Kevin Conru (editor) with photography by Hughes Dubois. Published by 5 Continents, Milan, Italy, 2014. 327 pages.
Reviewed by Jim Elmslie.
This vast and gorgeous book is a work of art in itself. It is a thrilling pictorial survey of the material culture of the Bismarck region with each exquisite piece visually captured by one of Europe’s leading photographers under studio conditions with meticulous attention to detail. The masks, figures and assorted artefacts ‘float’ over a muted grey/black background, energized; the sharp focus and vivid colours almost too real, drawing the viewer in, eliciting that question that hovers over all fine tribal art, ‘what does it mean?’ The text, essays by Kevin Conru, Klaus-Jochen Kruger and Bart Van Bussel and a long concise narrative by anthropologist, Ingrid Heermann, go some way to answering this eternal question.
Conru and Dubois spent years – a few weeks at a time in bursts of intense creativity – photographing the works curated by Conru from institutions and private collections, principally European, but also from around the globe. Each shot was meticulously choreographed to express what they felt was the essence of the piece, before bespoke lighting – sometimes using up to eight sets of lights at a time created alternating zones of differing luminous intensity that allowed each image to take off from the page and work its own particular kind of magic. This virtuosity has been recognized by prestigious awards in Paris, London and Germany: Le Prix International du Livre d’Art Tribal 2014; Motovun Group Association Book Award 2014 and the International Creative Media Gold Award (Art Book 2014).
The book’s essays are all informative, starting with Kruger’s Settlers, Administrators, Researchers and Explorers: The History of Collecting in the Bismarck Archipelago. This presents a detailed account of the fairly small world (at least of Europeans) that existed in the Bismarck region from the mid-nineteenth century up until 1914, which marked the end of the German colonial presence in New Guinea. While a few Europeans had ventured into the region prior to this – starting with Abel Tasman in 1643, foreign influence really got underway when the trading company Hernshiem and Godeffroy established outposts in 1875 in the
Duke of York Islands. Thomas Farrell, business partner and lover of the famous Queen Emma of Samoa, took over supervision of the trading post in 1879, after the bankruptcy of Godeffroy and paved the way for Queen Emma to expand her operations into the Bismarck Archipelago. With Emma came her sister Phoebe and brother-in-law, Richard Parkinson, who was to be the pre-eminent collector and documenter of Bismarck art, sending thousands, if not tens of thousands of pieces to Europe over the next thirty years. Around this group an array of traders, missionaries, German government administrators and adventurers came and went until the outbreak of World War One drew the curtain on this most romantic age of South Pacific colonization.
Van Bussel’s short essay on contemporary life in the region gives the reader an insight into what has survived of original cultural practice, and what has been lost. Clearly much has been lost after nearly a century of colonial domination and some 40 years of ever greater engagement with the wider world since Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975. But clearly much has also survived. The people of the Bismarck Archipelago have suffered less than many colonized peoples: the settlers ‘went home’; they retain much of their traditional lands, and they are now masters of their own destiny. Their traditional culture is of great importance to them and they revere the artistic creations of their ancestors even if they have to refer, as Van Bussel recounts, to Sotheby catalogues to see (and make copies of) these original creations. At least traditional art works still exist and allow the growing kastom movement, the post-colonial reinvigoration of traditional cultures that is underway across the Pacific, to have a firm and increasingly accessible base to draw upon.
While European outsiders have obviously had a huge impact on the areas they colonized and exploited Kevin Conru shows that the influence was not just one way. His essay, Bismarck Archipelago Art and the Avant-Garde discusses the impact that tribal art from this region had on the thinking and artistic practice of many of Europe’s leading artists, particularly in the heady days of the 1920s up until the catastrophe of the Second World War. Tribal art in general, and Bismarck art in particularly, gave the avant-garde a new perspective of seeing. The mysterious unknowability of the works struck a chord with contemporary European artists and manifestations of Bismarck art appeared in such diverse mediums as the paintings of Emile Noble and the sculptures of Henry Moore, as well as the better known work of Pablo Picasso. Conru also profiles some of the legendary collectors of this period, people like Serge Brignoni, who was an ‘addicted’ collector. He likened collecting art to eating, drinking and to making love. In a comment that some readers may find apposite he found collecting was “an excitement about an object that can drive a man to insomnia, because he lies awake thinking about it. And not until it is bought can he relax, and then it starts all over again with a different object.” Bismarck Art certainly produced strong emotions on people and in places far removed from the balmy tropics of its origins.
The main body of the book is taken up with a highly readable analysis of the Artistic Traditions of the Bismarck Archipelago by Ingrid Heerman, with detailed reference to the lavish illustrations. This is what makes the book very special – it is not a wordy monologue with occasional reference to pictured items, like so many art books, but contains a concise discussion of each object. The works pictured drive the text, and, given that the whole gamut of Bismarck art is featured, we receive a comprehensive introduction to the art of this island group. It is like seeing a slide show where the presenter explains the nuances of each piece before moving on. In the course of 252 pages of text and images we travel right through the whole archipelago and discover, or at least sample, its artistic richness.
Trying to make sense of this vast range of customary objects Heerman characterizes the art of the Bismarck Archipelago as, “carefully crafted and very consciously produced works, whose formal and aesthetic qualities were designed to elicit complex and varied responses. They are expressions of a world-view, of a social constellation, of relationships and rights, of memories and future projections. They owe their existence and their powers to incite emotion and thought to the will, the ability, and the inspiration of the artists who created them, and these powers were most notably manifest when they were displayed as part of a presented scene or used in performances. They are objects of feeling and, most importantly, of thought.” From this we can glimpse the source of the power of Oceanic art; that which entrances many people far removed from the original purpose for which these objects were created.
Interestingly Heerman shows that an unintended consequence of the flurry of collecting that occurred in the region in the decades leading up to 1914 is a near complete corpus of traditional material culture which is increasingly available to the current generation of Bismarck Islanders, engaged as they are in cultural revival. This was certainly not the motivation of the early collectors.
While the collectors coveted the works as commodities and status symbols, they saw their use and creation as ‘downright damnable.’ Missionaries saw the artefacts as the ‘devil’s work’. Even the more enlightened traders, such as Richard Parkinson, who tried to understand and describe the local cultures were “part of the process that aimed to exterminate those cultures, or at least change them completely…. and that they had either pecuniary motives for being there or the greater glory of their missions as their purpose.” So from somewhat base motives, an admirable outcome.
This book will appeal to anyone who owns artwork from the Bismarck Archipelago because it will enhance their enjoyment of their piece to be able to place it within the broader culture(s) examined. It will also appeal to anyone with a love of Oceanic art, who might not be able to afford such treasures but still seeks enlightenment.
When collecting old artefacts one takes a journey not dissimilar to Doctor Who climbing into his Tardis. Whirling through time and space the object takes us back to a remote village somewhere in the Pacific, to a tribe conducting a profound ceremony, details of which we shall never really know, but we are still able to savour some of the mystery and drama, and the beauty, embodied as it is in the object at hand. This book acts somewhat as a Tardis itself, taking the reader on a fascinating journey in the world of Bismarck Art, and is therefore highly recommended.