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Myth & Magic: a grand exhibition of the art of the Sepik River

Paki guardian figure, early 20th century (National Gallery of Australia)SASHA GRISHIN | Sydney Morning Herald

Myth + Magic: Art of the Sepik River. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Until 1 November

IN 1929 the Surrealist Map of the World was published in Brussels which redrew the world, not according to centres of political power, colonial empires or geographic land masses, but according to cultural and artistic significance.

For the Surrealists, with possibly Paul Eluard at the helm, the largest and most significant country in the southern hemisphere was Nouvelle-Guinee or New Guinea.

By the 1920s, art from Papua New Guinea had made a strong impression on the European avant-garde, while Australian Aboriginal art was yet to make a major impression on popular consciousness.

At a slightly later date, wooden carvings, large masks, ceramics, ritual and tourist artefacts from Papua New Guinea started to flood into Australia and became the staple diet for Australian avant-garde artists, especially in the post-World War II period, while contemporary Australian Indigenous art only became widely accessible by the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In many instances and in a strange way, art from Papua New Guinea paved the way for the reception of contemporary Aboriginal art.

The Sepik River region is one of the most extensive river systems in the world and when taken with its southern tributaries – the Blackwater, Korewori, Yuat and Keram rivers – it is the home to a vast range of art producing communities.

Despite the remoteness of the area and its relative inaccessibility, museums and private collections throughout the world hold many thousands of Sepik objects, most collected after the 1950s, when there was increased exposure to settlers from abroad and huge numbers of artefacts were locally produced for the tourist trade.

In Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne shops appeared which handled a lively trade in inexpensive Sepik carvings, many of which found homes in artists' studios. This became the common currency as well as the small change of Sepik art that to some extent has devalued this tradition of art making.

Myth and Magic is a spectacular exhibition of objects of exquisite quality and frequently of exceptional rarity assembled from collections throughout the southern hemisphere, including a number of strategic loans from the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea.

While wood tends to be the common denominator in this exhibition, it is supplemented with pig tusks, feathers, shells, clay, human and animal bones and teeth, metallic-like carapaces of beetles, opossum and flying fox skins and fur, sawfish bills, fibre and natural pigments.

Most of the carving of the hardwood has been carried with stone or bone implements that gives the forms a certain softness, a moulded quality, which is heightened through the use of mud clay, implanted shells and the wonderful range of organic ochres.

Many of the objects and artefacts were connected with the spirit world and were in constant ritual use and within the inhospitable climate did not survive more than a few generations.

Frequently holdings in museums assembled by anthropologists are the sole remaining examples anywhere in the world and in quite a number of instances they have been assembled for the first time in this exhibition. As you examine them, you notice signs of ritual use, smoke stains from the ceremonial house, flood silt deposits, dents and gashes on shields and ritually treated human bones.

Sepik spirit masks, as one would expect, play a significant role in this exhibition, both those of truly monumental proportions and smaller and very refined ones. Having seen many Sepik masks over the years, I am amazed by the quality of many on display, including the beautifully worked Brag mask, from the Ramu River.

One of the most amazing works in the whole exhibition, the life-size Tamasua spirit figure, from the East Sepik Province, Yuat River, Tambigenum village from the 19th century with its immense sense of presence. Described as a benevolent figure, for me, it is a thing of nightmares.

Much of the art in this exhibition comes from communities where headhunting has continued into at least the early 20th century and sculpturally embellished human skulls are some of the more macabre elements in this exhibition.

One slightly curious item goes under the name of Homicide apron, from the first half of the 20th century made of flying fox fur, shells, hair, fibre and feathers and we learn from the excellent and scholarly catalogue that it was a male adornment that could be worn only by those who had been successful as a headhunter and that no parent would allow their daughter to marry a man who had not attained the status of this apron.

An accompanying exhibit is a Kuuk, a war horn, from the East Sepik Province, carved out of wood with a thickly encrusted patina of smoke. These horns were sounded to mark the success of a headhunting raid.

Orators' stools, hair combs, headrests, ancestor hooks and a six-and-a-half-metre carved wooden Saki (crocodile spirit) are some of the other objects in this unforgettable exhibition. This is a large show, but very manageable, carefully selected to give a feeling for a region and to create a cluster of related objects, without being lost in ethnographic duplication.

If this was an exhibition of Western European art it would be described as an exhibition of outstanding masterpieces and although this concept may be untenable for ritualistic art of the Sepik, the work is of unmatched brilliance.

The curator, Crispin Howarth, has produced a scholarly yet very readable catalogue that guides you through the complexities of art making and art use in this region.


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Raymond Sigimet

The Sepik River surreal art in the form of carvings and adorned items and painted images are famous worldwide in major museums and art galleries. When it comes to Oceania art forms, the Sepik River art forms are major attractions.

It's also interesting that some western feature films have taken the liberty to showcase this PNG art works in background scenes.

If I recall correctly, the museum scene in the movie adaptation of the novel "Cloud Atlas" starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry depicted Sepik River carvings.

Also, if I recall correctly again, the comic book animation movie adaptation of "The Adventures of Tintin" directed by Steven Spielberg clearly shows a Sepik River carving hanging on the wall of Tintin's room.

There's always a little sense of national pride when PNG art is given recognition as props or background adornment in major international films.

Michael Dom

Somebody better warn security that Hon Theo Zurenuoc may be paying the museum a visit, and before that he'll probably be stopping at the nearest hardware centre for a few items of equipment.

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