Dance of the Ancestors

18 Mar — 14 Jun 2015 at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany

30 MARCH 2015
Mask, Museum der Kulturen Basel, © Museum der Kulturen Basel
Mask, Museum der Kulturen Basel, © Museum der Kulturen Basel

For the first time artworks from Oceania are the subjects of an exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. They come from an area on the middle and lower reaches of the river Sepik in Papua-New Guinea. About 220 artworks from twelve lenders – some of Europe’s most prominent museums are involved – will be on view. As early as the beginning of the 20th century the aesthetics of the art of the Sepik region were fascinating European scholars and artists, Berlin and Basel being centres of Sepik scholarship.

Although ethnological explorers were quick to speak of a “Sepik art”, the art world was more reserved, preferring to formulate theories of “Primitivism” – until well into the 1980s. The major exhibition on “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art – Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984) put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a reminder of this lengthy discussion. Today it is perfectly normal to view such artworks – previously held, like those of the Sepik region, to be “primitivistic”– for their aesthetic qualities. An opportunity to do so is provided by the present exhibition.

The Sepik plain is a large area of water and marshland. The banks of the Sepik, which extends for almost 1,200 kilometres, are inhabited by small tribal groups who speak over a hundred different languages. On the middle and lower reaches of the Sepik alone over ninety different languages are spoken, so one cannot think of the region as a relatively homogeneous settlement area. No sooner had the Sepik been discovered and named (in 1886) Kaiserin Augusta River by the German colonialists (who also drew on the same nomenclature for the Bismarck Sea into which it flowed), than the highly elaborate material culture aroused the attention of collectors and museologists all over the world.

The deeds of the ancestors created the human world. The changes they wrought are manifested in the environment and cultural relics. The ancestors, it is supposed, created the broad river basin of the Sepik, on whose embankments stand the dwellings and the houses of the men. Of key significance are the dance floors in front of the men’s houses; that is where the ancestor figures perform, recalling the great deeds of yore. The dancers embody these ancestors with their rich jewellery and brightly coloured masks and become one with them.

In walking through a village one finds that the rooms are arranged to reflect the social order: there is a clear division between the world of women and that of men, between the public sphere, where everyone is allowed to move about freely, and the sphere which is reserved for male initiates. Within the village the women are mainly assigned to the dwelling houses. The objects are visible. The men, on the other hand, chiefly congregate in the big men’s houses and on the dance floors. The objects are hidden and secret and are only on display when rites are performed.

In the forefront of the selection of ethnological art shown here, is the motif of the human figure, which is common to all cultures: the male or female founder-ancestors of settlements, human communities, and their natural environment. In Sepik societies this an-cestor figure is not shown directly. It always unravels itself gradually in complex patterns. The course of the exhibition will enable visitors to understand the various forms in which these ancestor figures manifest themselves, beginning with the more public ones which become progressively more secret.

The works are fascinating for their extremely rich decoration on small and large objects and the blending of creative genres which in Europe are kept strictly separate (painting, sculpture): a combination of sculptures in human form and surface decoration; of ornaments on palm leaf stalks and ceremonial buildings; of ceramics in the shape of model figures, used for storing or preparing food.

On display will be a large outrigger boat and a dug-out canoe, richly decorated door posts for men’s houses, huge slit drums, mighty ancestor figures, and splendidly ornamented masked figures. The river basin is a mosaic of linguistic groups. The ninety-odd languages partially explain the variety of created objects. Together with the elaborate rites there is a remarkable abundance of objects, whose formal design is frequently astonishing, fascinating and exotic.

For a long time the Sepik was overlooked by European, Amer-ican and Australian explorers and travellers. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that its mouth was discovered and the river navigated by a German ship (the Ottilie). Years were to pass, however, before scientific expeditions were organized. Leading German institutions launched voyages of exploration, from Hamburg in 1909 and from Berlin in 1912-13. The then Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology) in Berlin mounted a full-blown interdisciplinary expedition, some of whose results can only now be published. One of the protagonists of these expeditions had just discovered the sources of the Sepik River, when the First World War broke out in 1914 and soon spread to the South Seas. Australia conquered and took over control of the colony of “German New Guinea” in 1899-1914.

The present exhibition, put on a hundred years after the last Berlin expedition, will go a long way towards bringing this great Berlin enterprise to public attention, for it was only with this expedition that the Sepik area became one of the most significant regions for ethnographical and scientific research in the South Seas.

As early as 1911 a Berlin Museum employee recognized the extraordinary aesthetic value of the carvings from the Sepik. As a result numerous collectors from all over the world have exchanged and acquired these works in the course of adventurous journeys up the riv-er and its numerous tributaries. Soon these masks, figures and paint-ings came to be found in those art galleries which in the 1920s in Eu-rope and later also in America offered the art of the “Primitives” side by side with the art of the Modernists. The carvings from the Sepik thus became part of the visual repertoire available to the artists of Modernism at the beginning of the 20th century. They were also, however, the occasion of much other research which was to be carried out in the course of that century with the aim of obtaining more information about the significance and iconography of the objects. The exhibition shows a synthesis of this field of art, which also details the scientific expeditions of the last fifty years.