PRINT October 1963

Melanesian Art

The University of California's Lowie Museum presents an extensive showing of art from the New Guinea area.

A REVOLUTION IN TASTE was brought about by the dis­covery of primitive art. It was a discovery of great importance, not only for its direct influence on modern art, but for its own sake and for the as yet unexhausted ideas it could supply contemporary ar­tists. Although initiated by the anthropologist’s curi­osity in man’s work, it has reached a new public this past half-century through the advanced vision of the artist. Actually a gradual awareness more than a dis­covery, its diffusion has depended not only on the nature of the art, but also on that special concept of humanity that all men are, in spirit, brothers.

Primitive art stems from, and confirms this asser­tion––a point substantiated by an exhibition of “Mela­nesian Art and Ritual” at the Robert H. Lowie Mu­seum of Anthropology on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.1 When Dr. William R. Bascom, Director of the Museum, selected this show as his major project for 1963, he found himself in an envi­able circumstance: The Anthropology and Art Depart­ments of the University are under the same roof in Kroeber Hall, enabling him to bring art and a social science into the proper relationship needed for a deeper appreciation of the artist as interpreter of his time. Such a union yields not only an ideal environ­ment for an exhibition of ritual art, but a timely one.

Dealing with a necessarily limited sphere of Mela­nesian art, and prepared under the direction of Dr. Michael J. Harner, the exhibition comprises over 200 carved and painted ritual objects recently collected in New Guinea and nearby islands to the north. This is probably the largest and most varied display of New Guinea art ever to be shown on the West Coast. Alex Nicoloff, the staff artist in charge of designing the exhibit, being a sculptor, has placed special emphasis on the expressive sculptural form of each carving with modeled lighting effects and varied use of rich color. There is no voodoo lighting or garish arrangements. Rather, the precise visual organization of the speci­mens was sympathetically conceived in order to ex­tend understanding of the ritual function, which adds immeasurably to the appreciation of Melanesian cul­ture and of New Guinea art.

New Guinea art could not conceivably be bland. Its source, the Melanesian (Black) Islands, so named because of their basically Negroid inhabitants, extend in a southeasterly direction for almost three thousand miles below the Equator, reaching from New Guinea on the west to the Fiji Islands on the east. New Guinea, thirteen hundred miles long, is the largest of the group, and the second largest island in the world­––a rugged land mass of volcanic formation divided down the center by stupendous mountains which des­cend suddenly into fertile lowlands and soggy swamps.

The large mass of its population has a cultural tra­dition going back to Neolithic times, but the present­day natives, commonly called Papuans, are not of one single stock. There are evidences of four different major cultural strata which have spread over the island, or parts of it, enriching the common heritage. Active volcanoes, hurricanes, and tidal waves give the area a quality of violence that often echoes in the lives of the people. Understandably, their beliefs center in supernatural spirits, sometimes fearsome in character, mythological beings, the power of ances­tors, and magical practices.

Hostile nature and isolating land barriers created economic circumstances fostering the development of a clan organization of society stressing a number of basically common institutions and practices. Among them were such predatory pursuits as warfare, cannibalism, and headhunting which, with increasing language differences, further isolated one area or even one village from another. From these conditions arose an amazing variety of cultures, their diversity revealed in a bewildering assortment of art forms. Melanesian art is generally conceded to be the most varied in styles, techniques and motivations of any in the entire South Pacific area, a contention support­ed by the Lowie Museum exhibition with its wealth of ritual objects, some from remote localities represent­ing art developments little known to the Western world.

Under native conditions it is often difficult to recog­nize art forms or patterns as recurrent, or as basic to the art of the area as a whole. But as sorted and docu­mented here, one quickly notes the presence of cer­tain important basic forms and concepts, even though these are rendered in different styles, indicating that the numerous variations are explainable as local de­velopments and interpretations of common heritage.

Sculpture, incised, polychromed in elaborate pat­terns, or with feathers, bark, fur, shells or even “trade goods” attached to give the object its full signifi­cance, is by far the dominant expression. The human figure is the subject most generally used. Through it the artist expresses not only the world of reality, but other concepts including psychological and emotional states. Birds, crocodiles and the praying mantis are favored as zoomorphic figures, alone or combined with the human figure in totemic sculptures of intri­cate design.

It is possible, on the basis of art styles alone, to distinguish at least seven regional developments on New Guinea,2 a regional differentiation accompanied by localized differences in religious and ritual activi­ty. Their common esthetic denominator is remarkable artisanship, a taste for symmetry, and an ingenious gift for combining stylistic motifs. This is especially notable in the woodcarving. For instance, the use of scroll as structure in the “Korwars” from the North­west Coast indicates a continuing link with the bronze figures from Indonesia and Southeast Asia. These little squatting figures, serving as resting places for the still-present souls of deceased relatives, are sturdy, self-contained sculptures, their vigorous curves and folded poses ideally expressing stability and pro­tection through symmetry and restraint.

There is little restraint in the works of the Sepik River people, however. They are among the world’s greatest primitive woodcarvers, and the richness of their art can scarcely be imagined. It includes idols, house-posts, lintels, masks, sacred stools, suspension hooks, neck-rests, shields, canoe ornaments, spatulas, lime containers, even ceramic pots. A generous por­tion of the Lowie exhibition is devoted to the Sepik River region, in all its stylistic variations: Lower Sepik and Coast, Middle and Upper Sepik, Maprik Hills, and the tributary Yuat and Korewori Rivers. Although the iconography of Sepik art has yet to be written, it would be a dull person indeed who could look at these works without some comprehension and admiration, or fail to respond to their baroque and Dionysian quality.

Both functional and ceremonial items are decorated with sinnet fiber attachments and shell inlay, or elaborately painted in white, red, black and yellow. Sometimes all of these embellishments are combined in a hackle-raising mask or a scowling ancestor figure. In the few instances where they are left “nude,” the very line of the figure is charged with emotion. It is in this Sepik River area that one comes to realize to the full the significance of what anthropologists call “mana”—a word borrowed from the Polynesian which comes closer than any we have to expressing the inde­scribable hypnotic power of primitive art. Nicoloff, in his installation, has fully recognized the element of mana. The focal point of the whole show is the group of Tamberan figures (those seen only by initiates) from the Middle Sepik River region, fittingly displayed to evoke the awesome atmosphere of the men’s secret societies. The boy who faced these figures for the first time, his imagination whetted by special ceremonies, was not apt to forget the experience!

One must, however, use this word “mana” advisedly in discussing art. In primitive metaphysics, mana is almost an abstraction, a résumé of all the elemental forces that emanate from nature. But in everyday savage life it is a quite practical form of energy, vari­ously viewed as a spiritual fluid, a psychic radiation, or a magic magnetism. It gives the chief his authority, the seer his vision, makes the medicine-man’s medi­cine work. Many of the objects in this show have been in some way consecrated to possess it. Indeed, with­out mana their occult usefulness is zero.

It is also necessary to distinguish between the magic mana that works on savages and the purely esthetic mana that works on us. For example, the Mundagumor, a Yuat River group of extremely vigor­ous and assertive people in an area where aggressive­ness is expected behavior, might have trouble in demonstrating just how much of the mana of their purely sculptural statements, alive with barbaric splendor, is due to their faith, how much to the cere­monial rubbings, and how- much to the skill of the artists who carve them. Little is known of the peoples living along the Yuat and other southern tributaries of the Sepik River. But among them we find a curi­ously familiar situation of art as a status symbol, a circumstance that sheds some light on the instinc­tive responsiveness to art which is in all men and could account for the little “water sprite” carving from that area being the best in the show here.

The expression of spirit content in forms seems to be the most conspicuous common feature of Sepik River art. There is the obvious basis in reality, but the shapes are often combined in weird or fantastic ways to create arresting, dynamic effects. All of them are notable for originality of composition, expressive vigor, and the utilization of color for both descriptive and decorative purposes. There are even some ves­tiges of a symbolic color tradition. But the homogeneity discerned in Sepik River art forms seems to be of a qualitative rather than an artistic character. It appears in the way naturalistic forms are interpreted­––dismembered, then reassembled to form a dramatic and powerful esthetic expression. A wide range of earth and vegetal pigments are used to define and to describe details, and to depict symbolic designs on sculptured surfaces.

The Sepik River culture complex covers a large area. The river is 850 miles long and is fed by a number of tributaries which drain far-flung ranges of hills and mountains. The Maprik Hills territory, for in­stance, outlying to the northwest, is inhabited by the Abelam peoples whose art and yam culture link them with the over-all Sepik River area. Their Tam­beran houses sheltered brilliantly polychromed sculp­tures, depicting ancestors and spirits from which the Abelams believed their virility and strength derived, and to which they must petition for a favorable har­vest. In some regions, the concept still prevails.

The splendid assortment of Abelam Tamberan fig­ures in the Lowie Museum is displayed in a special grouping to stimulate the greatest emotional response. The visual impact is stunning. Bright-colored, near life-sized figures with strange patchings and “bead­ings” stare back at the viewer in a most disconcert ing manner. Their faces, convex, with long noses, close-set eyes and slit mouths, express emotions ranging from puckish humor to ominous threat. Some seem paralyzed by fear, where totem birds with cruel beaks were placed between the feet in positions threatening to the genitals. If Nicoloff meant to make our innards crawl, he did. One wonders about the secret rites that revolved around these figures. Ini­tiates did not always survive them.

A purely objective analysis, however, can not deny the weakness of body design here, where compactness is sacrificed by looping the shoulders forward under the chin. Or that the out-sized heads, although char­acteristically convex, are positioned on also convex bodies in an awkward, unfunctional manner. Atten­tion is diverted with some success by the typical de­scriptive and symbolic designs painted on both the face and the body. From the point of view of culture, the Abelam style is compelling. As art, it is an ex­cellent illustration of an unsuccessful combination of two modes of art expression: sculpture and pol­ychromy. The painted designs give the forms full meaning as hero, ancestor, or spirit figures, creating an intense spiritual quality, particularly on the heads, but they fragment the object compositionally and ex­pressively with an over-all visual excitation. This weakness is more marked in some examples than in others––the complex, perforated flat carvings in medallion format being a notable exception. It is a feature, however, that sets the Abelam style-tradition apart from other Sepik art, despite numerous shared qualities.

A more decorative, schematic art-style prevails along the Northeast Coast of New Guinea, separate from yet related to Sepik River art. There, elaborately painted figure carvings have high-domed heads hunched down on neckless bodies. For some curious reason, New Guineans in general seem to have little regard for the neck, as compared, say, to the West Coast Africans, who often greatly elongate it for emphasis.

There could be no comprehensive exhibition of New Guinea art without some recognition of its distinctive masks. Dr. Bascom has found samples that are both significant and exciting, including a group of funerary masks from New Ireland, off the northeast coast. New Ireland, famed for its development of exceedingly complex carvings and fabrications, had a dynamic culture stressing progressively improved spectaculars in the guise of mortuary ceremonials, called Malang­gan, held every four years to honor departed ances­tors. Malanggan objects were made by the island’s best artists, under the direction of clan elders who held the secrets of clan-owned designs. This unique practice led to inventiveness and creativity as ends in themselves––a pattern found only rarely among primitive peoples. Two distinctly different mask forms in the Lowie exhibition are representative.

Mask making is also supervised by clan elders charged with the security and prestige of their group in the Papuan Gulf region on the southeast coast of New Guinea. The Bush Spirit comic mask from the Purari Delta, for instance, contrasts strangely with the New Ireland masks, although its motivation and function are similar. An apparent bilateral symmetry, upon close examination, proves to be an illusion pro­duced by the balancing of asymmetrical forms and design elements in a highly skillful manner. Papuan Gulf masks are more limited in their motifs than those from the north, using a few dentated forms, ir­regular spirals, and parallel straight or curved linear elements.

The Papuan Gulf style is one of the most homoge­neous of the New Guinea style centers. Whatever the form being created, the same basic stylistic pattern prevails. In the characteristic shields, skull hooks, and memorial boards, the carving method is in com­plete agreement with woodworking styles found far­ther west. Upraised designs on the Papuan boards have been painted to accent their linear quality, whereas with the Southwest peoples (Asmat, particu­larly), it is usually the background that is painted. In this part of New Guinea, where the bow and arrow was the major weapon, shields of varying heights were carved with the visual image of a protective power spirit. With this potent mana they were con­sidered tangible barriers to harm, adding an import­ant functional significance to their art quality.

The Asmat and Mimika peoples in Southeastern New Guinea make almost no style break with the Papuans, less even than the Lowie exhibition would indicate, since here special selections were made to illuminate any variation. If anything, the art style is more highly symbolic and abstract than Papuan motifs. Design elements are dramatically creative, derived from nature sources and recreated in the special idiom of the area. Objects of particular inter­est are shields with mana deriving from the praying mantis, an insect whose predatory behavior correlates with the practices of headhunting, cannibalism and fertility idealized by the Asmat. The linear organiza­tion of these designs suggests a non-sculptural origin. Not so, however, the sculptural handling of the mag­nificent “bisj” pole, justly featured in the museum’s display. Here emphasis is on three-dimensional fig­ures with elongated bodies and powerful limbs in positions of great tension. The bisj pole is built to represent victims of headhunting raids and to carry their spirits to the other world––a curious echo of beliefs from ancient Greece and Egypt.

The Lowie Museum exhibition by no means exhausts the subject of New Guinea art, but its depth of focus extends our consciousness and raises regrets that Sepik River art, which represents only one aspect of the island’s rich art lore, has become its trademark. A trademark fostered by the Sepik region being one of the world’s three major primitive carving centers. (The other two are West and Central Africa, and the Northwest Coast of North America.) By volume as well as by esthetic quality it has earned the admira­tion of the world.

The need for ritual carving is diminishing as civili­zation overtakes this primitive area. Its mana has evaporated before the march of science. Yet few con­temporary artists can match the primitive in ex­teriorizing his emotions and none exceed him in re­spect for materials.

Dr. Bascom has, in this comprehensive assemblage, aided in consolidating new values as well as thrown light on what has been, until recently, a rather dark area of human sensibility.

––Elizabeth M. Polley



1. Through November 24th.

2. Northwest Coast, Central North Coast, Sepik River and Coast, Northeast Coast, Massim, Papuan Gulf, Southwest Coast.