Los Angeles

“Arts of New Guinea”

Municipal Art Gallery

Unlike the Western artist, the primitive carver gained little from skilled performance alone. His profession was ordained through a variety of circumstances over which he often had no control. In the Mundugumor area of New Guinea, artists were always born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their necks and believed to be immune to danger. In spite of this curious method of selection, the would-be artist managed to achieve high levels of performance. This exhibition of primitive art from the Sepik River region of New Guinea, one of the finest collations of bewitching material to go on view in the West, strongly demonstrates that superior achievement.

Organized by the Stendahl Galleries of Los Angeles from their collections and those of the Los Angeles County Museum, the University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth La Boyteaux, and Dr. and Mrs. George C. Kennedy, the carefully selected material was first shown at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Following the Los Angeles exposure, it will travel to the Seattle and Portland Museums.

The Sepik River area on the northeastern coast of New Guinea is peopled by tribes which have produced a wealth of artistic objects mostly connected in some way with their system of ancestor and spirit worship. Ancestor figures range in size from eight inches to eight feet. Some are mountings for the skulls of relatives, others are funerary or grave spirit figures. Dance masks of great variety and richness were constructed of wood, rattan, feathers, shells, fur, teeth, etc. Most of their houses, their utensils, furniture, boats, etc. were carved and embellished with the same exuberance although each tribe boasted identifying patterns developed from human and animal forms.

This wealth of artistic production, and the drive for more, resulted in a world nearly gone mad for art. So voracious was their appetite for new designs that raids aimed at capturing treasured art objects ran a very close second to demands for magical power or for revenge. The more isolated and withdrawn tribes managed to perpetuate fairly traditional artistic concepts but it was not impossible to find examples of their handiwork hundreds and hundreds of miles distant, treasured objects of other tribes. This vast exchange of artifacts, whether by trade between friendly sects, or whether by brutal force, has left nothing but chaos for the archaeologists attempting to piece together the migrations of designs. Many patterns can be favorably compared to Late Chou from the Asian continent while others are more obvious derivations from Micronesia.

Being restricted to the use of highly perishable materials, few relics of these primitive New Guinea cultures survive more than a hundred years. But this dependence upon such materials as were available resulted in art objects of such free fantasy of design in incised patterns and sculpture in relief and the round as to stagger the imagination. Not brightly colored, reds, browns, blacks and whites with occasional yellows, their visual excitement depends more upon the ingenious relationships of form usually in violent conflict with each other, and setting of explosions of emotional feeling. Their refined interpretations of the human and bird forms, carved with the most primitive tools, indicate more than a passing interest in the human face and the fauna which populated their island.

The inroads of commerce will eventually eradicate much of the incentive of these artistically gifted peoples. It is to be expected that their art will be subjected to the same degradation as that imposed on current mass production from Africa, pathetic shadows (for the tourist and export trade) of cultures once rich and vital. There are still pockets of more or less true primitive cultures in existence in New Guinea, but their days are numbered.

Curt Opliger