Ritual objects explore the spiritual side of Papua New Guinea art

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“Capturing the Power of the Spirit World: Ritual Objects from Northeast Papua New Guinea” will open on July 29 and continue through October 22, 2017 in the Study Gallery at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

Organized by anthropologist David Eisler, the exhibition features 24 objects, including sculptures, masks, dance ornaments, utensils, and vessels which he collected in Papua New Guinea in the mid-1970s as he conducted research for his PhD with the University of Oregon.

Director John Olbrantz says, “In 2014, we were thrilled when David donated 29 superb examples of Papua New Guinea art to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, and most recently, when he agreed to guest curate an exhibition drawn from our Melanesian collection. When added to earlier donations from the Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska, and Richard Sundt in Eugene, Oregon, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art has what is arguably the finest collections of Papua New Guinea art in Oregon.”

Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and is one of the most geographically and culturally diverse countries in the world with over 850 languages. The objects in this exhibition offer a glimpse into a culture that has gone from isolated small-scale communities with a stone tool technology to those that are connected by roads, airplanes, and the internet, to the contemporary Western world. Much has changed over the centuries but many of the core values and beliefs that are represented in the exhibition continue to underlie activities and interactions of Papua New Guineans today.

In Papua New Guinea, traditional religions play a central role in daily life and are often based on animism, a worldview that regards objects, places, and creatures as possessing spiritual qualities. The assistance of spiritual powers is felt to be necessary for success in all activities: from feasts, exchanges, and dance ceremonies to gardening, hunting, trade, and warfare.

Many of the objects contain visible references to spiritual powers, mythological or ancestral figures, or totemic animal representations of a clan’s connection to a mythic animal hero. These elements are meant to endow the works with a deep sense of power that seeks to control the environment through ritual.

As a special feature, Eisler will give an illustrated lecture on the concept of spiritual power in the art and culture of Papua New Guinea on Thursday, September 7 at 7:30 pm at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The lecture is free and open to the public.

This exhibition has been supported by general operating support grants from the City of Salem’s Transient Occupancy Tax funds and the Oregon Arts Commission.

Woven dance armband, Papua New Guinea, no date, cane, nassa shells and pigments, 11.25 x 6.25 x 1.5 in., gift of David Eisler, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, OR, 2014.023.021. Photo: Dale Peterson.

Armbands are worn around the dancers’ arms to hold pieces of vegetation that are fragrant and bright. During the dance performance, the vegetation moves rhythmically with the dancer and thus enhances his beauty and brightness. This dance armband is woven with fine strips of cane that have been decorated with pigments from lipstick plant fruit and forest tree plants, and is embellished with small nassa shells. Traditionally, nassa shell bands were used as “money” throughout Papua New Guinea.

Suspension hook, Papua New Guinea, Middle Sepik River region, no date, wood and nassa shell, 34.5 x 12.75 x 3 in., gift of David Eisler, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, OR, 2014.023.011. Photo: Dale Peterson.

This exceptionally carved suspension hook depicts a male ancestor figure holding the clan totem crocodile in its hands while standing atop the head of the clan’s totem hornbill bird. The crocodile’s jaw and the hornbill’s beak are perforated for twine attachments, while the hornbill has eyes inlaid with nassa shell. Suspension hooks were hung from the rafters above the hearth and were intended to hold woven net bags filled with sacred ritual items and food. The contents were thus safe from rats and termites. Additionally, smoke is considered a conveyer of “heat” or power, and powerful secret spirit names could be carried into these items there.

Ancestor/spirit figure, Papua New Guinea, Middle Keram River region, no date (possibly 1950s or 1960s), wood, 11 x 3 x 2.5 in., gift of David Eisler, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, OR, 2014.023.004. Photo: Dale Peterson.

This unusual two-faced wooden carving depicts an ancestor on one side and a bird-beaked spirit figure on the other. Because of its rich patina, this piece may have been carved in the 1950s or 1960s, or possibly earlier, and may have been carried as a talisman. It was probably kept in a men’s house and because of its chain-like base, may have been part of another carving.

Flute mask, Papua New Guinea, Upper Keram River region, no date (possibly 1950s or 1960s), wood, 41 x 8.5 x 3.5 in., gift of David Eisler, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, OR, 2014.023.009. Photo: Dale Peterson.

This double ancestor-faced flute mask, with their protruding eyes, pierced noses, and carved oval mouths, are typical of the Ramu/Keram/Guam River regions. Flute masks range in size from 12 to 36 inches, and are attached to a bamboo flute. When the flute was played, usually in the men’s house, the sounds would draw the ancestor spirits or spirits of the bush into the mask and thereby bring the spirits’ assistance into the men’s house. The knobs at either end would have been used to lash the mask to the bamboo flute. This piece may have been carved in the 1950s and 1960s as it has a rich patina from much handling and use.

Shield, Papua New Guinea, Ramu or Upper Keram River region, no date, wood, cane and pigment, 53.75 x 26 x 2 in., gift of David Eisler, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University, Salem, OR, 2014.023.008. Photo: Dale Peterson.

This exquisite shield depicts incised ancestor and spirit faces painted in white and yellow ochers in the upper half and woven cane in the lower half. Although warfare was ended by the Australian government and missionaries after World War II, shields were apparently retained, carved, repainted, and kept in the men’s house for their spiritual powers.

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