Myth & Magic: Art of the Sepik River

An exhibition of rarely seen tribal masterpieces from Papua New Guinea is currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia. Jessica Kemister and Louise Keast, ANU students of art history, talk to exhibition curator Crispin Howarth about traditional art and culture of the Sepik Region, professional art practices and the difficulties and delights of curating Myth + Magic.

Louise: Crispin, can you tell us how you came to work as curator of Pacific Art at the NGA?

Crispin: I have always been interested in things, which were outside of my own environment. I’m sure that you both have your own art genres that float your boat and excite you. But for me, I grew up in the North West of England, and a museum there in Liverpool, had this incredible display of art from Papua New Guinea. After backpacking and travelling around the world, I realized that here in this country, almost everyone’s second or third relative had spent some time in Papua New Guinea and there was a whole historical connection. As I got to know more I got to meet some of the really, to me, historical figures to do with Australian early colonial history in PNG. When I returned back to England, I kept knocking on the door of that very same museum asking do you have any jobs? I was completely obsessed. I ended up working in the cloakroom, I worked giving school kids tours, I worked my way up through volunteer roles and an internship until I found myself back in Melbourne working at the Museum of Victoria as an information officer in the Discovery Centre. Basically, we were the buffer zone between the general public and the curator… I had to learn all about all the various sciences the museum encompassed. People would even deposit road-kill in the museum; I actually had this giant wedge-tail eagle that had no head and I was trying to get it into a freezer, and the freezer’s already got two wombats in it… From there I became a Collection Manager for the Indigenous Cultures Department and then in my mid-thirties, I went back to school to do Museum Studies/Cultural Heritage course at Deakin University, you’ve got to remember I left school when I was fifteen. And then, a colleague dared me to go for a job at the National Gallery. So I did, because let’s face it, every opportunity in life is also a challenge. It’s better to have tried and failed than to just think oh, I could never do that. I came here in 2007 as the first curator for Pacific Arts at the NGA and Myth + Magic is my fourth exhibition.

L: So you have curated a couple before?

C: Yeah, I’ve done exhibitions elsewhere in the world, but here at the NGA my first exhibition was Gods, Ghosts and Men (2008), then VARILAKU: Pacific Arts from the Solomon Islands (2011), Kastom: Art of Vanuatu (2013) and this one. So each exhibition I’ve done has been completed in an 18-24 month lead-time, starting from scratch. The best exhibitions are usually done under budget and on schedule- two majorly important things to ensure you get a project green-lighted in the future.

Jess: So out of all of those exhibitions, which one do you think was your favourite?

C: Well the exhibitions have been quite diverse. My first exhibition was a selection of highlights from our own NGA Collection. That was quite good, as it was basically saying We’re here, look at what we are doing.

L: So they started building the Pacific Arts Collection here in 1968. Was there a major acquisition that was the focus of this?

C: Sir William Dargie was fundamental in developing the Pacific Arts Collection at the NGA. He did no less than three field trips to Papua New Guinea in the late 60s, and he was no spring chicken. He was in his mid-fifties, wallowing around in a big swamp with crocodiles and mosquitoes to buy art. He was really passionate and a few objects that he collected are actually displayed in this show. That’s how we started our collection. The collection at that time was seen as ‘Primitive’ Art, the French call it arts premiers (the “first arts”), which is kind of daggy. We go for Pacific Arts; it’s more general and can encompass both contemporary and older traditional material. Then in 1973, Gough Whitlam came to power and changed the whole arts and cultures scene. The focus on developing a Pacific Arts Collection was stopped. It basically stayed in mothballs and when the NGA opened in 1981 it was still in mothballs and Australian Indigenous Art was in its ascendancy. In the early 80s it was being recognized as great art, and it’s from our own backyard. So anything like this was seen as a bit of a colonial cringe. All the shields, spears and scary masks in museums slowly went off display as there was an increased celebration of our indigenous culture. And it’s not until the 21st century where people such as myself have been pushing Pacific Arts again, that any of it has really had a chance to go on display.

J: What about the global context?

L: I find it interesting that the whole spark of your career was founded from a Pacific Arts collection in Liverpool.

C: C’mon, the Beatles Museum is boring. You’ve got to remember that Museums used to be universal. Before today’s age, where we can travel anywhere to see anything, in the early 20th century museums showed the world to the local person who worked at the local factory, the local docks, down the local coalmine. The idea was that you could see examples of culture from all around the world you would otherwise never see. Now all of that has changed, museums now focus on the history of their local areas because if I want to learn about London, I can go to London.

L: The world is accessible now.

C: Yes, so museums have changed. Personally my goal here is that if a few kids were here and get blown away by this stuff, go off and learn more, then I’ve done my job. Being an art gallery and not a museum, we keep the contextual labels to a minimum. The trick to a fine label is to point out a couple of facts which make the person who actually took the time to read it, because not everyone reads labels as we know, we’ve all rushed into opening an iPad without reading how to turn it on…we learn more through experience and interaction.

J: So the iPads used in this exhibition, are they a new move at the NGA?

C: Well museums always should try to embrace new technology to get people into it. Have you seen the two 3D screens we have? These were actually done by CSIRO staff utilising technology used during the quarantine process; with pop-ups of information in a way you can see more of the object here than you can on display.

L: What are the contemporary art practices in the Sepik Region like?

C: Well in this area there are individual artists developing self-expression, instead of making things for a cultural purpose. There is only a small amount of art being made today for traditional purposes. Some artists are carving appropriations of these masks for the tourist market, a souvenir good trading upon the exoticism of the other. I’m sure you’ve heard about how Picasso liked collecting masks…

L: We wanted to ask you about that actually, the mask made from a pig skull in the Max Ernst Collection.Why were the Dadaists so interested and intrigued by foreign objects?

C: What an impossible question to answer quickly! In the 1920s it was de rigueur to have something exotic. We acquired in 1985, 96 objects from Australian Surrealist artist Max Ernst’s Private Collection. Some of the objects in that collection, I noticed had exactly the same sort of paint, which I checked out and Ernst had actually, thinking he’s a shaman, had actually bling’d up some of the carvings he had collected. So does that mean that that object is now worth a lot more money because it’s now an Ernst original? Or should it still be respected in it’s own right, an object made by an anonymous artist of great talent from an exotic culture? Now this little fella here [pointing to a Wusear figure] was collected by Sir William Dobell around 1950 and then spent the rest of it’s life on his studio wall.

C: One of the important things when we are showing anything from recent cultures or living cultures is that indigenous protocols must be observed. For example in this room here we’ve had to put warnings due to the display of human remains. For Kastom we had to have certain chiefs come over [from Vanuatu] and have a blessing ceremony and all of these different things to observe the right respect of the art if you will.

C: The crocodile in the last room, measuring 6.3 metres long. We lent it from PNG National Museum, and we thought that would be the major issue would be getting it through customs. But in fact, moving this item within the museum was harder because the crocodile was way too big for the artlifts. The crocodile had to come up past the supreme court, past the old foyer. We had to unscrew a door and bring the entire crate with the crocodile within, straight in. There was no mucking about. That’s actually one of the only remaining crocodiles like that is still in tact. All the others have been hacksawed into four or five different pieces. Can you imagine, you’ve got to travel down several different swamps and rivers with these things, the rest that are over in Berlin and New York are hacked into pieces. This one actually has a hacksaw line on it where someone started, and then they must have figured out a way to move it without dissecting it.

These words are just a snippet from the transcription of Jessica and Louise’s interview with Crispin Howarth. If you’ve found this interesting make sure you do not miss Myth + Magic: art of the Sepik River, which closes on 1 November, 2015.