The first thing that strikes you on entering the exhibition devoted to art in Papua New Guinea between 1966 and 2016 is the irrepressible outpouring of colour and design in the modern recreation of a traditional spirit house, originally made for the Asia-Pacific Triennial of 2012. Enormous carved totem poles form the pillars supporting the roof, and both these and the ceiling above are painted with human and animal figures and decorative patterns that leave no space uncovered.
This horror vacui, the need to cover the whole surface without leaving any gaps, reflects the mental world of animism: everything is alive, spirits are everywhere, immanent in every part of nature — or, more accurately, the living world around us. For it would be anachronistic to speak of nature, which implies a selfcontained system with its own inherent laws and its own causality.
The very idea of the supernatural presupposes the order of the natural as normal; but the animistic world is one in which there is no distinction between natural and supernatural. Things do not happen in an animistic world by virtue of natural laws, but by virtue of the intervention of spirits or demons, or indeed the contrivances of human magic. Crops grow or women give birth to healthy children as much because of charms and spells as because of what we would consider organic processes.
As we enter the other parts of the exhibition, we are struck by the variety of cultures within the territory of what is today Papua New Guinea: about 700 different groups, the number undoubtedly due to the mountainous terrain that separated different tribes, as well as the warlike spirit that favoured fighting over peaceful association.
The peoples of PNG, many of whom had not encountered the modern world until a few generations ago, did not develop civilisations like those of the Southeast Asian peoples further to the west, but they were not all hunters and gatherers. Tim Flannery, in The Future Eaters (1994), memorably evokes the conflict between the tribes that inhabited fertile areas and had learned to grow food and those that lived in steeper valleys with poorer soil, which had remained at the stage of hunters and gatherers, were less well-nourished and preyed on their more prosperous neighbours.
Endemic if sporadic warfare continued until the Pax Australiana of the 1940s, which led to a decline in such crafts as shield-carving, and also inevitably undermined aspects of a culture in which young men were supposed to grow up as warriors. Interestingly, the Australian government began to sponsor cultural shows in the 50s and 60s in which some of these traditional rituals and rivalries could be re-enacted without actual violence.
It is a notable example of what appears to have been a relatively successful process of cultural conservation.
Warfare did resume after independence in 1975 and a number of new shields date from this period, including ones that appropriate the design of a beer can and apparently relate to a fight that began over alcohol. The strangest of all is adorned with a Leadership Tussle in Australia: Rud v Gillard huge figure identified as superman, holding a traditional spear in one hand and a Western axe in the other. Disconcertingly, this already eclectic warrior figure has the head of Jesus Christ, no doubt copied from a holy image seen in a church.
A similar mixture of traditional culture and foreign elements introduced by missionaries is evident in another part of the exhibition, in which spirit masks are hung opposite images of the Virgin Mary. These masks, with enormous eyes and mouths like duck bills, remind us of the difficulties that we can sometimes encounter when looking at tribal arts of this kind.
All human beings are very good at reading nuances of expression in real people, but not all cultures have developed the same ability to represent expression in art. As the heirs to centuries of highly refined expressive depictions of the human features, and in every mode from high art to cartoons, modern viewers can actually be over-equipped to read the very schematic features of tribal art.
We need to make a conscious effort not to see certain features as quirky or even comical — as they may at first sight appear because of fortuitous similarities to cartoon faces — or indeed sad or anything else, but simply as striking, confronting or, as in this case, hypnotic. For these are not meant to be read as real faces with any kind of naturalistic expression, but as magical or apotropaic presences. A few moments of attention help us adjust our response to the inherent sensibility of the works and perceive something of their frightening and mystical power.
This is not to say that the art of PNG does not have its quirky aspects, which arise largely through the appropriation of a disparate collection of Western materials, often adopted with little regard for their original sources or registers of meaning. The result is that the work often has a certain naive folk quality, surprising in its unexpected inventiveness and appealing in its sincerity. Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of PNG art is that it seems to have largely escaped the rapacious grasp of the art market, which has done such damage to Aboriginal art. In the past few decades, Aboriginal art has become an extremely lucrative business, bought and sold by dealers and auction houses, stimulating the overproduction of increasingly vacuous work solely designed for non-Aboriginal collectors and speculators. There has always been a market for the art of New Guinea, but it seems to have remained more within the domain of ethnographic collecting, while the contemporary art shown here, especially the work of 20 years ago or so, still appears to be addressing a local audience, even if the pieces in the exhibition were indeed acquired by foreign collections such as the QAG.
(2012) by Simon Gende; Kavat mask (c. 1994), below