Technical virtuosity is the mastery over materials that comes from taking both the intent of the work and its execution very seriously over many years. The effort put into such a thing must befit the gravity of bringing to life a carving that will ultimately enable the owner, his family and the rest of the clan to survive and flourish. This heightened level of artistry manifests itself not only in a complex and technical masterpieces but also in the artist's ability to convey expression by using only the minimal amount of line and form. A clear and elegant line as evidenced by the pieces that follow is the work of a sure hand and years of carving at a high level.
New Ireland Malangan Frieze, Vaval
New Ireland, early 20th century, 69” in height, collected by Phyllis Pray Boder in the 1940s. This malangan frieze is an exceptional example of technical virtuosity. The complex and intricate composition consists of a bird eating the head of a snake while embracing a figure that in turn in embracing the snake. The area above the bird consists of a thin panel carved with radiating arcs interconnected with rows of finely cut-out spokes.The tail feathers of the bird are cut out with central void between the corresponding set of feathers on the piece’s reverse. While I have mounted this piece vertically, in its original context it would have been set horizontally on a post—the receptacle is in the snake’s body in line with the figure’s torso. This type of carving most closely resembles what Michael Gunn calls Vaval in his book on the New Ireland art in the Barbier-Mueller Museum (Gunn, 1997, p.106/7).
Upper Karawari River, late 19th century, 42” in height, collected by Barry Hoare in early 1960s, ex. MacTaggart collection, private collection.
The yipwon figures of the Upper Karawari are some of the most elegant and complex pieces of New Guinea art. This pre-contact piece has two sets of gracefully tapering opposed hooks that converge at the heart of the figure. The powerful head with brooding over-hanging brow is surmounted by another hook that mirrors the line of the head. The curve of the back spine works with the curve of the large hooks to create a circular dynamism that only a few of the very best yipwon figures achieve. Too often the size and sweep of the hooks does not correspond well with the height of the figure leading to an intriguing but stiff composition. The volumes of the head are also important to give the piece the substance and power of a three-dimensional sculpture. The taper of the hooks in this piece convey the menace of an insect’s pinchers when viewed from the front. Once cannot underestimate the inspiring power of menace.
Southern Abelam Yam Mask
Southern Abelam area, early/mid 20th century, 18” in height.
This exquisite woven yam mask from the southern Abelam area south of Wombisa perfectly exemplifies the heights a gifted artist can reach within this medium. There is an extreme tightness to the woven cane that when added with the thick surface patina creates and almost molded surface. The face has subtle curves and finely modulated volumes that give the piece a rare naturalism. The headdress undulates and flows in a pleasing lyrical manner. The pin-pont eyes are unusually penetrating and the nose has some fiber decoration intact. As with all yam masks this piece was used to transform the ritually-grown long yam into the ancestral spirit that enabled the grower to cultivate such massive tubers. The yam mask and its related decorations helped both manifest the nggwalndu spirits and also made them happy to be publicly honored. At the often-fierce yam exchanges the long yam would be given to one’s exchange partner in a boisterous forum in an attempt to bolster one’s own prestige at the same time as belittling that of your exchange partner’s. In this sense, the beauty, complexity, and visual power of the yam mask contributes to the pride of the owner and his long yam.
Lower Sepik Mask
Lower Sepik River, early 20th century, 20” in height.
This dance mask from the Lower Sepik region has a refinement and delicacy only a master carver could achieve. The smooth and graceful curves of the face are heightened by the fine medial ridge that runs down the forehead along the top of the nose and ends in the slightly pursed upper lip. The curve of the long nose mirrors the gentle curve of the forehead. The surface of the mask is smooth and virtually without decoration except for a pair of small fish cresting the swell on the forehead. There are only the barest traces of red pigments remaining. The back has an ancient patina and signs of shell scraping—an early method of smoothing the inner surface of masks in the area. The perimeter of the mask is marked by numerous holes where the piece would have been lashed to a larger dance costume. The ears and nostrils are pierced where string and shell tassels would have been attached.
Collingwood Bay Lime Spatula
Collingwood Bay, 19th century, 12” in height, anonymous collection
This elegant lime spatula comes from the little known and documented region of Collingwood Bay in Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province. Like their neighbors to the southeast (the Massim) the people of Collingwood Bay have and elaborate material culture associated with the chewing of betel nut. While only a few spatulas from this region have been published, typically they are simple compositions with rows of incised chevrons or vertical columns of pecked- in parallel lines. This one, however, has a complex and enigmatic design that could only have been executed by a master artist. The rounded top slopes down into an elongated crescent slightly reminiscent of the head of a squid. There is a stylized figure carved in high relief that separates the top section into four fields that each has a central incised design element—either concentric circle eyes or a scroll motif of opposed spirals. The entire surface of the top portion is covered in a fine thatching of incised peck marks that creates a texture which serves as a wonderful background to the glossy highlights of the relief portions. The whole piece has an ancient and worn surface from generations of loving care and handling. This tactile quality is hard to quantify and describe but should not be under appreciated.
Sunahu Kwanga area, southwest of Abelam area, late 19th/20th century, 35” in height, Jolika Collection
To the south and west of the Abelam area live the Sunahu Kwanga. Here the culture, understandably, has many Abelam traits. They have a cult around the growing of long yams and produce some of New Guinea’s best carved cassowary bone daggers—see Douglas Newton’s article on bone daggers in the 1989 Metropolitan Museum Journal for some excellent examples collected by Anthony Forge in the early 1960s. Besides cassowary bone daggers Sunahu has produced a couple of amazing hand drums (an especially fine example is in the Sam and Sharon Singer collection is San Francisco). The present drum is exceptional for its age, patina, and the quality of execution of the double ancestral figure carved in extreme relief. The handle is stout and above it is carved a pair of imposing, triangular-shapes eyes.
Boiken Bone Comb
Arapesh or Boiken area, Prince Alexander Mountains, 19th century, 10” in height.
Sam and Sharon Singer Collection
The bone combs from the Arapesh or Boiken people living on the eastern section of the Prince Alexander Mountains are some of rarest, most beautiful, and enigmatic pieces of New Guinea Art. The only other known example published was collected by Bruce Lawes in 1971 and is now in the Jolika Collection. I have yet to ascertain what animal the bone come from—I have heard cassowary, crocodile, and human as possibilities. As for function I have seen one still in the field being used for healing—the owner refusing to part with the piece because the community depends upon it for their health and well-being. The carving on this example is beautifully composed and deeply executed with the ancestral faces in extreme high relief. The bone has a glossy, golden-color patina from generations of use.
Massim Presentation Axe
Southern Massim region, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea
Collected by a member of the Whitten family
Harry Beran Collection (HB632)
John and Marcia Friede Collection
There are some New Guinea artworks that stand out like a lighthouse from the landscape of works of a given type. This presentation axe haft is one of them. The longer part of the haft is sculpted in a shape oblong in cross-section, while those of other presentation hafts tend to be more two-dimensional; the snake on the shorter section holding the stone blade is sculpted in dramatic, extremely high relief instead of the usual low relief; and the birds decorating the handle are fine examples of Massim openwork carving. To create space for a whole flock of birds at the end of the handle, the bird and open-jawed animal head double motif often carved there has been shifted to a location halfway toward the elbow. This haft demonstrates that talent and inspiration vary among Massim artists just as they do among those of other cultures and that there is opportunity for the expression of great talent in the Massim art practice. The haft was bought at auction in Sydney without stone blade.
Published: Beran (1980, fig. 122). When Gerrits obtained the axe blade in Kiriwina, he was told that its name was giliwakuma.
Axe is 32 ½” (82.5 cm) in length
Abelam Ancestral Spirit Janus Figure, Wapinyan
Djame village, Central Abelam area, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
It is important to remember that for the Abelam, ancestral spirits are responsible for both the civilized and bush realms. I think this pre-contact, stone-carved Janus figure with both male and female sides perfectly exemplify these spirits’ central role in creation of both the human and natural worlds.
Pre-contact, stone-carved, 19th century
50” (127 cm) in height
Sawos Lime Stick Finial, La Korrigane
Sawos culture area, Sepik Plains region, Papua New Guinea.
Late 19th/early 20th century, 7 ⅜” (18.7 cm) in height; collected in situ by Étienne and Monique de Ganay in 1935 on La Korrigane expedition; acquired by John Friede from the de Ganay family in the 1980s. Published in “Le Voyage de la Korrigane en Oceanie” by Charles van den Broek D’Obrenan, 1938, fig. 1.
Central Desert Aboriginal Wooden Churinga
Central Desert area, Australia
Ex. Dan Eban Collection, Israel
Mr. Eban edited Art as a means of communication in pre-literate societies: The proceedings of the Wright International Symposium on Primitive and Precolumbian Art, Jerusalem, 1985.
Just when I thought I had seen all the great churingas Australia could produce, along comes this masterpiece. The churinga has both great age and a design that is complex, enigmatic and beautiful. The shape is pleasantly wide and unexpectedly rectangular. The surface patina is old and the in-filled pigments still strong.
18¾” (47.6 cm) in height
Sissano Lagoon Paddle Fragment
Warapu Village, Sissano Lagoon, West Sepik Coast, West Sepik Province, 40-1/4” in height, late 19th/early 20th century.
I field collected this wonderful paddle fragment from Warapu village at the mouth of Sissano Lagoon on one of my first trips to the West Sepik Province in 1995. After a few days in the area, I had boarded a small boat for the long and bumpy ride back to Vanimo. The dingy was motoring toward the entrance of the lagoon preparing to leave the calm waters for the rough surf always found at the bard when a man called out from the shore. He was holding this paddle fragment that he stated came from his ancestors and was carved with shell tools. I publish it here to honor its historical significance and to illustrate its superb and archaic design. Composed of spirals, meandering tendrils, stylized figures and looming eyes; the paddle is a surreal masterpiece of free-flowing organic forms carved in high relief.