailing ship. 

I understand the need to get the museum turnstiles clicking and therefore to provide  a not  too challenging couple of hours  diversion for the casual museum visitor who  has a vague interest in Fiji and is  seeking  somewhere weatherproof on a wet British weekend, but one  thing I have learned as a result of a longstanding interest in Polynesian art is that the intellectual concepts that underlie  it  are complex and arcane. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear Fergus Clunie, ex Director of the Fiji National  Museum, speaking for an hour on the significance of red feathers, or the so-called cannibal fork, must be impressed by the mystery and  intricacy of the concepts and belief system that makes sense of the art. Surely the time has come to  peel back the heavy old varnish of political ambitions, imperialism and missionary conversion  to reveal the true creative force of the culture that is embodied in the art of Polynesia?

In  spite of this slight reservation,  however, I can only suggest that if Fijian art fascinates you and you can possibly  get to  Norwich ( just over 100 miles outside London) before this show closes on Feb 12th, you should definitely do so. You are not likely to see this many superb  Fijian artworks one room again for decades.

David Said. December, 2016




“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




Senta Taft Hendry: Five feet tall and larger than life.

Senta Taft Hendry,  the diminutive Sydney tribal art dealer who was still actively managing her Galleries Primitif at the age of 88, died on December 6, 2014 and an era of Australian tribal art dealing and collecting passed with her

Senta in the Jimi Valley, Bismark Ranges, 1967.

In her remarkable life she  worked as an airline  flight attendant, flogged whiskey to Japanese businessmen, helped organise the Melbourne Olympics, hitchhiked from Zambia to the Congo, searched Irian Jaya for Michael Rockefeller, bought and  sold tribal art for more than 40 years and, until  a couple of years ago,  piloted her own aircraft.

Senta was born in Hanover, Germany 88 years ago, and came to Australia with her family as a small girl, retaining  a distinctive German accent all her life . Her first serious job was as a flight attendant with Trans Australia Airlines  (later Ansett) and when she was offered a job flying for BOAC, she sailed for England and an interview. She never got there – a shipboard romance saw her abandon ship in South Africa and she ended up married to a British expat in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia, (now Zambia). She fell in love with African art in Zambia and started buying as much as she could afford – which was fortunate, because the marriage proved to be a disaster and she packed her bags and her tribal art and hitch hiked  to the Congo in freight trucks,( a journey of several days),  selling her first artefact collection in Nairobi en route to pay for her fare back to Sydney.

Back in Australia,  she worked for  the Melbourne Olympics organisation in 1956. She then rejoined TAA and persuaded them  to fly her to New Guinea to collect artefacts to be used in window and airport displays to promote their newly launched direct fights to Port Moresby, an experience that changed her life.

She opened her first gallery, “Senta’s Art Centre”, in the 1960s and met her lifelong friend and business associate Leo Fleischman, an Austrian post-war migrant who began working in the gallery at weekends and stayed on to become the manager of its successor, Galleries Primitif. Leo, who was much respected for his deep knowledge of Oceanic art, was the perfect foil for Senta. She travelled around buying, he managed the gallery. (She only took him to PNG once, but he became ill there and never accompanied her again). Leo’s death in 1994 left an unfillable gap in the business  side of her life – they had been friends and associates  for more than 30 years, and the gallery was never the same without him.

The other man in Senta’s life was her husband, Newcastle NSW  pathologist Peter Hendry,  whom she adored. Peter is renowned  as an  army doctor who helped thousands of Australian POWs to survive the Japanese slave camps of Changi  and the Thai-Burma Railway, but to Senta he was always simply “my lovely husband”.

Senta visited PNG half a dozen times in the 60s and at that time there were no other women field collecting in Melanesia, though of course there were some famous female anthropologists. Being  small person who  tipped the scales at 40 kg or 90 pounds, she had an advantage when cadging rides, because she was light enough to be  listed on the cargo manifests of the small planes that serviced the Highlands as a sack of rice or sugar rather than an official passenger.

In 1961, on one of her earliest trips, she journeyed to Irian Jaya, (West Papua) which had recently been annexed by Indonesia, hitching a ride from Jakarta with an Indonesian Air Force squadron as far as the Star Mountains and subsequently joining in the search for Michael Rockefeller after he disappeared without trace in Asmat territory, During this trip, she met many of the key people involved in the subsequent investigation and proudly boasted that she  slept in the bed of the Bishop of Agats, though, as she hastened to add,  the reverend gentleman was not in it at the time.

One of her last collecting trips, in 1967,  was to  the  then isolated Jimi Valley in the Bismarck Ranges, where she hoped to be allowed to accompany a kiap government foot patrol. That wasn’t possible, but  she was able to arrange a 6 day field collecting trip, on foot, accompanied by two native policemen and six porters. She crossed rivers on flimsy rope bridges, endured bush toilets which were  slippery edged holes  in the sodden turf protected by a flimsy bark roof, and finally managed to crawl back to the kiap base with the drums and shields she had collected and collapse exhausted.

She also made regular trips to the Solomons and Vanuatu and once had had a memorable sea voyage home from Vanuatu with a full size rambaramp mortuary figure with over- modelled human skull occupying the top bunk of her cabin. None of the stewards would service her cabin for fear of the dead ‘body’ and she earned some very strange looks from fellow passengers as the news got around.

Senta was certainly a power to be reckoned with in the thriving Sydney tribal art market of the 60s, 70s and 80s, counting the Musée de l’Homme in Paris as one of her clients and Douglas Newton as an old customer, but she was no pushover in business. Galleries Primitif  was a pre-computer business, with  every artefact numbered in a ledger and no artwork ever priced on a price tag. If you were interested in a piece, she would consult the ledgers and the battle would begin.

Senta never stopped flying or working as she grew older, visiting the Gallery weekly, establishing and generously supporting  the Senta Taft Hendry museum of  tribal art at Newcastle University in New South Wales in 2011 and  editing and publishing her diaries in 2013.

She was the last of the old-style Sydney tribal dealers who flourished in  an era when Melanesian art was plentiful and affordable in Australia. Her life is really something of a fairy story … once upon a time, when collecting  tribal art was a pastime  of eccentrics and retired missionaries and Biwat flute stoppers could be purchased for a tiny fraction of a million dollars, an ex-Ansett Airlines flight attendant decided to become a tribal art dealer and armed with  shrewd intelligence, enormous courage and an inexhaustible supply of  chutzpa, that is exactly what she did.

David Said

See artworks for sale  on my website http://tribalartbrokers.net/artnew   

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Plumes and Pearl Shells – a world first for Highlands art.

Mendi people Timpsonk (cult mask) coveringmost of the wearer’s body, mid 20th century, collected 1963, woven mask 132.0 cm height, 48.0 to 52.0 cm diameter; figure 74.0 x 34.1 cm. 241.1977.a-d, © Mendi people, under the endorsement of the Paci


Plumes and Pearlshells. at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney until August 10th 2014. is the first exhibition focusing on the art of the Papua New Guinea highlands in all its forms. It features more than 90 objects from the Stan Moriarty Collection, one of the world’s and most comprehensive collections from this region, even though it was entirely field collected in the second half of the 20th century by an amateur who had never made a collecting trip until he was in his 50s.

Moriarty’s love affair with Oceanic art began when he visited the National Museum of Victoria as a sixteen year old. He soon became hooked and started scouring junk and antique shops in Melbourne, and later Sydney, for pieces. Like most Australian collectors of that era, he would have found more than enough tribal art to satisfy his collecting urge -especially art from New Guinea – right on his own doorstep. Then, in 1961, when he was over 50, he made his first trip to New Guinea and because airfares were expensive at that time, he booked a berth on a tramp steamer that plied between Sydney and New Guinea every week. He was supposed to go for two weeks, returning on the next week’s boat. Instead he stayed for six months, discovered the Highlands and fell in love with the people and the art, loading the steamer with crates filled with artworks on the return trip

At that time, the art of the PNG Highlands was almost unknown to tribal art collectors. The first whites had reached the area as gold prospectors or government officials in the 1930s and 1940s and were amazed to find that the elevated spine of New Guinea contained unsuspected fertile valleys and a very large population. Of course, anthropologists soon followed the prospectors into the highlands to mine this new seam of cultural gold, but anthropology at the time was obsessed with relationships and kinship obligations and there

Chuave people, a gourd mask decorated with mammal teeth, feathers and pigments, mid- 20th century, collected 1966 35.0 x 22.0 x 11.5 cm, 285.1977. © Chuave people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics 285.1977

was very little interest in the material culture of the Highlands (or anywhere else in New Guinea) during the 50s and 60s. As a result, the art of the Highlands had never been systematically collected or studied on a large scale before Stan made his first visit in 1961 so he played a leading role in introducing Highlands art to the rest of the world. In truth, but for Stan Moriarty and his passion for the PNG Highlands, many of the l artworks on view in this exhibition might have disappeared completely and been forgotten.

A collection that grew out of a personal friendship

Stan’s son Simon, now in his fifties, remembers a family home crowded with tribal art – to the extent that the parents of many of his school friends would not allow them to have sleepovers at the Moriarty’s in case the art gave them nightmares. Simon made his first trip to New Guinea with Stan in 1963,when he was 10 years old and spent several weeks there, attending a village school with the local children – almost unheard of for a while child in those days. He flew on rickety old single engine aircraft, landed on barely-there highlands airstrips, attended secret ceremonies and

Wahgi people, Kunde gale (effigy), a pole-mounted display figure used in a ritua, mid 20th century, collected 1965. Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977. Overall height overall height 207.0 cm / 81 ½ inches, 818.1979.© Wahgi people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

sing sings with his father and generally lived a real Boy’s Own adventure. The first ritual Stan and Simon witnessed on their arrival in the highlands in 1963 was a payback ceremony, where one village accepted moka kina – mounted kina shell on resin disks – paid in compensation for the death of one of their community in a tribal war.

The Art Gallery’s acquisitions of the collection were as serendipitous as Moriarty’s discovery of the PNG highlands. The late Tony Tuckson, well respected as an artist in his own right and Deputy Director of the AGNSW, was the Gallery’s champion of tribal art – both Aboriginal and Melanesian. He and Stan were kindred spirits and became close friends. Tuckson instituted a policy of collecting indigenous art from across the region and in 1965 he made his first trip to New Guinea to buy tribal art for the AGNSW, having been provided  with the princely sum of two hundred pounds (AU$400 ) to acquire it with. He went on to curate two exhibitions of tribal art during the 1960s and 70s, both of which featured loan pieces form Moriarty’s private collection. Sadly, the AGNSW’s commitment to acquiring Oceanic art ended soon after Tony Tuckson’s untimely death in 1973.

In Stan’s lifetime, his collection contained as many as 3,000 pieces, mostly from the Highlands, but also from Australia and other regions of New Guinea. Whilst he was not a dealer, he often swapped or sold pieces to improve the collection or donated them to institutions to ensure a representative holding of Highlands’s art in Australian museums and galleries. The primary beneficiary of Stan’s generosity was the AGNSW, who purchased 200 pieces from him, but inherited or were given 360 more, while his widow, Jean, made a further generous donation to the gallery after his passing. (One piece he did sell, a superb gerua board, was acquired by John Friede).

Our perception of the  Highlands has been  shaped by two well known books.

One is Gardens of War by Robert Gardener, which described a continuous state of low level local warfare between Highlands communities, fought with bows and arrows, spears and shields in defence of small cleared gardens in which crops were grown with stone age technology.  As a result of this book, Highland shields, stone axes and arrows, which were durable artefacts, became highly collectable

The other book, of course, is The Human Aviaryby photographer George Holton, which presented magnificent full colour photographs of representatives of different highlands groups in the full ceremonial dress and body paint. As a result, the outside world came to understand that body paint, as applied by Highlanders for sing sings and other events and rituals, was an art form in itself, albeit an ephemeral one that only survived for a few hours. Another important contributions to our knowledge of the  Highlands by  Holton’s book was glimpse of  the incredible cultural mix  contained in this small mountainous area

Fore people. Amo ato, a tree fern head decorarted with  shells bird feathers, pig tusks and   mammal teeth and made to be   displayed on a pole as a crop proltection effigy.  Mid 20th century, collected 1964, 290.1977. © Fore people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics


– in fact more than  250 languages are spoken there by small tribal groups divided roughly into east and west by  major cultural practices. Most of all, the book recorded the visual impact of a staggering variety of body art and body ornaments which define and distinguish each cultural group.

The Human Aviary was  published more than 40 years ago, so we have waited a long time for a  definitive exploration of PNG Highlands art, but fortunately Plumes and Pearl Shells is one of those landmark tribal art exhibitions that has the power to change your  conception of what Highlands art is all about, while correcting  a few misconceptions.


Redefining the stereotypes.

Whatever you may have been told, Highlands art is not lacking in figural representation. There are figures aplenty in this exhibition, from the often life size wooden carvings of the Fore, Tairora and Wiru people of the Eastern Highlands to the wigged head and torso emerging front the top of a woven wicker beehive that hides the body of the dancer during the important timp sonk ceremonies held by Mendi people of the Southern Highlands to control malicious ancestor spirits.

Furthermore, “ephemeral”, an adjective so often applied to Highlands art, does not necessarily mean “flimsy “or “simple” or “inconsequential”.  Objects made from gourds, plant fibres and feathers may be a museum curator’s nightmare, but many of them are complex and complicated aggregations created from an amazing variety of different materials. The delicately beautiful male head and

Kandepe-Enga people, aYupini male fertility figure made of coil-woven rattan and decoratred with seeds, shells and dried leaves. It has an echidna skull tied around its neck, collected 19711. 21.5 x 49.0 x 27.0 cm. 143.1971.a-b. Copyright© Kandepe-Enga people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

torso called a kunde gale, which is carried on a pole by one of the warriors who aggressively “trample the fence” and storm onto the dance floor as the climax of a major pig killing ceremony approaches, is made of no less than 15 different materials, while an exquisitely decorated bullock horn wig from the Ipeli people of Enga is sourced from more than a dozen different materials. These are not hastily thrown together found objects, but carefully planned and executed works of art.

Having said this, it is also true that virtually all Highlands art, from face and body painting to gourd masks is performance art that is meant to be danced, often in a mass display, and a lot of it was disposable. When the Garoka Show started in the1950s, it was common for the roads to be littered with discarded gourd masks and piece of costume afterwards, until the foreign tourists and art dealers started attending and the natives realised that these leftovers could be sold. On the other hand, durable and valuable  objects and components such as bride price and payback pieces, shell money, wooden objects, status ornaments like pig tail aprons, bird of paradise and other feathers and wigs made from the wearer’s own hair, were treasured and handed down.

 There are four gourd masks in this exhibition and they are an interesting study in themselves. Clearly,  the fact that they were relatively quick and easy to make does not diminish their impact. Face painting was a human form of decoration, but the blank and empty faces of the gourd masks, sometimes enhanced with noses and hair, or hung with jobs tear seeds or minimally painted with a few daubs of colour. symbolised the powerful spirit world.

Chuave people, gourd mask mid 20th century with a built up nose with inserted pig tusk and mammal teeth, collected 1964, 23.0 x 15.5 x 13.0 cm. 287.1977. © Chuave people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics




As you would expect, there is a representative sample of weapons in this exhibition – axes, bows and arrows and shields, as well as rare and unusual objects such as a large Gaheisi or dance banner of bark cloth on a bamboo frame make by the Alekano people, which is the size of a bed sheet, or the compact and minimal Yupini figural  fertility symbols sculpted in wickerwork by the Enga people which were so powerful, they were only exposed when the community was in crisis.


Above all, of course, this is an exhibition of body adornment in all its myriad forms – a wealth of belts, head dresses, wigs, aprons, dance girdle, and necklaces which is hard to take in during a single visit. There are bark belts, superbly carved in precise geometric designs, headbands large enough to cover the top of the wearers head, and even complete dance costumes.

It is interesting to note that far from being the Amish of PNG – isolated in their mountain fastness and rigidly traditional – the Highlanders are open and adaptable to outside influences and are happy to incorporate brightly coloured discarded cardboard in their elaborate headdresses if the brightness of the colours serves their purpose. They are cultural survivors, and although  the Garoka and Mount Hagen shows have evolved  since Moriarty’s time, their creativity  and visual impact continues.

Plumes and Pearlshells has its own catalogue, produced by its dedicated and enthusiastic Curator, Natalie Wilson, who has devoted several years to  planning and researching the exhibition. It does her credit.

See more photographs of PNG Highlands body ornaments and other objects on my website http://tribalartbrokers.net/artnew   

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The Maraufo: An initiation rite of the Eastern Solomons.


The Pacific Bonito, a member of the tuna family, was elevated to a semi-divine status in the South Eastern Solon Islands

The bonito, a member of the tuna family, is common in Oceania and highly valued as a food fish.  It is eagerly fished for throughout Polynesia and in areas of Micronesia and Melanesia, including the Solomon Islands.

In the South East Solomon Islands, however, the  bonito was elevated from a food source to become the focus a  religious cult that dominated men’s lives. This cult existed within the triangle formed by three specks of land  Santa Ana (Owa-raha) and Santa Catalina (Owa-riki),  two small islands  opposite the  south-east peninsula of  the larger island of  San Cristoval (Makira), which was the third point.

The prow of a fast bonito fishing canoe features the head of a predatory Frigate Bird.

The Bonito used to migrate through this area annually in large  numbers, pursuing  vast schools of small bait fish varieties such as pilchards.

During  this annual migration, the bait fish were sometimes chased close to the surface and the water surface boiled with bait fish, bonito, sharks and sea birds. The natives, who regarded  bonito as human beings of the sea because they had no visible scales and red blood,  believed this annual visitation to be a gift from the gods  and proof of their benevolence and  a cult grew around the need to  placate the gods to ensure a plentiful harvest of fish


This detailed carving of a maraufo cult initiate shows him wearing all his woven and shell adornments and carrying a model of a bonito canoe stern board (maramaraitapa).

A complex ritual grew up around this annual event. As the bonito fishing season drew near, presentations of  food were made to the gods through the local shaman or priest, who had an altar for this purpose in the canoe house. Strict taboos were enforced and the first  bonito caught each season was ritually dedicated to the gods. On the rare occasions when the bonito did not make their annual appearance, this was blamed on the breach of a taboo by a member of the community. (Women, for example, were forbidden to touch the bonito canoes or even approach the canoe house).

The presence of a bonito school in the area was usually pinpointed by observing the large flocks  of predatory birds that followed it – watching either from land or from a canoe waiting at sea.  Once located, the bonito were approached in fast fishing canoes called againiwaiau, light enough to  be carried by two men, which paddled into the mass of bonito, sharks and birds to capture as many as bonito possible  using  long bamboo rods and composite hooks made of mother of pearl and turtle shell that  spun like a bait fish in the water.


The maraufo display platform or qua built at Star Harbour in 1974 incorporated two real fishing canoes. When the boys mounted the platform, they would appear to be traveling in the canoes.

The function of the Maraufo rituals was to initiate older boys into manhood by passing on the secret knowledge required to manage  the tripartite relationship between the gods,  the bonito fish and humankind during a period of seclusion that lasted several months.

To begin the maraufo rituals, a boy candidate  had to be paddled out to the bonito school in a canoe and allowed to   touch the rod while a bonito was landed . On his return to the canoe house, he would be blooded by his first bonito catch, hugging it to his body and even drinking its blood. From this point onwards, he became a maraufo boy, and lived in seclusion in the canoe house for several months, separated from his family and able to eat only a limited number of foods.

Maramaraitapa, or bonito canoe sterns, are usually carved with motifs of sea gods or frigate birds.

At the climax of the maraufo , the boys who had been transformed into men by the blood of the bonito and their months of seclusion paraded on a specially built qua or display platform in all their impressive finery, each carrying a woven bag of presents  to be thrown to the cheering  crowd  below and a lightweight replica of the distinctive prow of an againiwaiau bonito fishing canoe to symbolise the capture of their first fish. They could then be reunited with their families and the period of seclusion ended.

Finally, at the end of this special day, the newly initiated young men  entered into a symbolic marriage, presenting their canoe  stern posts and combs to a young “bride” to signify that they were now old enough to court and marry,

This 1960s photograph shows newly-minted maraufo graduates in all their finery carrying their maramaraitapa to the beach

Judith Woods, who witnessed the climax of a maraufo ceremony in Star Harbour, San Cristoval in September 1973, has vivid memories of the young men in all their finery, carrying bags of gifts and model canoe stern posts onto the display platform, which was a large open structure crowned with two life size bonito fishing canoes. It was on this occasion that she purchased the large figure of a maraufo boy with all his body adornments and accessories which is currently offered on my website as  http://tribalartbrokers.net/details.php?itemId=FIB

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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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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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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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