CON­FLICTED IDEN­TI­TIES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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