Wooden Bowls of the Huon Gulf Region
Wooden Bowls of the Huon Gulf Region
By Klaus Maaz
A definite homogeneity is clearly apparent in the artistic works produced by the peoples that inhabit the so-called Huon Gulf region. The art of the area can rightly be seen as a conglomerate of different styles. The small Tami Islands, located near the Huon Peninsula, were the center of the wood-carving arts until the advent of European times, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of the Huon Gulf style area melded with that of the Tami Islands style area. The Tami Islanders produced very impressive headrests and betel mortars, but are undoubtedly best known for their beautifully decorated bowls of greatly varying sizes that were traded over a wide geographic area. Along with the Siassi Islanders, who also began to manufacture such bowls in the 1920s, they were master boat builders and famed for their seafaring abilities. They were active traders “who regularly traveled to the Siassi Islands, and probably also sailed over the open seas to New Britain, so that it is not surprising that the forms of their carvings were known over a wide area, and that expressive forms similar to those of the Tami Islands are known from other people and places, such as the Kilenge of the West New Britain coast.”
Otto Finsch states that “as a result of the regular trading voyages these very active [Tami] people undertook, their bowls became highly prized trade items and reached the Lieblich Islands (Arawe Islands) along the coast of Southwest New Britain, and Southwest New Britain itself. From there, through further trade, they spread over all of Western New Britain and as far north as the Willaumez Peninsula and the French Islands (Vitu Islands). On New Guinea, they reached Astrolabe Bay.”
The intertribal contact their travels incurred thus caused a relatively small number of islanders to have a significant cultural impact on areas very distant from their own (see map).
In order to manufacture the large quantity of wooden carvings, especially bowls, that they produced, the carvers on the Tami Islands needed a supply of Afzelia genus wood that exceeded the amount available on their own small islands. They obtained the required quantities by trading with coastal peoples of New Guinea. The bowls they made were very likely not only used for food, but for ceremonial purposes as well. While most of these bowls were oval and boat-shaped, fish-shaped or double bowls are also known and may have been intended to serve as receptacles for specific types of food. Bowls of this kind are only rarely seen in collections.
There are only a few accounts in the literature on the manufacture of the bowls. That of an early observer, M. Dreger, is quoted by W. Feist (footnote 3c):
“On Kalal, we saw how long and difficult the process of the manufacture of bowls is. … Two massive tree trunks were lying there, both somewhat smoothed on the top surface and with their bark removed. Each trunk had three holes in it placed at equal distances from one another in which hot coals were burning. A man standing by the trunks carefully manipulated those coals in such a way that they would burn out the inner hollow of the bowl very precisely. It was explained to us that it was only once that had been done that the work with stone adzes on the bowls’ outer shapes, and the separation of the three pieces of the trunk could be
In the opinion of R. Neuhauss, however, fire was never used to hollow out bowls. W. Feist explains that by maintaining that after their initial contacts with Europeans, the Tami Islanders abandoned the original burning technique because the iron blades they had obtained through those contacts could do that work much more efficiently. Neuhauss was in the Tami Islands twenty years after Dreger, and he, as well as many other later observers, were consequently too late to be able to witness the use of the hollowing out by fire technique (see footnote 3c, page 100).
O. Schellong, a physician and language researcher who arrived in Finschhafen in 1886, was one of the first Europeans in the area to show appreciation for the indigenous carvers’ creativity and talent: “The artistic ability of these so-called savages should not be underestimated, especially when one considers that their tools consist only of stone and shell implements of the most rudimentary kind. The ornamentation that is seen on nearly all of their utilitarian objects is truly wonderful and has real artistic merit.” Dreger also expressed admiration for the artistic ability of the indigenous carvers, as can be gleaned from the following passage he wrote on the creation of the ornamentation for the bowls:
“… There were no further interruptions to our research, and so I found time to devote my attention to an industrious warrior, whom I was able to observe spending his peace-time leisure hours working on carving boat-shaped bowls used for the preparation of food. Without the help of patterns or sketches, he used crude shell tools to incise lovely arabesques onto those bowls, creating forms he had obviously long been familiar with. He carved representations of fish, and starfish, as well as grotesque human faces, with a deft and confident hand and without a moment’s hesitation as he moved from one design to another. I bought a bowl from him that had not yet been completely finished for the price of a piece of steel. Moved to do so by the generosity of my payment, and the admiration I showed for his work, he took a pencil I offered him, which he used as if he had been accustomed to handling one since his childhood, to draw strange but very refined and perfect designs into my notebook, boldly and with sure strokes” (see footnote 4, page 727).
The black color that Tami bowls typically display was obtained by mixing black earth with the root sap of coastal plants. The carved ornamentation on the bowls was rubbed with white lime and highlighted in this way. On rare occasions, a red color was used.
Many bowls have a representation of a face in typical Tami style carved into one end of them—the eyes are not recessed, and only their outlines are incised into the face. They are framed by the eyebrows and the triangles above them. The nose is often rendered as a lightly convex rib between the eyes. The mouth is placed well below the nose, and when it is open, the teeth are visible.
The incredible variety of deeply incised motifs, low relief forms and sculpturally rendered figures are examined in great detail in Gladys Reichard’s encyclopedic study on the subject. In this work, she gives measurements for 256 bowls from American and European museum collections and analyzes their ornamentation. Much uncertainty remains, however, with regard to the meaning of these designs. Whether they depict birds, lizards, crocodiles or fish is unclear. “More is known about the representations of human figures, heads and faces. They depict ancestors with a relation to the families, clans and villages they come from.”
A maker’s mark is incised into the center of the outside surface of many of the boat-shaped bowls. W. Feist asserts that every carver probably inherited his mark from his mother, while he learned the art of making the bowls in their traditional forms from his father (footnote 3c, page 110). The illustration of the makers’ marks reproduced here is Plate XLIX from Reichard’s book.
In connection with the manufacture of bowls, observations made by Georg Bamler, who was one of the first missionaries at the Lutheran Neuendettelsauer Mission in New Guinea beginning in 1889 and established the mission station on the Tami Islands, are particularly revealing and insightful. According to him, beginning at about the age of fifteen, boys would begin to carve, usually practicing on the abundant coconut shells. The boys did not, however, receive formal instruction. “When one sees with what skill the young lads work, and how quickly they grasp the techniques, then one cannot but conclude that these people have real talent. … The sculpting of bowls proceeds somewhat more systematically, but probably less on account of the training than on account of the scarcity of the required wood. The student first gets a block of wood to sculpt. Only when he has acquired proficiency in the handling of the adze, and demonstrated an ability to gauge a bowl’s proper wall thickness, is he allowed to move on to carving the detail work. This generally takes years. The same is true of the manufacture of canoes. No effort whatsoever is made to train the boys who show no aptitude for this work, and they are simply dispensed from it.”
Beginning in the 1920s, the Tami carvers were no longer able to satisfy the demand for their bowls. T. G. Harding surmises that the reason for this was the influence of the mission and the recruitment of Tami’s inhabitants as personnel on mission ships and as mission helpers. W. Feist mentions the arrival of newly manufactured Tami bowls into natural history museum collections and notes that they have thicker walls than older examples and evince a kind of machine-produced assembly line perfection when compared with them.
1 J. Heermann: Ozeanien, page 183, in: Ferne Völker, frühe Zeiten, Vol. 1, Recklinghausen, 1982.
2 O. Finsch: Südseearbeiten, page 464, Hamburg, 1914.
3 a) D. Newton & H. Waterfield: Tribal Sculpture, page 286 (bowl in fish form), London, 1995.
b) W. Stöhr: Schwarze Inseln der Südsee, illustration 252 (double bowl), Colon, 1969.
c) W. Feist: Holzschalen der Tami-Kulturgruppe in den Sammlungen der Naturhistorischen Gesellschaft,
illustrations 1 and 8 (pufferfish, turtle), in: Jahresmitteilungen 2005 der Naturhistrischen Gesellschaft Nürnberg e.V.
4 M. Dreger: Eine Fahrt nach den Tami-Inseln, in: Tägliche Rundschau, Unterhaltungsbeilage 1–6, 1888, page 730.
5 R. Neuhauss: Deutsch Neu-Guinea, Vol. 1, Berlin, 1911, page 325.
6 O. Schellong: Alte Dokumente aus der Südsee, Königsberg, 1934, pages 35–36.
7 Praise like this for the islanders’ work was rare in the 19th century. Their “objects” were more generally regarded as “curiosities.”
8 An outstanding example of a bowl of this type is illustrated in Michael Hamson’s catalog Aesthetics of Integrity in New Guinea Art, 2007, page 79.
9 G. Reichard: Melanesian Design. A Study of Style in Wood and Tortoiseshell Carving, 2 vol., New York, 1933.
10 A. Bühler: Kunst der Südsee (Rietberg Museum catalog, Zurich), 1969, page 156.
11 Bamler lived on the Tami Islands until 1898. In 1911, he settled on the Siassi Islands, where he worked until his death in 1928. Without a doubt, he had a better understanding of Tami culture than any other European.
12 G. Bamler: Pädagogik der Tami, Festschrift zum 44 Anthropologen-Kongress Nürnberg, 1913, Beilage, page 14f.
13 T. G. Harding: Voyagers of the Vitiaz Strait: A Study of a New Guinea Trade System, Seattle, 1997, pages 191–195.