Jackson Timbin of Palembei Village paints a dance mask in his family’s distinctive style. The Timbin family is represented in this exhibition by Jackson’s elder brothers Michael and Otto. The finished mask is visible here. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
Essay by Elaine Monds
Sepik art has long captured the imagination of collectors. Sought after as much for its association with an exotic otherness as for its ceremonial use and physical beauty, vast collections were made by the early expeditions of the last century. Collecting has been mainly relegated to the preserve of those interested in and able to afford what amounted to antiquities. To this day in most public institutions worldwide, references to Sepik art generally refer to works gathered in earlier times.
The first contact many westerners had with Oceania was through the eyes of early 20th century artists such as Picasso, Klee, and Moore, as works collected on those early expeditions found their way into these artists’ collections, heavily influencing the direction of Western art.
Thirst for the authentic gave rise to works created for sale, but made to appear old as carvers simulated old ceremonial pieces to supply demand. These pieces were- and many still- are produced in great numbers with shoddy workmanship, lacking the vitality that characterized the best of early Sepik art.
It has always seemed amazing to me that a magnificent carving culture has developed in the physically beautiful but extremely demanding environment of the Middle Sepik. It requires constant labour there to gather and prepare food, and to maintain houses against the forces of nature. Excessive humidity and severe flooding create constant challenges to be overcome when carving and painting with highly fugitive earth pigments. For a single carver to prepare a body of major works for exhibition, then to maintain its condition until it can be collected, is well nigh impossible. Difficulties of access and artwork transport further conspire against the development of a consistent market for the best work.
Sepik artists are, however, more fortunate in some ways than urban artists. For one thing, they draw their materials from nature. Mighty trees are still available for carving, and there can be no better reason for felling a tree than to provide cultural renewal and much-needed income. These artists have no need of formal art education: they can still apprentice at the feet of their elders to learn their craft in the visceral way that this sort of skill is best absorbed. Finally, there is immediate local demand for their work to fulfill important cultural roles: they aren’t as dependent on a fledgling market and meagre government support for the arts.
Regularly visiting the Sepik over the past twenty-five years, I have seen a growing awareness of the outside world reflected in Sepik art. Most recently, this has resulted in part from opportunities to view pirated western films, to gain access to the internet on occasional trips to Wewak, the nearest town, and to talk with family and community members who have travelled to cities. While there are negative aspects to this type of exposure, I have seen how viewing something entirely outside one’s previous life experience has influenced carvers to find new sources of inspiration in imagination and everyday life. This has given rise to new sculptural forms that would be extraordinary in any context.
Among these are expressive carvings drawn from nature, such as frogs, possums, snakes, kangaroos, bandicoots, and more. When visiting Palembei Village in 2008, for example, we were greeted with a contemporary dance for young men, led by a figure wearing a spectacular cat mask! Naturalistic works coexist with others representing political leaders or employing comic book devices. Sepik carvings often traditionally represented mythic heroes, but many of these previously existed only in stories, and are now being realized for the first time in three-dimensional form. Bukduma, a mythological pig/fish hybrid who sculpts the riverbank with its snout, is one of these characters that has recently materialized from legend.
Hailans to Ailans marks the first major exhibition where wood sculptures by named, contemporary Sepik artists are shown alongside works created from industrial materials, such as steel and acrylic paint, by urban Papuan New Guineans. This may seem a small achievement, but historically, carvings without age or ceremonial importance have rarely been considered ‘art’. Nor have they been included as part of the growing numbers of exhibitions in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby.
Most residents of Port Moresby are unaware that there are artists on the Sepik creating excellent and imaginative sculpture because they have never seen the work of master carvers. When a German client of ours went to the capital in search of quality carving, he was directed to a possible source and asked, “How many kilos of carvings do you need?” To alter attitudes within the country is harder than it has been to do so abroad. Patrons who attend exhibitions of contemporary art in the capital do not expect to see works from village carvers presented in this context. I believe this is partly due to lack of awareness, but it is also connected to the idea that all carvings are “artifacts”, and therefore do not belong in an art exhibition.
In contrast, Sepik carvings have been exhibited as fine art at Alcheringa Gallery on Vancouver Island since the early nineties. Their enthusiastic reception here has been aided by an established following for artists reviving a nearly extinguished carving tradition on the Northwest Coast of Canada. It’s also been facilitated by the internet, which makes it easier to attract and serve a global clientele. Our clients keenly anticipate the latest creations of the best Sepik carvers. The works of a growing number of artists have gained the attention of museum curators and found their way into public collections in Europe and North America.
This show includes works by six master carvers from the Middle Sepik, a subset of the many superb artists active in villages along the river. The participating artists are Kaua Gita and Claytus Yambon of Korogo; Teddy Balangu and brothers Michael and Otto Timbin from Palembei; and Lucas Tangun from Tambanum. Claytus Yambon was chosen as a travelling Sepik ambassador for this show not only on the basis of his great carving skill, but also for his extensive knowledge of the work of his peers and his ability to share this information with an audience.
Claytus Yambon, his wife Esther, and their family are among my closest friends on the Sepik. Claytus has travelled with me to visit the gallery’s artists along the river since we first met in 1986. Our extensive field trips have given him a unique overview of the work of many of his contemporaries. He has also acquired an understanding of the international art market. I’ve learned much about the region from him, and he has helped translate and transcribe the stories upon which present-day carvers base their art (to read one such story, see Claytus’ piece Origin of the Eagle and Crocodile Clans).
For a number of years, Claytus and Esther ran a guesthouse in Korogo, where he was recently elected Village Councillor. In that capacity and as a role model, he hopes to inspire the young men in his community to not only maintain and hone their carving skills, but also to put them to use in the rebuilding of their haus tambaran (spirit house), which has fallen victim to the severe flooding that has plagued the Sepik in recent years. The haus tambaran houses important carvings that are still central to ceremonial and social life. It is no accident that the villages with the most vibrant carving are among those who work hardest to maintain this structure.
Claytus will be renewing old friendships as he accompanies the exhibition to Vancouver Island. In 1986, he participated in an international celebration of carving here, which was also the first cross-cultural artistic experience between Papua New Guineans and indigenous people from the Northwest Coast of Canada.
Kaua Gita has been creating imaginative and authoritative sculptures in wood since the mid-eighties. His thoughtful explanations of his own works add much to the experience of the viewer. His repertoire includes superb traditional works. He has revived styles of early mwai masks and carved the finials that soar above the gable of the men’s house in Korogo. However, he is most at home when creating works that illustrate myths, such as the story of the two brothers who represent the two major clans in Kaua’s village of Korogo (see Gumaim and Numbamaim. Representing Kaua’s Simak clan, the elder brother, named Gumaim, holds fish and a crocodile. Numbumaim, the younger of the two, is carrying a sago pounder (kowi). The bird on the elder brother’s headdress is a cormorant (jirang) that empowers him to catch fish in his mouth, while the maim bird on his brother’s headdress assists him in powdering sago. One figure belongs to the water, the other to the land. Rather than traditionally dressing these figures with actual fibre and shell attachments, he has created the works entirely from wood, including the ‘woven’ headdresses and kina shell necklaces.
Teddy Balangu’s contributions to Hailans to Ailans (Killer Whale and Crocodile I, Killer Whale and Crocodile II) combine powerful crests from two cultures: a crocodile (Iatmul) and killerwhale (Coast Salish). These works are the result of a cultural exchange in 2006, a collaboration between Alcheringa Gallery and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Teddy came to Canada at the invitation of Dr. Carol Mayer to spend several months at the museum as a carver in residence. During his stay, he created a house post encompassing images representing all Palembei clans. Most visitors to the museum expect to find Northwest Coast carvers at work, but not one from Papua New Guinea! It was especially thrilling for spectators to see three-dimensional figures emerging from the wood without the benefit of any kind of drawing or measurement. As Teddy said, his head was his computer! As a result of this opportunity, an audience eager to see more of his work has grown here- but most importantly, grown back home in Palembei, where visitors have travelled to meet him.
Prior to Teddy’s visit to Canada, Salish master carver John Marston travelled to PNG on one of our gallery’s trips. We were also accompanied by filmmakers Peter Campbell and Art Holbrook, who recorded the meeting of these two artists from such different backgrounds in the documentary Killer Whale and Crocodile, sponsored by Bravo! Canada.
A strong friendship was forged between the artists during the making of the film on both sides of the Pacific. John was deeply impressed by the quality of the carving and buoyant ceremonial life evident along the Sepik. In Canada, Teddy loved aspects of nature that were so different from his home, like the “naked trees” at the approach of winter and the experience of spear fishing in the snow. However, he soon realized that the indigenous culture he met on Vancouver Island had suffered tremendous losses from colonization. He appreciated the opportunities of the exchange and film to show a wide audience that “our culture is still going strong”.
Two years later, Teddy shared some thoughts with us about the visit. Carving a crest figure belonging to another people was a privilege he did not take lightly. He had felt an instant kinship with John as a fellow carver: “We are like brothers because we are both able to support our families through our carving. We carved together at the gallery and enjoyed meeting people who loved what we were doing.”
There are still great carving families on the Sepik, where skills have been passed unbroken from generation to generation. Joseph Timbin of Palembei was the head of his family when I first met them in the late eighties. He told me with pride that he had four master carver sons and one ‘up and coming’. Joseph died several years ago, and each of those sons has more than fulfilled his expectations. Otto Timbin is now the senior artist in the family, and has created for Hailans to Ailans a spectacular dancing mask utilizing natural pigments. The mask is finished with grasses dyed in brilliant colours that only synthetic dyes could provide. large figurative carving in this show, found an effective method for dealing with parents who were not treating them well: they both left home! One transformed into an eel and took to the river; the other became a snake who stayed on land.
Lucas Tangun has carved from a very early age, creating works with a wide range of expression. Together with others, he created the extraordinary house posts gracing the police station in Port Moresby. These are part traditional house post and part cartoon-like “cops and robbers”. There is tension to be felt in Lucas’s finely balanced tableau of characters commemorating the Founding of the Pig Clan in Tambanum Village. Lucas has devised a weather-resistant finish, made from natural sources, that addresses the problem of colour loss, allowing the sculpture to be enjoyed in sheltered outdoor locations.
What does the future hold for these great carvers of the Sepik River? The relative proximity of internet and mobile phone services (a day or two away from many villages) has made it much easier to connect with the outside world. The Aboriginal painters of the Western Desert in Australia live in remote places also, but with the help of various sources of public funding, their art has been the subject of countless exhibitions all over the world. This exhibition will, I hope, encourage further opportunities for Sepik artists to travel and have their work appreciated by wider audiences at home and abroad.
I believe there is now a heightened interest in traditional cultures, a yearning for alternate sources of spiritual nourishment outside of familiar religions, a longing to understand the natural world and the world of myth. The brilliant sculptors of the Sepik River have much to share with us.
Tags: apprenticeship, art vs. artifact, biocultural sustainability, challenging stereotypes, Coast Salish, cultural exchange, dance, film, government, identity, mass media, museums, mythology, natural materials, Sepik River, storytelling, teaching, technological change, Wood Sculpture