PAPUA NEW GUINEA

PAPUA NEW GUINEA VISIT - PART 5

         

HOUSE-TAMBERAN

The first figures to enter through the palm-fronded gateway in the outer palisade were ones called kutagwa. As near as I can get it, their function is primarily that of "devil-chasers" who clear the square of evil spirits who might mar the ceremonies. They are also figures of mystery-no one is supposed to know the identity of a kutagwa, and at the same time they are pranksters, as the merry Andrews were at old English fairs, though fearsome with their brandished spears. Each kutagwa wore a long cape of sewn sac-sac leaves. His face was heavily blackened with charcoal and, in most cases, spotted with white. On his head one of them wore a mass of shredded palm leaf that hung to his shoulders-and carefully cut out and mounted in the middle of it was the bird picture from a large packet of Emu Brand Flour! These kutagwa whirled and darted in all directions with their spears searing off the bad spirits, the maselai, making rushes that sent the village children screaming away in half-joyous fear.

Then, led by a drummer slapping throbs of rhythm from the kind of drum that looks like a black hour-glass, naked men came prancing in with spears. Their faces were marked with red paint and white, their arms rattled with shell bracelets, and most had, projecting from the back of their cropped hair and pinned with a bamboo comb into which was stuck a red flower, a very long feather stem stripped to an end that bounced and twitched as they moved round in a circle, chanting and stamping. The men with the big head-dresses were yet to come. when the big head-dress men came in the square was blazoned with colour that paled the paintings on the house-tamberan. The flaming torches showed a pageant procession of the finest man-made head-dresses I have ever seen in New guinea-though no amount of man-art can quite equal in effect the clustered abundance of Bird of paradise plumes that crown the heads of the men of the Wahgi Valley of the central highlands, my Adam in Plumes. These were of wickerwork beautifully painted and ornamented with feathers, rising from the shoulders and surrounding the wearer's head with a nimbus of brilliant colour. Contrasted bands and ric-rac of red, yellow, white and black filled the shape that mounted to a point like an inverted heart, or a spade in cards, and this was cockaded in front with a silky fountain of cream and yellow paradise plumes. These frameworks, so vivid in their concentric patterns, were delicately edged with small white feathers. The largest was about two feet high. I am told that there is a village between Maprik and the Sepik river where a head-dress may be eight feet high and five feet across; it is mounted on a bamboo pole the wearer carries on his shoulders and supports with both hands.

All these Maprik men were richly decked in other regalia. Their foreheads were banded and patterned with tiny cowrie shells. Circling boar-tusks hung from their ears. Their wealth of pink shell-money was round their necks, and each man held, clenched in his teeth, a karaut, which is an ornament of pig-tusks and shells and beads and featherwork, hanging to the waist and ending in fur-tails or the tails of pigs. Below all this panoply some wore nothing, or nothing except grass anklets, and what they wore accentuated the nakedness of their loins. A few "big" men-Surunjui was one-wore long grass skirts, almost to their feet, and these were dyed in colours; Surunjui's was mostly a henna-red. but what astonished me was Surunjui's face. he was black-painted to the cheekbones, and then thee was a "mask" of mud-paint right across his eyes.

The mud was bright yellow, thick as oil paint put on with a palette knife. It spread from his brows out to his ears and half-way down his nose. The matted lashes of his closed and covered eyes were just discernible. He was virtually blind. So was his partner, for Surunjui held the hand of another man similarly decorated. They moved round in a circle, bending at the knees, stopping and starting off again in a slow dance-march to the rhythm of the drums. Women were throwing green leaves of wild taro and palm fronds on the ground in front of them and while the dancers felt greenery beneath their feet they knew they were on the right path, and so they went on, round and round, to the beat of the drums and the chanting of the first men who had come in, for the big had-dress men did not, themselves, sing. 

Surunjui had eight or nine shell bracelets on one arm and as many on the other. black-lip pearshell hung on his shoulders. The bangles rattled and the pearlshell clinked against the boar tasks hanging from his ears, the tusks on his karaut made their own small sound, so did the strings and strings of shell-money necklaces on his chest. Above these sounds drums were beating, conch shells were blowing and from somewhere in the background came the thin piping of the sacred flutes. As I photographed him-there was no flicker of his caked eyelids as the flash-bulb went off-I heard another sound, a puzzling chincle-chinkle. I found out what it was afterwards, when rain stopped the dancing. Under all this proud and rich regalia Surunjui had, hanging on strings beneath his long fibre skirt, a dozen or so of the key openers that come with tins of canned corned-beef. it was these that had been chinkling together.

A terrific flash of lightning right down the starless sky suddenly lit, for one brilliant moment, the dance ground and all the faces on the house-tamberan. The thunderclap that followed the lightning down left the children, who had been mingling in the dance, clutching their heads. There was a good deal of clamour then and men rushed into the centre of the square calling out against the impending rain, and spitting at the sky. These "Keep-off!" prot4ests and gestures were no good as magic: big drops began to plummet down. The men with the fine head-dresses scattered off into the houses, others crowded under the sheltering overhang of the house-tamberan, and the rain came teeming. That seemed the end of everything for the night; but Karungarel said no-and he was right. The storm took its fireworks and thunder away to the west, and in about twenty minutes the rain stopped. The pageant-men emerged, slapping their feet on the wet clay, the drums got up their throb again and the conch shells blew. We watched for another hour before we went back down the mile or so of now-greasy path to the house-kiap, where John Neve was also staying the night. The dancing looked like gong through till morning.

I shall never know whether I would have been allowed inside the big house-tamberan if I had not presented Surunjui with two tins of meat and a half-pound of stick tobacco, which is a sizable present for even a headman to get, and which rather placed him in the position of having to do something of consequence for me in return. Such is the native custom of gift-exchange. However, I got a nice brotherly reception before the gift was produced - I was evidently associate in Surunjui's mind with his admirable "brother", the Kiap. Neither of us spoke or "heard" much pidgin, so pleasantries were exchanged through an interpreter Rupe Haviland had assigned to me, named Tarami, whose ambition was to get me to give him a shirt before I left. The luluai were to his house, laid the gifts away, and returned. When the question was put to him, about going into the house-tamberan, Surunjui hesitated. hen he led off, round to the back.

Several friends of sac-sac were removed at the back end, revealing a black hole, into which I crawled. At first I could see nothing except some thinks of light where the facade was joined to the soaring sides. Then,, as my eyes became accustomed and some of the darkness dissolved in the light seeping in from the hole behind me, I was aware of a looming post-like figure. Vivid with red, it was staring down at me through black eye-points in a yellow mask. Then I saw that this figure was not alone and, in fact, as other coloured forms defined themselves, that the place was crowded.

"Shootlamp, masta," Tarami said beside me.

The flashlight had been in my hand all the time. I switched it on. I don't think that, if I went to a new art exhibition every day and a new theatre every night, I would ever see a more dramatic concentration of colour and form than the torchbeam lit. There were two deep bays, and the figure I had first seen was the focal one in the middle. either side of this, and from the outer sides of the two bays, a row of about six images of man-height curved inwards, all brilliantly painted with red and yellow startlingly accented with black and white. The most curious thing about these carved tamberans was that they looked as grave as seigneurs, yet none of them was quite human in form-or, rather, they were extra-human. They had second bellies below their short legs. They had only rudimentary arms. Some had two sets of genitals. They were ruffed and black-paint bearded and some had no necks. Nearly all had long noses straight down their faces and, while most had black three-cornered mouths, some had no mouths at all, for the nose went right down like a trunk and became the chin. Beyond them, at the back of the bays, were paintings of the same height, on sheets of sago-palm back, in the boldest and brightest designs.

At first glance - though they were part of the vivid effect of the tamberan display - I was hardly aware of the bark printings as such, because in front of them, centred in each of the bays, were two other figures, on the ground. These were like men who had been lying prone with their knees raised and had suddenly sat up. Each had a brilliantly painted mask-like head, in the style of the other figures, but the rest of the body was tubular. Trunk, arms, legs, were fashioned of coconut leaf wound round and round fibre: they had an oddly modern-sculpture look. On closer inspection, each figure showed a large and erect male organ - they were fertility images, it turned out-but that was a feature I did not see at first because, as if to complete the astonishing grotesqueric of the whole tableau, each figure had a large face-mask placed between its open legs.

I came back next day with John Neve and, as we photographed in colour the extraordinary tableau of the tamberan, I thought of what an outstanding exhibit it would make in any museum. And, to secure the whole display, just as it was, would not have been a matter of depriving the natives. As soon as the ceremonies of the initiation and yam harvest were over, the images would be taken into the bush and left to rot: new ones would be carved for the next big ritual occasion. The tall wooden carved and printed images represent the ancestral "gods" who created the land and brought the foods and the first fire and devised the rites and dances and were the progenitors of the tribe, and are now the spiritual guardians of the tribe's well-being and the magical source of the strength of its men, particularly - even though some of the figures represent women.

Without the influence of these "gods" and "goddesses" the yams would not grow big and the wild pigs would not come to the nets. The female figures look after the "female" yams. So it is particularly important to pay them tribute at the time of the yam planting and the yam harvest. At yam time the old men rub the carvings with magical herbs. And the figures are always set up for the initiations. From seeing them and having contact with them the boys draw power that will strengthen them as they grow into manhood. 

The figure are always made anew for the initiations. Making the tamberans is, in itself, an act of faith and remembrance and tribute to the ancestral spirit-beings. Also, a bright new image is charged with more supernatural power than an old one. So it would be not only "lazy" to keep the old ones for a long time, they would not be so effective. That is why they are discarded - wrapped in bark and taken to a secret part of the bush and left there to rot. Certain skilled men do the carvings and paint them, and do the paintings on flattened-out sheets of the bark from the trunk of the sago palm. It is not a case - as is sometimes claimed of primitive peoples-of "everyone is an artist". Considerable prestige attaches to artistic skill. However-and this is something not always realized about native art and native artists - the forms the images take, and the principal forms in the bark paintings, are traditional and fixed.

There must have been the inspired creative originator, of course, just as there must have been a first delineator of the haloed Madonna and Child. But, for the most part, magico-religious art does not allow the artist free expression of his creative imagination: the conception is set for him. On canvas the Madonna painter can vary the composition and the background, the colour and the drapery. but, in what amounts to vertical sculpture from a tree-trunk, the Maprik carver is very limited as to what variations he can make, and similarly so in the painting of the figure he carves. but what can, and I think does, happen is that generations of native artists tend to improve such figures in the only way they can, by adding quality (including "dynamic" quality) to the design constant and the painting pattern.

So, looked at as pieces of design or of colour pattern, native works of art are often very good and strong indeed, and much of this merit comes from their having been worked within narrow limits, instead of in the broad and progressive sphere of free expression. Generally, I think it is true to say that a good traditional work of native art represents something beyond the capacity of the individual tribal artist. Irrespective of his capacity, the work is not his own creation to the extent that our own best non-derivative artists' works are theirs. so the artists are not quite comparable. And any comparison of the arts must be to the advantage of our freer, wider own. yet, the best Chinese vases were created within similar narrow limits, and their designs, like the designs of Sepik-area images, are none the less art for that. Before this tribe accepted the white man's government they were head-hunters, though, as Dr Kaberry says, the practice was on a limited scale. Only the heads of important men were taken. After the flesh had gone from these heads, the skulls were printed, and the eye-sockets were decorated with orange berries. Then the skulls were hung in the house-tamberan, and when the initiates looked on them they were supposed to he endowed with courage.

Nowadays the initiates look only on the tamberans, of which Juhn Neve and I were able to get what I understand to be the first and only colour photographs taken inside a house-tamberan of this kind. Dr Kaberry was impressed, too, by the maira she saw at the village of Kalabu, where she made her study. She says they were "painted and grotesque but process a certain massive dignity and grandeur". She calls the Abelam tribe, "an extraordinarily artistic people."

Papua New Guinea Visit - Sepik People

Papua New Guinea Home Page
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art - Sepik Region
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art Home Page
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art
Papua Home Page
Oceania Postcards and Picture Galleries
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page

   
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
 
 
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 23rd March 2009)
      
yahoo.gif (465 bytes)

eXTReMe Tracker