Gods, Ghosts and Men – An Exhibition of PNG Art
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:
“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.
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.