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Creative Spirits. Bark Painting in the Washkuk Hills of North New Guinea.

Creative Spirits. Bark Painting in the Washkuk Hills of North New Guinea By Ross Bowden Melbourne: Oceanic Art Pty Ltd. 2006. Pp: x + 202. Price: Aust $70.

The information in this richly-illustrated book is based on a period of intensive fieldwork among the Kwoma from October 1972 until January 1974, followed by many visits for shorter periods up until recent years. Bowden has published in detail on the culture of the Kwoma, especially his 1983 Pitt Rivers Museum publication, Yena: art and ceremony in a Sepik Society, his chapters on Kwoma art and architecture in Sepik Heritage (1990, edited by Lutkehaus et al.) and in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics (1992, edited by Coote and Shelton), and his Dictionary of Kwoma published in 1997 by Pacific Linguistics (C134) at ANU.

The clarity and depth of understanding demonstrated in Creative Spirits is due to Bowden's knowledge of the language. There are many references to vernacular terms relevant to the subject at hand. Sometimes these terms are translated in ways that give the reader a window into how the Kwoma experience their world. For example (p.80), Bowden glosses the term hokwa not only as sung poetry but also as ' ... "noise" or "sound" in general, such as a noise that someone might hear outside their house at night and wonder whether it was made by a person or some other entity'.

The material in the book incorporates information given in the publications cited above, but goes well beyond that by analysing in detail 135 paintings (on the base of flattened sago palm fronds, commonly and mistakenly referred to a 'spathes' by many authors, as Bowden points out). The oldest of these paintings were produced in the second half of the 1960s and the most recent in 1988; 25 of them are in the PNG National Museum and 45 in the National Gallery of Victoria. Some no longer exist as they were photographed in situ and have since been destroyed.

Such paintings are fixed to the underside of the roof of a men's cult house, the main structural elements of which are carved and painted with figurative designs. Each Kwoma village has at least one such men's cult house in which ceremonial displays and rituals are performed having to do with the planting and harvesting of yams, and the affirmation of homicide as an admirable trait in the context of warfare.

Bowden provides an outline of the social structure of the Kwoma--the division into four 'tribes', each of which is divided into many clans. The tribe that produced the paintings dealt with in this book is called Honggwama and it has 18 clans located in three villages. Both tribes and villages vary considerably in size (see Bowden's Table 1.1) and the number of clans in each village also varies--in the case of the three villages of the Honggwama, from two to nine (see Table 2.1). Cross-cutting this village and clan structure of the Honggwama are six totemic divisions. Each totemic division is characterised by a particular set of totem plants, animals, non-living objects such as the sun and moon, spirits and mythical figures (Tables 2.2, 2.3). It is necessary to grasp the structure of Kwoma society to understand the iconography of the paintings, as the subjects of the paintings are usually, but not always, representations of the totems 'belonging' to the painter's clan; painters must have special permission to paint the totems of other clans. Ideally, the clans present in a village could be discerned from the subjects of the paintings in the men's cult house, though in practice this is not so easily done as Bowden explains in detail in Chapter 6.

Chapter 5 deals with the characteristics that may be identified as definitive of Kwoma 'style', that is, a distinct way (nobo) of doing things. The Kwoma also have a term for the distinct personal style of painting or carving, which is tapa or 'hand'--the same as in English.

In his discussion of style, Bowden refers to a number of writers--archaeologists, art historians and anthropologists. He favours the archaeologist Sackett, who believes that the degree of similarity in style between the objects produced by two societies is an indicator of ethnic relatedness. Bowden is happy with this if the relatedness is not confined to genetic relatedness, as indicated by linguistic relatedness, but can extend to proximity. Thus near neighbours speaking a different language may share a style of painting that is not shared with linguistically-related, but more distant, communities. The relative effect of language and propinquity on differences in material culture is an issue that has been tested by Welsch and Terrell (American Anthropologist 94: 568-601) with disputed results.

The painted designs may be figurative or, much more frequently, non-figurative (Table 5.1). Following Boas, Bowden discusses this difference in terms of images that are essentially an outline of the form of the subject of the paintings versus disarticulated images where various components of the subject are represented non-figuratively and assembled into a design that does not resemble the appearance of the subject. What characterises all of the designs is symmetry. Bowden is perhaps the first to reference the system described in Washburn & Crowe's 1988 Symmetries of Culture, albeit in simplified form, in an analysis of the structure of graphic designs produced by a Pacific culture. He sets out in Tables 5.2 and 5.3 the various types of symmetry found in Kwoma paintings, namely vertical and horizontal reflection, rotation and translation. He admits no instances of glide reflection yet Plate 5.8 (compare to Fig. 5.2) clearly shows one example; but it must be rare. This is interesting because glide reflection is common for designs on arrowheads and arrow foreshafts in the upper Sepik and central New Guinea (see Craig, Chapter 12 in Smidt et al., 1995, Pacific Material Culture). In addition to the usefulness of this approach to analysis of the paintings of other Sepik cultures, the analysis of Lapita pottery designs could be radically advanced by application of the Washburn & Crowe system.

There is general agreement among members of Kwoma communities that there is only one correct 'meaning' of a design but Bowden found that this 'meaning' is decided by the painter himself and may not be known to many others. This accounts for the wide variation in interpretations of designs. Even the painter himself may not know at first what it is he is painting and might even change his mind, during the process of painting, about what is being represented (also, Bowden points out, reported by Forge for the Abelam to the north-east).

In Chapter 6, Bowden shows that while some images represent only one kind of entity that is consistently recognised as such, others are 'multi-vocal' --similar designs may depict different entities and different designs may depict the same entity. He compares this with the report by Schuster for paintings (and shield designs) in the May River area further up the Sepik to the west. Schuster accounts for the multi-vocality of designs in that area in terms of imperfect knowledge and deterioration of the culture due to contact with Europeans. Bowden prefers to see multi-vocality as a characteristic of society prior to European influence; this is certainly true for the Namie of Yellow River, the Abau of Green River area and the Mountain-Ok of central New Guinea, where 1 found that the designs on arrows, smoking tubes, shields, house boards and other artefacts are multivocal and this could not be attributed to imperfect knowledge on the part of informants.

The technology of painting and learning to paint are clearly described in Chapters 3 and 8 respectively; Chapter 4 shows how relatively few design elements can be combined to make more complex designs (compare the more elaborate Abelam system demonstrated by Hauser-Schaublin, 1989, Leben in Linie Muster und Farbe, pp.32-47). Chapter 9 discusses recent developments in the use of materials, and changes in the imagery brought about by contact with a wider range of cultures.

Chapter 7, on artistic values and aesthetic creativity, is perhaps the most provocative section of the book in that Bowden shows how Kwoma beliefs and practices challenge Western notions of art, aesthetics, artistic creativity and the cultural importance of the artist. Discussing whether or not Kwoma have a word equivalent to the Western notion of 'art' (p.81), Bowden notes that the term jebwa, meaning 'design', can include also 'rough designs scratched in the earth to indicate the relative positions of two entities, and the letters of the alphabet that people form when writing.' He concludes that the most accurate translation of jebwa would be '... intentionally made, meaningful mark' and that this overlaps with the Western notion of 'art' but is not equivalent to it. Nevertheless Bowden continues to use the word 'art' and 'artist' in the book when perhaps it would have been more consistent to use the terms 'painting', 'painter', 'carving', 'carver', and so on.

Even more significantly, painters and carvers are not acknowledged as creators of the designs they produce; rather, the Kwoma believe, 'their art replicates prototypes of supernatural origin and owes nothing of cultural significance to human creativity' (p.78). The outcome of this is that 'no effort is made to preserve the memory of the names of the great artists of the past, or of the paintings or carvings they produced.' (This is, Bowden notes, a cautionary tale for those, like Sally Price, who accuse museum curators of neglect in routinely failing to name the creators of the objects in their collections). Further, no effort is made by the Kwoma to preserve a deteriorating cult house, with its carved and painted works, and there is no compunction about burning it when it has passed its use-by date and replacing it with a new one. Bowden contrasts this with the sense of loss Westerners would attribute to such an outcome but in fact it provides the conditions for individual creativity, even if unacknowledged by the Kwoma themselves.

Chapter 10 is a worthy tribute to the work of six Kwoma painters. A short biography, with a photograph of the painter, introduces several paintings by each man; each painting is provided with a detailed commentary on the subject depicted, often with a relevant myth. It also provides the reader with the opportunity to apply to the works the principles learnt from the preceding text.

The book is splendidly designed, and illustrated with crisp photographs, most in colour. The map is clear and the Index comprehensive. There were only about a dozen typos that I could find and only three could possibly lead to a confusion of understanding: p.34: 'since the other pigments do [not] adhere to it'; p.51 'through the use of relief [shading] (chiaroscuro)'; p. 131: 'bisected by a yellow [red] bar'. This book is the product of an enviable depth of field research and scholarship and is a model for what others might do with their field observations of the material culture and 'art' of New Guinea societies.

Barry Craig

South Australian Museum
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Author:Craig, Barry
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Date:Nov 1, 2007
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