LAST weekend I attended a series of talks at the Art Gallery of NSW followed by a visit to an incredible collection of New Guinea Highland artifacts collected by Stanley Moriarty.
From his early teenage years, Moriarty had a fascination for art from the South Pacific. He collected from second hand shops and galleries but didn’t travel to Papua New Guinea until 1961 when he was 55.
This exhibition of Highlands artwork ranging from an ancient stone mortar and pestle to more modern masks and statues has been kept together as a collection. The exhibition is a credit to curator Natalie Wilson with the pieces tastefully displayed in a spacious gallery.
The main speakers - Dr Andrew Moutu, Dr Michael Mel, Chris Boylan, and fibre and bilum artist, Florence Jaukae Kamel - gave presentations with a PNG perspective that were informative and interesting.
The softly spoken Dr Moutu’s descriptions and background on the destruction of the traditionally carved lintels at Parliament House in Port Moresby certainly highlighted the damaged that can be caused by extremists, whether from the charismatic sector or some other religious group.
Dr Michael Mel’s skills as a performance artist were very evident. He has a charisma and presence that immediately engaged the audience. He spoke of the importance of his place and his community and finished with a gentle but humorous political dig at Australia and its refugee centre in Manus. To what community will the refugees belong?
Florence Jaukae Kamel conveys a presence and a strength that has obviously enabled her to take a stand on cultural subjects and influences in her fibre artwork. She could be described as a reactionary in the manner she has tackled head on male adversaries in her culture. She spoke with passion about her work which includes synthetic as well as natural fibres and the designs and what they represent.
There is a huge woven ‘bilum’ tapestry on display above the stairwell adjacent to the exhibition.
The exhibition comprises 89 pieces representing examples of artwork from Sandaun, Eastern Highlands, Southern Highlands, Western Highlands, Enga, Simbu , Jiwaka and Hela Provinces.
The shields, masks, wigs and carved male and female figures are striking. My favourite piece was a cassowary cloak/mask.
There is also a Department of Information services film of a Highlands show with Viscount De L’Isle officiating. The sounds of the show and singsings can be listened to on headphones and will no doubt cause some nostalgia.
The footage of plumed Highland warriors riding in wilwil races, driving dodgem cars and listening in awe to a record player captures the naivety of the era and is a complete contrast to the proud warriors entering the stadium in their hundreds and performing their mesmerising sing sings.
An excellent book with beautiful photographs of the artwork in the exhibition is on sale in the gallery book store. The exhibition is free and runs until 30 August.
You can find a terrific little ABC film clip about the exhibition here.