The Affecting Presence Of Boiken Art The Affecting Presence Of Boiken Art By Paul Roscoe Students of the remarkable artwork created by many of the world’s small-scale communities have commonly tried to make sense of it in terms of symbolic or semiotic analyses. In New Guinea, one of the premier theaters of such production, for instance, anthropologists have suggested that face painting, ceremonial headdresses, the art and morphology of spirit houses, and the designs on shields connect symbolically to, or communicate covert “messages” about, phenomena as varied as trees, pigs, birds, gender relations, or social structure and organization. Other theorists have detected formal or informal “grammars” behind artistic production. Taking as his primary ethnographic focus the painted façade of the Abelam spirit house, the eminent theorist Anthony Forge argued that Sepik art is primarily a means of rapidly conveying in a kind of visual shorthand “fundamental assumptions about the bases of the society, the real nature of men and women, the nature of power, the place of man in the universe of nature which surrounds him” (Forge 1979:285). The mechanics of this transmission, he thought, lay in the juxtaposition of artistic elements that connect to concepts of masculinity, femininity, power, and nature. A common artistic design on the spirit house façade, for instance, depicts the head of the ngwalndu spirit, the quintessence of Abelam masculinity, encapsulated within a pointed vagina-like oval associated with female and maternal character. This visual encompassment of masculinity by femininity “expresses the primacy of female creativity which in Abelam terms is natural, over male creativity which is cultural” (1973:189)—a key cultural assumption that, Forge argued, exerts a profound influence over every domain of Abelam culture (e.g., Forge 1971:141–2). For their part, art historians have been interested in the aesthetics of these productions, in how a well-executed piece can generate a Western or Western-style aesthetic pleasure or provoke aesthetic contemplation. Given that humans are symbol-using creatures par excellence, reflexively deriving meaning from everything they do and every setting in which they act, it is assuredly the case that, at some level, art conveys cognitive meaning, even if the message amounts to little more than “This is art!” But alongside these symbolic, semiotic, and aesthetic analyses, there is a less familiar but, to my mind, more productive way of appreciating and understanding village and “tribal” art. Artwork may have “meaning,” but what compels its production and energizes its reception is its affective capacity—its power to provoke or generate key emotions, feelings, moods, sensations. The key to this approach is, in Mills’ words, to see art as “a kind of emotional agent provocateur” (Mills 1957:10) and the artist as striving to achieve “the embodiment of those physical conditions which generate or are causative or constitutive of that emotion, feeling, or value with which he is concerned” (Armstrong 1971:31). It is an approach that centers on what the justly celebrated student of art, Ernst Gombrich, referred to as the power of visual impressions to arouse our emotions. Preachers and teachers preceded modern advertisers in the knowledge of the ways in which the visual image can affect us, whether we want it to or not. The succulent fruit, the seductive nude, the repellent caricature, the hair-raising horror can all play on our emotions and engage our attention. Nor is this arousal function of sights confined to definite images. Configurations of lines and colours have the potential to influence our emotions. We need only keep our eyes open to see how these potentialities of the visual media are used all around us, from the red danger signal to the way the décor of a restaurant may be calculated to create a certain “atmosphere” (Gombrich 1982:139). The challenge in this approach to art is how to get at artistic affectivity, the intent of the artist and the reaction to the artwork (which may be entirely different things) when emotion, mood, and feeling are phenomena that by their nature are difficult to verbalize. For starters, though, we certainly should attend far more carefully than we have to what artists and others in small-scale communities actually have to say about their art. One thing they commonly say, in fact, is that actually their designs have no “meaning” (see also Boylan 2005a:131, 137, 142, 144; Craig 2005c:125). To be sure, they can often be coaxed into identifying some of the elements that make them up. Among the Yangoru Boiken, for example, people distinguished a particular U-shaped element on the façade of their ka nimbia spirit house as “waterfall.” Another quite abstract motif was “tree-kangaroo”; another, an oval-shaped item, was “lemon”; and yet another, more elongated oval was—rather to my aesthetic dismay—said to be “cucumber.” But closer inquiry indicated that these were not so much symbols or signifiers in some cryptic cultural code but simply handy labels that people used to refer to particular motifs, somewhat akin to Microsoft’s use of names such as “starburst,” “amoeba,” and “windmill” to label and identify different visualization patterns in its Windows Media Player. When we attend to what our interlocutors have to say about their art, moreover, we frequently find them talking in terms of feeling and emotion rather than of cognitive “meaning” or messages. Consider, for example, the Melanesian shield, an artifact distributed widely across New Guinea and its islands and avidly sought by art collectors for the spectacular artistry that commonly adorns its face. Previous analyses of these pieces have often focused on their “meaning.” Beginning with Edmund Leach, for example, anthropologists have debated whether the complex iconography of the Trobriand shield is meant to represent a flying witch much feared by the Massim; a depiction of sexual intercourse intended to display contempt for the enemy; Topileta, the ruler over the world of the dead; and/or a symbolic map of the Trobriand world (Beran 2005:203). We now know, in fact, that Malinowski was quite sure that, for Trobrianders, the design as a whole had no “meaning” whatsoever (ibid., 201–203). What we also know, however, is that when producers are actually asked why they lavish so much effort on painting and carving their shields, they habitually reply with some variation of the Maring response. “Experienced warriors insisted repeatedly that the designs had no supernatural meaning, no symbolic content relevant to the fight—that they were solely intended to frighten through the use of colors which were dazzling and terrifying ‘like the light of the sun’” (Lowman 1973:19, 31; see also Craig 2005b:98; Criper 1967:134; Fitz-Patrick and Kimbuna 1983:21; Schneebaum 1990:37). But if this is what Melanesian shield artists intend, how do they manage it? How do they go about provoking or arousing feelings of fear and apprehension in their enemies across a battlefield? We don’t know, but we can hazard some plausible hypotheses. One device, it appears, is to rely on empathic response to the skillful depiction of affecting scenes, as in the Pietà—the use, as Gombrich (1982:83) puts it, of nonverbal communication in art. Another is to deploy signs and symbols that have pre-established affective associations. The U.S. flag, for example, inspires a fully enculturated American viewer with feelings of power, pride, and security, an emotional “hook” used by much of the patriotic folk art that blossomed in the wake of 9/11 to inspire in its audience a finely balanced combination of sorrow and steely resolve. As the comments of Maring artists hint, however, Melanesian shields appear to have deployed quite a different mechanism, a combination of colors, lines, and forms that seem capable in and of themselves of establishing specific emotional responses. Here again, Gombrich provides useful direction with his observation that humans seem to be programmed to notice certain motifs more than others. We cannot regard the visual environment as neutral. Our survival often depends on our recognition of meaningful features, and so does the survival of animals. Hence we are programmed to scan the world in search of objects which we must seek to avoid. We are programmed to be more easily triggered by some configurations than by others (1982:285). In places like the Sepik, he suggests, artists have developed a large, looming-eye motif that evokes an awe-inspiring or terrifying effect by conjuring the image of a dangerous predator about to pounce (ibid., 25–26). Another device, which seems to traffic in a similar imagery and response, is to conjure images of predators’ claws and teeth. There is a famous Pompeian mosaic that realistically depicts a chained and barking dog with accentuated claws and snarling teeth. The words embedded in the mosaic, Cave Canum, “Beware of the Dog,” communicate a message, but the picture of the dog, as Gombrich points out, “is not meant to teach but to warn” (ibid., 285), to arouse. “We are to react to the picture as we might a real dog that barks at us” (ibid., 140). What is striking about Gombrich’s thoughts is the sense they make of Melanesian shield art and the bearer’s intention to intimidate or terrify the enemy. Across New Guinea, shield designs are replete with large eyes or great whorl-like designs that resemble eyes (Fig. 1a & 1b). Numerous examples, moreover, incorporate white dentate forms against black or red backgrounds that bear a striking similarity to the teeth of a shark’s jaw and might as easily be seen as large claws (Fig. 1c & 1d). There is an obvious functional advantage to inscribing such motifs on a shield: They attract the eye, distracting the enemy’s attention from projectile weaponry coming his way. But if indeed they evoke images of a great predator, then covertly they would have in addition an apotropaic impact, conjuring feelings of fear or dread in an enemy audience. Other shield designs seemed to strive for other similar effects. O’Hanlon (1995) observes that many eye-like motifs on Melanesian shields take the form of whorls, tight spirals that trap the eye (Fig. 1a), disorienting the viewer. Other designs use a tight, fretwork-like design to similar effect (Fig. 1d). We might say, with Gell (1992), that these are “technologies of enchantment”—so long as we understand that, in the case of the Melanesian shield, the enchanted are simultaneously the disadvantaged. This is an art that, as their manufacturers insist, seems designed to disorient and terrify. The Boiken made scant use of shields, though in northern Yangoru, warriors were said sometimes to have used a forearm-version in battle against their most deadly enemies. It measured about 2’ x 3’ and was carved and painted with the “face” of the bearer’s clan wala spirit. This identification is important because it links the affectivity of battlefield art to a whole range of what might be called public or political art in Yangoru. This public art was characterized by designs that were identified as the “face” or “eye” of the wala spirit associated with the clan that produced it, or, in the case of a ka nimbia spirit house, it was identified as the clan wala spirit itself. For reasons that need not detain us here but that I have explained at greater length elsewhere (Roscoe 2009), the major ceremonial occasions of New Guinea life were venues in which clans, villages, and other political groupings sought to demonstrate to their peers their military and political “strength.” These occasions could take any number of forms, but invariably they involved some combination of conspicuous distribution, conspicuous performance, and conspicuous construction—that is, great material distributions of food, pigs, or shell valuables; massed and meticulously choreographed exhibitions of singing and dancing; and the construction of huge spirit houses. Whatever their form, the expressed aim of these ceremonial occasions was to assert the political and military “strength” of those who sponsored them, and they were mounted before an audience drawn from other like groups within the community and from allied communities. In part, this assertion of “strength” was indexical in nature. That is to say, the sheer scale and magnificence of a material distribution, a coordinated performance of singing and dancing, or a large cult house authentically demonstrated the size of the sponsoring group, the commitment of its members to group action, the physical and intellectual capabilities of these members, the number of kin and allies they could summon in their support, and not least, their ability to surmount internal conflicts and act as a group. Especially in lowland New Guinea, these events were also the crucibles in which much of a community’s artwork was forged. In northern Yangoru, for instance, they were the prime occasions on which feasting pots, slit-gongs, decorated hand drums, and drone flutes were brought out. They were the events at which masked, highly decorated wala figures appeared, each bobbing sedately before the contributions made by its clan, rather like a jellyfish pulsating through the ocean. And then there was the construction of ka nimbia, the forward-leaning spirit houses that constituted the largest, most profuse of all Yangoru Boiken artworks (Fig. 2). If the scale and magnificence of these ceremonies were concrete manifestations of their sponsors’ “strength,” the artwork that accompanied them, it seems, strove to make both the sponsors and their audience feel this “strength,” to evoke the feeling of a dangerous and potent presence. “Boiken ceremonial house at Halik on Pagwi road”. Photograph by Douglas Newton, August 8, 1970: frame 16. Copyright Virginia-Lee Webb, Ph.D. 2010-2011. The Douglas Newton Archive. All Rights Reserved. It achieved this effect in two of the ways that were mentioned above. The first was through the use of symbols or signs with established affective associations. The pau, the crosspiece on the ka nimbia spirit house (Catalog entries 17 &18), provides a case in point. These long wooden lintels were carved with totemic motifs intercalated with human heads or figures that were said to represent enemies who had fallen to the spears of the ka nimbia’s sponsors. At the zenith of the structure’s artistry, moreover, the occasion when it was ceremonially dedicated, the structure was decorated with numerous gizara spears and sharpened stakes, some bristling out from the lintel at chest level, the rest raking down over the audience from the façade and its eaves. To the Yangoru Boiken, the semantic significance of these spears, stakes, and carved war trophies was obvious to the point of triviality. They represented male “strength,” masculine power and menace. The point, though, was not to communicate a “message” about male strength but rather to make the audience feel that strength. To people who had experienced the thrill of homicide or the fear of facing ranks of enemy spears on the battlefield, these spears and trophies provoked an affective response. Through them, an observer felt the presence of power and menace. The second way in which Yangoru Boiken political art achieved its affective aims was through adroit combinations of color, line, and form. Great importance was attached to the visual impact of bright, saturated hues and colors that “lit up.” Their value lay in their capacity to “strike” the observer. They arrested attention, they seduced the eye. This was the principal reason why traditional stone-, soil-, and plant-based paints and sago-spathe boards were abandoned just as soon as trade-store paints and plywood became available: These media produced much “cleaner” and “brighter” colors. As for the motifs painted with these colors, the most prominent was some variant of the one that appeared on the Yangoru Boiken shield: the “face” or “eye of the wala.” This design took different forms in different places, but wherever it appeared it incorporated staring eyes or whorls or the teeth- and claw-like triangles that were such a common feature of Melanesian shield art. It was the central motif, for example, in the serried banners that covered the façade of the ka nimbia spirit house (Fig. 2; Roscoe 1995:3, 13); it featured prominently on feasting pots (catalog entries 171-78; May and Tuckson 1982:271–274); and it bedecked musical instruments (such as on drums, catalog entry 129 & 130). What Yangoru Boiken artists seem to have been after, in other words, was an effect akin to that pursued by Melanesian shield artists: to create, if not fear, then disquiet and unease in their audience. Children, it is said, did feel fear or terror in the presence of artwork like that of the ka nimbia. Adult audience members did not feel fear, it was claimed, so much as a reaction called minamambwi, a feeling of being “unhappy,” “troubled,” “humiliated,” “envious,” or “covetous”—the kind of emotion that one might experience in the presence of superior strength or power. As for the originators of this powerful artwork, those who identified and were identified with its power and menace, they were said to experience a feeling known as kwombikwambi (or diminutively kwombi), a feeling of dangerous potency, of being mighty and menacing. Before the advent of round-the-clock cable TV, it was common for American television stations to close the day’s transmission with the national anthem. To the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner, the red and white stripes of the U.S. flag swelled across the screen, occasionally intercut with footage of the nation’s fighter aircraft and naval vessels prowling its air and sea borders. To foreigners—and, I dare say, quite a few Americans—these images can seem contrived, clichéd, if not downright cheesy. In reality, though, they were little masterpieces of political art—not in the sense of political machination, of getting people elected and so on, but in the sense of evoking a profound patriotic feeling. The machines of war were pictured neither in hangars nor in harbors but as watchdogs about their task. The flag, with all its affective import as emblem of the U.S. nation, standard to its warriors, memorial for its war dead, and bunting to its parades, was filmed neither from above nor laterally but from below, looking reverently upward. The sky against which it floated was neither clouded nor stormy but was the clear, untroubled blue of summer. And the flag rippled neither in a rapid, tense flutter nor an occasional limp flap but in a slow furling and unfurling that can only be described as “grand.” These images are not accidentally chosen. In American society they appeal—in a manner long appreciated on Madison Avenue and within the Washington Beltway, less so perhaps in anthropology and art history—to affective states associated with authority, potency, well-being, pride, and security. It is a nation talking to itself, but through the medium of feeling rather than words: We are strong; we are powerful; don’t mess with us! Boiken art, I suggest, strove to evoke a similar affect, albeit in the service of a more localized, clan-based patriotism. Through a subtle yet powerful manipulation of established signs, symbols, color, line, and form, Boiken artists strove to evoke in themselves a kind of patriotism and in their rivals a sense of awe at a powerful and menacing presence.