Myth + Magic: The Art of the Sepik River, the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, is all that it was promised to be. A very hearty round of applause must go to the NGA Director, Dr Gerald Vaughan AM, and Curator for Pacific Arts, Crispin Howarth, as well as the many other people involved in this breathtaking show. Special thanks must also go to the Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, Dr. Andrew Moutu, and his dedicated staff, who greatly enhanced the exhibition with their active participation and through facilitating the loan of some of PNG’s own national treasures.
The exhibition comprises some 150 objects impressively displayed over five large galleries. In size they range from an ancient tiny bone comb to a huge six metre carving of a crocodile spirit, Saki. There are masks, figures, over-modelled skulls, shields, malu boards and many other rare and intriguing artefacts. Collectively they create an enormously powerful world; a spirit world lurking in the darkened chambers of the gallery that draws the viewer out of suburban Australia and into the heart of the Sepik. The experience is not unlike venturing into a real Sepik haus tambaran, or spirit house, the focus of traditional village life, where many of these important art works would have originally resided. The raw power of the objects, their beauty and intrigue, is palpable.
For admirers of Oceanic Art a visit to Myth + Magic really is mandatory. The chance to view such works, each with comprehensive documentation, is unique. There has rarely been such a display as this in Australia and the NGA must be congratulated for having fulfilled its own lofty ambitions to stage a truly world class showing of Sepik art drawn exclusively from Australian public and private collections and from the NMAGPNG. The accompanying eponymous book/catalogue, by Crispin Howarth with contributions by Dr. Barry Craig and Natalie Wilson, is also a work of art in itself and will be reviewed in the next edition of the OAS Journal. In the meantime: get thee to Canberra!
The opening of the Sepik show was a gala event which justified the trip to Canberra on its own. A large cohort of OAS members mingled with the Canberra diplomatic and artistic corps, enjoying fine wines and hors-d’oeuvres, beneath a huge image of the sprawling Sepik River, as the exhibition was officially opened by a series of speakers starting with the NGA’s newly installed Director, Dr Gerald Vaughan and Mr Allan Myers AO QC, Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia Council, both of whom underscored the Gallery’s commitment to art from the Pacific Region, as expressed in the current show but also through explaining the close and continuing relationship between the NGA and the NMAGPNG. The participation of the PNG National Museum, and particularly its head, Dr. Moutu, who completed his Doctorate on Sepik culture, greatly added to the event and empowered the exhibition. Rather than being a superficial viewing of another’s material culture, Myth + Magic is a celebration of a one aspect of humanity’s magnificent cultural and artistic achievements, mediated, in part, by people from that culture. It marks a further maturing and deepening of Australia and PNG’s long historical relationship, leavened now with a reinvigorated respect for New Guinea’s traditional cultures and their art, in this case that of the Sepik River.
The following day the NGA hosted the OAS Forum, Art of the Sepik River. This too was a superb event with outstanding speakers in a beautiful glass-walled and sunlit hall that looked out onto Canberra’s lovely parklands. That evening members enjoyed the OAS dinner, replete with all the conviviality and intense conversation that have come to mark this annual event. OAS President, David Welch, reports on the Forum and OAS dinner inside this edition of the Journal.
In this edition we hear from Dr. Harry Beran, who outlines the talk he is giving to OAS members at the Australian Museum on 23 September, Innovation in Traditional Oceanic Art, which promises to be another insightful reflection from the OAS’s founding President. Also in this edition of the Journal we present articles from three of the Forum speakers. Dr. Ron May presents part one of his A Brief History of the Sepik, with part two to be published in the next edition of the Journal. Then Dr. Jim Elmslie takes a close look at one particular Sepik village, Tambanum. The OAS Journal is most pleased to publish the introduction to a six part series by Dr. Barry Craig on the World War One Military Collections from German New Guinea in the South Australian Museum. These papers tell the rich story of how some of the SAM’s most prized artefacts were acquired. We intend to publish other papers given at the Forum, including Dr. Craig’s comprehensive survey of Sepik slit-gong drums, in future editions of the OAS Journal.
Lastly I would like to express my thanks to all those who contribute to this Journal with articles, images and ideas. In particular I would like to thank Michelle Haywood who has, for many years, diligently recorded many OAS events. Her images grace most editions of the Journal and are highly appreciated. To all OAS members, please keep the ideas, articles and images coming: we need them to survive.