Sotheby’s is delighted to present The Blue Horizon: Pacific Art from an Important Maui Collection, celebrating the special allure of the Pacific Ocean and its legendary artistic cultures. This private collection of classical Oceanic artworks was assembled in dialogue with an important group of works by modern and contemporary Western masters such as Franz Kline, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol LeWitt, and in reference to the stunning setting of the collector’s residence on Maui. There the natural splendor of the Hawaiian Islands harmonized with bold abstraction, spiritual power, and patinas of ritual use, awakening the universal beauty achieved by the artists of the Pacific Islands.
The sculptural forms of Papua New Guinea have enthralled viewers on many continents. One multi-ethnic geographical area is the Gulf District in the south eastern part of the island. The art forms created there range from small engraved young coconut charms (marupai) to towering masks made of barkcloth, cane and painted raffia with flowing symmetrical motifs. Some art forms were only used and danced by men with secret and clan knowledge and others were joyously escorted by women.
One art form - Spirit Boards - continues to fascinate viewers since they were initially seen in the late nineteenth-century by the first Europeans to travel and settle there. Depending on the region where they were created and collected, the boards are known by several names; hohao, kwoi, titi ebiha and the more generic term gope. The five Spirit Boards represented in the present collection survey the various styles that were created by sculptors from the east to the western regions of the Papuan Gulf.
In the eastern Gulf where London Missionary Society pastors such as Rev. James Chalmers and Rev. William Lawes first settled, there is a characteristic type of Spirit Board which was probably the earliest style to be collected and appear in the western world.
Called hohao and made among the Elema people, boards such as lot 51 have a distinctive style, elements of which are carried through and modified in the entire region. In this example, the parallel chevrons frame the board with its blackened triangular forehead. There are inverted teardrop eyes, and a three-dimensional triangular nose complete with a black nose ornament carved in relief that appears to pass through the three-dimensional septum. The oval mouth has lips outlined in black and showing jagged teeth. Below is the navel, an element that can be found on most boards in the Gulf. Regarding this anatomical feature it is thought that “…the navel is the animating feature that brings these boards to life by acting as the portal that allows the spirit access to the board. “(Welsch 2006:19) This style of board was photographed in situ by A.B. Lewis of the Field Museum in 1912.
Moving west to the central Purari region, the geometric imagery of the neighboring hohao gives way to a distinct curvilinear design and elongated almond shape. The form of board called kwoi, represented here by lot 53, also incorporates parallel “v” motifs in four upper and lower sections. Again, the forehead is indicated in blackened relief but here it is a softer shape with the sides sloping down to the nose and sides of the face. Clearly an early carving the type of which was seen for sale in Hamburg by J.F.G. Umlauff examples of which are in the Field Museum and collections in the United Kingdom and Europe. (Webb 2015:174 Fig.58a) According to the records in the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, this board “was was purchased by the museum from Leo Frobenius in 1937...the inventory book states that the Ancestor Board was exchanged for other pieces in December 1950 with the art dealer William Ohly (1883-1955), the founder and owner of the Berkleley Galleries in London, and of the Abbey Art Centre and Museum.“ (Matthais Claudius Hofmann pers.com.)
The largest board with the most elaborate motifs is lot 50, which possibly originates from the central Era River area. Two faces cover most of the board’s surface which is a large shield-like shape. The lower face is contained in a circle, then morphs into a jumping figure with the nose becoming the body. The upper face is a distinct one that closely resembles the face on the bioma figure in the Brooklyn Museum (83.246.3) photographed in situ by John Vandercook (Webb 2006: 73) and collected later by Thomas Schultze-Westrum. From the Era River area, Aimei village where the Brooklyn bioma was photographed in 1933, there is also a unique board with two faces now in the de Young Museum (2007.44.97) formerly in the collection of Marcia and John Friede.
In the Gope, Wapo and Era regions some style characteristics from the Purari area continue. One formal change is the exterior shape of some gope. [Gope 4] This change of form-with the addition of a round head and face on top of the elongated oval shape, is seen on Era area boards (Welsch 2006: 14 Fig.17). This type is also found in the Gope ethnic area. (Webb 2015:262-263; 266-267) Remarkable in its dynamic yet abstract figurative imagery, the board offered here as lot 52 also demonstrates an upside-down mirror image-a face in relief at the bottom with the ‘feet’ of the figures meeting in the center of the board. This convention is often seen in the art of the Papuan Gulf, especially in shields where the carrier can see also the face of the spirit when looking down at the shield.
Another unique and recognizable style is found in the western area of the Gulf in the Kerewa and Goaribari area, exemplified by lot 49. We know the most about this region from Robert Welsch’s research regarding Prof. William Patten who visited the area with A.B. Lewis. The ‘dancing’ figures that characterize the motif have classic teardrop-shaped eyes, thin stick-like limbs with oval bodies decorated with parallel ‘v’ shapes surrounding the characteristic navel. As well, at the bottom is a band containing black circles. This area is also home to a sculptural form called agiba which was often documented sitting on a platform of skulls. These circles may be a reference to that practice and the ceremonies which animated the boards which were said to be carried and danced before hunting.
These five Spirit Boards present the masterful artistic vision that so characterizes the arts and cultures of the Papuan Gulf.
Virginia Lee-Webb, PhD
Robert Welsch. Sebastian Haraha and Virginia-Lee Webb. Coaxing the Spirits to Dance. Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Hanover 2006.
Virginia-Lee. Webb. Embodied Spirits. Gope Boards from the Papuan Gulf. 5 Continents Editions. Milan 2015.
Deep in the dense tropical rainforest of Papua New Guinea, a complex of caves and rock shelters surround the Karawari River, a tributary of the great Sepik River which flows from the Central Highlands to the north coast of the island. Before the arrival of outsiders to this region, a rich culture and artistic tradition flourished which is today world-famous for its powerful and highly surreal anthropomorphic sacred sculptures. These spirit figures were created and used by male hunters in order to contact benevolent spirits to aid in hunting. Upon the death of a hunter, his aripa or spirit figure would be placed in the protective sanctuary of the rock caves, preserving them as heirlooms in an otherwise wet tropical environment. Karawari sculptures are therefore often of considerable age and bring us face-to-face with an archaic stone-age culture and the spiritual power of their sculptors.