PRINT November 1970

The “Third Style” of Sepik River Art

THE JUNGLE IS STILL THERE. That much can be said. Flying over the floodplains, swamps and foothills of the Lower Sepik to the sleepy river villages of Angoram or Ambunti, one is still amazed and somewhat chilled by the immensity and seeming impenetrability of it all. But the river villages themselves are disappointing. Trade stores of corrugated iron, full of Japanese canned mackerel and cheap Hong Kong fabrics, cater to Sepikers dressed in Bermuda shorts, thongs and singlets. Twelve-transistor Panasonic portable radios replace the traditional drums and flutes, and the Jefferson Airplane floats through the air of a Washkuk village where, not so many years ago, the cries of returning war parties quickened the blood. Six hundred miles up the Sepik River, one buys a Coca Cola, leans back in the canoe (powered by Evinrude), curses the mosquitoes and mourns the passing of “Savage New Guinea.” However, the Sepik River region was famous not only for its huge spiders, savage native tribes and malarial swamps. Above all, it was, and is, known to be probably the richest province of primitive art in the world. The incredible variety of its styles easily matches West Africa, and even today the delineation and cataloging of these styles continues as scholars grope their way through huge European and American collections. Of course it must be admitted that these styles, in their traditional forms, are for the most part dead or dying today. The curio shops in Port Moresby and Lae are filled with terrible degenerate junk; “artifact from New Guinea” has begun to be synonymous with “genuine Navajo blanket.”

The causes of this degeneration are usually laid at the feet of European colonizers and missionaries. It seems that when the traditional religions die, the art follows suit. The reason for this appears obvious: the factor that is most distinctive about primitive art is the almost total functionalism of the object. This is especially true of Sepik River art. The art-for-art’s sake motive was a rarity here. The artist functioned as an adjunct priest or shaman, reifying the myths and principles
of the native religion. The objects themselves acted either as personifications of primordial ancestors and mythical beings, or as occasional or permanent dwelling places for ancestral spirits, totemic animal spirits, or even the “spiritual force” of living men. The stylistic and iconographic variations permitted the artist were small, as such variations could, by confusing the viewers, hinder the ritual functioning of the object.

Style was also influenced by function in another way; objects such as war shields, bowls, lime containers and canoes, which were not completely ritual in usage, carried decorations deriving from that of the ritual art and adapted to the type of surface to which they were applied. The function of decoration here also was often magico-religious rather than purely decorative; the faces on shields could be the ancestral spirits who went ahead of the war party, searched out the enemy, and sapped his strength. At the same time, they may have protected the shield-bearer himself from both magical and physical attacks. Decoration on such items as lime containers, though done for esthetic purposes, almost invariably used standard iconography adapted to the physical character of the object and functioned also to indicate ownership in a personal, clan, and/or village sense.

The artist himself was usually a part-time craftsman rather than a full-time carver, and except for periods of festivals, initiations and warfare, supported himself and his family in the same manner as other men of the tribe supported theirs: by gardening, hunting and fishing. There were, of course, exceptions to the above: there were a few groups in the Sepik that specialized in certain types of crafts, and there were certainly a few artists who experimented occasionally. Artistic or
technical excellence was usually rewarded by social recognition however, rather than by financial support (which was always there for those who carved, as the carvings were as necessary as food and shelter). So, in a sense, one might have typified Sepik art as basically iconic, acting to extend man’s social sphere beyond this world into the universe of the Tambaran or spirits, and personifying, rather than representing, these spirits and forces. A huge female figure giving birth personified the first ancestress, and the child, her descendants. Thus the motif stood for (or “was”) the tribe and its culture, acting to extend both entities backward and forward in time. A male figure surmounted by a bird often personified the tribe also, in the form of its spiritual and physical power in war. The art object functioned on several levels: as ritual or apotropaic iconography, as a group solidarity and identity symbol, as objectification of cultural values and cultural experience, and doubtlessly also as pure form and color. Such multileveled dynamicism is, of course, not restricted to Sepik art, any more than is art-as-icon. In their present-day American context and encountered by Americans in a museum or gallery, a Warhol Campbell’s soup can or a 1950 Chevrolet fender a la Rosenquist work in a very similar fashion.

The degenerate junk filling the Port Moresby curio shops now appears as a transition phase. We feel justified in the use of the term “degenerate” because, although they exhibit elements of traditional form and iconography, the pieces
seem to lack something. They appear sloppily done, and the fine flowing line and rhythmic curves have been replaced by a summary, almost soulless execution. The intricate curvilinear designs and surface motifs, once carved into the wood with extreme delicacy, are now carelessly daubed on, in gaudy trade store paint. Rather than being “primitive art,” they are quick impressions of what art once was in this area.

Is it truly the case that the old traditional art of the Sepik is dying? One regretfully admits that this is indeed the case. However, art in the Sepik is not dying by any means. If one considers the old traditional art forms as “valid” art (due to the function of the pieces and the stylistic “coherence” they seem to embody because of their very purposeful conception and manufacture), and the above-mentioned junk as a transition phase, labeled as junk because of the flat, summary “impression” of old traditional style and craftsmanship they seem to present, a third phase then becomes apparent. This is a phenomenon seen also in African and in American primitive art; first the pure traditional style dies along with the old non-European culture, then a more or less sizable outpouring of degenerate slovenly pieces occurs, and finally a stylistic (in conjunction with a cultural) synthesis is achieved. The latter phase is marked by a resurgence of technical skill and a sort of “content.” However, this “synthesis” style represents a qualitative esthetic departure in terms of the styles antecedent to it. If one examines a collection of old traditional pieces, definite range of technical skill and breadth of imagination can be seen in the objects. Some are “good” in terms of pure craftsmanship and handling of formal elements, and some are not so good. But they all have an air about them. They seem “authentic,” or distinct in some way. This is perhaps due to their manufacture and conception being structured by a style conception directly linked with magic, ritual and myth. Such a situation tends to impose a purity of style and conception on the objects which transcends craftsmanship. Perhaps one could say, searching for the most apt expression of nuance and not attempting empirical or ontological precision, that they are all manifestations of the same archetype or mental configuration.

This nebulous unity is, of course, what is lacking in the degenerate material. Many so-called “tourist pieces” are actually extremely well done in terms of pure craftsmanship, but something vital is missing in every one. The third phase mentioned above shares with the transitional phase an orientation toward sale, thus differing from the traditional style, which was oriented toward culturally internal function. These three phases (here admittedly an over-simplification) have been noted, as mentioned above, in such disparate arts as Indian pottery and weaving of the American Southwest, in Yoruba wood carving and in Eskimo ivory-work. They are also now to be found in Sepik art, and eventually should be characteristic of the other art-producing areas of Melanesia. In terms of actual time and effort expended, art was a central activity in the Sepik, and such production traditions apparently do not die as easily as style or ritual traditions.

The banks and tributaries of the Upper Sepik are shared by a number of more or less related cultures, among them the linguistically defined group known as “Iwam.”1 Due to certain cultural differences, anthropologists usually divide the Iwam into two sub-groups; those inhabiting the lower reaches of the May River (an Upper Sepik tributary), and those living along the banks of the Sepik itself, mostly down river from the May-Sepik confluence.

A state-of-war condition was endemic to all of the Iwam, both between their own separate villages and between the Iwam and the culturally distinct peoples adjacent to them. All of the Iwam were headhunters and ritual cannibals (ritual cannibalism, as distinct from nutritional cannibalism, involves ingestion of various parts of enemy bodies for the purpose of attaining spiritual immunity from the vengeful ghosts of the deceased, and/or for the transference to the eater of certain spiritual or physical powers once possessed by the deceased. In some areas of New Guinea, the souls or spirits of enemies who had been killed in battle would be adopted into the tribe as “honorary” ancestral spirits, thus placating the wandering souls and giving them a home, while the bodies, or parts of them, would be eaten). Iwam cannibalism, however, usually occurred only with the bodies of non-Iwam victims. Trophy heads were painted and hung up in the doorways of the “Haus Tambarans” or spirit houses, serving both to advertise the prowess of the group and to ensure non-entry into the house by the uninitiated and by women. The intra-Iwam conflicts usually had their roots in disagreements over women, whereas those involving the Iwam with outsiders arose generally from disputes over land or fishing areas and the recurring ritual need for new trophy heads. The traditional Iwam warrior armed himself with a variety of weapons; bone daggers, bow-and-arrow, spear, or various types of axes and clubs. In addition, a shield was usually carried. The traditional Iwam shields seem to have been manufactured in two models; a broad thick shield used by men advancing in file or in groups, and a narrow shield used by single men usually armed with a bow. Shields were elaborately carved with tools of shell or marsupial tooth and then painted with earth pigments. The fashioning of shields traditionally was a hereditary specialty occupation, taught to a boy who had reached adulthood by his father or uncle, and ran in certain families. The motifs used seem to have had a definite but extremely complex connection with the family or clan affiliations of the owner of the shield, and possibly also to some degree with those of the carver.

The Iwam traditional style (figures 1 and 2) was distinctive, both formally and functionally. Immediately apparent as a basic formal orientation is a rigid bilateral symmetry. This is to be found not only on shields, but also on canoe-prows, decorated arrows and gourds, carved cassowary-bone daggers, and bark paintings, and involves a distribution of a limited motif vocabulary along either side of a longitudinal midline running the length of the shield. A secondary organizing principle is to be seen in an habitual division of the shield horizontally into working areas. The motif vocabulary is relatively large when many decorated objects are considered together as a tribal oeuvre, but tends to be restricted to three or four elements on each individual piece. The teardrop or lobe-shaped motifs, usually filled with “teeth,” purportedly represent opossum tails or bird wings. The very common circles, usually containing “teeth” or rays or star designs are generally interpreted as eye and/or sun symbols. The “teeth” elements themselves, called yohu muio, apparently are representations of crocodile teeth and/or, depending on the clan (or mental set) of the carver and/or owner and/or informant, serrations on banana leaves. Vertical running scrolls or S-curves are often interpreted as opossum tails or pythons, and horizontal bands of chevrons, called tagu, can be either water or the backbone of a turtle. These elements combine in various ways, and persist in an unbroken line from the traditional pieces through the degenerate later pieces and into the contemporary “synthesis” pieces. Thus, the shield in figure 5, a new piece, shows in the bottom third of the composition a standard and traditional motif or motif combination presented, apparently for decorative purposes, twice. This part of the shield decoration seems to be an extremely stylized combination of snakes and crocodiles, with the free circles being crocodile eyes, the serrations crocodile teeth, and the lobe-shapes with eyes being python representations.

However, the “fact” that, for example, a running scroll is a python, often enlightens the investigator as to only one level of iconography. A curious but consistent phenomenon in New Guinea art, and especially in that of the Sepik River, is multiple interpretations of the same motif by people of the same tribe, village, or even family. Often, when the anthropologist questions six different people from the same village about the meaning of one motif, he receives six different answers; “It is a crocodile (a snake, the river, a fruit vine, a bird, etc.).” Such diversity can indicate, of course, improper or unperceptive questioning on the part of the investigator, but often this apparent lack of consistency is a sign of a multileveled iconography. At times the investigator will find, after more intensive field work, that all of the apparently disparate interpretations have a “common denominator”; they are all members of an image-meaning system relating to one central idea, perhaps war, fertility, or some ritual. To further confuse the outsider, the image-meaning systems of a style will often deliberately involve both types or levels of meaning; there will be images designed to present one obvious meaning and these will be interpreted with great consistency by everyone, and at the same time and often in the same composition or object there will exist images or motifs which are interpreted with apparently no consistency at all. These latter can either be personal idiosyncratic devices of the carver or elements of a meaning-complex with a generally recognized and single referent.

The new or third stage Iwam shields represent a fascinating mixture of consistency and radical departures in terms of the old traditional style. Their manufacture is no longer a specialty occupation, as it is now being done by almost every male member of many of the villages. As constant inter- and intra-group warfare has been suppressed for the most part in this area, the shields are no longer strictly functional objects, and, as the old ritual practices have declined, the content apparently now lacks any deliberate ritual or mythological references. One would suspect, although it is extremely difficult to verify one way or the other, that the “multileveled imagery” discussed above has also gone by the board. The traditional carving of shields in two sizes seems to have been dispensed with, due to the change in function of the shields from items used in warfare to objects for commerce. In fact, many of the new shields are almost outlandishly huge, up to thirteen feet tall and two and one-half feet wide. Although the motifs or motif elements themselves are, for the most part, still derived from traditional sources or models (with the exception of the human heads and obvious crocodile or lizard forms as in figures 3 and 4, which are new), the relationship traditionally existing between the person owning and/or carving the shield and the designs themselves has broken down. Thus, a change in design emphasis is apparent; where once utilization of design elements was conditioned by facts of clan affiliation and, probably, by ritual or mythological connotations of the design elements, now esthetic considerations (always present to some degree) oriented around the desire to sell the object seem to be paramount. The artist will attempt to achieve the most interesting and “striking” effect he can.

Some of the more obvious formal changes are probably related to this latter aspect. Especially notable, besides the general increase in size of the object, are the following: a horror-vacuii; a heightened attention to value contrast usually
manifested by greater use of black against white and dark red instead of the old predominant use of orange and light red grounds; a certain “hardening” and standardization of the various motifs or design elements; a willingness (as exemplified by the tour de force in figure 6) to dispense with such organizing traits as bilateral symmetry; and a use of many more motifs. To be sure, some of the hardening of design elements is due to the changeover from stone and shell to steel tools, but it is also attributable to the much greater number of carvers and shields carved and on display. It also must be noted that this hardening or standardization of elements is today accompanied by a willingness to expand the motif vocabulary, with new motifs entering as a result of personal experimentation on the part of the artists and increased mobility by the Iwam, some of whom have seen many more objects carved by other tribes in other styles than they would have in the past.

Of course, the slowly increasing influx of Western goods and images also plays a part in the increase of utilized motifs. As the shields are sold either to the rare European visitor to the Iwam area or are transported by canoe down-river to Ambunti, the furthest up-river of the European settlements, the artist is now faced with rather limited prospects for sale opportunities. When a visitor arrives at one of the Iwam villages, he has no sooner disembarked from his canoe than every household in the village has lined up their shields for display. This can amount to several hundred shields per village in some of the larger Sepik villages, and thus the artist is confronted with a dilemma similar to that which bedevils detergent manufacturers in our society; he must make his product stand out from the multitude. This is perhaps the major factor influencing the experimentation and increasing freedom and ingenuity of design to be seen in these shields today.

J.A. Abramson



1. I wish to thank Mr. Douglas Newton, curator of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, for the information on traditional Iwam style and culture that he was kind enough to communicate to me.