Primitive Art and Fine Photography from Around the World
Tribal Art of Papua New Guinea
© 1999-2008 Karl and Andrew Lehmann; all photography © Karl Lehmann
Canoe Prow Mask
Large Spirit Figure
LOST WORLD ARTS
New Guinea, the second largest island on earth, is perhaps best described as a world of its own. This remote area to the north of Australia has remained largely isolated from outside influences both ecologically and culturally.
Occupying the western half of this huge landmass is the remote Indonesian province of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya); the eastern half composes the mainland of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.
Figures from Mindimbit Village
Geographically New Guinea is a land of contrasts. Lying just south of the equator and wholly within the tropics, its coastal regions are steamy mangrove swamps that merge into dense inland jungles. The rugged interior rises thousands of meters to snow-capped mountains and insular valleys. An incredible variety of cultures have arisen in these isolated valleys.
The diversity of the people of New Guinea is illustrated by the fact that over nine hundred tribal languages are spoken on the island. Along with its own language, each tribe has unique artistic expressions connected with its spiritual beliefs.
Wildlife is abundant and diverse on the island and figures prominently in the daily lives of the people. Many types of plants and animals are recognized by the people in their religious beliefs and represented in their art forms. Cassowaries, crocodiles and pigs are the largest animals and are of great importance in the spiritual lives of the indigenous people. For example, the Iatmul tribe of the Middle Sepik Region attributes creation to a mythical giant crocodile.
Within the realm of primitive art, Papua New Guinea is unparalleled. Perhaps the most vibrant examples of this are the carvings produced in the Sepik River Basin.
The Sepik River flows 1,200 km from the central spine of New Guinea to the Bismarck sea, one of the world's largest rivers in terms of annual flow. Unrestrained by dams or man made controls and having experienced very little exploitation of natural resources, the Sepik and its people remain windows into the past.
Papua New Guinea
View larger image
The Middle Sepik Region is populated mainly by the Iatmul people who inhabit small, traditional villages along the banks of the river and its tributaries. Tribal life centers around the Haus Tambaran, or Spirit House, the most important building in the village. Some of these impressive structures reach 25 meters in height and emerge above the forest canopy. An amazing array of carvings including masks, statues and figures are kept inside the Haus Tambaran. Traditionally only initiated warriors are allowed inside, under penalty of death. Exceptions are sometimes made for foreigners, however. The facade of the Haus Tambaran shown above is decorated with elaborate bark paintings. The interior view below shows the most important carving in the village - the Tambaran. It represents, and is believed to be inhabited by, the most powerful spirit in the village.
Papua New Guinea
The basis for this vibrant, organic art form is religious. The carvings are created to be inhabited by spirits. They are intended both to help the people meet the challenges of everyday life and to ward off the influences of unfriendly spirits. Many of the carvings are also used in ceremonies and rituals that mark the important stages of life.
Each tribe has its own beliefs and the people recognize spirits, deities, totems and ancestors unique to their clans. As a result each village has developed its own artistic style.
The individual art forms are fairly rigid. Each carving has a very specific use and embodies an individual spirit. The forms are stylized and tend towards expressionism because the spirit world is felt or dreamed, not seen.
The variety of carvings created in the Sepik Basin is enormous. Following are some brief descriptions of a few of the many different types in our gallery.
Dance Masks. To evoke the power of certain spirits, ritualistic dances complete with costumes and songs are performed with these masks.
Such ceremonies are undertaken to ensure successful hunting and war parties, to bring bountiful harvests and for many other reasons.
Ceremonial Shields are created for similar purposes in the Upper Sepik region. These striking, boldly colored shields are never taken into battle but are displayed prominently inside the dwelling to ward off marauding spirits from enemy villages. While they may incorporate similar themes, no two of these beautiful carvings are alike.
Elaborate Hooks, variously described by anthropologists and collectors as cult hooks, food hooks or suspension hooks, are carved and decorated both to accommodate benevolent spirits and to preserve food. Suspending food from the hook discourages vermin, and the spirit thought to inhabit the hook is believed to retard spoilage.
Animal forms are often incorporated into the carvings. The Fertility Goddess below combines human attributes with the wings of a flying fox (a large fruit bat). This piece was collected in Yenchenmangua Village, home of the crocodile cult.
Fertility Goddess (Aiwai Meri)
The Spirit Figure shown on the lower left, also from Yenchenmangua, is a fine example of a recurring theme, the transmutation of human and crocodile. During initiation rites the boys of this clan have patterns cut into their backs which produce raised scars representing crocodile skin.
All of the art forms described above are ancient but the cultures of New Guinea are still living and changing. One apparently recent development is the wooden Trophy Head. In the past a freshly procured human head was buried under each post when a Haus Tambaran was erected. These structures have to be replaced frequently after destruction by fire and termites and they often contain a great number of posts, so many heads were required. Nowadays headhunting raids are frowned upon by government authorities and missionaries alike so substitute heads are carved of wood.
In the 1960's a new form, the Storyboard, developed among artists in the Lower Sepik village of Kambot. These intricate carvings combine the traditional art form of the beautiful but ephemeral bark paintings with the much more durable medium of wood. They depict scenes from village life, often humorous. Unlike the older forms of carving they are only decorative and appear to have no special religious significance. The example here depicts the aftermath of a headhunting raid.
The indigenous flora and fauna are sources of both inspiration and materials for the diverse art forms of New Guinea. Most carvings are created from the orange wood of the Artocarpus tree. Cassowary feathers, grass twine and sea shells obtained through trade with coastal peoples are then used for decoration. Cowry shells are highly valued and are used to represent eyes.
The use of color is an important aspect of Middle and Upper Sepik art. It is believed that coloring a carving will increase the power associated with it and carvings are often redecorated before important ceremonies. Pigments are derived from plants, charcoal, burnt shells and minerals, then mixed with tree sap, water and clay and applied with feathers or frayed plant stems.
The artistic history of Papua New Guinea is a mystery that remains far from solved. It is hoped that the collection and preservation of artifacts produced by these unique cultures will encourage an interest and appreciation of these peoples by the outside world, as well as encouraging the indigenous people of the Sepik Basin to maintain this ancient and wonderful part of their culture.
Due to the relentless humidity, fungi and insects in the lowlands of New Guinea, carvings in the villages quickly decay, usually within just a few years. In the past many were also burned by overzealous missionaries (some of whom soon found themselves on the dinner menu as a result). Many more are lost to accidental fires; the tall spirit houses suffer frequent lightning strikes. Only those pieces that have been collected and brought out of the jungle will be preserved as true examples of this art form.
View larger image
The artifacts shown in this presentation are part of a collection made by brothers Karl and Andrew Lehmann on their third trip to New Guinea. During a two month expedition on the Sepik River, traveling by dugout canoe with the help of local guides, they visited over twenty villages.
|To Contact Us
Phone (808) 661-0076
2 Cottam Road