By Crispin Howarth, Curator, Pacific Arts, National Gallery of Australia
Since the mid-1920s, this masterpiece of Oceanic sculpture with its gently twisting elongated torso, oversized hands and stout powerful legs was displayed in a small museum at the Lutheran Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. The museum is a celebration of missionary work by Americans in New Guinea during the 20th century and is crammed with fascinating ethnographical material, especially from Papua New Guinea. So little was known about this figure, that to the very few Pacific art connoisseurs who knew of its existence, it was dubbed ‘the green-faced god’. Upon learning that after 90 years the missionary museum had sold parts of its collection, the National Gallery of Australia moved quickly and diligently to acquire this remarkable sculpture. The ‘green-faced god’ was a masterpiece known to me for almost 20 years and, as luck would have it, the Gallery was able to secure it just before it was publicly shown at the major art Asian, African and Pacific Art fair Parcours Des Mondes in Paris in 2016.
The figure comes from the Adzera communities of the Markham Valley and is exceptionally old; carved with only lithic technology, it is among a small body of sculptures from Papua New Guinea that have been radiocarbon dated. This figure is at least 220 years in age and could possibly be some 450 years old. It is a true relic of an almost forgotten culture as German Lutheran missionaries entered the area around 1910 bringing Christianity into the valley which quickly brought to an end many aspects of Markham Valley traditional life. Once World War I broke out, the German missionaries were expelled from New Guinea but by mid 1920s the American Lutherans continued their work in the valley and this figure’s provenance is either to the first American Missionary to New Guinea – Edward Frederick Pietz, or Father Kraushaar who sent an ethnographical collection to Dubuque in 1927. There also remains a possibility the figure comes from the Missionary, Johan Flierl, who was active in New Guinea from 1886 via the Neudettensal Mission, Germany. The figure has a dome-like head which represents a barkcloth padded hat and on the chest is a carved depiction of an adornment made from a pair of curved boar tusks, both of these were worn only by privileged men.
The ‘green-faced god’ is highly likely to be a unique depiction of an important figure in Markham Valley creation myths; Mugus – the cannibal god and lord of pigs. According to mythologies collected by anthropologist Carl Schmitz in the 1950s, heaven and earth were very close realms and the life of gods and people were in turmoil because of a terrible being, the lord of pigs, a giant known as Mugus. He could change his form, sometimes being a giant boar with curled tusks and a wasp’s nest upon his forehead and at other times a giant human who fastened claws to his hands to tear people to shreds.
Mugus was blind but tracked his victims by their scent. He hunted down and devoured everyone he could find. Perhaps the emaciated ribs on the sculpture are a visual allusion to the ever-hungry nature of Mugus. His appetite for destruction was so big, he ate entire populations leaving only desolation behind him. Finally, the last remaining human survivors decided to flee from the region and only an old woman was left behind. The woman, who has been described as the ‘mother of the earth’ and credited with the role of the human opposition to the rampaging god, was too frail for the long journey and so she hid in a cave. According to the myths one day the old woman made two hollows in the earth then cut her hand with a Taro leaf. Her blood ran into the hollows which she then covered with leaves. The next day the old woman saw in the hollows two children formed out of her blood. They were a pair of twin brothers, one left handed and the other right handed. They acted together in unison as if they were a single person. The twins grew at astonishing speed into men and the old woman taught the twins how to fight.
The old woman told them to find and kill the man-eating god Mugus – as his death would save humankind. An epic battle ensued and finally Mugus was slain. The twin brothers sat upon his body in triumph and then cut the god up, cooked and ate him. Other gods who had fled returned and took part in the meal of victory and at this point heaven, the realm of the gods, moved away from the earth and became the sky. From this event onwards people could repopulate the valley undisturbed by the gods.
Until the early 20th century the Adzera people lived in a perpetual cycle of hostilities, raids, ambushes, warfare and ritualised cannibalism. Central to the act of cannibalism was the re-enactment of this primordial struggle – the killing of a god to in order to bring life back to the valley – the victim’s body conceptually became the body of Mugus and the killer, or killers, assumed the mantle of the ancestral twins. One of the more common objects from the Markham Valley are headrests with faces to one end also wearing the domed barkcloth hat, this is also a representation of the blind god Mugus and these headrests are directly related to the activity of cannibalism.
The National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture of Mugus, with his malicious smile and protruding tongue, is only the decorated top section of a longer post. One of the most important traditional festivals for the Adzera people is also called Mugus, it is a celebration of the Yam harvest.
Yams among the Adzera are connected to the spirit world and are considered to have their own personalities and to be male and female. During the yam festival carved posts with images of Mugus were set up1. The carved post figure would be practically obscured by an attached elaborate cane framework which was when heavily festooned with yams. Part of the recorded ceremonies at the harvest event included the ritual of sprinkling the yams with a mixture of blood and water. It is unclear as to the connection between the legend of Mugus and yams. Perhaps the relationship has some bearing to Mugus’ magical ability to transform into a giant pig What is the yam harvest connection to the blind cannibal lord of pigs? More research needs to be done regarding this supposition: are the yams viewed as people and the pig as Mugus? Pigs can be greedy and when left to their own devices a pig will dig out and eat yams. Lots and lots of them.
Hamson, Michael. 2016, Between the Known and Unknown: New Guinea Art from Astrolabe Bay to Morobe, Palos Verdes Estates, CA Oceanic Art.
Read, Kenneth. 1958, A “Cargo” Situation in the Markham Valley, New Guinea in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 3, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 273-294.
Read, Kenneth. 1950, The Political System of the Ngarawapum in Oceania, Vol. 20, No. 3, University of Sydney, pp. 185-223.
Schmitz, Carl A. 1963, Wantoat: art and religion of the northeast New Guinea Papuans. The Hague: Mouton.
Wentholt, Arnold. 2016 The Azera in Hamson, M. Between the Known and Unknown: New Guinea Art from Astrolabe Bay to Morobe, Palos Verdes Estates, CA Oceanic Art, pp.86-92.
Footnote:  To my knowledge, there is a single image of two of these posts from the 1930s and in this image, they are not full figures but only faces, similar to those found on the headrests. I have yet to locate an example post in any Museum collection or in private hands although they were recorded as been in ceremonial use until at least the late 1940s. Would any members of the OAS know of the location of any such posts?
Caption: 2016.479, Mugus, Adzera people, Markham Valley, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. 18th century or earlier. Images courtesy of Michael Hamson.