Earlier this year Todd Barlin was contacted by Keren Ruki and Stephen Alderton from the Australian Museum in Sydney to tell him that some Asmat & Mimika pieces acquired from him would soon be displayed in their new Pacific Spirits exhibition. Todd was thrilled, as he had not seen those artworks since 1993. He had field collected them in the mid 1980s and then carried them out of the jungles of West Papua by canoe. From the village to Australia took almost two years.
Todd was greatly encouraged that Pacific Art would again have a place in the Australian Museum. He has since donated other West Papuan pieces to help fill in gaps in their collections. Australian Museums have great collections from Papua New Guinea but very little from the western half of Irian Jaya (formerly Dutch New Guinea now a province of Indonesia). Todd has been working to fix this over the past 30 years.
The Australian Museum has just received several types of rare ceremonial dance costume from the remote NW Asmat area of Irian Jaya. This includes Jipae dance costumes that represent the recently deceased and also a superb carved and basketry Manama costume (a turtle form that represents the ancient ancestors of the Asmat). There is only ever one Manama costume made for the Jipae ceremony.
The rarest artwork that the Australian Museum received from Todd was a costume called Jibwekar. This is only made once a decade or so for the Omu ceremony in a few small villages in the NW Asmat. In all the trips he made to this part of the Asmat he only ever collected this one example. He was told it is only used to re-enact the myth of the Omu spirits first discovery.
The museum also received an Omu figure carving and four large hard wood panels from Papua New Guinea carved with spirit figures from the Keram river peoples’ culture. Todd wants to walk into the museum and see people, and especially young people, being as thrilled to see these artworks as he was when visiting the Australian Museum thirty years ago. He reasons that human imagination and creativity are stimulated by seeing new things, which is what museums can do.
Art in New Guinea is made for spiritual reasons. People in New Guinea and West Papua have told Todd they like other people to see their artworks and learn something about their culture.
Todd feels he has done his best to make a contribution to the knowledge and appreciation of Pacific Art in Australia. He has now donated hundreds of artworks to the South Australian Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria as well as the Australian Museum and the Auckland Museum. And whilst he is keen to keep adding to all of these collections, he hopes that the people in charge of these public institutions realize how much effort went into the collecting, documenting and transporting the artworks from extremely remote areas, as it is great to see the artworks out for the public to enjoy. This is the reward for collectors.
Having malaria and dengue fever and living on dry sago for months at a time is now over for Todd but he still has the strongest memories of his friends in places all over Melanesia.