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   

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