Myth & Magic: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, by Crispin Howarth
Reviewed by Peter McCabe
The National Gallery of Australia published this book in association with its Sepik exhibit held from August to November 2015. The book is largely written and edited by the Curator of the exhibit, Crispin Howarth, but also contains short contributions from Dr Barry Craig of the South Australian Museum and Natalie Wilson of the Art Gallery of NSW. It has 232 pages, is large format, and is profusely illustrated: most of the illustrations are in colour with the exception of some of the historic field photos.
The book is a scholarly work on the art of the Sepik that clearly has required a lot of research on the context in which the art was produced and the history and meaning of the pieces illustrated. Despite that, it is surprisingly easy to read and it is full of fascinating information. The first part of the book has several short chapters starting with a history of the Sepik area from 1838 to the 1940s during which time most of the pieces from the exhibit were made or collected. My favourite photo in that section shows a dozen members of the Australian 30th Infantry Battalion after the capture of Alexishafen: each grinning digger is holding an item of Sepik art, any of which would not be out of place in a Sotheby’s showroom today!
The next chapter deals with the history of collecting art and how the indigenous inhabitants traded objects with outsiders over time. Among other things, the chapter discusses how older items were sometimes replaced with newer ones with a ceremonial transfer of the spirit from the old to the new: thus providing an opportunity for a lucky collector, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, to pick up a rare item that had previously not been available for trade.
The final two introductory chapters deal with the creation of Sepik art and the nature and use of Sepik masks. Barry Craig’s insights about the meaning of Sepik masks is particularly enlightening. The mask we see today in a museum or private collection may be regarded as a wonderful work of art but is also an “empty clam shell”that has lost the context and spirit for which it was originally created.
The bulk of the book consists of the catalogue of the more than 80 superb pieces from the exhibit. Many pieces have a full-page photo and a page of text – some more. The texts provide useful insights as to the origin and meaning of the items. The photos are stunning. The pieces themselves are wonderful but the photographer (or should that be plural?) has used lighting very effectively to bring out the best in each piece. Great as the photos are, I look forward to the day when I can read such books on my iPad and enjoy rotating 3D-scanned digital images on the touchscreen. The Sepik exhibit at the NGA showed the power of such 3D-scanning and no doubt such images will be something we can experience at home in the not too distant future.