Art from West Papua

Earlier this year, my review of Manchester Museum’s Pacific collection uncovered these two shields, which had been packaged and stored above some cupboards so that Stephen Welsh, our current Curator of Living Cultures, had never seen them.

When we unwrapped the packages, the shields were labelled with their museum accession numbers, and the note ‘Purchased from Asmat Art Depot’. The pigments used on the shields – white made from lime and red made from a riverbed clay – tend to deteriorate and become detached over time, so the quality of the colours on these shields suggested they were fairly contemporary. Looking at the accession register for the collection, it was revealed that the shields came into the museum as part of a group of eleven objects in January 1970.

0.9342-8 A belt from the Asmat region of West Papua, acquired by manchester Museum in 1970.

0.9342-8 A belt from the Asmat region of West Papua, acquired by manchester Museum in 1970.

 

Following some research, I was able to discover a lot more about the circumstances of the acquisition. The Asmat Art Depot was located in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, set up to distribute objects produced as part of an initiative called the Asmat Art Project.

Asmat is an area to the south-west on New Guinea island, in present day Indonesia. New Guinea was divided during colonial times – the west half being controlled by the Dutch, while the east half was split between Britain and Germany. When the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to give up its colonies, the entire eastern half of the island passed to Britain, but was administered by Australia until it gained independence as Papua New Guinea in 1975. The Dutch left New Guinea in 1961, when the western half of the island (previously called Irian Jaya, but now generally known as ‘West Papua’) became independent. However West Papua was taken over by the Indonesian military in 1963, and remains part of Indonesia despite continued movements for independence. Most of the objects in the New Guinea collections at Manchester Museum understandably come from Papua New Guinea, as they were collected by British colonial officials, missionaries and explorers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

New Guinea island with it's current political divisions. The Asmat region is located in the province of Meraluke in the Indonesian state of Papua. It is a heavily forested area of swamps and mountainaous terrian which prevented many Europeans from visiting until the 20th century.

New Guinea island with it’s current political divisions. The Asmat region is located in the province of Meraluke in the Indonesian state of Papua. It is a heavily forested area of swamps and mountainaous terrian which prevented many Europeans from visiting until the 20th century.

 

When Indonesia took over West Papua (then called West Irian), the United Nations provided money to help support the economic and social development of the country. The Fund for the development of West Irian (FUNDWI), was distributed across different projects in various areas. One of the projects which attracted funding was the Asmat Art Project, a means of reinvigorating the wood-carving tradition which had been losing momentum in this remote area of the country.

Many of the objects traditionally carved by the Asmat people were part of complex rituals tied to their beliefs surrounding the spirits of ancestors and the journey from death to Safan, the world of the spirits. The Asmat believed that all deaths were caused by an enemy tribe – either directly through inflicting injury, or through the use of sorcery to cause illness. Therefore the spirit of the deceased could not rest until their death was avenged by killing and taking a head from the enemy tribe. The rituals of head-hunting and revenge killings, and by association the carving traditions, had been extremely unpopular with Christian missionaries and outlawed by the Dutch government. However due to the remote nature of the area, it had been difficult to eradicate the traditions. Catholic missionaries didn’t have much influence in Asmat until the 1950s, when the old rituals then sharply declined as people converted to Christianity. Without the traditional rituals for which to make carvings, the practice went into decline.

asmat_shield_context_l

Asmat people offering a shield for sale. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

The Asmat Art Project sought to reverse this trend by promoting carving and other craft traditions as ‘art’ rather than ritual. An ex-colonial administrator, Jac Hoogerbrugge, was appointed to run the project, along with an Asmat assistant Jeremias Mbait. Between 1968 and 1972, Hoogerbrugge toured Asmat, showing photographs of older carvings to Asmat people and encouraging traditional methods being used in the creation of new pieces. A store was set up in Agats, the capital of the region, where carvers could come to sell their work for a fair price. Hoogerbrugge maintained quality by rejecting clumsy and badly made pieces, or objects which looked ‘too modern’, such as figures carved wearing glasses or smoking pipes. He had a good understanding of what galleries and dealers would buy, and worked hard to maintain this quality. The purchased pieces were shipped to the Asmat Art Depot in Rotterdam, from where they were distributed. Hoogerbrugge made deals with several important museums, so that their curators could take the first pick of the pieces they wanted for their collections. He also wrote to two hundred galleries and dealers internationally, providing a sales brochure and promoting the artistic practice of the Asmat carvers.

The project had a significant impact on carving traditions in the Asmat region. Carvings changed to be more appealing for galleries – shields began to be made without handles at the back, so they could be hung on the wall as flat patterns. Other pieces without a specific function began to be made, just as art pieces. In the past, young men who were drawn to carving had a long apprenticeship ahead – watching the ‘wowipitsj’ or skilled men until they were allowed to complete small parts of carvings, and eventually make pieces on their own. The Asmat Art Project democratized the process, allowing anyone to sell pieces as long as they fitted with a traditional style.

Museums have always valued ‘authentic’ objects, those showing signs of use and age rather than those produced specifically for sale. The Asmat Art Project aimed to create a market for these ‘new’ objects by promoting their value as contemporary ‘primitive’ art. Despite this aim, the major collections in museums such as Manchester, along with the Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Museum, seem to contain objects collected at the beginning of the project which had already existed and had some ritual life.

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0.9342/1 Jipae mask in the collection of Manchester Museum, acquired from the Asmat Art Depot in 1970.

 

The jipae mask which was one of the objects acquired by Manchester Museum was accompanied by a note which states that it was used in 1967 by its maker, Mbatjam, who had represented the spirit of a woman called Awat. During Asmat mask rituals, men would produce jipae masks inside the communal men’s house. At the time of the ceremony, each man would represent the spirit of a deceased person from their village, often a relation-in-law. The ceremonies took place every few years, so there would be one mask for each person who had died since the last feast. The intention was to reassure the spirit that their affairs were taken care of, and their dependents looked after so that they could go on to Safan, the spirit world. Awat had died leaving three children, so during the 1967 mask feast, her spirit would be shown that they had all been adopted into other families, and she need not worry about their well-being.

Knowing this provenance and story to accompany an object makes it interesting for a museum collection about Living Cultures. The Asmat Art Project collected this object, which had been used, but encouraged the creation of many new pieces. Are these equally interesting? Can such a culturally significant object really be considered as art?

(This blog post is a summary of a talk given at Manchester Museum on Wednesday the 3rd December 2014 as part of the ‘Collection Bites’ series. For details of future events see the Events Calendar and follow the Museum Meets blog).

 

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Getting a Grip: Students at Manchester Museum

Last week 100 University of Manchester first year archaeology students visited Manchester Museum for a series of world archaeology seminars. The students were invited into the Living Cultures storerooms where they handled a wide variety of objects ranging from Nazca ceramics to Mursi lip-plates. The objects spanned several millennia in age and originated from across Africa, Asia and the Americas. The seminars allowed students to develop the necessary skills to interrogate material culture and consider pursuing further object based research.

University of Manchester world archaeology seminar at Manchester Museum, 2014.

University of Manchester world archaeology seminar at Manchester Museum, 2014.

The seminars were organised with university colleague and long-time Manchester Museum collaborator Professor Tim Insoll. Tim regularly uses the African collection in his teaching and has also co-curated exhibitions including Fragmentary Ancestors: Figurines from Koma Land, Ghana http://bit.ly/1Dsqddo. Tim’s recently graduated PhD student Dr Bryn James also used the African collection, specifically the West African medical and ritual objects, in his doctoral research. The exhibition Exploring African Medicine which documents this research and his accompanying contemporary fieldwork in Accra, Ghana, is currently on display in the reception area.

Exploring African Medicine exhibition, Manchester Museum, 2014.

Exploring African Medicine exhibition, Manchester Museum, 2014.

As a university museum Manchester Museum is dedicated to providing access to our collections for student teaching and research. When the newly refurbished third floor of the museum opens in summer 2015 there’ll be a brand new state-of-the-art space dedicated to just that.

Pacific Collection Review

Since I joined the Manchester Museum at the end of April 2014, I have been working on the important collection of material from the Pacific, with the aim of improving our collections documentation and the storage conditions for our objects.

Systematically working through the stored collections, I have been making sure that objects have correct locations recorded on our database – a crucial piece of data for good collections management. I have also been photographing objects to add images to the database, which is helpful is allowing us to quickly identify a particular object when we receive enquiries from colleagues, researchers and members of the public.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

This approach to reviewing the collection has brought to light a number of issues; how should we look after objects which are secret or sacred in their originating communities? How do we deal with historical terms which have been used to describe objects in the past, but which would be culturally inappropriate or easily misunderstood today? These issues are particularly relevant to an ethnographic collection amassed from cultures which have changed in the post-colonial period, adopting different names for indigenous groups and for their countries as they gain independence or greater recognition.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

A further issue to contend with in the museum is how to store our collection most efficiently. Many of our stores are now full, and cannot take further material. However Manchester Museum is currently developing its approach to collecting, with the aim of continuing to develop the collections with contemporary material. As I continue through my placement with the Living Cultures collection, I need to think about how our storage space could be used more effectively to incorporate future acquisitions alongside the valued historical material.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved - these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved – these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

While under-taking this ‘behind the scenes’ collections management work, I’m also becoming involved with the public programme at the museum. Using the Pacific collection as inspiration, I’m currently developing a ‘Big Saturday’ event for the 27th September 2014, which will allow visitors to engage with the cultures and environments of the Pacific through a wide range of activities. I’m also hoping to assist in delivering further events over the next nine months to broaden awareness of the fascinating Living Cultures collection and its relevance to contemporary issues.

 

Islam & ACE

In 2013 Arts Council England decided to support a new Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for museum professionals responsible for collections of Islamic art and material culture in the UK. A lot has happened since this decision including several SSN meetings, the appointment of regional representatives (I’m the North West representative), a study day at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the dissemination of a survey to identify where and what Islamic collections exist in the UK.

Rebecca Bridgman is the chair of the SSN and is Birmingham Museum Trust's first specialist Curator of Islamic and South Asian Art.

Rebecca Bridgman is Birmingham Museum Trust’s first specialist Curator of Islamic and South Asian Art, and chair of the SSN.

If you’re a museum professional reading this you may have already received aforementioned survey from the SSN project researcher Jenny Wright. This survey provides a unique opportunity to map the extent of Islamic collections in the UK for the very first time. It will also help determine what support museum professionals need in the curation of Islamic collections. If you need any assistance in completing it you can always contact Jenny or the nearest SSN regional representative, for further details please contact islamicmappingproject@gmail.com. Late April 2014 is the deadline for completion and return.

Kate Newnham is Senior Collections Officer, Visual Arts, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK. She has curated Bristol's Asian and Islamic collection for eleven years. She is the SSN South West representative.

Kate Newnham is Senior Collections Officer, Visual Arts, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK. She has curated Bristol’s Asian and Islamic collection for eleven years. She is the SSN South West representative.

It’ll be a busy year ahead for the SSN as the survey results are compiled, further study days and an annual conference are developed, and a website is designed.  To keep up to date with events, opportunities and developments join the Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/1g4sKMU) and Twitter feed (http://bit.ly/1fVka6O).

A Mancunian Mantra: Part I

As part of his 2012 summer tour the Dalai Lama will visit Manchester on June 16, 17 and 18. During these three days he will address an audience of thousands, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, at the Manchester Evening News Arena.

The 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

In anticipation of his visit I’ll be sharing with you some wonderful objects from our Tibetan collection and their associated stories. Over the next several weeks you’ll see a fascinating array of objects, and to begin with we have  a stone upon which a six-syllable mantra, or spell, has been shallowly carved.

Stone carved with Tibetan characters. Pre-1938. Tibet, Asia. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures Collection.

Stones like this were used as offerings at, and to build walls between, Buddhist shrines.The inscribed mantra could be invoking Tara, the female wisdom partner of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara.

Thangka, or Buddhist painting, of a four arm Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva flanked by a white and green Tara respectively.

The stone was purchased by the Museum in 1938 from Professor V B Meyer along with other objects in his possession from India, Burma and Sri Lanka. Each of the objects include examples of various scripts and it’s likely Meyer specialised  in Asian languages. Whether he actually visited Tibet is not entirely clear.

Japanese Cornish Treasure

Today I had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Satoko Parker from Philadelphia, USA, to the Museum. Dr. Parker was visiting to view our wonderful collection of Hamada Shōji pots.

Dr. Parker in the Living Cultures ceramic store. 2012.

Hamada (1894 –1978) was an internationally renowned Japanese potter and remains a seminal figure in the history of ceramics. Upon meeting the British potter Bernard Leach  in 1920 Hamada moved to St. Ives, Cornwall, UK, and stayed until 1923. During this time he produced some exquisite pieces, 3 of which belong to the Manchester Museum and can be seen on display in the World Cultures gallery.  

Stoneware jug. Hamada Shōji. 1920-1923. St. Ives, Cornwall, UK.The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

Hamada’s pots form part of a much larger studio pottery collection which includes pieces by Bernard Leach and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie.

Stoneware vase. Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie. 1925-1930. Coleshill, Berkshire, UK. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

 Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

Gateway to Asia

The Manchester Museum recently became an official member of Virtual Collection of Masterpieces, an ASEMUS – The Asia Europe Museum Network project. The sheer quality and international significance of the Living Cultures Asia collection secured our inclusion.

The Oriental Gallery, The Manchester Museum, 1980s.

We’re in good company, as other fellow members include such esteemed institutions as:

  •  The British Museum
  • The Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  • National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan
  • National Museum of Korea, Seoul, Republic of Korea 

 

The aim of the project is to showcase and share information about the very many wonderful Asian collections which reside in European and Asian museums. We currently have 10 records online which you can view by following the link below:

http://masterpieces.asemus.museum/singleMuseum.aspx?museumid=36af801a-ce25-4a5d-9b57-296c8b603dae

 

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures