An Unlikely Significance: Collingwood Bay Lime Spatulas An Unlikely Significance: Collingwood Bay Lime Spatulas By Michael Hamson For those well acquainted with the full power and range of New Guinea art, it might be hard to fathom the potential importance of a lime spatula. In a land where many cultures produce figurative sculptures of bold forms and expressive demeanors in often monumental scale, a lime spatula in comparison can appear rather insignificant—especially since in most New Guinea cultures lime spatulas are fairly straightforward utilitarian objects. But in the Collingwood Bay area of Oro Province, this is not the case. Here, there is no formalized ancestor worship and thus no tradition of figurative sculpture.1 What you have is a society based upon hereditary chiefs and the strong, almost magical, importance given to the chewing of betel nut. In this context, lime spatulas have risen to the height of cultural significance. There is no other single object that garners as much respect, that is both feared and coveted, or that has anywhere near the same power, both magical and symbolic, as the lime spatula. Before one can begin to understand the importance of the lime spatula, it might help to relay some stories I have been told concerning the magical use of betel nut. For example, Hilaria Jivu of Barabara Village told me that when a chief has assembled the village and wants to discuss the planning of a large feast with a neighboring village, he will pace back and forth in front of the group, talking and giving directions, all the while chewing and spitting betel nut that has been prepared with an added magical herb. This magical brew will give his talk and instructions more weight, more purpose and an assurance of success. The feasts themselves have a competitive, almost hostile, undercurrent to them, and the chewing of betel nut plays an important role. The host village will prepare a huge number of pots of food to feed both themselves and their guests. It is very important to have more food than the guests can consume. So, prior to their arrival, the “last man” of the village—the polar opposite to the chief—has the task of chewing betel nut mixed with magical herbs and spitting it over the covered clay pots of food. The spat betel nut ensures that the pots of food stay full to the extent that the visitors cannot finish it—so that the host village “wins” their guests. Along the same lines, when a village has been invited to a feast, they will often send over the “last man” to sneak into the village the night before so he can spit his magical betel nut over the covered clay pots of food the hosts have prepared. This has the opposite effect, so that when the hosts uncover the pots before serving, they will find them empty and thus be humiliated by not being able to feed their guests. In the same way, the “last man” can disrupt the timing of a neighboring village’s group of dancers. He will chew the magically induced betel nut and casually walk by the line of dancers, surreptitiously spitting betel nut near their feet to throw off their rhythm. As for lime spatulas themselves, I have heard a number of interesting stories illustrating the unusually broad range of powers they yield. First, certain large lime spatulas were the prerogative of chiefs and held important powers that were crucial for the success of the chief and the well-being of people he led. In times of strife or conflict, it fell to the chief to resolve disputes. While nearly every other day the chief worked the gardens and fished the coastal waters side by side with his neighbors, in times of distress he assumed a position of authority, and the one object that marked this transformation was his hereditary lime spatula. From small domestic disputes to large intra-village wars, the chief wielded the magical and spiritual influence of his lime spatula to calm combatants and resolve conflicts. The mere sight of the lime spatula reminded people that the person holding it was no longer their neighbor but now was their chief, and the words he spoke held more weight and deserved respect. In Foru Village, I was told how in the old days a top chief would hold meetings with all his sub-chiefs and other village leaders. They would sit high up on the raised floor of the chief’s outdoor “haus wind,” chewing betel nut and chatting prior to the meeting. When the top chief wanted everyone’s attention, to call the meeting to order he would pick up his lime spatula and rattle it in his lime pot. As the other men quieted down, the chief would lead the discussion on community issues needing to be resolved—reciprocating feasts, land disputes, possible raids into enemy territories. As the leaders came to an agreement, the top chief would pass his lime spatula around the room. As each man grasped the spatula, it signaled his acceptance of the agreement just made. As such, the spatula, with its magical authority, acted as guarantor and witness to the pact between the parties. In a society without writing, as those in Collingwood Bay used to be, certain objects assume the role of written document or contract. In land disputes, where it boils down to one person’s word against another’s, lime spatulas are often brought out as evidence to agreements made or as proof to claims of ownership. As hereditary objects, they not only trace a person’s ancestry, they also can recall histories of events, feasts, battles and conquests. Lime spatulas were said to be one of the main items sought when a group of warriors raided a village. While hereditary objects, the lime spatulas and the powers they possessed were not necessarily passed down to the first-born son of the chief. Lucian Simati, a chief from Katokato Village, told me that the spatula is given to the son the father deems most worthy. It is passed down to the man with the “best qualities, who can speak well, treat people fairly, exhibit good behavior and exercise common sense” (Simati, pers. comm., July 2008). Within Collingwood Bay there were specific clans with specific duties. The two main types of clans were chieftain clans and guardian clans. The guardian clans served as both warriors and protectors of the chief. They oversaw the rituals performed to install a top chief into office. Each chief had his own lime spatula and, in some instances, as in Uiaku Village, the chiefs of guardian clans could use only lime spatulas made from greenstone. When a visitor arrived in a village, he would first be met by a member of the guardian clan, who would then escort that person to the chief’s residence. After the visitor was seated on a freshly brought out coconut-leaf mat, the chief would come out and greet the person. If the chief carried his lime spatula with him, that meant the visitor was accepted and deserved respect. Today in Collingwood Bay, the chiefly lime spatulas are still closely guarded and brought out into the public light only reluctantly. Because the spatulas serve as evidence in land disputes or as proof to claims of authority, those who control the spatulas control those issues. As such, fear of sorcery or poison keeps most important spatulas out of the light of day and keeps most people guessing as to who holds what spatula. But where chains of ownership are not in doubt nor the balance of important disputes at issue, the spatulas serve more as heirlooms and as memories of deceased relatives. In some instances, the spatulas serve as “guardians,” as with Barthimus of Gavide Village. He has two lime spatulas that had been his grandfather’s. When the grandfather traveled to distant villages on trading voyages, he carried the lime spatulas as both protection from sorcery and ill will and also because the lime spatulas brought good luck, friends and happiness wherever he went. While the belief system that supported the lime spatulas in his grandfather’s time has substantially changed, Barthimus still felt it prudent to carry them with him when he traveled. As to the potential meaning of the carved designs on lime spatulas, no one I spoke with could say anything definitive. Everyone agreed that the designs were for that particular clan and that only they had the right to their use. Some lime spatulas with the sharpened crescent and downward-pointing hooks were said to represent the open mouth of a bush bird, wangi nuwa. And spatulas with double opposed hooks were said to be used only by top chiefs, but the individual design elements had no specific meaning anyone could remember. Hilarian Jivu of Barabara Village remarked that while the spatula designs did not have any specific meaning above that of an emblem, they did have definite names that only members of the clan could voice. And that name, if spoken in vain, could result in severe sanctions for the offender. He told of a man who, in a heated dispute with his wife, divorced her by calling out angrily the name of the clan emblem as his witness. The rest of the clan felt that the man had cheapened and devalued the emblem name, so they demanded compensation and ostracized the man for five years. Clan members could not darken his doorstep or eat food from his garden. They would take long detours to avoid passing his house. Only after the man bought and killed many pigs in a public feast for the clan was he eventually brought back into the fold (Jivu, pers. comm., July 2008). Aesthetically, there are marked differences between the lime spatulas of Collingwood Bay and those from their more popular neighbors, the Massim. With Massim spatulas there is a general tendency toward complexity and fine details. Most are figurative in either having an obvious human face or full figure or at least employing one of the infinite variations of the bird motif. The Massim artist seems to relish his command of the medium by producing elaborate forms of great virtuosity. I consider it an aesthetic of graceful excess where carved details are often piled one atop another. The end result is often beautiful, and it is no wonder why Massim lime spatulas are some of the most accessible and popular objects for collectors of Oceanic art. The lime spatulas from Collingwood Bay are a totally different animal. At first glance one might understand what drove F. E. Williams after his survey of Orokaiva (the northwestern half of Oro Province) in 1930 to remark, “The Orokaiva is no woodcarver” and that the carvers there do not “make any pretensions to artistry” (Williams, 1930: 66, 76, as quoted in Beran and Aguirre’s 2008 draft of the Art and Artifacts of Oro Province). Such impressions as Williams’ evidently prevailed for decades because there really has not been any serious look at the art from Collingwood Bay or the rest of Oro Province since. Examples of the tapa cloth or the distinctly styled Collingwood Bay neckrests have made it into most surveys of New Guinea art, and Anthony Meyer did much better than most by including five pieces from the area in his Oceanic Art book from 1995 (Meyer, 1995, pp. 154–157). I must acknowledge that my eyes were opened to the art style by an exhibition put on in Sydney by Geoff Carey and David Baker back in 2003. I was immediately intrigued by the minimalistic designs of the lime spatulas. The few examples displayed had elongated, rectangular handles with simple incised abstract motifs. They were refreshingly different and subtle. I quickly made plans to visit Collingwood Bay myself. And now, after more than 12 extended trips across the breadth of Collingwood Bay, my appreciation for the art has only grown. While the Collingwood Bay artist often sticks to a few simple motifs, their arrangement and composition end up being enigmatic and inscrutable. What makes this all the more surprising is that the compositions are normally very orderly, with medial ridges bisecting the spatula into two equal halves. Then the design is often broken into blocks or the motifs are repeated and grouped into solid sections or patterns. But this apparent orderliness is deceiving. There is always some small detail that is consciously added or altered to disrupt what at first appears predictable. As with all great art, easy interpretations are denied. I suspect that if F. E. Williams had dug a little deeper or ventured a bit further south, he would have been duly impressed with what he found because, besides the minimalist abstraction that so intrigues a modern aesthetic sensibility, there are other spatulas of obvious refinement and artistic merit that easily measure up to the best Massim examples. So, I invite you to view the following objects, all rarely seen, and until now, rarely fully appreciated. 1. In Harry Beran and Edward Aguirre’s unpublished draft on the art and artifacts of Oro Province he illustrates what he calls “taboo posts” and other somewhat figurative sculptures used in dramas photographed by F. E. Williams in 1930 (Beran, draft, 2008, p. 98–99).