By Harold Gallasch and Neil McLeod. Melbourne Publishing Group, 2012.
60 pages with colour illustrations.
Review by Jim Elmslie
This lavishly illustrated book by OAS members, Harold Gallasch and Neil McLeod tells the story of one exceptional work of Oceanic art – the spectacular La-Sisi canoe. This fine piece will be familiar to many Australian based members as it takes pride of place in the extensive collection of New Ireland Malangan art that is on display at the Pacific Cultures Gallery in the South Australian Museum. The canoe literally sits atop the wonderful old display cases that contain the rest of the Malangan collection.
The book is useful because it discusses in detail the origins and processes that were undertaken to produce the eight metre long canoe with its thirteen tangela figures. A time line charts the project from inception up to the transfer to the SA Museum. The genesis is particularly interesting. Each traditional story, and the accompanying carving that depicts that story, is covered by a form of ‘copyright’ that has an individual owner. Ownership of the story is transferred by inheritance, by gift or by sale. Transference of the story is an important part of the culture and must be confirmed through specific ceremonial rituals. Since European colonialism arrived in the region in the late 19th century there has been considerable disruption to traditional culture and “the regulated transfer of stories has not proceeded down in recent generations.” To counter this the New Ireland Provincial Government “assumed guardianship” of the copyright of many Malangan stories on behalf of the respective clans so that the stories would not be lost forever. This was the case with the story of the La-Sisi canoe.
An earlier version of the canoe was collected by the German colonial administrator, Franz Boluminski, in 1903, and has been on display in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. Gallasch and McLeod came up with their ambitious scheme to create another La-Sisi after coming across images of the earlier, smaller one. Gallasch had regularly visited in the New Ireland region from 1967 as part of an agricultural research project and with his extensive knowledge of the region and its peoples believed that such an endeavor was possible. He negotiated with the provincial government for permission to initiate the project and access to the copyright of the story (and the associated physical design). This was granted in 1994 on the condition that they follow the “complete traditional procedure in the construction of the canoe [and] provide video footage and photographs of all ceremonies to the New Ireland Tourist Bureau”. Thus the entire process was meticulously recorded by Gallasch and McLeod, who has had a long and celebrated career as a photographer in Papua New Guinea and researcher in Aboriginal Australia.
The book records the making of the La-Sisi canoe, starting with a trek into the mountainous spine of New Ireland to locate, cut down and haul out the tree that would become the canoe. A special building is constructed, shielded by palm fronds from prying eyes, where skilled craftsmen under the leadership of the late Hosea Linge make the spirit vessel according to “traditional procedure”. At significant stages elaborate ceremonies are held until finally the vessel is complete and a huge feast and ceremony sees the splendid result unveiled to the world. From there the La-Sisi canoe is shipped to Australia and an exhibition at Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney before being sent on to Adelaide.
This book is a concise account of Malangan culture, particularly as it existed in 1994 and 1995, as revealed by one object. McLeod’s images really do justice to the people and their evident pride and excitement in undertaking such a significant and culturally important undertaking. The reader learns much about the materials and techniques employed in the construction of the La-Sisi canoe, and the intricate designs and iconography of the thirteen figures and the canoe itself are well explained. With his light and accessible style Gallasch’s text is informative and entertaining. This book would be of interest to anyone who admires Malangan art, a genre that is one of Papua New Guinea’s most powerful and well known art forms.
CAPTION: Hosea Linge painting La-Sisi. Image copyright of Harold Gallasch.
CAPTION: The La-Sisi canoe in public display at Libba Village. Image copyright of Harold Gallasch.