by Crispin Howarth
The Prince Alexander Ranges in northern Papua New Guinea are home to a number of cultures. The largest group are the Abelam with a population of some 50,000 whose arts have heavily influenced their neighbours – the Arapesh and the Yangoru-Boiken people. These communities share artistic and cultural overlaps with the Abelam and as a result often the arts from this region are attributed solely to the Abelam people, or dubbed ‘Maprik’ after the main administrative centre for the area, established during the 1960s.
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra holds over 200 objects from the cultures of the Prince Alexander Ranges, this material comes from several sources however the majority comes from the generous gift in 2006 by Cecilia Ng in memory of Anthony Forge (1929-1991). Forge was a pioneer in the field of visual anthropology and through his work in the Sepik region between 1958 and 1963 he was one of the foremost authorities in the study of Sepik art and in particular of the Abelam.
Only a few objects from the Forge collection, built over fifty years ago, have been exhibited over the past decade and it was only recently that the Gallery has been able to show a select group of 28 objects from the Prince Alexander Ranges; this selection is mainly material from the Forge collection displayed for the first time but also a couple of known highlights including the spirit being, Maunwial.
Maunwial is a spirit being who was benevolent in creating the fertility of garden crops and apparently also destructive when asked to magically assist in conflict. OAS members may recognise Maunwial from being published in Anthony Meyer’s landmark reference, Oceanic Art of 1995.
Other sculptures include ngwallndu ancestor spirit figures and the rather unique figure of Assistant District Officer, Harold Woodman. Woodman worked in the Sepik region during the 1920s and 1930s and this figure carved by a Wosera artist is probably the only pre-World War II portrait of a named Australian by a New Guinean artist. The sculptures and some of the other items were chosen as they retain much of their brightly coloured ochres: paint has magical associations and even the act of painting itself is a significant spiritual activity. One headdress includes the vivid introduced colour of Reckitt’s Blue, a laundry agent, to great effect.
The Forge collection consists of objects used in ceremonial or ritual context and also items of a more secular nature. There are cassowary bone daggers with an array of incised patterns on them, the group of bilum string bags is deserving of further research and the collection of coconut shell whistles, and ceremonial soup spoons, aiak, are beautifully decorated. Three of these are on display including a superb example that was previously exhibited in The Australian Museum’s The Abelam a people of New Guinea exhibition of 1982; this coconut bowl has a full image of a ngwallndu ancestor merging with the tree-fern spiral designs.
Interestingly in the Forge gift are folders of contact sheets of Forge’s field photography all those decades ago. While none of these are exhibited, and few have ever been published, they are a trove of information and perhaps in the future may form a presentation to OAS members. Another remarkable part of the gift was a very worn and tired copy of a 1930s or even WW2 military map of the Sepik River labelled ‘plan of area inspected’ which Forge used whilst on the Sepik. The map has the type of patination you would expect from years in the East Sepik Province and has hand-written locations of several villages by Forge; it was obviously a very useful map to him and is still proving very useful.
The well-known practice of growing long yams and harvesting them within a ceremonial context by the Abelam is represented by a series of yam masks, bapa mene. These masks are numerous in the collection and were once attached to the yams creating the yam’s spirit face. Accompanying these are the larger over-the-head rattan masks, bapa tagwa, which represent pig-like spirits that arrive before ceremonial events. Each bapa mene and bapa tagwa mask is a fibre masterpiece made by coiling and looping fine strips of rattan to create the most innovative avant-garde fibre sculptures by any tribal community.
The communities of the Prince Alexander Ranges today are predominantly Christian with a union to strong traditional beliefs that has continued into the 21st century. One of the most significant objects in the Gallery’s collection from these cultures is perhaps one of the most impressive artworks in the entire National collection but it is not on display and has never been shown. This, however, is with good reason. In 1969 Sir William Dargie, acting on behalf of the National Gallery, visited the East Sepik Province to build the New Guinea art collection. At the Abelam village of Kuminibis he arranged the purchase of the contents of the Korumbo cult house, better known as a haus tambaran. The inner chamber was exhibited in the 2008 exhibition Gods, Ghosts and Men (which many OAS members will remember), but the arrangements to acquire the outer façade of the haus tambaran Sir William, at the end of his expedition, left in the hands of a patrol officer, a young kiap newly stationed in the region.
We do not know what motivated the young Kiap, perhaps he sought to impress Dargie and the Arts board at the time because he did not purchase the Kuminibis village haus tambaran façade; some months later in Canberra the façade of a haus tambaran from Kalabu II village arrived instead. The Kalabu haus tambaran façade was at least double the size of the Kuminibus village façade.
This façade is a series of sago spathe panels stitched together and painted by the artist Gunjel, the façade is in several vast sections still secured onto its bamboo framework. The overall façade is in excess of sixty feet in height and the carved lintel alone is some twenty seven feet long. It is the largest example known in the world today and quite simply too big to be currently displayed.
This state of affairs sounds a great pity but it may interest OAS members to learn that the National Gallery of Australia has developed plans to make this massive hidden treasure of an artwork a central part of a future Pacific arts gallery.
In the meantime, visitors can enjoy seeing this selection of Prince Alexander Ranges art until 10 June 2018.