FIELD COLLECTING Field Collecting Oceanic Art In Papua New Guinea Between 1994 and 2009 I started field collecting in 1994 and over the next fifteen years made 46 trips to Papua New Guinea which involved over 100 extended trips—primarily on foot—into the more remote areas that I determined could potentially have collectable artifacts. While it has been over 10 years since my last field collecting trip to Papua New Guinea; my experiences from that approximately 1000 nights spent in various villages have had an enormous impact on how I view, evaluate and assess the art. Field collecting gives you a concrete knowledge of the material impossible to match by other forms of collecting. While I have always been a competent student, I really find it difficult to learn something from books alone. I can see works of art illustrated, read their descriptions, memorize their geographic attribution, etc. but still this information is always a bit insecure in my mind. However, when you field collect in an area you get an immediate and indelible feel for the art. It is the process of finally reaching a village after hours on a trail, shaking hands with the people, sitting down and hearing their stories, waiting for pieces to be brought from the houses, seeing the owner hold the object and the look on his face as he hands it over and discusses it. Then there is the feel of the piece in my hand as I turn it, noting the good qualities, noting the imperfections, feeling the heft, seeing the style firsthand. The object becomes tied into your memory with a whole series of experiences, sights, sounds and emotions. This type of information becomes hardwired into your mind and body. You begin to know the art and the area on a visceral level. And as you continue collecting in a particular region you get a true feel for that artistic style. The style bubbles up in many contexts, on many objects and not just on the canonical figures and masks—but also from design elements found on items of adornment or motifs carved on the surface of utilitarian objects. That particular culture’s visual vocabulary comes at you from many fronts—you might see it in a more pure archaic form on the side of an ancient slit-gong drum wasting away in the weeds, you can see it on the bottom of wood food dishes or carved into the side of a hand drum. And after handling many pieces you get to see how the style evolves over time as it appears on the newer pieces or newer drums. Thus after visiting five or six villages within the area, after seeing several hundred varied artifacts, you begin to apprehend the art style in a comprehensive and solid manner such that you can recognize and properly attribute a piece in a private collection or museum storeroom from the seemingly most inconsequential detail—the flare of a drum’s base or the arch of an eyebrow. Collecting in the field at the village level also provides valuable insights about how a culture uses or thinks about certain objects. You see how things are revered or, just as commonly, have no current significance. You hear personal stories about how things are or were used—which in many cases go against previously published accounts. For example, with regards to the very rare Arapesh or Boiken bone combs of which I have published two in this catalog. Very little has been written on these and from looking at their form one would have to assume that it was an item of personal adornment worn in the hair. But the one illustrated here on the ancestral shrine was and is still being used for healing. It is considered a much more dependable form of treatment than the health clinic down the road or even the modern hospital an hour's drive in Wewak town. My point is that it would be hard to fathom such a use for the comb without having the first-hand experience of seeing it in the field and hearing from the individuals who own and use the object. In the villages you learn that artifacts with clear utilitarian functions can have profound cultural significance. The lime spatulas of Collingwood Bay are a good example. On a basic level all lime spatulas have the mundane function of bringing the white lime powder from a container to the mouth of the person chewing betel nut. Yet in Collingwood Bay these lime spatulas are the most important pieces of material culture. Some large, elaborate examples are the prerogative of the most important chiefs. They are a source of magical and ancestral power. I have heard stories of how a powerful chief would hold a meeting with other clan leaders. All the men would be sitting on the floor of a raised house chatting idly and chewing betel nut when the chief would call the meeting to order by rattling his lime spatula in the lime pot. During the ensuing discussion when agreements were made the chief would pass his lime spatula through the group and as each man held the spatula it signified his acceptance of the verbal contract. The lime spatula with its undisputable ancestral presence acted as both witness and guarantee to the pact. As a field collector I do not have the luxury of spending years with one single culture and thus I never acquire a deep level of knowledge and understanding of any particular people and their art. Yet, by spending the night in hundreds of different villages in dozens of different cultures and geographic areas you get a different set of experiences. You develop a broad and general grasp of how people throughout New Guinea use and think about their objects. You learn some near universal truths about people's relationship to these dusty, worn pieces of wood, cane or bone. These things are often the material remains, the physical evidence of real and mythical pasts, of how they as a people came to be, how they got their name and how they came to live on a certain piece of ground. Certain objects are repositories of powers and wars were waged by envious villages desperate to capture and make that power their own. Such stories are recounted in the evening sitting on the floor of someone's house, by the light of the cooking fire or kerosene lamp. They are usually told by an old man with pride and vigor showing on his face as he calls out the names of his ancestors and relives their exploits. Seeing an object in a gallery, sitting on its pedestal, a long way from a village in New Guinea, it is hard to imagine its previous existence. But that object has a life and often a heroic history, a presence, a power and a past that stands moot and largely forgotten unless there is someone who has listened to the old man and can, in some small way, recount the story that otherwise remains untold.