By Crispin Howarth, Curator Pacific Arts, NGA
The majority of the National Gallery’s Pacific Arts collection comes from Papua New Guinea; the newly reinstalled Melanesian gallery reflects this with arts from several of PNG’s provinces, especially New Britain and New Ireland. The arts produced in this region are characterised by arresting and radically inventive sculptural forms executed with a wide array of media found in the environment including feathers, shell and stone. These works were created for traditional use, for community purposes better known today as kastom. While some kastom practices ceased during the 20th century with the growth of globalization – other indigenous kastom have continued to be part of the social and cultural fabric of Papua New Guinea. There are a number of works now on display for the very first time; two are particular highlights from the island of New Britain, the giant Tutuna ring and the Nausung mask.
The Tutuna money ring is the largest and most spectacular form of currency in use today. The Gallery’s Tutuna was created by Vaniara and his colleagues for a commissioned display of wealth at a dawn ceremony by Vin Tata Lote of Kokopo, East New Britain in 2010. An important part of this ceremony, called Kinavai, is the cutting of the money ring and distribution of Param (arm-span lengths of cane threaded with tiny shells) to other important community members. It is through the act of gifting the shell money lengths away that Vin Tata Lote gains more status and respect from his community and from all onlookers. The National Gallery’s Tutuna holds one thousand of these delicately threaded param length, which is approximately 200,000 of the tiny nassa shells collected from sea snails.
The Tutuna represents a lifetime of patient saving by a Tolai person as only the wealthiest and most entrepreneurial can ever hope to create and own one. It is the largest money ring outside of Papua New Guinea and exemplifies the continuing importance of kastom shell wealth for the Tolai people.
It is a rare occurrence for Melanesian art in Museum and Gallery collections to have the name of the creating artist recorded yet the Nausung mask (on display for the first time since its purchase in 1971) was purchased directly from the artist; Nake of Portne village, West New Britain. Through the writing of anthropologists Philip Dark and Adrian Gerbrands it is possible to learn something about who Nake was. He held the title of ‘namos’ due to his talent for carving. Usually a namos was the son of an established carver who learned the skill from their father but Nake did not have such a privileged path; he was born on the island of Umboi to the west at Kumbalap village and had moved through marriage into the Kilenge community and gained recognition solely through his natural talent in the art of carving.
Nake was viewed as a man who was unsure of his position in the community and countered this by being overly talkative with a ‘patter’ matched by only by his vivid imagination.
During World War II Nake was believed to have worked and travelled in Papua New Guinea with US soldiers, he was known to be something of a smooth operator who would often try to exaggerate his position in business and community situations. Because of this he gained the nickname Awa Gauugauwa “talking nonsense” which unsubtly suggests he was not as smooth as he projected himself. However, it is noted that when engaged with carving Nake became a different man, solely concentrating on the work at hand. When receiving praise for his work he would shake his head slightly in satisfaction.
The nausung mask itself, is the face of a fearsome bush spirit who had the strength to tear down trees; the nausung appeared at ritual performances including some connected to initiation rites for young men. After Nake mastered how to make this particular mask form under the direction of the master carver Talania of Ongaia village in 1967, he began a small business of creating them in a workshop behind his home where he would make them on commission for other villages when they were preparing for an event and also to sell optimistically to the occasional visitor.
Dark, P. Among the Kilenge ‘Art is something well done’ pp. 29-44 in Art & Artists of Oceania, Dunmore Press, Ethnographic Arts Publications, Mead, S. & Kernot, B. (eds) 1983.
Gerbrands, A. ‘Talania and Nake, Master Carver and Apprentice: Two Woodcarvers from the Kilenge (Western New Britain)’ pp. 193-206. In Art and Society: Studies in Style, Culture and Aesthetics, ed. M. Greenhalgh and V. Megan, 1978.