PAPUA NEW GUINEA ART AND MASKS FIREBIRD VOYAGE TO PNG
HOW DID WE END UP SPENDING TWO YEARS IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA ON FIREBIRD?
Jim had a close friend who had sailed around the world several times and had spent a great amount of time in the Solomon Islands and PNG. He greatly encouraged us to explore this remote part of the world. We followed his advice and visited virtually every island offshore of the main island of PNG. We spent all our time in small villages, helping the people in any way we could. We then sailed on over the north coast of the shared island nations of PNG and Papua into Indonesia. We will share that experience in the future in our FIREBIRD VOYAGE Blog.
Only a few thousand cruisers have had the opportunity to extensively sail through this remote area of the world. We feel blessed to have had this experience that few will ever have.
WHY WOULD YOU WANT A MASK?
Collectors all over the world enjoy the exotic nature of masks. Masks are three dimensional. Masks have human features. They offer a presence completely different from flat art. If nothing else, a mask from a jungle faraway will certainly be a conversation piece.
How do you choose a mask? Ask the mask. Does it speak to you?
Look closely at the mask. Does it catch and hold your eye?
Each artist/mask carver may have a style of his own, but each piece is one of a kind. The carving may be inspired by a dream, or a vision from an ancestor.
All masks, except for yam masks, are sculpted from wood using simple hand tools. The expressive faces generally are fierce and imposing, but others may appear questioning or simply wise. The designs range from humanistic to abstract, embellished with geometric patterns as well as crescents, scrolls and swirling designs. Animals, such as crocodiles and hornbill birds, are often incorporated into the mask.
Many masks are colored, using natural pigments made from charcoal, lime and river clays. Paint is all natural, derived from berries and other organic material. Shells and pig’s tusks are sometimes added, and many masks have a perimeter trim made of rattan, grass or cassowary feathers.
Since we sold most of our personal collection, we have connected with Ron Perry and our gallery now proudly displays a representation of his collection.
RON PERRY COLLECTION
Ron Perry is a world-renowned expert on Papua New Guinea art and artifacts. Intrigued by some PNG artifacts acquired by a friend, he made his first journey to New Guinea in 1964 to explore the Sepik region. The rest is a long story – 40 years of traveling by canoe up winding rivers, trekking through uncharted mountains, collecting tens of thousands of art pieces, and in the process, forming a link between the isolated village artists and the wider world.
Just for fun, here is an excerpt from one of his trips.
Diary Entry, 1974: Trek from Kainantu to Marawaka
“The second day we walked to Wonenara in the Kratki Range. Most of the trek was over open rolling hills, but we had to go down a steep canyon to collect drinking water in lengths of bamboo. We arrived in early afternoon……. Ron had blisters, so someone brought him a bucket of warm water. People started bringing in things to sell. The Angu men sat and bargained with him while he soaked his feet.
The people wore necklaces and bracelets decorated with cowry shells, which were quite valuable that far from the coast. More unusual were their human finger necklaces. These were usually smoked remains of deceased relatives worn in their memory.
A lot of the jewelry included small, tufted balls of fur. Ron kept asking what they were. It seemed as if the men were saying cuscus (possum) “something”, but he couldn’t quite understand what they meant. One wrinkled old warrior sitting nearby was really disgusted that Ron could not understand what they were saying. Finally, he reached under his lap lap, pulled out his balls and said “Lukim, olsem long dispela.” (Look here, it’s all the same as this fellow.) The little furry balls were possum testicles.”
Ron is retired now, living in Tucson, Arizona. About twelve years ago, one of Ron’s friends visiting Kauai, happened to come into our gallery in Hanalei. He was impressed with our store and our story and thought some PNG artifacts would fit right in. A few weeks later, Mr. Perry gave us a call, and since the we have been honored to handle, display and sell items from his vast collection.
Ron has published a memoir of his early years – Art Dealer in the Last Unknown and collaborated with Carolyn Leigh to create an e-book titled New Guinea Tribal Art EGuide.
THE SEPIK RIVER AREA
Mr. Perry believes that New Guinea’s finest artifacts are carved in the Sepik River area, in the north section of the country.
The Sepik River meanders for 700 miles and it is fed by many tributary rivers. This complex river basin evolved from an inland sea about 6,000 years ago and is about the size of the state of Maine. The terrain is thick forest, lowland jungle, and swamp. Uncounted villages and hamlets perch along the banks. Decades ago, these villages, often separated by just a few miles, were unknown to each other.
Many aspects of life are still carried out traditionally, the social structure and an individual’s responsibilities and privileges remain significantly unchanged.
A village usually has several clans, sometimes sharing the same men’s house. Each clan has a totem (entity that watches over and assists the clan), such as a crocodile, an eagle, a snake, or a bird representing the spirit of the clan, which is often featured in their artwork. Remarkably, each clan also has its own unique rituals, dances, legends, and mythology.
The artists of this region are rightfully considered to some of the finest tribal artists in the world because of their technical skills and lively, visually exciting art. The majority of their creations are masks.
THE SPIRIT OF THE MASK
In today’s world “mask” invariably means a COVID19 cloth or surgical mask, designed for protection during our current pandemic. Masks in Papua New Guinea culture are also created to provide protection, from dangerous invisible forces and marauding evil spirits. Conversely, the masks also represent (are imbued with) other invisible forces – like tribal ancestors and clan spirits. The people believe that ancestral spirits have power over those still living.
Many masks are designed, not to be worn, but are mounted in men’s houses and on house gables. Dance masks are used in traditional dancing and performances of cultural rites, and special masks to decorate large yams unearthed during harvest and displayed during the Yam Festival.
As I prepared to write this blog post, I spent many hours closely examining the masks we are offering. I was intrigued by the details and the signs of wear, imagining the activities surrounding these objects in their original setting.
These are not antiques by definition, since they are not over 100 years old. They qualify as museum pieces however, since they were collected so long ago and are authentic. They have been carefully preserved in a controlled environment to avoid the common fate of wood and all organic items in the jungle – bugs, rot and fire.
HERE ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITES
An incredibly attractive mask with a well-sculpted face, large eyes and two hornbill birds, one on the forehead and the other on the chin, each with distinctive incised designs on their bodies. The colors show an unusual patina, with a reddish-gold tone underneath, overlaid with a brownish black. One unique feature is a rim separating the face from an outer band which is incised with swirl pattern.
A fierce-looking mask with penetrating eyes and a large nose representing a hornbill. The three colors of black, reddish brown and white create a bold appearance. The cheeks are painted with images of wings. The forehead has a vertical serrated ridge. The ears and nose are decorated with three fiber tassels each, many of which are a bright red. Holes around the periphery may have held fringe at one time.
A unique and engaging mask. The large forehead is marked by a black circle surrounded by rusty red pigment. The face is painted white and the ears are placed unusually high and may represent horns. The eyes and mouth are represented by holes surrounded with black pigment. The nose and ears have fiber tassels.
This piece is unusual, since most yam masks are made entirely of plant fiber. Note the unique pipe that sits in the mouth, and the bird which sits above and behind the head. It is painted with white serrated patterns and red markings. Another distinguishing feature is that the nose is a deep blue color and the periphery is green.
This mask has an understated elegance. The elongated oval face has a carved hornbill body on the forehead with low relief incised wings. The pigments are subdued, allowing the elegant curves around the eyes and mouth to stand out. The periphery is a triple row of rattan, accentuated by the double cords hanging down each side.
The essence of this mask is it's striking simplicity, bearing an all-black face, accented by bright red fiber tassels in the ears and the nostrils. The slanted eyes and the upturned mouth are carved holes. The bulbous forehead accentuates the large protruding nose.
Perhaps you will find one or two that are attractive to you! We will be happy to send you more detailed photos if you desire.
IN TOUCH WITH ANOTHER WORLD – THE ALLURE OF OCEANIC ART
Our motto is “Bringing culture to your world”. Please consider incorporating into your living space a piece of artwork, created by an artist whose culture embraces both the seen and the unseen, a piece that offers you a new perspective on the mystical nature of man and the world we live in.
TO VIEW OUR AUTHENTIC OCEANIC ART, PLEASE VISIT OUR ONLINE STORE - HAVAIKI OCEANIC AND TRIBAL ART
You can read about our cruising in the Pacific. Go to TALK STORY BLOG titled