Navigating New Directions
Elaine M. Monds
Director, Alcheringa Gallery
Thirty-two years have passed since I first experienced waking at first light in a village on the Sepik River. I never imagined all those years ago that I would have the joy of returning over and over again to visit friends who have since become family. On those early visits before I had made personal connections, I was often invited to stay in the Spirit House. I still recall the intense pleasure of waking in Suapmeri to see through my net a shaft of sunlight illuminating the Orators Stool, as it stood according to tradition in the centre of the house. Architecturally, these superb buildings are ideally suited to the environment. It is rare to feel a breeze on the Sepik but the Spirit Houses are ventilated to capture the little there is, and the torrential tropical rain could pour in a solid curtain inches from my mattress leaving me deliciously dry beneath the sago roof. They have open ends and sides and on occasion flying foxes with such easy access cannot resist a flying exercise straight through the house. Secure under my net, I could just hear the swoosh of their wings overhead in the complete darkness of a Sepik night. Very occasionally the sound of a motorized canoe pierced the complete silence, but it was rare.
Since then much has changed and the sound of a motor is a frequent interruption, but much of the gentle rhythm of village life continues in places such as Korogo and Palembei, where the culture is still celebrated and carving skills have remained strong. Changes brought by technology crept in slowly at first but in 2008 when the first cellular phone arrived, the outside world came with it. I am told that this access has created both negative and positive change. I personally have observed that possession of a means to communicate has assisted our artists to promote their work. It has also made them aware of opportunities as they arise for cultural exchange, and has enabled them to be part of a growing network of indigenous artists in the Pacific.
The value of the cell phone once again asserted itself when I was contracted in August 2015 by the University of British Columbia to assist Dr. Carol Mayer by organizing a field trip to the Sepik. The purpose of this trip was to interview the artists whose work is part of their contemporary collection, and this simply would not have been viable without the ability to text directly to the artists at home in the villages.
Since 2006, a number of artist exchanges to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, have served to deepen the artists’ knowledge of their own culture. These visits provided opportunities to view, and even offer insights into, early Sepik works from the collections of the de Young Museum and the British Museum. At the same time, Teddy Balangu and Claytus Yambon were able to witness another contemporary aboriginal carving culture on the west coast of Canada. This sharing in turn led to experimentation with much softer woods such as yellow cedar, and new finishing materials such as bees wax. While working still within their Sepik tradition, the hand of the creators of most of the works in this exhibition can be recognized by their personal style.
Joseph Kandimbu visited Stanford University in 1994 and, while there, contributed to the creation of the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. While in residence there, he saw the Rodin Sculpture Garden in Cantor Arts Centre. As a result Joseph was credited with the creation of a Sepik version of ‘The Thinker’. No one could doubt the profound effect this experience had upon him. Ever since, he has created figurative works undeniably Sepik, but mostly inspired by a memory of someone who has crossed his path, notably The Man from Tari (MOA collection), and The Wedding Guest (Museum der Weltkulturen collection), both inspired by people he had seen in his travels.
For this exhibition, Joseph has been exploring the colonial past and as a result he has created two works. The first is a meticulously detailed carving of a Roman Centurion. As he explained, “I am a Catholic. I saw this in a book and I wanted to carve it”. The second, entitled ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel’, was inspired by the famous photograph of an injured Australian soldier, Private George Whittington, being led along the Kokoda Trail by Rapahel Oimbari in 1942. The ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ was the name given by Australian troops to a group of Papua New Guineans who, during World War II, courageously assisted and escorted injured Australian troops down the Kokoda trail.
Kaua Gita's work was represented in the travelling collaborative show ‘Hailans to Ailans’ in 2009. Inspired by the late Trobriand painter Martin Morububuna's sensitive portrayal of a mother holding her baby as she returns home from the garden. Kaua saw the painting in the exhibition catalogue and was moved to carve a Sepik counterpart which he entitled, ‘Back from the Lake'. Edward Dumoi is known for drawing inspiration from the real world, be it village cats, storybook foxes or former Prime Minister, Michael Somare!
2016 promises to be a year to celebrate the contemporary artists of the Sepik River. As the year unfolds we will be welcoming representative artists who will be travelling to Canada to participate in cultural events assisted by MOA, Pacific Peoples Partnership and Alcheringa. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Christensen Fund that has made this possible.
Drawing on story telling, colonial history and every day life, these Modern Masters of the Sepik River are indeed Navigating New Directions.
Click here to view online catalogue!