Visits to Maprik by Roy James Hedlund
Roy James Hedlund
By Virginia-Lee Webb Ph.D.
The name Roy James Hedlund (1939–2020) has become synonymous with collections of sculpture from Papua New Guinea assembled in the mid-twentieth century. New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, and Tabar are among the places we know he visited in the early 1960s.
Hedlund attended Punahou School, the University of Hawai’i, Honolulu and the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California. As a young man, he met L. R. Webb who managed a theater in Honolulu and who also had an interest in the arts. They discovered the arts of the Pacific and Hedlund soon traveled to the region with his then-wife Julie Pinney. Webb accompanied him on a few trips and became his business partner who coordinated the sales and distribution of sculptures that Hedlund collected.
Hedlund is probably most known for his collections of sculptures from the Papuan Gulf area in the early 1960s. Although the area had been missionized in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, traditional beliefs and arts associated with these sculptures often remained in secret. Although the traditional objects were generally disparaged by the resident missionaries—many of whom participated in their sale and destruction—local residents often placed these still-powerful objects outside of the village, hidden in secure places. This was especially true in the Gulf region where Hedlund was guided to their location, often in abandoned areas.
The Abelam people who live in the Maprik area north of the Sepik River (often called Sepik Hills) had contact with outsiders in the early twentieth century, specifically “in the Wosera area by Richard Thurnwald during his 1913 exploration of the Sepik foothills.”1 Throughout the second decade of the twentieth century subsequent conflicts ensued resulting from harsh colonial labor recruiters. “By the 1930s, the administration had established a significant presence in the area in order to protect goldminers [and built] the Maprik station in 1938.”2 World War II brought additional disruption, but researchers such as Anthony Forge visited between 1958–1963. Hedlund and Webb made notes on the paper mounts of the 35mm color transparencies indicating the date the photo was taken and often the individual’s name and the location where the sculptures were collected. Based on those captions, he was in the Maprik area in 1960, July 1961, and January–March 1962. He photographed individuals and architecture and collected numerous traditional sculptures from the area, such as this mask.
The Abelam have festivals connected with harvests and rituals connected with the passage to adulthood and prestige. The Abelam are known for their distinctive architecture and sculptural displays, which play a significant role in the rituals and the education young men must undergo in order to become fully initiated in the ways of the adult community. These cult houses have a triangular base and the similarly shaped facades are emblazoned with painted sheets of bark. Often a carved and painted wooden lintel with motifs of human figures or heads delineates the lower part of the structure and with a doorway to a hidden interior space that contains elaborate sculptural displays only initiated men can see.
The Abelam are known for their accomplishments growing long yams which can reach several meters. “The cult house and ceremonial grounds are closely linked with the yam cult … almost every year elderly Abelam men grow particularly long specimens of this tuber in special gardens … a wide range of rites are performed.”3 The cycle of events and rites connected with the growing of yams are displays of the longest specimens that are decorated with ornaments and colorful vegetation as well as masks of basketry and wood, the latter illustrated here. The elaborate displays activate competition and exchanges between “ceremonial moieties.”4 “The finest specimens [of yams] are regarded as incarnations of important clan spirits and also bear their name … sometimes a long ceremonial yam is kept in the cult house after the display …”5 Thus the yam masks such as this example are an integral part of the long-yam display by which prestige is noted in the community.
1 Richard Scaglion. “Reconstructing First Contact: Some Local Effects of Labor Recruitment in the Sepik.” Sepik Heritage. Tradition and Change in Papua New Guinea, edited by Nancy Lutkehaus, et.al. Carolina Academic Press Durham 1990:50–51.
2 Scaglion 1989: 55–56.
4 Brigitta Hauser-Schaublin. Kulthäuser in Nordneuguinea. Akademie-Verlag Berlin 1989: 610)
5 Hauser-Schaublin 1989: 611.