The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 9, 2002
'Art and Soul

Art from the south seas

I knew remarkably little about the art of the south seas, and certainly nothing about the art of the Admiralty Islands, till I fell into conversation the other day with Lorenz Homberger, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, at the Museum Rietberg n Zurich.

An occasional picture—seen years ago—of the monumental sculptures in the Easter Island had stayed in my mind, for those sculptures were often cited as the kind of ‘primitive’ work which provided so much stimulation to European artists at the beginning of the 20th century, and paved the passage towards modern art. And I had a very general awareness of the quality of the arts produced by the people of this region. But I knew little else.

This curator friend, on the other hand, knew a great deal, for not only was he familiar with the collections of the art of the south seas in European museums – Zurich, Basel, Stuttgart and Bremen included – : he was then in the midst of preparing for a major exhibition being mounted at the museum. Titled "Art From the South Seas: the Admiralty Islands", the exhibition is still to open as I write this, but there is much activity and excitement in the air. Loan objects are coming in from different collections, the final proofs of the catalogue are being read, posters have been printed, other publicity material is being got ready. Soon a curious, if somewhat unprepared, audience would be flocking in.

To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002
An intrepid photographer
April 7, 2002
Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

Picasso: Again and forever
February 24, 2002

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001
Arts in the time of crisis
November 4, 2001

On my part, I started looking at some of the material—both objects and literature —and found it utterly fascinating. The Admiralty Islands lie in the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and just south of the Equator, almost nudging that invisible line with their backs. Now a part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, and busy attracting tourists to their wonderful flora and sea-life and coral reefs, they have been the subject of close study by celebrated ethnographers, among them Margaret Mead and Alfred Buehler, both cult figures in the field. Here they lived and observed the people of the islands: documenting, analysing, trying to understand how people very different from their own lived and thought. And, of course, collecting objects: not necessarily as art, but as artifacts, expressive of a way of life. Interestingly, everyone who knows the field remarks upon how different the ‘eyes’ of these two ethnologists were, Alfred Buehler’s being much the sharper, when it came to discerning quality in an object.

There were wonderful things to be had then, some three-quarters of a century back: carvings of spirit figures, fishing implements, containers and bowls and trays made of wood, jewellery made of seashells and dresses made of bark and coconut fibre. There is an untouched, innocent quality about these objects, some of them exquisitely carved, others charged with great power. One can take almost any old artifact, a spear made of obsidian, that volcanic glass which looks so much like granite, a comb with the head of a bird peeping from its edge—and feel the clear air it must have breathed, the sounds of the sea it must once have heard.

In many, and real ways, arts like those of the Admiralty Islands will always remain opaque and distant for people who have not sprung from those cultures. And there will always be some misjudgements, much incomprehension, a measure of inadequacy of understanding. But, all this taken for granted, I find it admirable that there are persons, among them scholars, especially from the western world, who have been willing to spend their lifetime studying the arts and the ways of life of other people. As I was looking up some of the literature relating to the Admiralty Islands, I became aware of an organisation about whose existence I did not know till now: the Pacific Arts Association(PAA). The Association seems to be remarkably active, its membership drawn as much from the USA, as from European countries (no Asians on it, I think), runs a journal, has annual meetings of professionals, organises symposia, has instituted an award for outstanding contribution to the arts of Oceania—the Manus Daula Award—which went, recently, to Christian Kaufmann, a former pupil of Alfred Buehler and now responsible for his collection at the Museum of Cultures in Basel. The field seems not only to be alive and well, but growing.

One detail that I picked up, while speaking with Lorenz Homberger, interested, and surprised, me greatly. This exhibition at the Rietberg Museum was one of the remarkably few that had no sponsor. In other words, no agency or corporation was backing it, and the museum was going it alone. Ordinarily, and this is a measure of the great public or corporate support the arts receive in these lands, there are institutions like banks, insurance companies and other private corporations, that almost vie with each other in supporting major shows. But this show was on its own from the very beginning. One can interpret this fact in two different ways: one, that the museum was so committed to the show that it was willing to put up for it all the money it needed from its own budget; two, that the usual sponsors did not see much ‘profit’ in it, no invisible returns, for themselves. At least yet. And one hopes that this – at least the second part – will change, and the corporations will realise, once the crowds start coming in, that their calculations were all wrong.

A chequered past

The more I read about the Admiralty Islands, the more I was drawn into their history. While the group consists of 18 islands, Manus being the largest among them, it is still a very tiny part of the world. But the location of the islands, especially from the strategic point of view, is such that they find themselves being buffeted between western powers. The islands, one reads, were discovered by the Dutch in 1616, claimed by the Germans in 1884, captured by the Australians in World War I, occupied by Japan in 1942,and recaptured by American and Australian forces in 1944. Only now have they become a part, and province, of the independent nation of Papua, New Guinea!


This feature was published on June 2, 2002