by Kal Muller(January 2000)
The art world at large has yet to become aware of the wood carvings of the Kamoro tribe of south Irian Jaya (Papua) on the Island of New Guinea. These traditional tribal carvings have long been overshadowed by their next door neighbors, the Asmat. But thanks to the area’s excellent infrastructure and the yearly festivals sponsored by Freeport Indonesia, the Kamoro are just beginning to be noticed by a few pioneer cognoscenti.
While the Kamoro killed (but probably did not eat) their fair share of explorers, they missed the one man who could have brought them fame and fortune: Michael Rockefeller. The (denied) claim to that bit of notorious reputation goes to their next door neighbors, the Asmat. Although the young Rockefeller was probably drowned and his possible (involuntary) contribution to the essence of a cannibal meal vociferous denied by the Asmat, that makes poor journalistic copy. In the well-financed and high-powered search subsequent to Michael’s disappearance, the Asmat received tons of free publicity which subsequently helped to bring their carvings to the attention of the art world. That the young Rockefeller was collecting Asmat art when he vanished – he was last seen trying to swim to shore from an overturned boat – also helped, along with the later permanent exhibit of his collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. No such luck for the Kamoro.
From long before historical records reached the south coast of Irian Jaya, the Kamoro occupied their ancestral lands stretching along some 300 kilometers of the Arafura Sea, from Etna Bay to Asmat-land. Their population of about 15,000 souls are divided among some 40 villages and several transmigration sites in the vicinity of Timika.
The Kamoro homeland occupies a smallish portion of the huge island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland. The island is divided almost equally between the now independent nation of Papua New Guinea and the easternmost Indonesian province of Irian Jaya/Papua. Located just south of the equator, New Guinea boasts of one of the very few remaining tropical glaciers which lie at the foot of the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes: Puncak Jaya, at 4886 meters. The island is divided by a central cordillera of mountains running east-west, with alluvial plains of varying sizes to the north and south. The linguistic diversity is absolutely amazing: the five million Papuans speak some 1000 languages (not dialects) which represents some 15 per cent of the world’s languages in an area less than 0.15 per cent of the planet’s area. The island was one of the last places to be explored and there are still occasional completely untouched tribes coming out of the jungle.
Acceptance of traditional art forms
Before the beginning of this century, tribal art was relegated to the category of crude curiosities, unappreciated for its aesthetic values. This began to change in the early years of this century with a groups of artists working in Paris, along with a few art dealers, intellectuals, poets and writers. A giant among the talented artists, Pablo Picasso was one of the very first to appreciate and incorporate these new elements into his paintings.
As in Africa, Oceanea, among the Dayaks and elsewhere, the Kamoro society produced great sculptures, powerfully expressive pieces with simple lines and tools. It was this type of art which inspired many modern painters, especially the cubists, the surrealists and in particular Pablo Picasso whose famous 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (The Maidens of Avignon, a town in France but here referring to a bordello in Barcelona…) features female figures with two of the faces like African masks. Picasso substituted tribal art forms for the classical tradition as his principal source of style. His enthusiasm for the ‘primitive’ sculptures the he had first discovered in 1906-7 revived in the 1920s. This can be seen in two of this 1925 paintings, La Danse and Le Baiser whose inspiration might well have been from a Torres Strait (an area connecting Australia and New Guinea) mask which he owned.
Initially, it was the African sculptures which dominated the European scene. Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Pablo Picasso were among the first to appreciate this new way of rendering reality and were soon vying with each other to purchase tribal ‘fetishes’. Initially, for the Cubist and Fauve art styles, only African art mattered. The Surrealists who put Oceanic art (which includes New Guinea) in the middle of the European art scene. The leading spokesman for the movement, André Breton, emphasized that the Surrealist movement was from its beginnings inseparable from an emotional response to Oceanic art, that the very aesthetic of Surrealism was shaped by its example. Under Breton’s guidance, Surrealism was committed to proselytism. It became his passion to reinvest Oceanic objects with the ‘surreal’ power once native to them but since lost (as he thought) through mis-appropriation by the colonialists, missionaries, and ethnographers, who had brought them to Europe as so many ‘curious’ trophies of people in a state of still-unregenerate savagery. In tribal art he found the model for an art fully integrated in society.
Breton regarded Oceanic art as ‘more free, more exuberant, more exalted…..more excessive’ than African art. It ‘makes concrete the moments in which man escapes from himself to attain inconceivable summits. From this comes the paroxysm, verging on hallucination, of certain forms, of certain decorations.’ … For the primitive, ‘life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease to be perceived as contradictory.’
While there are many examples of the use of tribal Oceanic art, few can be specifically traced to New Guinea and to the south coast of Irian Jaya/Papua. We can only point specifically to an Alberto Giacometti drawing based on a crouching Asmat figure, along with the statement by the famous poet Paul Elouard which analyzed New Guinea and its art in terms of its supreme ability transcend categories and to achieve the total fusion of things that in the West considered absolute opposites. For the painter Juan Miró, it was important to forget ‘civilized’ notions about the nature of art and to restore it to the purity it was presumed to have in prehistoric times.
It was the Surrealists who brought to the attention of a discerning public the strange and often disconcerting originality of New Guinea art. However, it was not until after WW II, when the eyes of collectors and the public at large had become accustomed to different art forms, that these works were appreciated outside a narrow circle of enthusiasts. With specific reference to the south coast of Irian Jaya/Papua, it was the UN funded Asmat Art Project and the tireless efforts of Bishop Al Sowada which brought the art to the Asmat to the attention of the outside world.
Good old days, bad old days
Long ago, before the overwhelming intrusion of the outside world, the wood sculptures of the Kamoro people qualified them as one of the world’s greatest carving cultures, on a par with the world-famous Asmat, their better known neighbors. As with other traditional societies, the so-called ‘primitive’ art of the Kamoro was an integral part of their culture, with the most spectacular pieces serving an essential function in their religious life. But when the spiritual underpinnings of the traditional religion were cut by the Catholic Church, the carvings lost their raison d’être. The art of the Kamoro was set to die out. Almost but not quite. Pieces were still made for ceremonies, essentially initiations, which however were ‘sanitized’ by church and state: nose-piercings and post-ritual sexual hanky-panky were forbidden.
Thus the art of the Kamoro people, along with their culture in general, suffered traumatically from the mid-1920s when the Dutch government and the Roman Catholic Church established themselves in the area of Kokonau. The Kamoro were also strongly discouraged from following their semi-nomadic existence: free spirits are the bane of governments everywhere. Settled populations can be counted, educated, taxed, controlled. Wandering folks do as they please, a dangerous precedent. But before we totally condemn the interference of the outside world on the Kamoro, let us remember that their life span was on the order of some 30 years, with infant mortality from malaria reaching 50 per cent of live births. (The population of the whole island of New Guinea, now well over six million, never exceeded one million until the colonial powers brought in western medicines and forced the cessation of tribal warfare.) The Kamoro were also the prey species of the more aggressive and better organized Asmat. There are records of devastating raids, with many Kamoro heads heading east (minus the bodies of their owners) to decorate Asmat houses and appease bloodthirsty spirits there. The Dutch-trained police and modern firearms drastically swung to balance of forces to the advantage of the Kamoro, and soon the Asmat understood that, brave and clever as they might be, they would only lose their own heads if they persisted in raiding the Kamoro villages.
The categories of Kamoro carving
The main types of Kamoro carvings can be grouped into several categories which were the basis for the selection of the pieces for the auction during the yearly Kamoro Art Festival.
The yamate are ceremonial and ornamental shield-like boards, with an overall shape which is either flat or with a slight convex outer surface. These had a ceremonial function in the past. The yamate fall into two types: solid with mostly geometric relief decorations, sometime symmetrical, sometimes not; and ‘open’, flat, two-dimensional carvings with geometric fretwork, sometimes complemented by a human figure and/or a bird head. The first type, the solid yamate, originate from the area east of Kokonau while the open types come from the west. Kooijman, quoting Pouwer, states that “In essence, the yamate were ancestor figures; each one represented a fellow villager who had died recently, and bore the name of that individual.” The yamate were used in the emakame ritual, “as a symbol of both life and death, the genesis of life from death [as] the primary purpose of the ritual was the renewal of life.” It is likely that the yamate took form and function from early shields, a fact brought out by the resemblance to the Asmat word for shield, yames.
The mbitoro, ceremonial spirit poles, can be the biggest and most spectacular of Kamoro carvings. They varied in height from miniatures of less than 40 cm. to well over four meters. As with the yamate, we can see a similarity with the Asmat culture, where the bisj poles have similar form and function. In both cases, the carvings are used in rituals and represent recently deceased ancestors. One, two, and up to three men, their bodies superimposed on top of each other, make up the body of the mbitoro, with a large, open fretwork projecting upwards and out of the top portion of the sculpture. While the body of the mbitoro is carved out of the body of a mangrove tree, one of the broad, flat buttress roots becomes the upward projection: the tree becomes turned upside down in the finished sculpture. Aside from paying homage to a respected elder, the mbitoro also hold the pride of place during the initiation ceremony, now performed with increasing frequency, but minus the nose-piercing element of pre-contact times.
In the Kamoro culture, as in many other traditional societies, drum are used to call the spirits, ancestral and others. Mythical heroes were also brought back to life by drums. In today’s ceremonies, drums are used to call ancestral spirits during the initiation rituals.
The Kamoro make their hourglass-shaped drums by burning out the insides of a tree trunk. This is a delicate process which requires skill in order to make the sides just thin enough for light weight and good vibrations but without burning through. The open top part or head of the drum is covered with a stretch of reptile skin (from the mangrove monitor lizard, Varanus salvador) bound to the wood by a mixture of chalk from burned shells and human blood from the husband of either a sister or a daughter (formerly: exclusively) – but today, anyone’s blood will do. Dabs of black damar pitch on the lizard-skin drumhead are held close to a fire in order to tighten the skin for the desired pitch.
Standing human figures came in a wide variety of form and function, grouped under a category called wemawe in the east and iwamapaku in the west. Originally, these carvings were ancestral family protector figures, taking care of both the people living in a house as well as their material possessions. This is the type of Kamoro carving which has found the greatest sale value to outsiders and many are mass-produced for cheap sale. However, there are occasional pieces which are excellent. Some of these figures are carved with hollowed out insides, leaving only a cage-frame of limbs surrounding an empty space where the torso would be. As in many other human carvings, the figures are in a stylized sitting position, with elbows on knees and hands folded under the chin. The best show strong impressions conveyed with powerful shapes and lines.
In the category of ancestral stories, just about all the carvings showed a dragon of sorts ready to or just starting to eat a human. While these days the monster is called a ‘Komodo”, the only large lizard found in the area is the long but (very relatively) thinner-bodied Varanus salvadorensis, not the massive-bodied Varanus komodoensis. There was a larger carnivorous lizard running around, the awesome seven-meter Megalania prisca, but that beast has been extinct for thousands of years. Ancestral memories passed down? Be that as it may, there are various versions of a re-birth/creation myth focused on the renewal of life and prominent in initiation rituals. Essentially, this is the story of a boy who dies and then resurrects as a man. The boy is usually devoured by some monster, often a large monitor-type lizard, but sometimes a crocodile – then the boy, turned into an adult, re-emerges from the body of the monster. There are also carvings of snakes and humans to illustrate the story of a outsized monster of a snake which kills all Kamoro-kind except for one woman who escapes by spiritual intervention to give birth to a hero of a son who, finally, slays the snake after many an adventure. The people previously swallowed are thus liberated.
While working on a book on the Kamoro people, we had recently seen a seldom-performed ritual. Indeed, it was common knowledge that it had been well over 20 years since the mbiikao spirit mask had been used in a ceremony in the area. These masks, with a long snout and ending in high, pointed heads, are made of vegetal fibers plaited into elaborate head-and-shoulder coverings with strips of grass below to conceal the lower body of the spirit-performer. The children of the village where certainly not used to the mask: when they caught their first glimpse of the mask-clad spirit figure, all fled for their lives in absolute terror. We found out that none of the older people know how to make these masks, but that a young man had learned the skill from his grandfather before the old man died, and he was the only person in several nearby villages who could still make a mbiikao. In order to encourage the making of these masks, we created a category for them in the art competition. Unfortunately, with three old masks, only two new ones were brought in, specially made for the festival, with one of them gracing the lead performer in one of the dance teams. We hope this will revive the use of the mbiikao in the Kamoro culture: after all, this was one of the main purposes of the Kamoro cultural festival.
Most of the items in the creative carvings category were walking sticks, items already made for sale at least by the 1960’s and perhaps earlier. According to Kooijman, who wrote a book about Kamoro are, ‘a walking stick could not have been made in the traditional culture. This was an item produced for sale to European travelers and represents a new commercial application of traditional motifs and traditional woodcarving.” While several of the walking sticks were very well carved, there was little if any real creativity, of the type this category was supposed to foster. We’ll try again next year. We were also disappointed with the items submitted in the animals category: some crude, tired looking fish and lifeless crocodiles, along with two birds well made, if not especially artistic.
We did better in the daily life category, with several very nice sago bowls, elegantly shaped and with geometric ornamentation, along with the occasional human figure. One of the best of these sago bowls, already unusual as it was the only one with a lid, was carved by a woman, the sole lady who participated in the traditionally male preserve of wood carving. There were several sago-pounders of various sizes, along with a bundle of made-for-sale spears and arrows of no redeeming artistic value – but snapped up by an aggressive buyer, thank goodness.
There was one category especially reserved for the ladies: vegetal fiber plaiting of either clothes or any daily use items. Although we saw the odd basket, just about all the women who participated had made clothes: blouses (some with very sexy and fashionable, squared off shoulders and with open slits in the front….) and skirts, along with a variety of body decorations. Withered but spry little old ladies with bright eyes and wonderful expressions held their women items up during the auction, received their money, and, later, the top three graciously accepted their winnings in the evening.
The political circumstances of the country in 1999, especially the uncertainties of the presidential elections, mandated a much smaller Kamoro festival that year. While much fewer carvers showed up, the quality of the sculptures had improved considerably, thanks to the stimulus provided by the previous year’s auction and the concomitant appreciation of the art by the outside world. There is sense of re-awakening among the Kamoro artists but they are still far from achieving the quality and the imagination of their forefathers’ carvings on display in several European museums. But is hoped that the festival, scheduled to become a years event in mid-October, will keep stimulating the long dormant talents of the Kamoro artists. Anyone interested can help by showing up at the festival which, while not held for tourists, welcomes any visitors interested in this fascinating culture.
Note: most of the information on modern art is based on Suzanne Greub’s The Art of North-West New Guinea, New York, Rizzoli, 1992. The other material comes from my field work, especially from helping to organize the Kamoro festivals in 1998 and 1999 as a consultant with Freeport Indonesia.