I have recently been on an expedition of discovery into the rites, rituals and arts of the Kwoma people of Mariwai village, Papua New Guinea. The Kwoma inhabit a group of villages in the Washkuk Hills and along the Sanchi River, which flows into the Sepik River. The total population is approximately 12,000. Kwo-ma or ‘hill people’ is the language group although Tok Pisin is commonly spoken. During the time of Australian administration they were encouraged to move from the hills and closer to the river.
Like many communities that live on the Sepik the Kwoma have a very rich cultural tradition. Their songs and stories tell of their origins, myths and legends and their carvings, paintings and spirit houses show great skill and imagination. Traditional Kwoma art and artifacts such as carvings, paintings and ceramic pots are exhibited in most of the major ethnographic museums around the world.
Under Kwoma custom it is forbidden for women to paint and carve however after proving my skills and gaining their trust I have been accepted as an artist. I am the first international contemporary artist to work in Mariwai. Alongside the other Kwoma artists I have carved monumental wood totems and painted sago pangals that form the construction of a new spirit house called Tokimba, newly built to replace the previous haus boi which had long since fallen into ruins.
As part of my artistic practice I collaborate with the community using western materials and techniques to bridge the contemporary with the ancient spiritual traditional art methods. I create live performance installations that invite the villagers to interact with a contemporary western dialogue. In return, the village artists and chiefs have taught me their style and explained the secret meanings behind their complex symbolism. My partner Dominic Palfreyman and I have promised to document this current traditions (stories, songs, motifs, clan identity) they fear may be lost in the next generation and to share it appropriately. In turn, they are shown images of collected objects for identification. For the Kwoma it is not the physical objects that have value but the spirits embodied within them. The objects will disintegrate and new ones will replace them. Their philosophy of the immaterial is rare in our western art culture and what drew me profoundly into their world.
In every exceptional museum the objects tell exceptional stories. One such group of objects known as the Kwoma Ceiling is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This artwork of over 200 decorated sago tree pangals form a spirit house ceiling intended to be charged with spirits. Having been transported across the globe and through the ages, the ceiling is positioned as one of the most important records of this much-studied culture and has become a focal point in my research as it was produced in Mariwai.
It was in Mariwai that the Kwoma Ceiling panels were collected in the early 1970s for Nelson Rockefeller by Douglas Newton, director of the Museum of Primitive Art and later curator at the Metropolitan Museum with the intention of building a complete spirit house in New York. Of the group of 26 artists who made the ceiling only Paul Yapmunggwiyo Kwangi, chief of Mariwai, is still living.
The Mariwai Project is a long-term and wide-ranging artistic, research and cultural exchange project initiated following my first trip to Mariwai in 2013. I soon became aware that the Kwoma Ceiling displayed in my hometown of NYC was made here 40 years ago. Although new colours and the availability of store bought materials have evolved a more contemporary artistic approach this is a living culture with unbroken links to the ancient past.
Through our research and collaborations with museums, academics and field experts we can illuminate the relationship between the artists and the works they created now held in museums collections. I use photography and film to capture and document the project and reveal the wider story about the value of allegory, myth and the spiritual intentions imbued into physical objects.
In August 2016 we returned to Mariwai for a month, our fourth trip to the village. We witnessed and participated in the naming ceremony for the new spirit house; the opening celebrations lasted for five days. We filmed these extraordinary ceremonies using photography and video as well as both aerial drone technology and also the latest innovations in 360 degree virtual reality filming. These new components create an immersive experience of being inside the spirit house as a participant in the ceremonies.
One of the most important parts of finishing the spirit house is the addition of the finials, called yamba. First they must be ‘washed’, one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Kwoma. The ingredients that compose the secret liquid are used by a small group of initiated big men to “wash” the yamba. The liquid is handled quite carefully due to its potency. If any uninitiated man, a female or child is to witness this act he or she will die, a victim of sorcery. The washing process distinguishes “photocopies” or replicas of spirit carvings from “real” ones. Real ones possess power and irresistible attraction. There are hidden stories and secrets within.
While painting the yamba I learned how specific patterns of red, white, black and yellow, the traditional Kwoma colors are applied to emphasize spirit forms. Designs are brightly coloured also to attract the eye. Different chiefs will take “ownership” of the designs. The yamba are tied to the roof at each end. Their position and stability is paramount. The men chant “Oooo, oooo” and the yamba are raised into position.
Early morning the next day the village was buzzing, much work needed to be done before the opening and naming ceremony for which hundreds of guests from neighbouring villages were expected. Firewood was gathered, the grass cut and bushes trimmed. Sago and fish and other foods must be prepared for the feasts.
The Kwoma still live a largely traditional life of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Life in the village centers around daily tasks. The women perform the bulk of the work – paddling to various marketplaces to earn kina, fetching water, fishing, smoking fish and turning sago. The men fish and hunt for pigs, birds and flying fox and keep themselves occupied with building projects. The men have a lot of free time to smoke and chew betelnut and talk in the men’s houses. These gender roles have been so for many generations. The villagers are often surprised to see how differently my husband and I share our work roles! The women complained that I spent too much time carving and painting with the men. I realised that the women are not recognised as artists for their creative traditions so I developed an art project with them to extend their bilum weaving skills into making tapestries. The results are quite unexpected and beautiful.
Clan and kinship create a complex web of rights and obligations and when a conflict arises it must be resolved. The village spirit house acts like a parliament. Each person in turn discusses their position and how they feel they have been wronged and nearly everyone offers their opinion on the matter. An agreement is made followed by apologies, handshakes and hugs and if the matter is serious a custom charge will be imposed. We had one situation where a small sculpture I made was taken. A youth from another village was so attracted to the gold leaf I had used on the wooden figure that it went missing. The whole of the next day was taken up with a convoluted series of apologies and finally we accepted a chicken as customary recompense.
In a world of few material possessions they are jealously guarded and sharing does not come easily. Navigating the labyrinthine clan hierarchy and rivalry whilst working on the Spirit House was challenging. To avoid drama I invited chiefs from the neighbouring Kwoma villages Colin Gwoyor from Washkuk and Jonathan Waikola from Bangwis to join us. Together with Paul Kwangi they form a triumvirate of elders. I’ve learned to defer to them in most cases.
Mariwai is up-river from Pagwi, one of few places where road meets river and sees few visitors compared to villages down river such as Kanganaman, which are easier for tourists to reach. For several years before our first visit in 2013 Mariwai had no tourists or outside visitors. This is starting to change and the new spirit house has brought a handful of adventurous tourists. Other developments on the river bring a modern way of life ever closer to the Kwoma. A mobile phone mast in the nearby town of Ambunti brings internet nearly within range of Mariwai. A concrete wharf now accommodates boats to supply the Frieda River gold mine and brings money, goods and foreign ideas. There is a tremendous problem in finding a balance between these two worlds.
The Mariwai Project will continue to encourage and assist the Kwoma in keeping their culture alive in a changing world. Our cultural exchange will take international artists, linguists, dancers, musicians, architects, and scientists to Mariwai to engage with and be inspired by Kwoma landscape and traditions as is their wish. We aspire to bring a new audience and understanding to museum collections allowing for museums to engage with the living cultures and communities represented in their collections. We hope to take a group from Mariwai to New York to see the Kwoma Ceiling and to hold a naming ceremony in keeping with their custom.
Please follow our progress at