Sepik: Arts of Papua New Guinea

TO FIND the true spirit of mankind in the raw, there are few better destinations than New Guinea. One of the best-known inquirers into the art of the region was a scion of the Rockefeller family whose research ended in 1961 when he disappeared. Presumed drowned by many; presumed downed with some coconut toddy by others. The well-known photo of a young and very innocent-looking Michael Rockefeller, surrounded by grinning and hungry natives, will chill anyone with Victorian sensibilities.

It is still a place that is seldom visited and barely mentioned. The most visible glimmer of recognition occurs, unfortunately, when tattoo designs are mentioned. The days when a collection of Oceanic art was a sign of informed sophistication are over. This inspiration for Surrealists and civilised men about town, such as Vincent Price, is in need of renewal. The Musée Quai Branly might well pull this off with an exhibition of exceptional power and minimal pretensions. The curators have also taken a new and more simplified approach, which might help visitors overcome the extraordinary complexity of the world’s second-largest island and the profusion of Pacific islands beyond it.

The focus of this exhibition is a river valley, the Sepik, making allowance for its many tributaries too. It is approached like a journey, in a canoe of course, with some first-rate video accompaniment. Like the river itself, this is a big exhibition. There are 230 works, most of which are the sort of size that would look perfect in a hedge-fund manager’s warehouse apartment. Fortunately, they are instead from the Musée Quai Branly and 18 other enlightened institutions. Most prominent of these is the Berlin Museum of Ethnology. Germany is to New Guinea art what France is to African art, which makes the venue for this exhibition all the more novel.

The entire experience is something quite new, even for those who enjoy the call of the wild. This is far from being a politically correct society that visitors will be exploring. Nor is it the sanitised ‘savagery’ that made Alexander McQueen’s posthumous fashion tribute at the Victoria & Albert Museum so outstandingly popular. Clothing and costumes, on the other hand, are very much a part of the lives of Sepik inhabitants, albeit in an unchanging, unfashionable way. And it is not for the ladies. Stepping inside this exhibition is a journey back in time to cultures where women were almost invisible and certainly did not get to wear the best apparel.

The village that one travels through at ‘Sepik’ is composed of different worlds, which rarely collide. Women and children in one corner; initiated men in another. Uninitiated men hover closer to the womenfolk than to the initiated elite. It is a society from a Femen nightmare. Men have a chance to get closer to the all-important ancestor, in some cases merging with them. To become initiated, however, requires going under the knife in a more painful and less sanitary manner than modern aficionados of cosmetic surgery would tolerate. Tattoo enthusiasts might enjoy the experience, though, and it is at an exhibition like this that those with an aversion to ink can begin to see some of the primeval urges that continue to lurk in modern society. There’s headhunting as well.

The creative output of these once-untouched communities is stunning. With lives that are relatively uncomplicated, the imagination becomes a powerful tool. There is little in any other tribal art that can match the flamboyance of their art. It is often monumental and usually distorted. There is no attempt at realism as they are looking to a much higher realm than what surrounds them. Everything is purpose built to fulfil a need. There is no dividing line between the spiritual and the everyday in lives that are in daily contact with other worlds.

There is lots of wood on display, usually painted. It is not like African art with its shiny smooth hardwoods that made imaginative Europeans think they had discovered a darker-hued version of classical Greek sculpture. These works are about the decoration rather than the material, although there are many sculptures that have been reduced to their bare wood in the way that time has removed the garish paint from ancient Greek marble. Masks are an essential part of the Sepik peoples’ rituals, and those on display here would have made a convincing job of whatever role play was involved. They are on a different scale from the masks that proliferate in most parts of the world, with more colour, on the whole, and a purpose that transcends the mundane.

There are many wooden sculptures, with considerable variety. The exhibition features numerous different societies that have many differences and a few similarities. Their carvings can be massive and close to abstraction or they can be smaller and more impish in character. If this is a rejection of classical, rational civilisation, it is in Western terms much closer to the mediaeval. Sometimes solemn, it can also be earthy to the point of bawdiness. Having recently seen some Celtic stone fertility carvings on UK churches, known as Sheila Na Gig, it is not hard to spot the same outrageous interpretations of the female form that Sepik people embraced.

The artefacts on display speak for themselves to some extent, although the curators have helpfully tried to initiate us into their mysteries. Sometimes the mysterious is worth hanging on to, and that is perhaps why tribal art was more appealing to audiences before they were exposed to National Geographic, Discovery and all the others probing the earth’s darkest nooks and crannies.  It does make for good entertainment though. You won’t see anything so striking anywhere else this year. It is a shame that most of the displays are behind glass, removing some of the immediacy.

There is even some good news for political correctness. The timing of the exhibition coincides with the Global Conference on Climate Change in Paris (30 November to 11 December). The inhabitants of the Sepik valley probably  will not be in attendance, despite their home being more imperilled than almost any other. At least they are there in spirit at the Musée du Quai Branly.

 

LUCIEN DE GUISE

 

Until 31 January 2016, Sepik, Arts of Papua New Guinea, at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, www.quaibranly.fr