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Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 24 October 2006-2 December 2007.

Exhibits of the Oceania section of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA) are temporarily displayed in the African galleries of the Metropolitan Museum while the Rockefeller Wing renovation is underway. The current exhibition, "Coaxing the Spirits to Dance," is the first to be dedicated to the art of the Papuan Gulf since Douglas Newton curated "Art Styles of the Papuan Gulf" at the Museum of Primitive Art in 1961. Like its predecessor, "Coaxing the Spirits" focuses predominantly on the figurative sculpture of ceremonial male culture in the gulf, with superb examples of dynamic Gope and Hohao boards, and powerful Iriwake, Bioma, and Agibe figures from throughout the region. However, the New York manifestation of the exhibition, which comes to the Metropolitan from the Hood Museum in Dartmouth (where it was curated by Robert Welsch), brings another level of visual material to these striking artifacts: Metropolitan curator Virginia Lee Webb has added photographs from the AAOA Photo Study Collection, many of which depict the actual objects in their original contexts. The juxtaposition of images and objects thus coaxes out several different narratives, some more explicit than others.

The primary exhibition narrative presents the rich vibrancy of the art of the Papuan Gulf, with the viewer's aesthetic appreciation enhanced by seeing photographs of the objects in the places they were originally made, presented, and collected. The carved and painted boards on display are the home of important spirits, which must be coaxed into life through their continued activation in social and ceremonial life. These figures were carefully kept in longhouses, jostling among other such spirits, which in turn were understood to assist in local hunting, harvesting, health, fertility, wealth, [End Page 280] and so on, and were used to delineate both communal and clan identities. Photographs taken by A B Lewis or Kathleen Haddon, for instance, show these boards in the half-light of the longhouse or held up by the people who made them and lived with them, testifying to the ways in which these objects were animated in a social context. The exhibition draws the visitor's attention primarily to the formal elements of these carvings—the ways in which their stylized faces, navels, and other figurative elements displayed clan identities and crystallized local cosmologies. To this end, the objects are displayed on buff backgrounds, juxtaposed solely with one another and the photographs that lie, like visual labels, beneath them (photo 1).

Figure 1. View of the "Coaxing the Spirits to Dance" exhibition. Photo by Haidy Geismar.
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Figure 1.

View of the "Coaxing the Spirits to Dance" exhibition. Photo by Haidy Geismar.

Underlying this main visual narrative (and highlighted by the neutral, fine-arts display strategy) is another less explicit one, underscoring the interest that these pieces held for European, American, and Australian collectors. Drawn from a number of private collections (the exhibition at the Hood comprised primarily objects from its own collection), the linking between the displayed objects, and their spectral presence in the photographs on display, tracks a history of collection and movement encapsulated by the work of photographer-collector-anthropologists like Captain Frank Hurley, F E Williams, and Paul Wirz. The snapping of the shutter thus becomes a metaphor for the relentless appropriation of objects and their [End Page 281] perambulation through museums and private collections outside Papua New Guinea. For instance, the viewer's attention in both the exhibition and the catalog is drawn to the presence of an important Irivake figure from the private collection of Bruce Seaman in Honolulu in a photograph taken by Paul B Rautenfeld in Maiaki village, Urama in 1925 (photo 2).

Figure 2. Irivake figure, from the Papuan Gulf, Urama Island, Aird Delta, Maiaki Village, near Kinomeri. Wood, pigment, fi ber, and bark. 59 inches overall. Donated by Bruce and Ramine Seaman, Honolulu. sl10.2006.5.1. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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Figure 2.

Irivake figure, from the Papuan Gulf, Urama Island, Aird Delta, Maiaki Village, near Kinomeri. Wood, pigment, fi ber, and bark. 59 inches overall. Donated by Bruce and Ramine Seaman, Honolulu. sl10.2006.5.1. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The context of the photographic encounters, and the tales of how various sculpture left their villages...

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