Myth + Magic, Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, is the current featured exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). The art works on display are predominantly sculptural and relate to the spiritual practices of the people who live along this major river system of Papua New Guinea. The works are quite dramatic and often have a visceral quality which derives both from their subject matter and also from the materials they are made from – wood, shell, pig tusk, fibre fur, hair and mud. This sense of drama is enhanced by the display of these items in largely darkened rooms set off by tightly focused spotlights.
There are a plethora of interesting subjects to draw. I was intrigued by these two large figures which are costumes worn during initiation ceremonies. They represent spirits or awan, that “frighten harass and bully” young initiates during their period of seclusion. Like many other pieces on display, these items were collected in 1916, when Australian forces entered the Sepik River to wrest control of the territory from Germany, as an extreme outlying action of the First World War.
Two awan (spirit) costumes, East Sepik River, before 1916 collected by Captain Walter Balfour Ogilvy, from the collection of the Museum of Victoria. Water soluble graphite, 17 August 2015
These costumes are constructed of fibre, the bodies are woven from plant material and are decorated with clay, shell hair and ochre. The figure to the rear has a head dress made of densely packed cassowary feathers. When the costumes are worn all that can be seen are the wearers feet (there is a photograph of similar costumes being worn, in the exhibition catalogue). The wearer can look through the mouth opening of the nearest figure and the second figure has two eyeholes in the chest to see through.
In each room there were astonishing items to see. In the last room, apart from the massively carved crocodile sculpture on loan from the Museum of Papua New Guinea, are several aripa, or hunting helpers. These aripa are an abstracted human figure, sublimed to a most minimal form, ‘standing’ on their one foot. To quote from the website “If the spirit [aripa] has been correctly appeased it will track down and kill the desired prey’s spirit so it will show itself to the hunter to be killed easily. It was believed the soul (tite) of the aripa spirit being, not the artist, was responsible for the creation of their physical bodies.”
Aripa, 19th century or earlier, wood, Bogonemori River, east Sepik, collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Water soluble graphite and watercolour (added later), 17 August 2015
While we were in the gallery my partner commented on how the sculptures felt somehow familiar – even though we hadn’t seen them previously. We concluded that this sense came not from these figures per se, but from the inclusion of tribal art or the influence of similar works from Africa and elsewhere in the globe, into ‘modern’ art of the early 20th century. We had seen the reflection and now we were seeing the ‘real thing’.
The exhibition is on until 1 November 2015 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It will not be touring. Well worth a visit if you are in the area.