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
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
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
– 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
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.
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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