Voices and Visions: Contemporary Sepik Art

Sepik art is evolving to encompass new forms and ideas while acting as a bridge between generations, and between the Sepik and the outside world.

 Young men are incorporating new masks and dances into ceremonies that include traditional songs and regalia. Young women are weaving bilums (string bags carried by every Papua New Guinean) with cell phone pockets, anticipating the technology's advance along the river this year. While some carvers are experimenting with alternative ways of depicting traditional characters, others are adapting traditional forms to nontraditional subject matter: for instance, by carving stories from their own experience or current events, or by telling biblical stories using Sepik iconography. Innovations like these play an important role in keeping traditions relevant for youth- an increasingly challenging responsibility for elders.

 But a growing international interest in contemporary indigenous art is starting to make it easier for Papua New Guineans to engage with the outside world on their own terms. Academic conferences, art magazines, and documentary films are discussing trends in PNG art. Exchanges and artistic residency opportunities abroad are being organized in collaboration with community leaders. Museums around the world are starting modern collections to complement historical ones that have long been seen as representative of a more or less static culture. Reflecting this outside interest, city people are reconnecting with their home village cultures. Later this year, for example, men from cities around the country will travel back to Palembei to undergo ritual initiation alongside the village's boys.

 These developments are motivated by the voices and visions represented in this exhibition. Here are bold variations on traditional flute designs, deeply carved storyboards that conflate multiple visual and narrative perspectives, body sculpture that stretches traditional bounds of realism and abstraction, life-like woven animals, mesmerizing dance masks, and a large cast of characters ranging from mythological heroes to contemporary politicians. Also included are classical masterpieces by senior carvers, such as graceful finial derivations and a full-sized, powerfully resonating garamut drum. All of these are new works selected during our Sepik expedition this spring.

 -Dan Lepsoe

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