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.

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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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Japan in Manchester & Beyond

Yesterday I attended the Researching and Using Japanese Collections in Museums study day at the Palace Green Library, University of Durham. The Library is currently host to the V&A exhibition The Seven Treasures: Japanese Enamels from the V&A and their own in-house production Off the Wall: The Art of the Japanese Movie Poster, both well worth a visit (http://bit.ly/SKf9WH).

The day was filled with fascinating papers from both UK and Japanese colleagues that addressed the wide and varied nature of Japanese collections in the UK. Such collections which can be found in museums, galleries, libraries and stately homes are testament to the UK’s relationship with Japan politically, economically and industrially over the past several centuries. I was intrigued to hear about historic and contemporary industrial connections between England’s north-east and Japan, as presented by  Andrew MacLean, National Trust.

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Battleship Yashima on the River Tyne after fit out in 1896. It was built for the Imperial Japanese Navy by Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd.

Dr. Yoshi Miki, Curatorial Consultant and Visiting Professor, detailed his experience of compiling the recently published Survey and Analysis of the Database of Japanese Collections in the UK and Ireland, in which Manchester Museum’s internationally important Japanese collection is included. This comprehensive publication, as funded by the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation National Institutes for the Humanities, scrutinises access to UK Japanese collections on-line. This publication is a must for anyone interested in Japanese collections and access to museum databases on-line.

It was exciting to hear further news about Manchester Art Gallery’s forthcoming East Asian exhibition by Janet Boston, Curator: Collections Access at Manchester City Galleries. Development of the exhibition has led to a fundamental reappraisal of Manchester Art Gallery’s Japanese collection and stimulated contemporary collecting. We’ll be loaning several pieces from our Japanese collection to support the exhibition.

There are almost 2000 Japanese objects in the Living Cultures collection. They range from large pieces of furniture to intricately carved netsuke. The majority of the collection belongs to the 1958 Robert Wylie Lloyd bequest, an industrialist who also bequeathed his butterfly collection. Interestingly the Japanese collection bequest was split between us and the British Museum. Damian Scully, Objects in Mind Project Lead, recently shot a short film of one of the objects included in the Lloyd bequest which you can see below.

 

All this talk of Japan stimulated me to read again a captivating article called A Samurai at Oxford published in the Manchester Evening News 2nd December 1982. The article details the exploits of Mr Nori Shibahara described as a ‘sort of unpaid Japanese consul’ , a gift shop owner on Brazenose Street, whose ancestor Saburo Ozaki arrived in the UK in 1867 dressed in full samurai attire. Shibahara arrived in Manchester in 1966 when the article claims there were only two other Japanese people ‘a judo instructor and a nurse’. Shibahara was conscious of the lack of understanding about Japan and it’s people, culture and history when he first arrived. He stated that ‘I’ve been to bookshops in Manchester to find books on Japan and when I’ve opened them, they’ve shown hairstyles 100 years out of date’. As chairman of the North West Japanese Society Shibahara promoted greater understanding of Japan across the region. In this vein, with our ever popular Japanese display in the Living Cultures gallery, we’re continuing to promote further understanding and interest in Japan across Manchester.

 

 

Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings

I’ve just joined Manchester Museum as Trainee Curator in Anthropology as part of the Future Curators programme at the British Museum. A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Welsh and I attended a symposium at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The symposium was entitled ‘Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings: Current and future curatorial challenges’. The programme brought together curators and academics from across the world to discuss the intellectual and practical challenges which surround exhibition making with ethnographic collections. There were many fascinating papers, but here I’m going to highlight just a few of the projects discussed.

In a session entitled ‘Experiencing exhibitions ‘at home’ and abroad’, Gaye Sculthorpe, Section Head for Oceania at the British Museum spoke about the project she is currently working on to develop exhibitions about Indigenous Australia to be shown in London and Canberra in 2015. The major temporary exhibition at the British Museum will be an outcome of a five year research project which has sought to engage indigenous communities across Australia. Many of the objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia for a related exhibition. Gaye spoke of the intense emotional reactions she’d witnessed from indigenous visitors when faced with objects which represent the contentious history of Australia.

This shield was collected in Australia when Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. It represents the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians and will return to Australia in 2015 for the first time since it was collected as part of a loan from the collection of the British Museum. This is likely to have a huge emotional impact on Indigenous audiences for the exhibitions in London and Canberra.

The emotional power of objects was also addressed by Noelle Kahuna who spoke about the loan of Kū figures to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. This was the first time in over 150 years that three monumental carvings of the god Kū had come together. The carvings from the collections of the British Museum in London, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Bishop Museum are thought to be the last remaining examples of this quality and size in the world. Kū is a god known is several Pacific cultures associated with procreation, prosperity and warfare. In this exhibit, the lenders agreed that the objects could be dressed in loincloths called a malo, honouring traditional beliefs and acknowledging the power of museums to explore issues of cultural identity.

The three Ku figues on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Hawaii in 2010.

Many speakers addressed the need for exhibitions to be more than geographical or typological arrangements of objects, and suggested ways that displays could use concepts drawn from indigenous cultures. Aristoteles Barcelos-Neto spoke of how a new framework had been developed for Amerindian studies which contributed to a change in anthropological approach. His ethnographic film about the Amazon’s Wauja community made in 2007 shows atujuwa masks, the manufacture of which was revived as a cultural practice in 1997. Fourteen masks have been made to go into private collections in Paris and Lisbon, as they would not exist for long in the humid rainforest climate. Exhibitions of the masks were developed around the Wauja concept of apapaatai, which are spirits thought to cause illness. This type of illness will not kill but can only be cured by a shaman, and once cured allows the person to take on the power and protection of that spirit.

The range of papers presented across the three day symposium was vast, and raised many questions which will require further thought going into the future. In the opening remarks, it was suggested that anthropological museums need to begin to address environmental issues as these concerns are of particular relevance to many indigenous communities as well as to the wider world. While climate change and deforestation have been easily incorporated into displays within museums of natural history or science, these issues are yet to be tackled in ethnographic museums. This theme was not revisited for discussion during the symposium, but presents an interesting challenge to curators: in a time where many institutions do not have the capacity to continue collecting contemporary objects and need to make our historical collections relevant, how can we use them to provoke discussion around environmental concerns?

Several speakers also discussed the role of the curator – as a guardian for collections, but also as a translator, to let people know what they’re looking at and why they should want to look at it. Do they also have the responsibility to ask questions and provoke reactions?

Pre-emptive Spring Clean

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been beavering away in the Living Cultures stores with support from The University of Manchester Art Gallery and Museum Studies students Josh and Shelly, our British Museum Future Curator Kiera, and most critically our Curatorial Assistant Susan. We’ve been rationalising each store i.e. making more space available, and making sure that each object is stored appropriately. This is all part of the collections team drive to increase accessibility to our four million objects exponentially. Increasing access allows for further exploration of collections and means objects can be used to a greater extent in research, exhibitions and public events.

Kathryn inspecting our Igbo masquerade costume. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2014.

Kathryn inspecting the Igbo masquerade costume. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2014.

This drive has also allowed us to identify objects in need of immediate treatment. Our conservation interns Kathryn and Erin are currently treating a Qashqa’i saddle, Kiribati armour and an Igbo masquerade costume . These objects are being cleaned and further information regarding extent of use and construction is also being gleaned. This is all critical information which will be added to each of the object’s records.

Erin treating the Qashqa’i saddle. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2014.

Erin treating the Qashqa’i saddle. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2014.

The maintenance of collections is an ongoing curatorial duty and very much a team effort. The support of volunteers and colleagues alike in this endeavour is invaluable. Throughout 2014 this work will continue and I’m very much looking forward to Kiera starting her year-long placement with us in April. This week, however, Shelly, who has been instrumental in the transformation of the storage of the Americas collection, leaves us to return to the USA. I wish Shelly all the best for the future and thank her for all her hard work and dedication, I’m sure she has a glittering curatorial career ahead of her!

Coming to America

Last Wednesday we opened our very latest temporary exhibition Warriors of the Plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual. The exhibition is on tour from the British Museum and is with us until early November 2013. Alongside the British Museum objects we also have some of our own wonderful Native North American objects including clubs, a tomahawk, pipe-stem, pipe bag and headdress. For more information about the exhibition visit http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2010/warriors_of_the_plains.aspx

Warriors of the Plains. Manchester Museum. 2013.

Warriors of the Plains. Manchester Museum. 2013.

Staying with Native North America we’ve also loaned an Iroquois club and axe-head to the Bowes Museum near Durham. The objects have taken pride of place in the exhibition Jeremiah Dixon: Scientist, Surveyor and Stargazer which is on until early October 2013. For more information visit http://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions%20and%20events/exhibitions/forthcoming/261/

Iroquois club and axe-head on display at the Bowes Museum. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

Iroquois club and axe-head on display at the Bowes Museum. Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. 2013.

Both exhibitions are a must!

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