The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 217-219
[Access article in PDF]
Skull Art in Papua New Guinea. 28 minutes, VHS, color, 2000. Filmmaker Sabine Jell-Bahlsen, Ogbuide Films, San Antonio, TX. Distributed by University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, 2000 Center Street, 4th Floor, Berkeley, CA 94904; phone (510) 642-1494; <http://ucmedia.berkeley.edu> Sale US$175.00, rental US$50.00.
Anthropologist Sabine Jell-Bahlsen's Skull Art in Papua New Guinea, a short documentary depicting the production of a skull portrait by a PNG artist, has been honored by three academic organizations (the Society for Visual Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association, and the Association for Asian Studies). Surprisingly, given these accolades, it has a notable shortcoming: viewers are not given adequate contextual information to evaluate the social and cultural significance of what is being filmed. Certainly, the subject matter—observing an Iatmul elder from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea model a traditional skull portrait in a contemporary setting—is a provocative reflection of how ideas and practices of the traditional past still color contemporary art forms and behavior. But the video does not probe why skull art, traditionally associated with headhunting,continuestobe practiced in Papua New Guinea today.
Instead, the primary interest of this film is on the formal aspects of creating a contemporary skull portrait. This aesthetic focus may explain why artists and art historians have recommended the film, because it engages their concerns with the art object and creative processes. But most anthropologists who study art also have a broader interest in evaluating the sociocultural, political, and historical contexts in which art objects are embedded. In viewing this intriguing video, I kept returning to one question: if skull art was integral to traditional headhunting practices, what are the contexts that continue to give it agency in contemporary PNG society?
In linking traditional Sepik skull portraiture to contemporary practices, the video utilizes archival photos, scans of Sepik spirit houses and sacred stones, and extensive filming of Iatmul elder Adam Kone at work in Lae. Although the artist is heard speaking in Melanesian pidgin and singing in his local language, no captions are provided. Instead, an unseen narrator provides the authoritative narrative. Given current concerns with the artist's gaze or voice, an opportunity was missed to hear Kone speak about his work directly.
The film opens with an image of a Sepik skull portrait while the narrator describes how these modeled skulls were traditionally linked to headhunting and values of masculine aggressiveness embodied in the prowess of local leaders and enemy warriors. For the Iatmul, skull portraits were therefore efficacious commemorative objects stored for ritual use in male spirit houses. To suggest these associations, the camera scans a Sepik village spirit house and two stones where heads were once severed from headhunting victims. The viewer also learns that headhunting was banned in the 1920s and punishment for infractions remains in contemporary PNG law. [End Page 217]
Following this historical context, the film records how Kone constructs a skull portrait over three days. Initially, he is seen adorned in traditional shell ornaments as he prepares the clay by mixing together small styrofoam pieces, gasoline, and soil into a bowl. Overriding the artist's voice, the narrator describes why Kone is here and what he is doing.
As the viewer learns, Kone is visiting a friend in Lae when he notices that this person owns a badly decorated skull purchased from a trader. As an Iatmul elder whose people continue to honor skull portraits, the artist decides he will model a new face and head over the old skull base. Fearful, however, that this may bring reprisals because of lingering associations with headhunting, Kone decides towork inside hisunidentified friend's kitchen—alarge roomdecorated with Asmat shields and other Melanesian artifacts. Film end credits suggest that the location is somewhere at the University of Technology at Lae, but this is never specified.
Given the artist's professed fear and need for secrecy, his willingness to be filmed seems oddly paradoxical and, as noted, the context of creativity...