After several years in the planning, the long anticipated opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Myth + magic: Art of the Sepik River is upon us. This will coincide with the annual OAS Forum to be held at the NGA in Canberra. The official opening ceremony will be on Thursday 6 August at 6pm and a large contingent of OAS members are expected from all corners of Australia, and indeed the globe. The following day, Friday 7 August, will be given over to the many expert speakers organized for the Forum – themed on the art and culture of the Sepik River people. That evening the Annual OAS dinner will be held at the Kurrajong Hotel. On Saturday OAS members will be given a personal tour of the exhibition by Crispin Howarth, the Curator and driving force behind the exhibition
We should pause here for a moment and give thanks that such an event is happening in Australia. This really is a celebration of Oceanic art, specifically Sepik art, in the most prestigious venue in the country. To say that it has ‘arrived’ is somewhat passé: the art was around long before the idea of Australia was conceived. Relegated as “headhunters’ curios”, underlying and amplifying the popular notion of Pacific Islanders as backward and inferior, the artefacts, or more precisely our increased understanding of them, have turned this conception on its head. We now cherish Oceanic art, and the cultures from which they come, as important and unique components of the human story. Indeed, Oceanic art is particularly special. Whereas it was denigrated as ‘primitive art’, meaning backward or crude, the focus is now on the root meaning of that word primus – the first. It is the first art of people, of the human family. As such there is an inherent power in Oceanic art, mingled in with sacred ritual meanings we will never know, which, for those who are open to the beauty embodied in such objects, is deeply fulfilling.
So we should certainly thank Crispin Howarth and everyone else at the NGA who has had a hand in bringing Myth + magic into existence. This edition of the Journal has an extended interview with Crispin that gives some of his personal story and a throws a little light on the complexities and challenges of mounting an exhibition of this size. We should also thank previous members of the OAS for continuously promoting Oceanic art, at least in part generating the demand that allowed such significant government resources to be allocated to create this show. We also must thank the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, and in particular its Director, Dr. Andrew Moutu, for fully engaging with the exhibition, including the loan of a number of their national cultural treasures, and for agreeing to speak at the Forum. We should also give thanks to the other speakers as well: it’s a stellar line-up:
Dr. Ron May; Natalie Wilson; Dr. Eric Kjellgren, Chris Boylan and Dr. Barry Craig and Dr. Jim Elmslie. These experts, from a range of backgrounds academic, commercial and institutional, share an enormous knowledge of, and experience with, PNG and the Sepik region and its art going back, in some cases, more than fifty years. This is perhaps to be expected given Australia and PNG’s long and close association, yet such an event, showcasing this connection and expertise, is still a rare occasion in this country. More information and registration details available inside.
art of that history was explored in Natalie Wilson’s May 13 talk at the Australian Museum, Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea, ahead of the 6 week exhibition at Sydney’s S H Ervin Gallery. Robin Hodgson records some highlights and the fascinating (but often minute) paintings by Dobell that Natalie showed to an enthusiastic audience. This edition of the Journal also has an insightful report on the Radiance of Shadows exhibition of Solomon Island’s art on display at the Quai Branly, in Paris, by Noelle Rathmell-Stiels, which delves into the intricate role that light plays in the beautiful art from this region. Harry Beran writes on the latest developments in the ongoing research he and others have undertaken in identifying the inscriptions and labels found on many old art works. Once clarified such labels or collection numbers/codes can provide much information about individual items, often greatly increasing our understanding of them and, coincidentally, their value.
The OAS is also celebrating, with the Australian Museum, the opening of the Pacific Spirits Gallery on April 30 by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hon. Julie Bishop, MP. This event, and the special viewing given to OAS members before Natalie Wilson’s Dobell talk was special indeed. The OAS has for many years pushed for a dedicated Oceanic display drawn from the AM’s massive collection: and here it is at last. While the current gallery contains many fine pieces, including a range of magnificent Malangan tatanua masks and figures, and the largest Admiralty Islands garamut drum I have ever seen, we are promised still more in the future! As the AM continues its restructuring and rebuilding programme expanded galleries dedicated to Oceanic art are firmly embedded in the plans. We look forward to these developments with much anticipation and a sense that the OAS has played a useful and positive role in promoting Oceanic art, particularly in having some of our great treasures on public display. Our enormous gratitude goes to the Australian Museum and Director, Kim McKay.
Lastly I would like to remind members of the annual OAS Tribal Art Fair to be held at St. Matthias Church, Oxford Street, Paddington, on Saturday 25 July. This event is always well attended and each year strange and unexpected items from across the Pacific emerge. It pays to be early!
Looking forward to seeing many of you in Canberra in August.