MYTH+MAGIC: Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea – Exhibition review

A review on art in the Pacific

Simon Fenske

Society and culture | Pacific, Australia

22 October 2015

Simon Fenske reviews an art exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. You can catch it from the 7th August to 1st November!

Intricately carved masks loom ominously out from the dark walls around you, human skulls over-modelled with clay stare at you through their hypnotic shell-implanted eyes and a colossal ornately decorated ‘garamut’ drum commands the territory in the centre of the room. This is the secret, primitive world of the Sepik in all its haunting glory.

But this is no traditional Sepik ‘Haus Tambaran’. It’s not even Papua New Guinea. This is the National Gallery of Australia, where ‘MYTH+MAGIC’, a dramatic showcase of Sepik art, is running from the 7th August to the 1st November to coincide with Papua New Guinea’s 40th anniversary of independence.

Untouched by western civilisation until the late 19th century, the Sepik River is home to some ofthe most elaborate and ornate ‘primitive art’ in Papua New Guinea, which can be found in collections across the globe. With many of the exhibition’s pieces being produced during the so-called ‘pre-contact’ era, this is truly art from a lost world.


The articles themselves are invariably spectacular, fitting loosely into one of three themes. Firstly, some art is of extremely high quality and is very well preserved, exhibiting complex forms and intricate patterning and ornamentation. They are imposing and dramatic, with an almost majestic aura that commands attention to their stark beauty. Other pieces in the collection are much simpler, crudely designed and roughly contoured, and often depict expressionless faces or indistinct creatures. These objects have an abstract, distant quality about them, as though encompassing a deeper, mystical and inaccessible meaning, and often the incorporation of human or animal remains endows them with an almost haunting presence. Artworks from the third group are extremely old, considerably worn and often damaged or incomplete. However, close examination reveals remnants of the intricate details that they once exhibited. Though imperfect, these are perhaps the most fascinating artworks in the collection, their signs of ageing seeming to certify their authenticity and enhance the impression that these are relics from an ancient and savage past.

Like all exhibitions, ‘MYTH+MAGIC’ must be seen as a form of art in itself, presenting the collection in a particular way so as to capture the imagination of its audience and elicit a specific response. In this case, however, the added dimension is particularly noticeable and compelling. As you enter the dark exhibition hall that is ‘MYTH+MAGIC’, it is immediately evident that the curators have chosen to accentuate the notion of ‘the primitive’. Warm light illuminates the figures like rays of sunshine through the thatched roof of a Haus Tambaran, casting eery shadows on the floor and evoking fantasies of the dark, exotic world from which such figures might have emerged. Artworks are distributed sparingly in the spacious rooms as if to accommodate each individual’s aura, and the black walls and complete absence of framing commands the viewer’s
attention to the art’s details.

A ‘Malu’ plaque from the East Sepik Province (19th century)

A ‘Malu’ plaque from the East Sepik Province (19th century)

The aesthetics and design of the exhibition are truly commendable, pulling the collection together into a cohesive whole and providing patrons with a comprehensive gallery-going experience that individual artworks could not allow. However, one must consider how looking beyond the physical qualities of the art may belittle the skill of the individuals who produced them, by implying that the quality of the art in itself is insufficient.

Conversely, Sepik art was traditionally produced not simply to demonstrate artistic flair to a general audience, but it served a specific ritual purpose and was often imbued with cultural and spiritual meanings. Indeed, Michael Gunn, a curator at the NGA, expresses a fascinating and lively interpretation of the collection. To him, each individual ‘character’ comprises a certain life- force, and has a distinct ‘personality’ that viewers might even encounter should they stay in its presence for long enough to sense it.

But beyond the possibility of such ‘encounters’, and despite the commendable effort made by the curators to present the Sepik and its art in a more comprehensive sense, it nonetheless seems rather bizarre to invite a cosmopolitan Australian public to enter the mystical, spiritual world of the Sepik. Just as Sepik art is produced in a specific cultural context, a deep understanding of and intuition for this culture is surely equally necessary in order to interpret the meaning of the art. Such is the paradox of presenting ‘primitive’ art to a modern audience. If the NGA has succeeded in presenting a version of the Sepik that outsiders are able to ‘encounter’ and experience in a deeper sense, then it is inevitably a simplified one, perhaps even a misguided one, and cannot possibly be a true representation of the Sepik.

Indeed, the aesthetics of the exhibition are vaguely reminiscent of the kind of horror stories one might imagine hearing from explorers or missionaries upon their return to Europe in the heyday of colonialism, of the dark, haunting, savage jungles of New Guinea. Thus the particular version of Sepik culture and history presented in this exhibition might reasonably be described as simply a projection of western colonial fantasies and fetishes onto the blank canvas of the Sepik and preconceived perceptions of its primitiveness. In light of this, one must consider if the gallery is entertaining and perpetuating fantasies of tribal, pagan cultures in order to elicit shock and excitement among its viewers at the cost of the pride and dignity of the cultures that it appropriates.

It is truly a privilege to have such a vast collection of artworks here in Canberra on the anniversary of Papua New Guinea’s independence. Whether viewers choose to ‘see beyond the figures’ and embrace the experience, or would rather appreciate the art in a purely aesthetic sense, ‘MYTH +MAGIC’ is undeniably an impressive collection of Sepik art, though perhaps one best approached with a hint of scepticism and awareness. The exhibition truly does justice to a region renowned for a distinctive style of art, and is an experience not to be missed.

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