‘Reality made physical by master artists’ in PNG show

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ASTONISHMENT was the word on the mind of National Gallery of Australia director Gerard Vaughan, as he today unveiled the NGA’s newest exhibition, “Myth + Magic: art of the Sepik River.”

Paki [guardian figure]  early 20th century prior to 1938  wood, ochres, paint, shell, iron nails, fibre, hair  100 x 26 x 28 cm  Australian Museum  Collected by EJ Wauchope 1935–38.
Paki [guardian figure] early 20th century prior to 1938 wood, ochres, paint, shell, iron nails, fibre, hair 100 x 26 x 28 cm Australian Museum Collected by EJ Wauchope 1935–38.

In welcoming guests from the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG, Dr Vaughan spoke of the extraordinary Sepik River, over 1000 km long and full of serenity, harshness, and crocodiles.

Among the 85 works to be displayed is a 6.3 metre cult saltwater crocodile, the most revered and respected animal inhabitant of the Sepik, carved from a single piece of wood without the use of metal tools, it’s leaving Papua New Guinea for the first time.

Speaking of danger, Dr Vaughan said, it seemed to him that the themes of headhunting and cannibalism to be found in this exhibition were particularly suited to Canberra, murmurs all around.

Mai mask  mid 20th century  wood, shell, clay, fibre, tusk, ochre, porcelain  76.5 x 16 x 12 cm  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra  Purchased 2014.
Mai mask mid 20th century wood, shell, clay, fibre, tusk, ochre, porcelain 76.5 x 16 x 12 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2014.

He canvassed the age-old question as to whether tribal artefacts were ethnography or art, saying it was important to look beyond the “ethnographic worthiness” of the artefacts on show and see them as “powerful works of art.” To him while powerful motivations to create the works on show were spirits both malign and benevolent, what we actually saw on show was “reality made physical by master artists.”

With 80 to 85,000 public New Guinea objects held in Australian galleries, he said, it was incumbent upon Australian museums to look after these artefacts. “We must take our stewardship of these cultural treasures seriously,” he said.

It was notable, in Vaughan’s view, that the NGA it had held six major Pacific exhibitions in recent memory, including the Solomon Islands show in 2011, Vanuatu art in 2013 and Polynesian art in 2014.

He praised the generosity of his counterparts at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby. NGA staff had been greatly assisted by their PNG counterparts in building a collegial network on visits to Port Moresby, he said, and it was significant that when he took up his job at the NGA last year, his first official visitor was its director, Andrew Moutu, who comes from the Sepik River region.

“Papua New Guinea has been an island and a people of intrigue, curiosity and exotic romanticism to those from a western cultural imagination, “ said Dr Moutu, “Here a consistent and enduring set of ideas about savagery, cannibalism, pagan rituals, sensuality and innocence have predominated in the representations of the people and cultures of PNG.” He said that the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG was pleased to share “a few of our great treasures” with Australians.

Curator of the exhibition, Crispin Howarth, said that his primary focus had been to select ‘great sculpture’ for the show, rather than artefacts of great veneration. But it hadn’t been easy, with so many different language groups and artistic traditions.

Yipwon early to mid 20th century wood, patinas 151 x 5 x 18 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2011
Yipwon early to mid 20th century wood, patinas 151 x 5 x 18 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2011

The fluidly-carved Yipwon figures on show, for instance, come from a very remote area which has long practised a reductionist approach to sculpture very similar to what one might see in modern western art.

To Howarth, despite the fact that many of the religious practices exemplified belong to an earlier era, there is nothing disrespectful in the use of words like ‘Myth’ and ‘Magic’ to title the show.

“Culture slowly changes, like the clothes we wear”, he says, and so do beliefs – “but it’s a nice thing that a lot of these objects still have continuity.”

Myth + Magic: art of the Sepik River, NGA, until November 1. Entry is free.

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