New Guinea Art

One of my regular stops on my trips to San Francisco (which don’t happen nearly often enough) is The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum. While I’m always enthralled by the Collection, I’m also always somewhat dismayed by how few other people are looking at it. Not that the de Young’s visiting exhibitions, or the other parts of its permanent collection like the huge American Art galleries, aren’t worth seeing. But every time I’m at the de Young, some sort of magnetism draws me back into the New Guinea rooms, as well as the adjacent collection of art from Africa. So I thought I’d spend a few paragraphs sharing my enthusiasm for this collection, hoping to encourage some of you to check it out.

Collected by Marcia and John Friede over four decades, The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art includes a range of objects, some 400 of them, designed for ritual and everyday use and dating from the seventh century to nearly the present day. Some of the loveliest objects come from the Sepik River peoples of the island’s north side. (Spirit figure photo from The Zymoglyphic Museum Curator’s Web Log.)

Wood is probably the most commonly used material. Tree bark, bamboo, and rattan are also well represented; decorations include paint, seeds, shells, bones, clay, and feathers. There is some pottery, most of it utilitarian, and a few stone objects. Materials chosen for use were often derived from and symbolically linked to the earth, sea, and sky. The mythologies and rites depicted in the works aren’t always known, giving them an even greater sense of mystery and fascination. Filled with totemic figures of gods, figures from myth, and animals, many of the works are meant to evoke deceased ancestors and spirits. Among the themes represented is the life cycle of insects – from larva to chrysalis to adult – which serves as a metaphor for human life, death, and immortality.

Masks, a big part of the Collection and among the physically largest of the works, were hung on doorways or gables, used in rituals (including lengthy ritual cycles that could last up to a year), and sometimes mounted on canoes to intimidate enemies. The prominent nose on many of the masks and other human representations symbolizes the bird beak. Birds had a particular spiritual significance to many New Guinean peoples. (Photo of masks by Lance Iversen/The Chronicle.)

New Guinea, the world’s second largest island (after Greenland), is home to some 700 bird species, including pigeons most commonly, as well as parrots, birds of paradise, hawks, and cassowaries. In fact, the general diversity of life on this island is worth noting. Upwards of 1,000 languages are spoken in New Guinea, about 20% of those on Earth, and the island’s biodiversity includes nearly 10 percent of the planet’s total species, including 200,000 species of insect and perhaps 20,000 of plants.

Among the other larger objects in the Collection are shields, ritual costumes made of woven and twined rattan, and sculptures (like house posts) used for decorating homes. The many “spirit boards,” large, tall spiritual objects representing gods and spirits, are used in headhunting rituals. Huge “cult hooks,” beautifully decorated and a favorite art form, are hung from the beams of houses to keep food and other valuables safe from both flooding and animals. They also are used in ceremonial houses to hold ritual objects.

Human figures are always abstracted to a greater or lesser degree – long faces, distended bodies, oversized sexual organs – whereas the animals can be stylized or very accurately depicted. One finds this a lot in the world’s art – one can go back as far as the Paleolithic cave paintings of southern France or early rock art like that of Australia, where the animals are often realistic and detailed whereas the human representations are heavily abstracted, or reduced to stick figures. X-ray art, in which the skeleton and other internal details are revealed, is also commonplace.

Musical instruments are well represented in the collection: drums, rattles, flutes, trumpets. Beautifully carved and decorated drums – including the hourglass-shaped kundu drum – are frequently used in religious ceremonies. Although they aren’t exactly musical instruments, some of the cultures on New Guinea use bullroarers, those ancient sound-producing objects, to summon the gods or ward off evil spirits.

Betel is commonly used among these peoples for rituals or socially as a mild intoxicant. While the betel nut is chewed, lime, which enhances the effect, is moved from a container to the mouth with long, thin, elegant spatulas topped with carvings, some of the finest small objects of the collection. Other smaller objects include elaborately carved daggers made of bone, taro pounders, ritual canoes used symbolically to transport spirits and for initiation rituals, and a variety of bowls, food-related implements, and personal adornments.

New Guinea art was first noticed by the West late in the nineteenth century as explorers (many from Germany), merchants, and missionaries started collecting items and taking them out of the country. Soon they were valued by artists as well – the Surrealists, for instance, found Oceanic art appealing, partly because of the ambiguity, the mysterious symbology, and the human/animal juxtapositions. Jean Dubuffet, the painter and sculptor famous for coining the phrase Art Brut, and the Abstract Expressionists were also interested in Oceanic art, and some, like the Surrealist Roberto Matta, collected it. I’ve always loved the quote from writer André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism, cited in the Collection: “African art is the earth, and South Seas art is the sky.”

Happily, there is a YouTube video featuring some of the Jolika Collection. While it emphasizes the larger masks and spirit boards somewhat to the detriment of the numerous smaller pieces, the video does give a sense of the quality of the collection and the beauty and intricacy of the pieces. (There is also an excellent catalog of the Collection available.) Please check out The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art next time you’re in San Francisco.

(Unless otherwise credited, the photos included above come from the Jolika Collection page at the de Young Museum’s website.)

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