Gods, Ghosts and Men – An Exhibition of PNG Art

The Ambum Stone from the Ambum Valley, Western Highlands. It is one of the earliest known Pacific works of art dated to be 3500 years old. It was discovered in a cave in the 1960's.In a previous post I wrote about the Jolika Collection – a collection of over 400 masterpieces of Papua New Guinea art and culture that is the centerpiece of the De Young Museum in San Francisco. This is only one of the many substantial collections of PNG art around the world today.

Another musuem which boasts an impressive collection of important PNG art is the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Recently the NGA opened up a new exhibition titled Gods, Ghosts and Men: Pacific arts from the National Gallery of Australia – an exquisite selection of its extensive Pacific arts collection.

Papua New Guinea features prominently in this exhibition with the presence of the Ambum Stone and several other impressive artifacts (ranging from the Sepik to New Ireland) mainly thanks to the NGA’s first Director, James Mollison, who was instrumental in developing acquiring (including the Ambum Stone) many of the pieces.

I included an appropriate excerpt of the NGA’s official description of its exhibition:

Mogulapan - from the Sawos People, Torembi Village, Nggeitebua hamlet, East Sepik Province.

“When viewing works in the exhibition Gods, ghosts and men, we are really looking at only the husks, the physical elements, of rituals and festive events – which are still remarkably moving even though they are now silent. The dramatic spectacle of song, dance and the sense of immediacy the audience experienced when viewing masked performers cannot be contained and collected.

To ‘activate’ a mask, a figure or other object and make it alive with the spirit it was intended to house involved convincing the spirit or ancestor to enter the work through invocation and ritual adherences.

The use of magical ingredients play a major role in activating these vessels: special herbs, pieces of animal meat, powdered lime, shells, money and even bodily fluids are some of the symbolically offered ritual substances that could be spat or smeared on objects to energise the connections between worlds to a spirit or an ancestor. 

In some instances, the process involved the application of colour as certain colours have magical importance and the act of painting a work would entice the desired spirit to take residence in the object”.

One work which left a lasting impression was actually one of the more modern pieces included as part of the exhibition – the ‘six to six’ shield crafted by Kaipel Ka from Banz in the Western Highlands.

Kaipel Ka's "six 2 six" shield - Banz, Western Highlands.As you can see from the photo, the front of the shield boasts the slogan “six 2 six” – a common slogan used throughout PNG to party all night long. As you can deduce, in this context, six 2 six, literally means ‘we will fight you from dawn until dusk, 6am to 6pm’.

Even more interesting to note is that the NGA states that Ka’s work actually incorporates beer advertising designs such as South Pacific lagers birds of paradise and the border design found on cartons of San Miguel lager.

Gods, Ghosts and Men divulges the richness and diversity of the Pacific region but still barely scratches the surface of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of over two thousand works from the Pacific.

However, it does reveal the greatest works by artists who were recognised within their communities for their ability to create – no matter where they were from.


You can see photos of some of the works in the exhibition here.

~ by Tavurvur on November 14, 2008.

5 Responses to “Gods, Ghosts and Men – An Exhibition of PNG Art”

  1. I read your last post on the Jolika Collection and reading this one now I’m wondering whether it would ever be possible to secure sponsors to bring these works to PNG for a visit? Just so we can have the opportunity to appreciate and to celebrate these collections of our art.

  2. I would love to see such a thing happen. I’ve always had an issue with OUR cultural heritage sitting in a glass cabinet half way around the world so a sexagenarian could sit there sipping a glass of tea from authentic china and gloat over a particular piece that has no true personal meaning to him/her – apart from the six digit $ signs.

    Sothebys auctioned off a selection of PNG art in New York last week. They were sold for sums up to US$ 130,000 per peice.

    It has to make you wonder – will the descendants of those people who carved those works ever see them again?

  3. Sadly, every time the collections from the De Young Museum and of the other museums around the world that showcase PNG artifacts come to mind, I find myself brooding about why can’t our Government invest our cultural heritage and preserve all those ancestorial works of art so we can not only attrack millions of tourists but also have some pride in our history and culture.

  4. Awesome site I’ll be back if I can find you.

  5. Wrote a piece here on maybe how we should be looking at our art as more of a business to make it sustainable: http://masalai.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/why-arts-and-culture-are-important/

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