By Jim Elmslie
Dr. Ross Bowden gave an overview of the Savage Club collection, noting that very little documentation exists concerning the origins of the works but that most are from the nineteenth century, with some works of great quality and rarity. Two sources that were recorded were the famous anthropologist and Director of the Victorian Museum, Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and post-World War I administrator in the Australian Territory of New Guinea, General Evan Alexander Wisdom. Baldwin Spencer exchanged some 60 Aboriginal artefacts from the Museum for an Oceanic canoe that belonged to the Club, and Wisdom (a Savage Club member) donated a large number of works in 1938. Even the items from these two men are not listed in the archives, so an air of mystery surrounding the origins of the collection remains.
Ross then spoke about his long and close engagement with the Kwoma people of the Sepik River since commencing research for his doctorate in the 1970’s. After eight trips with a combined field time of some two years Ross is in a unique position to reflect on the changes that have unfolded within Kwoma society over that period. While some ceremonies have effectively died with the passing of the tribe’s elders, other aspects of the culture, such as the construction of magnificent men’s houses, have experienced a renaissance.
Michael Hamson, wearing his three hats of art academic, field collector and leading art dealer, then talked on The Aesthetics of New Guinea Art, using images to explain the seven criteria he has developed to judge the difference between the good, the great and the masterpiece. Briefly these criteria are: Age; Virtuosity; Clarity (the degree of communication); Colour (which enhances the life force of the artefact and its power both in a spiritual sense and as a projection of aggression in objects such as shields); Departure from Norm (idiosyncratic form); Affecting Presence (that sense that the object was once ‘alive’), and Aesthetics of Integrity (the feeling of internal consistency and cohesion). When an artwork has all or most of these qualities it moves into the realm of being a masterpiece. Michael’s sophisticated analysis was superbly illustrated with images of exceptional quality which left the audience spellbound.
Dr. Virginia-Lee Webb presented on several of the exotic journeys undertaken by wealthy Americans to the Pacific during the first half of the twentieth century. Numerous groups of individuals embarked on round the world trips that included visits through the Pacific region. Crossing the oceans in luxurious ships of all sizes, many followed the style of the Grand Tour during which members of society’s elite completed their cultural education by visiting the capitals of Europe. Other tours were conceived purely for pleasure and adventure and these travelled around the world, often making stops in parts of the Pacific region. As was also the case, the individuals organizing these voyages were often philanthropists with significant social standing in their communities. Others were seeking fame. Thus, the blurring between private tour and public expedition occurred.
This lecture discussed several of these voyages and their objectives, itineraries and results. One was the Crane Pacific Expedition of 1928-29 comprising of several scientists under the leadership of Cornelius Crane which collected some 18,000 flora and fauna specimens (the ship, Illyria had its own laboratory onboard). They travelled up the Sepik River with Father Franz Kirschbaum, from the Marienberg Mission, as their guide and took copious numbers of photographs as well as some of the earliest film footage of the region. Another was the Julius Fleischman Expedition of 1931-32 in the Camargo, a half million (in 1930 dollars) purpose built luxury boat – what today would be called a mega-yacht – which travelled through the Solomon Islands and West New Guinea collecting Sentani Lakes maro (bark cloths) and other artefacts. One of the enduring legacies of these trips, besides the artefacts and specimens collected, were the thousands of images recorded. Dr. Webb’s talk was lavishly illustrated with some of these images showing the dramatic intersection between great wealth and the freedom it bestows and the Pacific peoples of the 1930s still living an almost pre-contact life.
Dr Susan Kloman, International Head of the African and Oceanic Art Department of Christie’s in New York, told the fascinating story of the Yuat River hero, Bilishoi and the provenance of an important corpus of Biwat sculptures. The talk discussed the iconography of this important Biwat (Mundugumor) figure formerly in the collection of the Savage Club and the concentric circles of collecting history in the 1920s and 30s for this and the two other major works of art of this type of roof figure depicting the ancestral hero, Bilishoi. Structurally the figure is designed to be viewed from below (being a roof finial), and Dr. Kloman compared this posture with similar purposed sculpture on early European cathedrals. The figure is not of human or animal form, but relates to either bush or river spirits and was created to give strength and success in war and hunting.
The figure, which is at least 200 years old, is presumed to have come from the collection of artefacts donated by General Wisdom in 1938. It was sold by the Savage Club to John Friede in the 1970s to finance repairs to the Club premises. The figure subsequently came back on the market with the sale of a portion of the Friede collection and sold for more than $2 million. It was excellent to hear a detailed assessment of a single object that, using Michael Hamson’s criteria, above, was so clearly a masterpiece.
Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Arts at the Australian National Gallery, in his inimitable style, addressed the controversial topic of Skull Portraiture of the Sepik River. There are some 400 over-modelled skulls from the Sepik River held in collections in Australia and many times more elsewhere in the world. Often we are told they are the victims from head-hunting expeditions, trophies of the vanquished. Crispin looked at the production and purpose of these startling objects and declares that conventional wisdom is wrong. Far from being ‘trophy heads’ they are the careful recreated visages of revered ancestors. They represent an act of respect and veneration, and allow the memory of the deceased to be kept; their physical presence to remain even after life ends.
The overmodelled skulls are more than symbolic; they contain, and are comprised of, the actual deceased. As such they almost remain part of the family, taking a place in day-to-day life and especially when ceremonies are held where their presence is keenly appreciated. Crispin showed many fine examples during the talk, which reinforced his assertion that the best overmodelled skulls are truly great artworks by any measure.
Sam Singer, a well known Oceanic art collector from San Francisco, introduced us to his exceptional collection by way of giving the audience a virtual tour of his home and the many treasures that it contains. Sam and his wife, Sharon Singer, each grew up in academic households on the edge of the Pacific and have spent the past 20 years collecting Oceanic, Aboriginal, Indonesian and Himalayan art. Mr Singer showed never before seen photographs of their collection inside their home and rare pictures of a few of their favourite things. It was a visual delight to see a beautiful house completely dedicated to the display of carefully chosen artworks, all of which were of great quality, some undisputed masterpieces. Sam commented briefly on many pieces, where he had acquired them and why he found them so wonderful. He was filled with passion for his collection, which was heartwarming to see. One particular aspect of the Singer Collection was the strategy of grouping like objects together, both to compare and contrast, and to allow the dramatic effect of a group of similar objects, such as Aboriginal Lonka Lonkas, to be greater than the sum of the individual pieces. The Singer Collection is an outstanding example of how dedicated and knowledgeable collectors are still able create a world class collection in contemporary times.
Mark Blackburn, one of the world’s greatest collectors of Polynesian Art, spoke on Cultural Repatriation and the issues facing collectors and museums today. In the wake of the recent legislation to push through the STOP Act in the United States, along with the co-sponsored meetings on intangible cultural heritage held by UNESCO, collectors and institutions worldwide are facing even more challenges today as indigenous people and countries force this issue to the forefront. This, along with the original 1970 UNESCO convention and the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995, make owning and moving cultural objects even more difficult today. Mark gave an update on the current proposed legislation in both the EU and the US and current examples of recent seizures and other issues. He then discussed the pitfalls from both sides of the issue and how a provenance prior to the year 1970 is a game changer. In essence if the new legislation, in the US and elsewhere, is enacted in its current form, the difficulties in trading in and owning Oceanic and other tribal art will become almost insurmountable. Mark then outlined his own plans to lobby the current US government to repeal the legislation in question and to replace it with more balanced laws that, while protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, will allow people, and museums and art institutes, to own and deal in works of Oceanic and other tribal art.
D’Lan Davidson, former Aboriginal and Oceanic Art Specialist with Sotheby’s and Mossgreen and now an independent dealer, spoke on the topic: From Conflict to Confidence: How Australian Indigenous Contemporary Art and Artefacts Aesthetically and Courageously Collide. The Australian Indigenous art market has long been divided into two very separate markets – art and artefacts. The discussion touched on why the international and local markets have now taken a fresh lens to the entire movement, discovering that these early art-objects help provide support and confidence by protecting and strengthening the market for Australia’s Indigenous contemporary works of art. The resulting outcome has given birth to an ever-increasing and internationally revered contemporary movement. While adversely affected by the global financial crisis, D’Lan gave a very upbeat assessment of the current market for both Aboriginal paintings and artefacts, illustrating the point with a stunning range of works that he has handled in recent years. Demand for such works is not limited to Australian collectors with serious collectors now in the US, Europe and elsewhere. He also noted that the Australian regulations concerning the export of culturally significant works from Australia – where an export permit is required for all works older than 20 years and worth more than $20,000 – while onerous, are being administered in a way that allows the international trade in fine Aboriginal art to continue.
Anthony Meyer, a Paris based dealer of fine Oceanic Art, finished the day’s lectures with a history of the market for tribal art in Europe and the United States. The marketplace for tribal art is not only spread across the globe it is also spread out through time. Anthony offered a brief visual foray into the early years of the tribal art market, starting with the Spanish conquests of the early 1500’s, showing us the faces of the people who were the main early makers and shakers in Europe and the United States. He contended that it is people that make the market and the market makes the art – ART. The history of the Tribal Art Market is really more about the people who found, collected, bought, traded, loved, hated, and sold tribal art since the very first contact than the artefacts we so desperately seek to acquire. Through the vision, the intelligence and the emotions of collectors, dealers, and academics Tribal Art has come of age. Without all these people before us we would not be here today.
The lecture was a condensed version of a longer presentation but managed to convey with great authority the close links between the various participants of the tribal art market, including between dealers and collectors, on one hand, and museums and art galleries on the other. Anthony showed images of early Kunstkammer – or cabinet of curiosities – the precursor of today’s museums, and how they were created by individuals fascinated by the various artefacts and other objects, just as we still are today. Rather than being in conflict Anthony showed that the museums and art galleries grew out of the passionate commitment of collectors and dealers through the ages. He then situated the audience, the current generation of collectors, dealers, academics and curators, as still being intimately involved in this process. Along the way Anthony also illustrated just how profound was the influence of the artistic ideas derived from Oceanic and other tribal art as it permeated into the collective consciousness of Western artists and transformed the whole notion of what art is.