Gods, ghosts and men
Pacific arts from the National Gallery of Australia

10 October 2008 – 11 January 2009 | Orde Poynton Gallery and Project Gallery

Introduction | Article | Selected works| Events


latmul People Papua New Guinea Gable mask from a Haus Tambaran cane, sago leaf fibre, pigment 124.0 h x 100.0 w x 50.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra latmul People   Papua New Guinea   Gable mask from a Haus Tambaran     cane, sago leaf fibre, pigment     124.0 h x 100.0 w x 50.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail

The Pacific covers one third of the Earth’s surface. It is the largest and deepest ocean on the planet; the landmass of Australia is dwarfed by its size and could fit into the Pacific Ocean at least twenty times.

Australia has strong connections to the Pacific through historical, political and geographical ties. We are the western border to this watery expanse in which many thousands of islands break the deep blue surface in chaotic patterns like stars in the sky until the Pacific is hemmed in again, to the west, by the east coast of the Americas.

So large is the Pacific and vast the distance between island groups that each is distinctive in its own right for the array of animals, plants and the people that live there. Many Pacific Island communities were and are connected to one another through trade and social links even when the distance between islands is considerable. Some cultures also developed in isolation, such as the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. Papua New Guinea supports hundreds of distinct yet interconnected cultures but the country is still large enough for relatively isolated communities to have developed unique arts.

The National Gallery of Australia’s first Director, James Mollison, was instrumental in developing the Pacific Arts collection. With great foresight, he acquired many of the works in the exhibition Gods, ghosts and men: Pacific arts from the National Gallery of Australia. Being judiciously careful in his selection, Mollison acquired a number of the most iconic objects in the collection, including the Ambum stone, the Double figure from a housepost [To-reri uno] from Lake Sentani and, in 1985, Max Ernst’s private collection of non-western art – some of which is displayed in the exhibition.

The Gallery holds collections of traditional and contemporary Pacific arts – the latter includes the largest collection of contemporary prints from Papua New Guinea in Australia. Both of these spheres of the Pacific Arts collection are radically different in many respects yet very similar in others. While the traditional arts consist of masks, shields and ancestral sculptures that (for the main part) are not still in use among Pacific communities, the artists working today sometimes draw on this heritage as a source of identity. The exhibition Gods, ghosts and men focuses firmly on the traditional sculptural arts as the recent travelling exhibition Imagining Papua New Guinea featured many great works from the contemporary collection. Discussions on the classification or divisions between art and artefact, traditional or contemporary may seem to be required but are not necessary; any culture that an artist works within is subject to change. It is the very nature of human cultures to change due to internal and external influences. For the Pacific region great changes were experienced for centuries prior to the introduction of Western expeditions in the eighteenth century.

The recognition of traditional Pacific arts as art rather than examples of material culture has a fairly short history, shorter than one might expect. During the late nineteenth century, the anthropological understanding was that unravelling the differing forms, motifs and designs would assist in delineating one tribal community from another; it was not an admiration of the aesthetic values of a work and its ability to affect the viewer.1

The Ambum stone [Pre-historic zoomorphic figure] c.1500 BCE greywacke stone National Gallery of Australia, CanberraThe Ambum stone [Pre-historic zoomorphic figure] c.1500 BCE   greywacke stone   National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Such an appreciation for Pacific arts has, in part, a debt to the contemplation of African art by artists in the cubist and expressionist movements during the early 1900s. The championing and occasional appropriation by artists, mainly in Europe, of what were seen to be the exotic arts of cultures living in distant lands did not address any real understanding of the Pacific arts or the people who created them. It was more the dynamic of the exotic tribal object being a touchstone or visual cue to connect with, or unlock an artist’s innate sense of primitivism.

By the 1920s, art from the Pacific struck a chord with members of the surrealist movement who were attracted by the less structured almost subconscious plasticity inherent to Melanesian art compared to the seeming rigidity of African masks and figures. Melanesian figurative sculpture, especially those of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River region, often depict mythical beings with both animal and human attributes along with flowing surface designs that surrealist artists likened to having dream-like qualities – which fired their discussions and creativity in the arts. During the mid twentieth century in Australia, artists were introduced to and inspired by the Pacific arts in various situations beyond the large cluttered cases in museums. Guy Warren’s and Charles Bush's experiences in wartime New Guinea left lasting impressions, as it did for many Australians who served in the Pacific Islands during this time. Far removed from the Pacific itself, other artists working in Britain during the 1940s, such as James Gleeson and Robert Klippel, were exposed to a wealth of Pacific arts through their mutual friend, the ‘primitive’ art dealer William Ohly.

Pacific arts as an influence to artists from outside the Pacific has been well documented from a Western viewpoint, beginning with the activities of Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin; however, interest in the motivations and actions of indigenous artists whose names are now lost is very much a later twentieth-century move in the study of Pacific arts.

A pioneer in observing Pacific arts to gain an indigenous viewpoint of the artistic process was Professor Anthony Forge of the Australian National University, whose seminal studies in the mid-to-late twentieth century of Abelam art still hold impact today.2 The National Gallery of Australia is very fortunate to have received a gift in memory of Forge. The gift is formed of many works Forge purchased from the Abelam people and other communities during his work in Papua New Guinea.

Several works from this gift are exhibited in Gods, ghosts and men along with works that Sir William Dargie collected directly from the communities and individuals during his expeditions to Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s. The Gallery is very lucky to have collections formed in ‘the field’ as information about the works is usually recorded. An important collection gathered in the late nineteenth century is the Fellows collection of Massim art. This collection of art from south-eastern Papua New Guinea comprises of works made for or given to Reverend Samuel Fellow and his wife Sarah in recognition of the Kiriwinian people’s embrace of Christianity.

latmul People Papua New Bridal veil [ambusap] shell, fibre 77.0 h x 20.0 w cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra latmul People   Papua New Bridal veil [ambusap]   shell, fibre 77.0 h x 20.0 w cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail

When viewing works in the exhibition Gods, ghosts and men, we are really looking at only the husks, the physical elements, of rituals and festive events – which are still remarkably moving even though they are now silent. The dramatic spectacle of song, dance and the sense of immediacy the audience experienced when viewing masked performers cannot be contained and collected.

The bridal veil (ambusap) with its painstakingly applied shell decorations would have been a treasured item by its owner. The veil formed a major part of a series of adornments a bride would wear for the important event of entering her husband’s house for the first time. How the wearer of this particular veil (presumably the envy of other women in the community for wearing attractive finery) must have felt upon this occasion in her life we cannot guess at, yet the work itself, its flowing intricacy, conveys a sense of elegance befitting the event it was made for.

Religious beliefs for Pacific communities prior to the twentieth century were linked by the earnest need to connect with, placate, charm and control the influences of spirits and the cosmic order though the use of magic and rituals.

For the majority of Melanesian cultures their spiritual beliefs could broadly be considered animist in the sense that all things are equal: humans are on an equal footing to every living thing in their environment and each object has a soul or spirit connected to it. In the Eastern Solomon Islands, people believed – and, in places, still believe – in water spirits that can manipulate the sea and travel on rainbows. These spirits are called adaro. The Gallery’s adaro figure has porpoise- or dolphin-like, which the water spirit can control. Where he steps, shoals of fish follow. The figure, carved by Tigoana, is not only a representation of an adaro spirit but can also be thought of as the adaro spirit itself; the sculpture is a vessel for the spirit to enter when called upon for assistance.

Another two works that, now silent, can only hint at their once pivotal and chaotic importance for their audience are the Susu masks from New Britain. These masks are not just striking in their appearance; while worn, they are the very spirits themselves – through performance, they become the manifestation of a particular spirit, if only for the briefest of moments.

To ‘activate’ a mask, a figure or other object and make it alive with the spirit it was intended to house involved convincing the spirit or ancestor to enter the work through invocation and ritual adherences. The use of magical ingredients play a major role in activating these vessels: special herbs, pieces of animal meat, powdered lime, shells, money and even bodily fluids are some of the symbolically offered ritual substances that could be spat or smeared on objects to energise the connections between worlds to a spirit or an ancestor. In some instances, the process involved the application of colour as certain colours have magical importance and the act of painting a work would entice the desired spirit to take residence in the object.

Strict rules needed to be observed by the artist, including the abstention from eating certain foods or entering into sexual or social activity until the process of producing the work of art was completed. The idea of activating or breathing life into a mask or figure of an ancestor for it to be communed with, supplicated or implored to assist in some way was common across the Pacific although each community developed distinct approaches – from simple rituals to elaborate ceremonies – to procure the support of the ancestors, gods and spirits.

The exhibition includes several shields from Papua New Guinea and one from Awyu people of West Papua from the Max Ernst collection. Each shield is highly decorated; indeed, it is rare to encounter shields from Melanesia without carved or painted designs across their surfaces. The meandering designs on the small leaf-shaped Awyu people shield may depict body adornments, geographical locations or even a rapidly moving river but, without solid information, the intent behind the motifs remains cryptographic while the imagery remains bold. Nonetheless, each shield’s design identified the community or clan of their owner and, through the strength of the designs, fear could be instilled into an opponent.

latmul People Papua New Guinea Orator's stool [kawa rigit] wood, shell, ochre 122.0 h x 51.0 w x 45.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra latmul People   Papua New Guinea Orator's stool [kawa rigit]   wood, shell, ochre 122.0 h x 51.0 w x 45.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail

One of the contemporary works in the exhibition is a shield painted by Kaipel Ka. The shield is actually quite old with a pecked design below its more recently painted surface. Ka has produced series of shields with identical designs for warring groups, maintaining the collective identity of the fight group in much the same way football colours are worn. The shield depicts two birds of paradise perched upon a skull with glaring eyes and below is the slogan ‘six 2 six’ which, in the Wahgi Valley area, is an invitation to party all night long; although, in this context, it has become an aggressive statement intended to unnerve the opponent – ‘we will fight you from dawn until dusk, six to six’.

Weapons across the Pacific were also embellished beyond their brutal function as bludgeoning clubs to a level where many communities, particularly in Polynesia, enlisted specialist carvers to produce beautifully balanced, immaculately finished weapons that played a great part in communicating the high esteem accorded to the owner. The face-like business end of the U’u club from the Marquesas Islands is a superb example of the elaboration and care taken by specialist artists in producing war clubs. The U’u club is immediately one of the most iconic works of art from the Pacific. It couples functionality with a delicate attention to detail; and those details have been adapted from the socially important temporal art of body decoration, tattoo.

Several of the Polynesian works exhibited relate in some way to their owners status and prestige, none more so than the objects that were once associated to those of high social rank. The stool No’oanga from the Cook Islands, with its four legs reminiscent of a crouching animal poised and ready to move, was the property of an ariki (a hereditary chieftain). It was used during meetings to ensure no-one else’s head was higher than that of the chief.

In pre-Christian Polynesian societies, the head was the most important part of the body as it has strong connections with mana, a spiritual quality that generates great respect. People and objects can both hold levels of mana. Older objects absorb mana though their long histories and connections with people and this mana can still sometimes be felt or sensed by people who identify particular works as part of their heritage.

Sawos People Papua New Guinea Mogulapan c.1600- 1900 wood, ochres 169.0 h x 40.0 w x 20.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Sawos People   Papua New Guinea  Mogulapan   c.1600- 1900     wood, ochres   169.0 h x 40.0 w x 20.0 d cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail

A singularly magnificent work from the Pacific Arts collection is the Maori cloak Huaki – fibre arts are rare in Polynesia compared to objects produced in wood, stone and bone. Cloak-making was an art whose secrets where closely guarded by women who acquired the specialist skill and knowledge to work flax into such robes of splendour. Huaki are the rarest of all cloaks from New Zealand and the Gallery’s example undoubtedly was owned by a leader of great importance, a person with strong mana whose majesty was visually communicated through wearing the huaki.

Gods, ghosts and men divulges the richness and diversity of this region but still barely scratches the surface of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of over two thousand works from the Pacific. It reveals, however, the greatest works by artists who were recognised within their communities for their ability to create.

The names of many Pacific artists have been lost over time or were simply not recorded when a work was traded out of a community’s circles. However, this lack of knowledge regarding the names of the artists or the people who wore, danced, consulted or used these works lends a certain enigmatic charisma. And it is these small but magical mysteries that can enhance our ability to contemplate and suspend our beliefs. In a similar vein to the Surrealists, who contemplated Pacific arts with far larger gaps in their understanding than we have today, we can make closer connections between the works and the ancestors and spirits that have been said to inhabit them. We can imagine, for instance, that the housepost figure Mogulapan is actually the spirit of Mogulapan himself and that a mask is not just a mask but a spirit in physical form.

These intangible qualities affect our senses when assessing the aesthetics of the Pacific arts – particularly so with the expressive forms of Melanesian art – that set apart the sculptures of ancestors and spirit beings from so many of the other spheres of art within the National Gallery of Australia.

Currently inanimate, these objects were once – and, in some cases, possibly continue to be – more than superb works of art. They are the spiritually charged places, the lightening rods, where the ancestors themselves and otherworldly spirits could interact with and influence the human world. Although dormant, these charged works of art can speak for themselves.


Crispin Howarth
Curator, Pacific arts, and curator of Gods, ghosts and men


Gods, ghosts and men: Pacific arts from the National Gallery of Australia is proudly supported by the National Gallery of Australia Council exhibitions fund.


1. A C Haddon, The decorative art of British New Guinea: a study in Papuan ethnography, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1894. For the period in which it was produced, Haddon’s book remains an exemplary work dealing with a comparative analysis of the visual arts of British New Guinea.

2. Anthony Forge, ‘Style and meaning in Sepik art’, in A Forge (ed.), Primitive art and society, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. 169–92.