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Raymond Corbey, Snellen om namen; De Marind-Anim van Nieuw-Guinea door de ogen van de Missionarissen van het Heilig Hart, 1905-1925.

Raymond Corbey, Snellen om namen; De Marind-Anim van Nieuw-Guinea door de ogen van de Missionarissen van het Heilig Hart, 1905-1925. Leiden: KITLV Uitgeverij, 2007, 137 pp. ISBN 9789067183024. Prijs: 18,90 (paperback).

'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.' This quotation by Diane Arbus, with which Corbey opens his book, captures the ambivalence and ambiguity inherent in the pictures displayed in Snellen om namen; De Marind-Anim van Nieuw-Guinea door de ogen van de Missionarissen van het Heilig Hart, 1905-1925 (Killing for names; The Marind Anim of New Guinea through the eyes of missionaries of the Sacred Hart, 19051925). They are, as Corbey describes in his preface (p. 8), familiar, alienating, confronting, voyeuristic and aggressive at the same time.

The photographs Corbey presents to us were predominantly made by missionaries of the Sacred Hart (MSC, Missionarrii Sacritissimi Cordis) from Tilburg, who stood witness to the vanishing culture of the Marind Anim living on the southwest coast of what was then Dutch New Guinea. The Tilburg missionaries had established their first mission post in Merauke in 1905, shortly after the Dutch government had established a government post in the area due to complains by the British government about killings by Marind Anim of people living on the British side of the border (p. 7). The photographs displayed here concern the period up until 1925, after which much of the traditional Marind Anim culture radically changed.

In addition to the circa 50 photographs made by the missionaries, Corbey has added about 15 photographs by the Swiss ethnographer Paul Wirz, who did fieldwork among the Marind Anim between 1916 and 1919, and in 1922. Four other photographs come from the collection of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam. As Corbey explains in his preface (p. 8), his choice for the selected photographs derives mainly from their ethnographic-documentary value with regard to the traditional way of life and culture of the Marind Anim (p. 8). This selection, as well as the interest of the missionaries who took the photographs, results in a collection of images representing the Marind Anims' spirit world, headhunting rituals, initiations, and other rituals, such as those surrounding birth and death (p. 8).

In addition to a fascinating collection of photographs, Corbey presents us with a short but informative introduction (pp. 10-29) to the culture of the Marind Anim, as well as a bibliography (pp. 31-4). Basing himself mainly on missionary writings and the ethnographic studies of Paul Wirz and Jan van Baal, he describes the cosmological world of the Marind Anim, in which clans, spirits, fertility, strength, life, death and rituals (such as headhunting and the consumption of human sperm) are intrinsically intertwined.

Among the Marind Anim, headhunting was part of a long initiation ritual in which the goal of obtaining the 'head-name' (pa igiz), translated by the missionaries as snelnaam (headhunting name), was crucial (p. 19). Upon killing and beheading the victim, the Marind tried to find out the victim's names, which they would then give to their children. Each adolescent had to get such a snelnaam, which explains the large number of heads that had to be hunted (p. 19). Corbey mentions that around 1925, there were Marind who had their traditional clan name, and a snelnaam, as well as a Roman Catholic name, which they obtained at their baptism (p. 19). The next generation, however, would no longer have snelnamen as both colonial government and missionaries worked hard to eliminate headhunting, which they saw as a horrific and 'barbaric' custom (pp. 19-20).

The missionaries who encountered this passionate and violent culture, as Van Baal characterized it (p. 11), were both appalled and fascinated by the practices they encountered. The Marind are described as animals, as immoral people who indulge in barbaric practices of headhunting and ritual promiscuity (pp. 22-3). The photographs displayed reflect some of this abhorrence, as well as the missionaries' fascination and love for the Marind Anim. Several missionaries praise the kind, merry and friendly character of the Marind, who were as ambivalent toward the missionaries as the missionaries were toward them (pp. 23-6).

Snellen om namen is now also available in English under the title Headhunters from the swamps; The Marind Anim of New Guinea as seen by the missionaries of the Sacred Heart, 1905-1925 (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2010). Its strength lies above all in its photographs, which enmesh the viewer in an enthralling gaze of alienation and familiarization, of horror and compassion, unsettling the reader and urging him or her to learn more about the Marind Anim and their culture.


Radboud University Nijmegen
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Author:Hermkens, Anna-Karina
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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