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Papuan Cultures Drum...

They reverberate to the ancient essential beat of the hollowed log, as have their ancestors for more than twenty-five thousand years. They sway in unison, chanting at times for days during festivities that transport them leagues from their everyday reality. They also screech and scream, running about in chaotic looking patterns that are, in fact, prescribed. Their world is deeply interconnected, reaching from inner depths to a cosmology that is surprisingly complex. In the crucible that is Papua New Guinea, over seven hundred tribal groups have had time to evolve so distinctly that even neighboring tribes could need an interpreter to establish contact between them. Perhaps due to this insularity, each of Papua New Guinea’s tribal groups also became singularly rigid in adherence to their own system of belief that, in each case, was handed down by strict oral tradition. While generalities naturally exist when speaking of the area as a whole, it is important to recall that each and every tribe has its own deities and supernatural forces, as well as a corresponding context structuring these powers.

Papua New Guinea is a fascinating place. Part of what is commonly called Melanesia the island, incredibly, remained largely unexplored until the middle of the 20th Century. Until that time, though they had developed an intensely spiritual culture, the Papuan people breathed in time with the natural world around them. They hunted on the land, raised fowl and pigs and used ancient cultivation techniques. Here perhaps, the road to change was the slowest in the world, as the tribal animist societies of Papua New Guinea, each in turn, clashed with modern times. Papua New Guinea is a place where, still today, a grandfather may find it surreal that his grandson would want to wear clothing. It is also today a place where that same grandson would believe the clothes to be inhabited by spirits. Despite time’s inexorable advance here too, his animist system of belief has kept the tribal Papuan solidly rooted in his spiritual past. Mirroring in spiritual depth the complexity of animal evolution in the Galapagos Islands, the cultures of Papua New Guinea are unique, not only in their respective constructs but in the rituals and arts that support them.
Middle Sepik,
wood, 34”
Middle Sepik,
wood, 34”"

The second largest island in the world, Papua New Guinea is also astonishing for its variety of flora and fauna. Rivaled in concentration only by the Amazon Basin, the island boasts thousands of varieties of plants, insects and birds. One can only imagine the effect of the primordial jungle upon its human dweller. Whether living at the foothills of its snow-capped volcanoes, along the coastal mangrove swamps or in its dense river valley jungle, the tribal Papuan certainly had the landscape to feed his imagination. While majestic and lush, the land is thick with vegetation and, in many parts, dark under the tropical canopy. Night comes early in the jungle; and one could easily wonder whether it’s sounds, or silence, contributed most to the spiritual construct of the tribal Papuan.

Basket Hook,
Chambri Lakes,
wood, 27”
Basket Hook,
Chambri Lakes,
wood, 27”
Papuan tribal culture is animist. As such, as noted by Meyer; “… each and every thing in the Tribal world is inhabited by a spirit, be it a tree, a fish hook or an ant.”. Animism is the common thread in the stupefying variety of art from this region. Indeed, animism is the purpose for the art of the tribal Papuan. In the desire to connect his worldly objects to his spiritual construct, every little area of the tribal Papuan’s being, from the most insignificant utensil to the most important icon, is decorated or adorned to please specific spirits. Given this framework, despite its boundless variety and endless forms, despite its veritable embodiment of a subtly structured chaos, Papuan tribal art is a collage of materials that must never fail to establish a connection to the intended spirit. In order even to be allowed participation in his construct, the art object of the tribal Papuan must reach beyond its physical presence and clearly reflect the spiritual sense of its maker. This complex relationship with the viewer, its processes and effects are a crucial facet in the very intention behind the creation of the icons in Papua New Guinea.

The art of the Papua New Guinea is not confined to being didactic. Although it may be produced to exist in the physical world and in the ‘image’ of a spirit, the art of the tribal Papuan, more importantly, is produced with the intention of creating, in its viewer, an 'inherent grasp' of the underlying system that created it. As noted by Buhler: “In primitive cultures a work of art obtains particular significance as a message or communication that finds general acceptance among those to whom it is addressed. …in most cases they are a means of representing, sustaining and reinforcing concepts of various kinds. They are the most important medium through which the basic values of a culture can be illustrated, propagated, taught and firmly implanted in men’s minds.” As such, though rendered in our physical world, there is no question that this art must speak to a receptor in man that is more than just empirical.

This is very possibly the magic that allows for such connection between this art and the viewer today. Indeed, if one is caused a moment of daydream, if one’s mental ‘conversations’ which continuously reaffirm his own construct are quieted by the shock therapy that is Papuan tribal art, then is he not at least spiritually connected? Furthermore, can spiritual connection not be defined as that moment of pure, silent perception where one finds that, although indefinable, an essential part of him is alone in the universe with the object, and the object speaking back?

Certainly the animist Papuan experiences this innate connection in his ritual. When a dancer dons mask and costume, he is not the manifestation of the spirit - he is the spirit. Notwithstanding the physical ‘truth’ of that statement, the more important truth is that the dancer or ritual participant believes it. Departing from conscious thought, the dancer, by his movements, by his singing and by his underlying belief, has crossed to the purest of the mind’s realms; he no longer experiences inner dialogue.

In discussing the inner dialogue with a colleague recently, he eloquently described it as ‘’the mind going to the place where things have no name’’. A common theme in Oceania, this state of ‘dreamtime’ is one of purest instinct, perception, and in the animist system of belief, a direct connection to divinity. Though the neighboring Aboriginal people poetically claim man to have been created in this ‘dreamtime’, can it not be said that, beyond creation, the world of man is ‘maintained’ by his inner dialogue? The inner dialogue, ongoing despite the outward physical appearance of man, is seemingly the brain’s method of sustaining its construct. Educated at youth and brought to 'reason' by reflecting his education to his society, the mind of man seems to continue this education on its own, by the process of this dialogue.

A possessive instrument, the inner dialogue refuses that which is not part of its construct. No matter what is said, and even sometimes seen, the inner dialogue of man holds firm to its own construct, the failure of which, in western society is simply called insanity. This process in itself, while a necessary element of the psyche, does have the counter productive aspect of limiting ones own perception only to the elements of his construct. To believe that true inspiration or creation comes from this inner dialogue is then probably erroneous. An icon is not meant to placate a thought process but rather a god/deity that is either created, or upheld in creation, by that thought process. Nor is the inner dialogue a being’s house of faith. Could transcendent insight or ‘thinking outside the box’ then not be seen as the result of interruptions in the inner dialogue of man? If so, what exists in our vocabulary for describing the resulting state?

At times called inspiration, originality or insight, the suspension of inner dialogue is intricately woven in the patterns and processes of ritual. Indeed, despite their incredible variety, numbers and stated ‘raison d’etre’, the rituals of the world, certainly those of Papua New Guinea, all seem directed toward suspending the reasoning process of man, his inner dialogue. Through this sublime process, they create, in their participant, a transcendent state where perception alone is allowed to rule. Directed then within the rigid outlines of the ritual, the participant is gently coerced into perceiving/realizing elements that both structure and reinforce his particular system of belief.

The iconic arts produced for these rituals, and produced in this same 'suspended' state, are then, naturally enough, essential representations/aides of the process they participate in and further. While produced to exist in the physical world, their very existence is meant to create a bridge to the spiritual world which first gave them life and scope. These arts do not represent spirits or deities but instead personify these powers. On this Buhler claimed that: ‘‘the men engaged in a ritual dance are the mythical figures they represent; the act of creation reproduced in a dramatic form is that event. Even the spectators find themselves at this moment not in the everyday world but in a sacred world. …This results in an affirmation – indeed, a realization- of the sacred order.” In this way, and like the greater process they inhabit, like the rituals they are used in, the art objects themselves are meant to stop one’s inner dialogue.

To attempt to view this art by negotiating it through our inner dialogue would be like trying to intellectualize a color, a smell or a taste. Rather, just like any of our senses, to savor this art in inner silence, to regale in its plays upon our ‘perceptive instrument’ is possibly to join it, in the realm of divinity.

In this surprising way, the tribal art of Papua New Guinea is more than, as stated by Guiart, “a veritable cure for the hardening of the imaginative arteries’’; it is, in fact, a shout that makes one silent.

Marc Assayag

Spirit Figure, Kaminabit Village, Middle Sepik, wood, shells,
clay, cus cus tails, 26”
Spirit Figure,
Kaminabit Village,
Middle Sepik,
wood, shells, clay,
cus cus tails, 26”


Photography: Marc Assayag
Website: Marc Assayag, Stephen Lazarus, Mary Lou Beauharnois and David Driver
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