Volume 91 1982 > Volume 91, No. 4 > Surviving traditional art of Melanesia, by J. D. Edgerly and J. deNeeve, p 543-580
SURVIVING TRADITIONAL ART OF MELANESIA
THE SEARCH FOR TRADITIONAL ART
The newly independent nations of Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu are considered in this study) are currently struggling to become participants in international world markets while contending with typical problems of developing countries: overpopulation, unemployment, and urban drift. Many of the indigenous inhabitants, however, continue to live by long-established economic, social and ceremonial institutions. Obviously, most—if not all—of these traditional institutions are in a state of flux, due largely to contact with external influences including Western belief systems, money markets and a spawning desire for material possessions. Already a major test of traditional systems has begun. The induced acculturation may permanently draw away younger people from their cultural heritages.
This has not developed equally over all of Melanesia. In fact, some regions—due to factors such as competition and relative isolation from urban centres—retain some elements of their traditional societies. The objective of this study is to identify cultures which give at least an impression that they still possess one means, namely their visual arts, of expressing cultural individuality, and to penetrate further with evidence to either support or refute this impression. The five art traditions to be analysed are the Iatmul of Papua New Guinea's middle Sepik valley, the coastal people of northern New Ireland who participate in the malanggan ceremonial complex, the Baining of the mountains of New Britain's Gazelle Peninsula, the Star Harbour-Santa Ana craft-workers, in south-eastern San Cristobal of the eastern Solomon Islands and the Big Nambas of northern Malekula island in recently created Vanuatu (Fig. 1).
This research also will attempt to uncover the conditions needed for an art tradition to remain viable within a cultural environment. Such information may help to assess the future of traditional art in Melanesia—and in other areas of the world with populations living in a traditional pattern—such as Africa, Polynesia and South-east Asia.- 544
What precisely qualifies as “traditional art”? Naturally, not all the art presently made in Melanesia merits this classification. May (1975:125) offers the notion that any “true traditional art” is that which is created within a society for religious, secular, or trading purposes. Some art historians (Kaeppler 1979:185) would not consider any art after European contact to be traditional. An “evolved traditional art” may possess new implements or innovations (e.g. metal carving tools), but could generally follow along an indigenous line of natural development and be used quite normally in a traditional sense without deviation. Arts that do continue to be made for local use appear to split into two distinctive - 545 varieties (Graburn 1979:362). These are, firstly, evolved traditional arts for present-day tribal societies and, secondly, fine arts for non-tribal citizens. Sieber (1978) defines “traditional art” as art' “made in the right place, by the right people, for their own use.”
One consideration raised by this discussion is that of relating traditional arts with primitive art. Are they the same? Most of the cultures to be assessed for possibilities of traditional artistic expression could be considered “primitive” should we take a candid but not ethnocentric approach. If primitive art is not to be evaluated by external standards as “inferior” or “crude” (Wingert 1962:5-11), it must be realised that the objects held up for appraisal come from cultural contexts which may display fundamental drives of life more openly than what is normal in Western experience. Once this is understood (or at least attempted), the related error of perceiving primitive cultures as “borrowed” styles from “higher” cultures, making their products a sort of backwash, can, and should, be avoided.
If primitive art is considered to be a valid synonym for traditional art, at least within the limited scope of this research, we must further elaborate on the intentions of primitive art. Did primitive arts deserve the conclusions of early investigators, who conceived the long-revered idea (Fraser 1962:15) that primitive arts did not respond to standards of aesthetics but merely served the needs of the society with which they were associated? Such an approach in research is implicit in the work of Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Powdermaker, all of whom visualised the primitive artist as a repeater of a socially accepted version of reality. One can accept that primitive art usually was community art, for purposes of initiation, commemoration, religious expression and interpretation. But an over-emphasis of function can exclude and overlook the emotional capacity of the primitive artist for self-expression (Muensterberger 1971:7-8). It can ignore the tendency for exhibitionism to win prestige. Masks and other ritualistic implements functioned in ceremonies (Sieber 1966:258), but they were simultaneously recognised as containing traditional secrets which were captured in the material, while expressed through the efforts of the artist entrusted to make them.
Art objects acting as social restraints seldom prompted the reaction from investigators that primitive art actually operated as “art for life's sake” (Davidson 1969:160). Too often art pieces were evaluated by attempting to remove the object from its cultural environment; the beliefs and values almost seemed to impede an appreciation of the art itself. Primitive art generally was regarded as functional art, where the functional aspect was stressed to the point of making it a defining factor (Goldwater 1973:6-8). But in this definition, setting primitive art seem- - 546 ingly apart from other art categories, the role for aesthetics 1 was not denied but actually confirmed. The narcissistic notion of “art for art's sake” actually metamorphosises into a case where idealistically the art would be completely divorced from all other concerns of the respective society: such an ethnocentric implication does not hold true for real primitive or traditional art. The art created is the art of the people, and the artist realises this in the course of his work.
EXAMPLES OF VIABLE TRADITIONAL ART IN MELANESIAN CULTURES
1. The Iatmul: Transition along the Sepik
The Iatmul people live along the banks of the middle Sepik River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea (Fig.2). Besides living on sago pith and crocodiles, the Iatmul formerly centred their lives on their tambaran houses, which served as combined men's houses and dwelling places for the tambaran spirits (Gardi 1960:4). This spirit world and the related activity of headhunting had provided stimulus for the richly expressive sculpture of the region, one of many along the Sepik (Forge 1973:169) which has received world-wide attention for the quality of its drums, debating stools, suspension hooks, costume masks, and utilitarian items. The avalanche of material transformation present in the Sepik Valley has produced the often-repeated desires by primitive peoples who wish to participate in the modern world (Kirk 1973:355). These peoples want motorboats, canned goods, radios, and money to buy themselves out of a living style which no longer holds sufficient purpose for them. The actual challenge in determining the present situation for art along the Iatmul section of the middle Sepik is not so much to separate the tourist-oriented pieces from the remaining tambaran images, which retain secular village value, as it is to establish whether the beliefs have crumbled along with the tambaran houses and the art.
The Iatmul were headhunters, but were suppressed in this by the Australian colonial authorities before the Second World War. Bateson (1936:3-6) reported on the social complexity of the Iatmul naven socio-religious system, which sought to honour the achievements of the laua (sister's child). During his time of field work, the Iatmul were apparently still very involved with their spirit beliefs. Primary spirits were the wagan, which included Kava-mbuangg, who supposedly created the dry land from the mud of the Sepik by placing his foot upon the soggy earth (Bateson 1936:233; Poignant 1967:88). The scholarly observation is not so much that spirits could relate to mythological origins, but that they permeated the fabric of Sepik village society, represented both the living and the dead, and were differentiated by their functions: shamanic, avenging, or inhabiting community spirit receptables like slit gongs,- 547 - 548
mwai masks, and mbwatnggowi figures. These figures were ceremonial dolls made by incorporating ancestral skulls (Bateson 1936:233) to ensure fertility and proper initiation for candidates. Objects which may have hosted wagan spirits (mwai masks, mbwatnggowi images, sacred flutes) were typically restricted to the care of village elders. Tambaran houses had the capacity to instil fear and respect in the non-qualified persons who might be foolish enough to attempt to glean the House of Men's secrets.
But to over-emphasise this secluded notion of the nature of the Middle Sepik tambaran houses (Attenborough 1976:111-12), disguises the true intention of Sepik art. The pieces created did not indicate merely the presence of a spirit realm, they acted as communicative media for the inhabitants (Forge 1973:191). The expression of spirit content, along with a noted originality of composition and vigorous appeal, are distinctive features of Sepik creations (Wingert 1962:197). The temptation to seek out a homogeneity for this art does no service to the efforts of the Sepik artists. Such a fruitless quest brings to light a realisation that the Sepik provides an excellent example of a people escaping stereotyped classification through the ingenuity of their artworks. Guiart stressed further that such a society developed a highly competitive art tradition: one which valued innovations, lifting an artist's status through his creative efforts (1968:7-11). Men had the opportunity to carve pieces for collective use, in association with the tambaran. The personal and psychological nature of these works solidified one's bond with the functioning community and the spirit world; to succeed in good representations appears to have demanded emotion as well as originality from the prospective artist.
Understanding the satisfaction gained from skilfully fashioning a debating stool, gable-mask, or suspension hook dovetails with comprehending why finished products—out of mundane materials like wood, clay, shell, feathers, tusks, and human hair (Figs. 3, 4 and 5)—became sacred and powerful ritual objects (Forge 1979:279-84). This type of indigenous art was never performed merely because it was “the way to do it”; the complexity ran much deeper in connecting established means for expression with a certain amount of self-induced creativeness. Guiart (1968:24) parallels Forge in identifying the Sepik as a major area for interregional connections that stimulated a richness of potential models for artistic persons to emulate.
Change, then, will come in Sepik arts. 2 Forge considers that a style will be maintained (1979:281) if it functions for its respective culture and serves to preserve and transmit features of the cultural environment. If we consider the level of art produced before and after Western contact, it would seem to indicate (Guiart 1973:95) that artistic creativity reached a- 549
FIGURE 3- 550
Carved ancestor figure from Korogo village, enhanced by cassowary plumes and cone-shell rings. It has a bridewealth emblem on its chest and initiation scar impressions; height — 98.5cm (photograph by Roger Brookes).
FIGURE 4- 551 - 552
Suspension hook of Kanganaman village, used for storing stringbags of provisions; height — 75.1cm (photograph by Roger Brookes).
FIGURE 7- 553
A woman makes payment to view malanggans while their patron watches, in Nou village, March 10, 1954 (photograph by and reprinted courtesy of Phillip H. Lewis — neg. no. 54-35-08, Field Museum).
peak until external forces began affecting the world and the perspective of the artists. Further change may be controlled to some extent or even completely arrested, but one wonders what specifically happens to respected art pieces in the process.
Gardi forecast a continuing decline in the arts of the Sepik peoples, considering that new creations could scarcely be compared with older and more valued pieces (1960:101). Such a diagnosis is not recent, for Lewis (1951:190) observed that much of the art had deteriorated, becoming no longer “labours of love” but tourist pieces, seldom made with the care bestowed upon older ones.
Then there is the question of the impact of tourism. May (1975:125) decided that visitors can influence local art production through their demand for souvenirs, but that tourists are only one feature of external acculturation and are not committed (as would be formal Government programmes) to altering traditional life-styles. Tourism may, in fact, contribute to local preservation of culture through its expressed interest in the indigenous representational arts. This, however, should not be interpreted as claiming that tourism is necessarily beneficial to surviving cultures. The mwai masks of Korogo illustrate a tradition which was originally intricately tied to ritual but gradually developed into manufacture of desired items for tourist purchase (Attenborough 1976:124-25). The fact that occasional visitors to the Sepik procured a mwai mask or two did no damage to the credibility of the pieces. The mass flow of visitors which began in the 1960s, however, sought out samples of Melanesian wood sculpture and showed preference for the mwais, with their elongated noses, human hair inlaid above bands of shells, opposed boar's tusks, and shell-disc eyes. The more “primitive appearing” a mask, the better chance it had, seemingly, of being sold to a customer, who usually had no perception of the traditional significance of the object. The contemporary masks presented to buyers are produced in vast quantities, with few conforming to any established criteria. The few which retain some local veneration for the villagers are not replaced as eagerly as the tourist pieces, bringing forth the charge (not an unreasonable one) that curio art has created a “bastardising” of traditional art forms to satisfy tourists' peculiar penchants (May 1975:126). Overlooked, though, is the undeniable reality that the tourist art market provides an income for individuals in a cash-poor region. This is certainly true for parts of the Sepik, where there is little opportunity to earn money other than by carving.
Change has long been a familiar element in the lives of the Iatmul, but it could be that too much separation from activities from the indigenous past has robbed them of the creative force which yielded the incredible - 554 multitude of art pieces (Diole 1976:57). The transformation in just the last decade 3 reveals cultural systems all along the Sepik which hold to some vestiges of their art-producing past yet show reluctance to participate in established rituals because of conflict with cash-cropping (Kirk 1973:361-4). The sculpted objects of the Iatmul are in a precarious position at present. The people who want to preserve them cannot be certain that they will not be seen as simply commodities for easy money by anyone who wants to purchase an outboard motor for his canoe. One wonders whether Korogo will become a locality for the sole purpose of creating commercial mwai masks, Kanganaman only a centre for mass-produced suspension hooks, and Timbunke only for debating stool figures to supply passengers of the M.V. Melanesian Explorer.
Decisions will have to be made by the middle Sepik peoples about whether their art is to remain functional and active in its religious context—which has been eroded by the influences of the Roman Catholic and other Christian missions—or be regarded as an exploitable resource.
2. Northern New Ireland: Regenesis of the Malanggan?
The region of northern New Ireland has received artistic attention for decades because of the unique structure and elaborately sculpted and painted images associated with malanggan ceremonies. The importance of this artistically embellished institution is no new discovery. Groves (1936:223) observed that to attempt to study the culture of New Ireland without comprehending malanggan would be a futile exercise. The system depended on community participation to succeed and continue to be vital to the interests of a village, and this made it particularly vulnerable to external activities which drained the manpower needed to accumulate pigs and other foods required for feasts and especially to supply the artistic creativity required to keep the artworks alive. Powdermaker's research in Lesu (1933) and the more recent work by Lewis (1969) provided indications that the malanggan complex was dying out. Lewis' 1973 report on the replacement of carved wooden images by concrete burial markers in New Ireland had almost the tone of an obituary.
The malanggan ceremonial system operated as a strong binding force for the inhabitants of coastal northern New Ireland villages and hamlets (Fig.6). During her observation of the malanggan rites for Lesu, Powdermaker (1933:135-8) reported that the pigs and taro were being procured about 10 months in advance of festivals, and soon afterwards the carvers began work, supervised by the people who would display malanggan pieces (Powdermaker 1933:103). The intention of the malanggan pieces traditionally was to honour recently dead people through the creation and public display of images decorated with representations of fish, birds- 555
and flowers, coupled with a prolonged community memorial activity (Groves 1936:236). When a person decided to honour a recently dead relative, the public setting seemed to necessitate having the best quality work poured into the malanggan. The overall celebration might also include boys' initiation and constitute a time for those seeking prestige to make stronger claims through their commemorative efforts (Lomas 1979:58). A patron took pains to have a proper malanggan constructed and painted, and this usually involved acquiring a skilled carver's ser- - 556 vices (Fig.7). Financial support came usually from the clan of the deceased along with the rights to reproduce a malanggan in a certain manner, including the designs and accompanying rites for a particular malanggan (Powdermaker 1933:211-213).
Malanggan ceremonial involved a complex cycle of events, which actually occurred during Powdermaker's field work over a period of eight months, from May 1929, until January 1930 (1933:135). The first major event was the construction of a ceremonial enclosure out of split bamboo; this coincided with circumcision of boys 4 seeking initiation. Lewis outlined the malanggan ceremonial stages (1969:46-47) when he undertook an investigation in the same general area in 1954. He wanted to discover the extent to which malanggan remained a functional element in the ceremonial realm of the Lesu peoples.
While he tried to further elaborate on the complexity of the malanggan ceremonial rituals, Lewis simultaneously discovered that the activity cycle had diminished in its duration. This resulted from external labouring for wages and local copra cash-cropping. However, Lewis was still able to gain insights into a traditional malanggan festival: erection of the enclosure, also noted by Powdermaker, was labelled Kombutai, which soon was followed by the Suakaukau, the period for candidates for initiation to be circumcised. While the initiates were secluded, feasts and dancing were begun. The carving of the malanggan images for presentation (Giragira) had continued during this time, being climaxed by the symbolic painting of the carved pieces, the Atali Malanggan. Red, black, white, blue and yellow pigments were applied by the commissioned maker of malanggan to retell artistically the events of the deceased. No one but the patron could view the malanggan as it was being fashioned (Powdermaker 1933:190). The completion of the display sheds, the Tsoa pu-anua, had them constructed adjacent to community burial grounds to invoke the ancestral spirits' presence in the ceremonies. Arranged at right angles to the long shed where the boys had undergone initiation, the display sheds soon received the finished malanggan pieces, set up during the Atup Malanggan phase.
The actual displaying of the completed malanggan works, the Luzi Malanggan, occurred when the thatched front walls of the structures were removed for public viewing. Always present was a wooden block in the centre of the displayed malanggans, upon which was placed tsera, an ornamented shell currency to pay the carvers and sponsors for the display (Powdermaker 1933:208). After the Susuinbura, the rejoining process, where the initiates were reunited with their families as men, the malanggan ceremonies were concluded by the final feast and rituals, the Tsinul. Disposal of the carvings in the forest soon followed (this was - 557 when Lewis and other investigators chose to obtain samples of malanggan art; the carvings were no longer revered since the newly initiated men had formally replaced the deceased who had been honoured during the process of the ceremonies). Lewis documented in 1954 the sad observation that malanggan rituals were losing ground to non-traditional enterprises (1969:164). This local cultural decline reflected, and continues to illustrate, the disruption of community cohesion by labourers migrating to other parts of Papua New Guinea. He verified that few areas had malanggan carvers in 1970. Few people could remember the older processes to create display pieces. Outside of the relatively isolated Tabar islands almost no localities were observing malanggan ceremonies in 1970 (Lewis 1973:143). The external pressure of modern schooling and Government jobs made a deeper rift between the indigenous life-styles of the coastal communities and the urbanised New Irelanders in Kavieng or Namatanai. As an additional desire for permanence grew, some New Irelanders took to laying out cement funerary markers, smels, as a replacement for malanggans. The overall attitude expressed by some sources is that malanggan images and rituals cannot survive this century as an active social process. If it survives at all it will do so only in memory (Ryan 1972:677).
The threat of malanggan permanently disappearing from the socioreligious activity of New Irelanders was countered by a deep indigenous awareness and regard for this impressive art tradition (Lewis 1969:168). Lewis has now traced a resurgence of malanggan carving, resulting from a rekindled local interest in the cultural history of New Ireland (1979:379-380). Memory of the social framework in which malanggan previously operated is expressed in the reluctance of many carvers to create pieces purely for sale, fearing the supernatural sanctions of the ceremonial context. Lomas suggests (1979:53-54) that malanggan could have another reason for being retained, the fact that local land is controlled through leaders and custom. This suggests that malanggan could—and probably still does—function as a mechanism for transferring land rights from one generation to the next. By this type of formal process, those who could demonstrate the strongest support from others through their community efforts would possess the weightiest entitlement to disputed property. If malanggan continues to survive as an effective forum of land, it will additionally signify that sponsorship and participation in the mortuary ceremonies will remain as primary criteria for persons wishing public support from these ceremonies (Lomas 1979:65) to bolster their claims.
If Lomas has correctly identified a reason for the malanggan ceremonial complex to survive, Lewis adds that rebuilding of the old - 558 taberau stone enclosures (where the malanggans were fashioned) and a movement to revive hamlet burials would assist in revitalising malanggan works (1979:387-389). The making of secular pieces and the related revival of sacred ceremonial rites connected to the malanggan complex would be accurate indicators that this revival, if it is one, actually has validity. But one may wonder if displaying photographs of past creations and noting possibilities for rites to employ malanggan works actually will revitalise the tradition. A few carvers still persist in malanggan works. 5 Should the ceremonial system become active, it will be because both the art-producing context and the social environment of the northern New Ireland peoples desire to stimulate the rebirth of the tradition.
3. The Baining: Resilience of the Dance Masks
The Baining peoples in the interior of New Britain's Gazelle Peninsula number approximately 6,000 to 8,000 (Fig.8). They exist through huntting, gathering, gardening, and more recently, plantation labour on the numerous copra, coffee and cocoa plantations in the region (Corbin 1976:9-11). An ethnic group 6 with at one time between 15 and 20 subgroups who competed with one another for land—as well as with the neighbouring Tolai and Sulka peoples—the contemporary Baining have long resisted efforts to pull them into the modern world. Their way of life, and consequently their traditional art, reflect a defiant indigenous attitude.
Initial contacts probably were made with the Baining by German entrepreneurs of the 1880s, but there was no overt reaction to this alien presence until the 1904 Baining uprising. Hempenstall (1975:11) argues that this outbreak of hostilities, climaxed by the massacre of the Sacred Heart mission, resulted in a rebellion of revenge; the Baining retaliated through terrorism because of the imposition of an unfamiliar, and apparently unwelcome, life-style through mission work. They would not be tied down to a life of village drudgery and resentment at enforced regimentation and the eventual suppression of the revolt left the Baining with an unsavoury reputation which did not fade even with the field observations of Read (1931), Bateson (1932), and Poole (1943). Elkin commented as recently as 1953 that no good anthropological survey on the Baining had yet appeared (1953:98). The primary concern for most investigators of the Baining has been the massive display pieces and dance masks employed in their ceremonial repertoire. Surprisingly, for a people who have received so much attention because of their expressive masks and display images, so little is actually understood about the ritualistic significance of the objects to the Baining.
The true importance for Baining art within its own indigenous context- 559
was difficult for the early reseachers to grasp. Read notes that during his time of study the Central Baining were shifting their settlements to within proximity of European communities (1931:232). Night ceremonies were prepared with great secrecy, and he was able to photograph the dance masks only through great persuasion (Read 1931:233). Features associated with Baining dance rituals—such as the last-minute revelation of the dance site location, the seclusion of the dwelling within which the masks were prepared, food being stockpiled for the accompanying feast, and the electrifying build-up of tension which erupted with the entrance of the first masked fire dancer—were all similarly recorded by Bateson. As a more experienced ethnographer than Read, Bateson distinguished the regular dance masks (Fig. 9)—assembled by tapa placed on a bamboo framework and then painted red and black in expressive facial concentric- 560
Arrowhead-shaped Central Baining helmet mask (kavat); August 8, 1981, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu; height — 121.5cm (photograph by John E. Edgerly).
designs—from the trumpet-like composite pieces used in the ceremonies (1932:335). But even more essential to Bateson than the descriptions of the art objects was the meaning employed by the Baining, which he sought but could supply only little more insight than Read, who assumed (1931:236) that they signified agricultural rituals or death cults. Bateson offers the possibility (1932:337) that the dances were performed to honour ancestors. He could not verify this for he found the Baining were not easy people to study, being eager to display their dances and masks, but not to discuss openly their intimate ritual meanings with outsiders. - 561 Even at this early period of investigation, Bateson expressed apprehension that European contact would erode the dance ceremonial of the Baining (1932:341).
The research of Jean Poole, a missionary's wife, revealed new directions for Baining dances. Poole not only concentrated on the Central Baining country around Malabunga village—the Central region where both Read and Bateson had worked—but also looked at the Northwest Baining ceremonial activities in the villages of Kulit and Malaseit. Poole extended knowledge of the scope of the dances (1943:226), noting that day dances were in operation along with the previously reported night ones. The daytime rites were evidently peculiar to each village. They were held separately and with specific variations in every locality. At night, however, the activity of the dances and feasting merged all the Baining villages.
Terminology for masks and other elaborate pieces vary among researchers; Bateson (1932:335) simply labels masks lacking suspended frames as kavat, while the name vwungvwung covers all composite masks with visible framework or, occasionally, a trumpet attached to the frame. Poole follows this line of nomenclature, without offering a reason for these particular names to be used for the masking objects.
A new feature of the dances also appeared, the conical mask termed lingan 7 (Poole 1943:224). She notes the introduction of the lingan element at the Malaseit village night ceremony where the dancer bearing the lingan mask-headcrest initiated the procession of the dancers around the fire. Why it emerged as a masking style just about the time of Poole's 1941 study, however, was left unresolved.
The Baining did not hesitate to incorporate new motifs 8 into their art. Bateson saw a pack of playing cards painting into a tapa pattern for masks (1932:338), along with common motifs of opossums, flowers, pig's vertebrae, and fruit clusters. The Baining do not balk at experimentation or introducing new features to further embellish their art. Why certain representations have been selected, investigators can offer no clear explanation. The fact that the Baining did borrow foreign elements to be employed as decorative features for their masks apparently has not diminished community enthusiasm for dancing ceremonies.
Over a decade after Bateson's observations (1932:340-341), Poole commented (1943:225) on the efforts put into creating masks and setting up feasting and dancing; Baining art was still vibrant and functioning for the people. Despite the mystery shrouding actual preparation of the masks and the gloomy, nocturnal setting which was further enhanced by musical accompaniment and the fire-mesmerisation before the explosive introduction of the masked dancers, Baining dances have not operated - 562 like secret society gatherings, but rather more like community celebrations. However, what precisely they honour is unclear.
The intellectual quagmire over the purpose of Baining dances over-shadows a proper understanding of the masks. The masks possess jutting foreheads, open snouts with tongue-like protrusions and massive, seemingly transfixing, concentric eyes painted on to the tapa surface. The celebration of a child's birth or the completion of a new home (Linton and Wingert 1946:150-151) are possible explanations. It is apparent that the Baining masks have long been unifying elements through their manipulation during the dancing ceremonies. These ceremonies follow a common pattern in Melanesia, possessing dramatic build-up to an intense expectancy, climaxed by the entrance of the masked figures. A recent contributon to the subject has come from Corbin (1976:112). In comparing the degree of change in the mask styles of the Chachet (Northwest) Baining and the Kairak and Uramot (Central) Baining, he proposed that the perishable art of the Baining articulates their entire sphere of existence. Ceremony and art seem to condense and visually express all significant meanings in Baining culture. An eventual transformation of Baining expression was no new phenomenon, for Corbin suggests (1976:32) that one abandoned feature was the colossal hareiga display pieces. Confined mainly to the Chachet area, the creation of hareiga had faded before the turbulence resulting from the 19th century Tolai invasions and also from the German colonial presence. Land pressure and European influence somehow accelerated the creation of new features, the lingan and the oggeroggeruk dance mask used in Chachet day ceremonies. Corbin provides further evidence of a regional flow of Baining artistic creativity, suggesting that such new elements responded to acculturation from the Central villages of Gaulim and Malabunga through Malaseit to Northwest centres such as Wilembemki and Punarupka (1976:57). Since Poole had observed in 1941 the emergence of the lingan in the Malaseit village night ceremony, the evidence points to this village as a probable centre for transference between the Central and Northwest Baining groups. This might also suggest that the Central Baining are likely generally to make an innovation and then pass it on to the Northwest. But surprisingly, although the Central Baining have known most external contact (Corbin 1979:173), they have retained more of their traditional stylistic forms than have the Chachet.
Baining mask themes (used by all subgroups) illustrate a wealth of animals common to their experience: lowengi ‘flying fox’, blamdi ‘wild boar’, quanki ‘bush bird’, serikka ‘freshwater fish’, and merangga ‘hornbill’. Along with animals and vegetation, Corbin (1976:64-65) iden- - 563 tifies the Surugga ‘wise old man’ theme to indicate at times Rigenmucha, ‘the creator god’. The mask efforts of the Baining become more elaborate and decorated with abstract designs as we proceed geographically from the Northwest to the Central.
To return to meanings, notions have resurfaced (Corbin 1976:28) that the dance masks represented spirits of the dead; (death was never seen as a natural event, but as a result of evil spirits). Corbin observed that in both the Central and Northwest night dances, where the sequence of dances was identical, the ceremony concludes the initiation of youths and marks the departure of Damki and Dam (the mythical tribal father and mother) towards the southern equinox (1976:94-95). Since Read and Bateson first observed the dances in the late 1920s, snake representations have been reported which symbolise rebirth through shedding of their skins. In addition, dualism of Baining life is related through the art: the day art represents female activities such as gardening and represents the order by which the fruits of the day are obtained, while the night art relates to chaotic actions of the bush spirits and the lives of men who primarily hunt, fish and gather. But if the day and night ceremonies appear to embody the contrasting activities of men and women, they also, and more importantly, serve as a cohesive force for the Baining people (Corbin 1979:113-114).
The most vital consideration for the present is whether the masks and their associated dances will remain a community-linking force for the Baining. Indications are that, despite some commercial variations for the benefit of visitors, indigenous traditions do not appear to be in danger of declining in their purpose or creative vitality. When the final dancer moves off into the bush before sunrise, this signifies not an ending but rather a beginning. Perhaps it is the creativity put into the Baining masks—as well as the unity produced by the dances—which explains why this ceremonial complex remains the ceremonial climax of Baining culture.
4. Star Harbour: Eclipsing of the Bonito Cult
The eastern islands of the Solomon Islands traditionally centred their community activities and subsequently their representative art on a bonito cult (Fig. 10). Reported nearly a half-century ago by Fox (1925) and Ivens (1927), the institution involved the initiation of youths (Mead 1973b:72-73) and the sculpting of appropriate ceremonial items by craftsmen. These included custom house posts, bone caskets in the form of sharks or bonito canoes, ceremonial vessels and the actual bonito canoes (againiwaiau) which were used to transport the initiates in search of their first bonito. The context in which this art was created has altered- 564 - 565
(Davenport 1971:383), but the works are still produced to advance a promising carver to a respected status (Mead 1979:294). For the purpose of this paper, attention is focused on the Star Harbour region of south-eastern San Cristobal, which includes the harbour and Surville Peninsula of that island and the tiny offshore islands of Santa Ana and Santa Catalina.
The sculpture of this region traditionally had been associated with the maraufu initiation ceremony for youths, emerging from supernatural associations with the bonito, the most important food fish. Schools of bonito not only provided an important food source, they also attracted sharks and frigate birds (Davenport 1971:408), creatures which reflected the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous nature of the sea deities. An ambition of Star Harbour inhabitants was either to gain a reputation for catching bonito or to demonstrate sculptural ability by fashioning blackened wood and slivers of nautilus shell into representations of the ocean world.
An alteration has occurred in the lives of Star Harbour people and shifted emphasis in their carvings. Mead notes the collapse of overseas raidings (1973b:93) as a primary factor. The establishment of government in the Solomon Islands in the late 19th century suppressed slave-raids, by which some groups—particularly those of Santa Ana—acquired shell money to purchase quantities of taro, yams, and pigs to supplement the food produced on their small islands. The changing life-style may have been apparent to Fox, when he speculated on the rapid disappearance of the Santa Ana people (1925:6). The opposite situation resulted, however, from the introduction of Christianity to the islands. The population swelled from 360 in Fox's time to around 800 residents in 1971, a figure which did not include members of the Santa Ana clans living elsewhere, but occasionally visiting the island (Mead 1973b:82). With food scarce, one means for a person to gain money is to carve, using models from the repertoire of the cultural past.
Mead (1979:307-308) assessed the efforts of several Star Harbour men who have tried to attain the status of mwane manira, ‘master carvers’. The mastering of traditional forms like sacrificial bowls and shark caskets leads to a craftsman's becoming recognised publicly for the skill in his work and therefore commanding higher prices for his finished pieces. Despite some rebellion by younger carvers against reproducing images of a non-functional nature, the ceremonial bowls (apira) and shark caskets for human remains (airi) are still made and many are purchased by art collectors or museums (Figs 11, 12 and 13).
All the works of the Star Harbour region traditionally reflect the importance of the sea. Even fishing floats and panels illustrated this rela-- 566
Men launching a sacred bonito canoe, with carved bow and stern, at Aoriki village, Santa Catalina; length — 5.48m. Santa Ana lies in the background (photograph by and reprinted courtesy of William H. Davenport, neg. no. 87276).
tionship. In many objects, man actually became transformed into a sea deity with physical attributes of bonito, porpoise, shark, or frigate bird. A mental linkage supposedly between the deity and the carver transmits the type of sacrificial bowl to be created; to the best of the carver's ability the bowl should embody the supernatural details desired by both the person who commissions the apira bowl and the deity represented (Davenport 1971:422).
Human bone containers may have originated as simple objects fashioned from vines, or more complex model canoes or airi shark- 567
Carved ritual bowl from Santa Catalina, with bonito centred and surrounded by sharks and porpoises, made from blackened wood and inlaid with nautilus shell; length — 48.5cm (photograph by William H. Davenport; reprinted courtesy of University Museum, University of Pennsylvania — neg. no. 87346, object no. 67-5-5).
caskets. Some of the caskets were decorated by carvings representing human figures being devoured by or transformed into sharks. These carvings visually related the legend of Karemanua who bit his brother in half and later became a shark (Mead 1973a:16-18). Once a deceased person's skull was placed in a small side panel of the casket, he became transformed into a shark-spirit and was worshipped by his relatives as such, while the rest of his bones often were laid to rest in a model of the bonito fishing canoe, the cycle from initiation to the spirit world now having been completed.
During the maraufu initiation ceremony a boy candidate had to be bloodied by his first bonito catch, 9 hugging it to his body, even drinking the blood to assume the beneficial qualities of the fish (Mead 1973a:73; Ivens 1927:141), and later diving into the sea to swim like the bonito. The burden for this initiation process came down on the parents, who had to ensure that their son was fed and that the owner of the againiwaiau, the bonito fishing canoe, could provide the boy with a catch to complete his ordeal. Faga, strings of red shell currency, compensated the canoe owner (Mead 1973b:71). Such strings of red shell were very similar to the type used on Ulawa (Ivens 1927:390), 10 and this could have been the source for the Santa Ana currency. Mead (1973b) mentioned that visitors from Ulawa participated in the 1943 initiation ceremony at Gupuna village on Santa Ana. The climax of the maraufu came when the candidate ascend-- 568
FIGURE 13- 569
Shark casket for the bones of honoured dead, carved by Tarofimana of Natagera village, Santa Ana; length — 172cm (photograph by William H. Davenport; reprinted courtesy of University Museum, University of Pennsylvania — neg. no. 87361, object no. 67-5-127).
ed the qea, (initiation platform), a formidable structure ornately decorated with sharks, frigate birds, and bonitos carved into the planks of the platform. The feasts and the dancing would eventually close, and the apira, the againiwaiau, and the qea were disassembled or stored away in the appropriate custom houses (aofa).
This ceremonial institution faded more from the pressure placed on individuals to provide adequate support for such elaborate works and feasts than from any mission desire to quell native religions in the spread of the Christian faith. When Christianity came to Santa Ana, the ceremonial qea was blessed in 1943 by a missionary (Mead 1973b:82) to provide double protection for the islanders who had adopted the faith. In 1971 Cyclone Ursula destroyed the remaining Natagera custom houses on Santa Ana, besides damaging villages from Santa Catalina up to Tawarogo on San Cristobal. Small wonder that Mead (1973a) looks at natural occurrences as underplayed factors in the acculturation process.
Even though the maraufu probably will not be revived because of the financial strain on the participants, the inlaid wood sculpture of this region continues to hold signficance for men choosing an art career in order to advance to mwane arafa or “big-man” political status (Mead 1979:294-296). Competition demands that any promising mwane manira must establish himself by proving that his art has a receptive arena of buyers. With more visitors seeking ceremonial bowls, posts, and copies of airi caskets, carvers will probably continue to pursue a money return and the accompanying prestige of making a good sale. The obvious danger—of creating poorly made pieces purely for the external tastes of collectors—appears to be tempered with local criticism, still to be reckoned with for a prospective craftsman-big man.
The contemporary art of the Santa Ana-Santa Catalina-Star Harbour region (Mead 1973a:53-57) is developing innovations and themes, such as freestanding human figures for tourists, while maintaining the designs and finished products formerly associated with the traditional bonito cult. The carvers actually welcome tourists as a source of cash and are learning about pricing their pieces and what to expect the newcomers to prefer. Mead (1973a:12) performed his research four years after Davenport (1971:383) had predicted that Solomons art was living on borrowed time. The life of the people has altered, but the art produced is still Solomons art. If the acculturation process remains slow enough where the people can live according to their traditional village subsistence, the sculpture of the Star Harbour region will continue to be made while the striving mwane manira seek to encapsulate within their work the traditional synthesis between man and the ocean (Mead 1973a:66).- 570
5. Big Nambas: Will the Nimangki Survive?
Malekula (Fig.14), the second-largest island of Vanuatu, has served as sort of a beachhead for ethnological penetrations into the ideology of typical Melanesian cultures (Deacon 1934; Layard 1942). The three-dimensional art present in Malekula has been traditionally fashioned to supplement ceremonies associated with the Nimangki grade-society (Deacon 1934:270). This social, economic, and religious institution originally occupied a great part of the lives of Malekulans. The series of grades proceeded from the lowest rank, attained when one was a boy, to the highest, reserved for only the most powerful chiefs. Just as the men were graded in the society, so was the namal or the men's house. This structure had separate compartments for members of each grade, and a man could only rest in his own section and cook his meals of yams over - 571 the fire for his particular grade. Advancing grades was a life-long process for a man of Malekula, a process which involved raising special pigs for ceremonial sacrifice (Deacon 1934:17). A Malekulan “big-man” gains social prestige through lending and borrowing, making deals and bargaining to acquire the largest number of prized pigs, distinguishable by their circular mandible tusks.
Fraser connects the art and the socio-economic context by noting that an accumulation of wealth was required to give feasts (1962:214). The continually ascending social ladder for an average man could involve some 35 distinct stages, the highest ones gained not only by raising a sufficient number of ceremonial pigs but also through stone work set up in monolithic style. Boar's tusks became a feature of Malekulan art, being planted into initiation and graded images which were subsequently concealed inside the namal (Christensen 1955:277-278). Painted blue, red, and white in a seeming unconcern for colour balance, they are produced by persons who sponsor candidates for grade-promoting rites. Almost all the major works in traditional Malekulan art present a home-made quality, with the exception of slit gongs, which Fraser claims (1962:216) were sculpted by professional craftsmen. The huge tree-fern images, nearly 12 feet high and carved by the candidates themselves, project an impression of man attempting to subdue nature by transforming the inverted tree-fern trunks into human faces. Christensen (1955:278) offers the notion that the tremendous eyes of the tree-fern images appear to be conferring upon the invisible ancestors the power to watch over their “children”.
The Big Nambas in the mountainous northern sector of Malekula cling to their past ways of fighting and pig-raising (Muller 1972:57-59). The actual name for this group comes from the size of their nambas, penis-wrappers made from purplish-dyed mats of pandanus leaves (Layard 1942:10), to distinguish them from a closely related group called the Small Nambas. Inhabiting the “head” of the island, the Big Nambas have been notorious for cannibalism and head-hunting, which the Anglo-French Condominium could not suppress until the late 1940s (Muller 1972:75). The Big Nambas still persist in the acquisition of pigs and preparation of rituals for grade-progression via the Nimangki society (Diole 1976:181-190). As in most Melanesian cultures, male domination prevails, and the Big Nambas 11 are no exception. Special rites for circumcision are performed (the only tribal group on Malekula which traditionally applied this ordeal to uninitiated boys), and kava is a feature of the Big Namba ceremonial programme (Deacon 1934:10). The arts fashioned by the Big Nambas consist of slit gongs, initiation masks, tree-fern images to mark ghosts of ancestors, and namal wood sculpture for added embellishment.- 572
Four distinct grades comprised the Nimangki grading scale for the Big Nambas: Dravu, Bwil, Vilvil, and Miliun (Deacon 1934:371-373). The Miliun grade is the highest and most difficult to achieve and attaining this status requires an enormous quantity of pigs for sacrifice and circular or straight-lined monoliths to be erected. This occasion typifies the one “all-out” effort to be invested by a Big Namba candidate; all debts are called in and relatives from even distant hamlets are invited to take part in the festivities.
For a Big Namba man to achieve rank, much work is channelled into preparations for ceremonies and feasting, including cultivating added amounts of yams. One further investment to make is an appropriate slit gong to honour the individual's advancement. This instrument is carved and sometimes painted by an artist specially hired by the person to receive the new grade (Deacon 1934:359-360). Both the gong carver, and the painter (sometimes a separate craft-worker), have to be compensated for their efforts, usually in pigs.
One feature still alive among the Small Nambas (but not necessarily part of the Big Nambas' funerary heritage) is the making of rambaramp funeral effigies (Deacon 1934:20, 62). Common to most tribal groups down to Southwest Bay, rambaramps use a dead man's skull, modelled over with clay and vegetable paste to resemble him in life. An effigy body is constructed from cane fibres, clay, and banana leaves and then placed in the namal after being paraded in a post-mortem procession to honour him.
What lies ahead for the Big Nambas of Malekula? Numbering no more than 125 persons, who currently prefer a hardy life in the mountains, the tribe may eventually be subsumed into the more prosaic routine of copra-planters on the Malekulan coast (Muller 1972:57). 12 Diole disputes this opinion, pointing to the diminutive population of the Big Nambas (and the Small Nambas, also approximately 125) and their desire to remain outside the modern world. The Nambas themselves see their numbers as too small for any progressive-minded organisation to bother with in terms of assimilation attempts (1976:186). They are aware of the coastal life, of the material products of the outer world (transistor radios and canned foods), and yet have chosen to remain in the interior. If the Big Nambas hold to this choice, the Nimangki will continue to centre the activities, supplemented by art images for grade ceremonies. In this manner, the plastic arts of the Big Nambas could survive.
COMPARISON OF THE CULTURES: COMMON DENOMINATORS FOR RETENTION
The five cultures considered so far are the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik, the northern New Ireland malanggan-producers, the Baining of the - 573 Gazelle Peninsula, the Star Harbour artisans of the eastern Solomon Islands, and the Big Nambas of Malekula. All of these have (or had) ceremonial institutions which concentrated on initiation of new men of the community. Such ceremonies honoured the passing of the dead and illustrated the bonds between each culture and the surrounding physical and spiritual world. Art facilitated the operation of the social and religious institutions, which had local variety in the scope and involvement of the art-makers. In the case of the Baining, the Iatmul and the Big Nambas, art products traditionally were made by non-specialised men of the community who assisted the ceremonial process (although certain persons did become noted for their art-producing abilities in the course of community life). The malanggan sculptors and painters of coastal northern New Ireland shared with the Star Harbour craftsmen the distinction of being specialised artists. As the aspiring big-men of the eastern Solomons passed through successive stages of art-production to reach their goal (Mead 1979), so did the New Irelanders serve a period of apprenticeship (Buhler 1962:46-8).
One feature of the art still being made by all five cultures is that even reproductions of it retain significance for indigenous viewers. The effort and skill put into the masks, funerary pieces, initiation images and ceremonial vessels had to be merged with a sensitivity and emotional awareness if the art was not to become repetitive and lifeless. All these works did and still do encompass the artistic expression of an established belief-system. Christian ways of thinking have touched all five areas, as reported by Gardi (1960), Powdermaker (1933), Poole (1943), Mead (1973b), and Deacon (1934), but they have become an added feature of the general belief system rather than inducing the inhabitants to abandon their traditional ideals.
Comparative isolation from urbanised centres undoubtedly assists some of the traditional beliefs to remain intact. This is so for the Sepik, Star Harbour, and interior Malekula. The coastal northern New Irelanders are removed from Kavieng, the provincial capital, but have access to it by a good road system. The Baining dwell within reasonable distance from Rabaul, but perhaps this proximity to the coast favours even more their taking refuge in their masked fire dances. Hesse (1979:4-5) sees the Baining as suffering from a kind of inferiority complex in their external contacts, relieved only when they return home and break the monotony of life through their ceremonies. These selected cultures have not retained their arts because they were completely shut off from external influences. They have adjusted and borrowed outside innovations while still keeping intact traditional means of expression, even though the situation which had used the indigenous art traditions - 574 was transformed from new influences.
It could be argued that art involving the majority of an indigenous community (the art of the Iatmul, the Baining, and the Big Nambas) is more enduring within a cultural framework than art restricted to a crafting guild (New Ireland and Star Harbour). If the value systems which accompanied the art have eroded and the art becomes mainly a resource for getting cash through purchases by outsiders (indicated by the Iatmul and Star Harbour situations), will the traditional art continue?
CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE OUTLOOK FOR TRADITIONAL ART IN MELANESIA
The contemporary situation in Melanesia, nation by nation, reveals that Papua New Guinea has made the most visible efforts in preserving traditional arts, through the establishment of the National Museum and Art Gallery at Waigani, the formation of the National Cultural Council and regional culture centres, and in the attitudes of its leadership. Men like Michael Somare and Albert Maori Kiki have expressed pride in having maintained links with their respective cultural heritages. Somare realises that the sacred kakar images of Dararap, Murik Lakes, still hold a vital significance for the well-being of the local people. He has photographed them for the record (Somare 1975:30-32). Somare's awareness, and Kiki's outrage at the insensitivity of collectors (1968:165-7) who had stripped his native Orokolo region of nearly all the hohaos (venerated ancestral images) may further fuel the efforts to keep intact at least remnants of the cultural past.
What of the outside purchasers who seek samples of “pure” Melanesian sculpture to take back to Chicago, London or Paris? As was stated earlier in this paper by May (1975:126), the contemporary impact of these visitors has led to mass-produced pieces of questionable quality and ethnological importance, their presence being an added deterrent to traditional belief and worship. Melanesian craftsmen realise that pieces which even remotely resemble their traditional works have a market value, yet they may suspect that emphasis by outsiders to preserve their arts is one means for them to be “kept in their place.” 13
The five cultures considered in this article appear to present surviving samples of traditional art. The remaining question is not whether the art will change, but whether the new art will still evoke feeling and regard from the Iatmul, New Ireland, Baining, Star Harbour 14, and Big Namba societies. Change is no new thing for the peoples of Melanesia. They have endured the explorers, missionaries, blackbirders, traders, military personnel, and now modern Government officials. Future art may not resemble the older, “classical” works. But indications point to a surviving desire to represent visual elements of the cultural background in a - 575 professional and pleasing manner.- 576
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1 Goldwater intends to avoid the concern of seeking aesthetics, where “aesthetics” equal “beauty” in the Western art sense (1973:8).
2 Bernard Narokobi in “The Arts of the People,” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier (1979:4-5) considers that it is unreasonable to expect art traditions not to change. If change does occur, it will come if the use or purpose of the change is clearly established to the adopting cultural group.
3 An art collector and dealer in Sepik art revealed to me that the change in 10 years had been enormous along the Sepik; motor-powered canoes are now commonplace and tourists make stops at specially selected carving villages like Korogo and Kanganaman.
4 Powdermaker comments (1933:135) that the days for seclusion during the boys' initiation were arranged so as not to conflict with the mission schools.
5 Ben Sisia of Liba village and Michael Homarang are two contemporary malanggan carvers singled out in “The Arts of the People”. (1979:21, 37).
6 The name Baining means “wild people who live in the bush” but this designation comes from the Tolai and perhaps illustrates the animosity remaining between these two cultures (Corbin 1976:9). The Baining refer to themselves as “the people”; major divisions are Northwest (Chachet), Central (Kairak and Uramot), Southeast (Mali), and Southern (Asimbali and Mokolkol).
7 Poole speculates that the lingan headdress could have been adopted from the adjacent Sulka people (1943:224); so does Corbin (1976:96). This appears dubious, since Corbin (1976:11) reminds us that the Sulka are regarded—as are the Tolai—as traditional enemies.
8 Corbin reports (1976:65) witnessing a Northwest Baining helmet mask (tutki) which had painted on it the impression of a military helicopter, a common sight in the Gazelle Peninsula as they fly on patrols.
9 Geoffrey Kuper's personal initiation rites undergone at Natagera, Santa Ana, in 1929 were used by Mead (1973b) as a yardstick for the performance of the final maraufu ceremony at Gupuna in 1943. Kuper served as a coastwatcher for the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, reporting to Eric Feldt's headquarters in Townsville from Japanese-occupied Santa Isabel (Lord 1977:186).
10 Ha'a, small red shell beads strung together in lengths with 10 equalling a fathom, were prized as the most valuable shell currency on Ulawa (Ivens 1927:390). The inlay work was accomplished with sections of la'o (cone shell) and reoreo (nautilus shell).
11 Deacon was unable to spend much time in the Big Nambas' country during his research (Deacon 1934:xxxii-xxxiii), but he revealed serious depopulation and decay over much of Malekula from Spanish influenza, measles, and whooping cough.
12 Bonnemaison (1977:121-124) states that wars between the Big Nambas and neighbouring peoples drove survivors down to the coastal missions. Malekula is one of the larger islands of Vanuatu, but has a low population density (3.81/km2 in 1967) compared with the heavy over-population of the small offshore islands of Vao (630/km2) and Wala (390/km2).
13 Cotlow (1971:190) notes the attitude of some anthropologists, that all their efforts cannot instil pride in primitive peoples who have permitted themselves to believe that they are “refuse of History”.
14 Conversation with William Davenport (December 17, 1982) revealed that the maraufu ceremony is still active in the Eastern Solomons. The traditional bonito-initiation events survive on Santa Catalina, particularly in Aoriki village, while a diluted version (with Christian elements) exists in northern Ulawa. The custom house at Natagera, Santa Ana, was reconstructed after damage from Cyclone Ursula in December 1971, but traditional/pagan beliefs on Santa Ana have almost completely disappeared. This can be underscored by an absence of bonito canoes on the island.