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Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition -Donation of 1089 piece collection

Ryota Nakakado
Waseda University Aizu Museum Assistant

In 2010, the Waseda University Cultural Promotion Division received a donation of 1089 Oceanic ethnic artworks from Tsurugashima City in Saitama Prefecture. Waseda University Cultural Planning Division, in association with the Aizu Museum, will hold an "Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition."

History of the Oceanic ethnic artworks

The donated works were from the late Ryuhei Imaizumi (1908-1997) of Ishiuchi Village (now Minami-Uonuma City), Niigata Prefecture, who collected the works through ethnic art importer Akio Ohashi. There are many works which are no longer produced, and the collection can be said to be of international value.

The works, centered on spirit house pillars and spirit statues from Papua New Guinea, included a variety of objects ranging from armoury such as masks, shields and spears, instruments such as drums and flutes, and everyday objects such as earthenware and wooden tools. In addition to the Sepik River Basin, collected works came from a wide area including the New Guinean highland, coastal regions and islands. It is said that there are over 700 tribes in Papua New Guinea, and more than 800 languages spoken, and that the roots of tribal society are centered on kinship organizations. In that respect, although we use the single phrase "spirit statue", for example, the faces of spirits, representations and colours used differ depending on the region, and there are various expressions. In the Aizu Museum first floor temporary exhibition room the donated artworks are displayed by region and the display has been created so you can catch a glimpse of the diversity of the ethnic world.

Diverse ethnic world

Papua New Guinea is located in the South Pacific Ocean between the equator and Australia, about 6000km south of Japan. Since the "great discoveries" in 16th century European society, the "last paradise," "last Stone Age," and "barbarians / savages", have been exposed to differing views of the so-called "civilized people." However, due to the geographical problem of being located in the Pacific far from Europe, difficulties for development because of the severe natural conditions of the tropics, and the existence of a strong tribal society, there has been little influence due to colonization in comparison with the African and American continents, preserving traditional society and beliefs.

A majority of the donated artworks are Sepik River Basin spirit statues and spirit masks. People believe that spirits are housed in all things, and as is popular in Christianity today, spiritual beliefs are centered on people's lives. The ethnic work, such as carved statues and masks, that they create are known as "Sepik Art", and is recognized, even internationally, as valuable ethnic art.

When you enter the exhibit room, an Abelam "Spirit House: Haus Tambaran" is standing in the front (Photo 1). The spirit house is a building characteristic of the Sepik River Basin, and while there may be various shapes and sizes depending on region and tribe, they were all built as a sanctuary in the centre of the village. Various formalities and meetings to preserve social order take place inside, and, generally, only adult males who have completed the Initiation are permitted to enter. In the Initiation, many examples cicatrization can be seen. The inside of the Spirit House is crowded with spirit statues and masks and the many spirits watch over youths, and with the strength gained, they are regenerated as men. The spirit house of the Abelam tribe is triangular in shape (Photo 2), and the tree bark drawings painted in vivid reds and yellows covering the houses without leaving any gaps are characteristic of these houses. These are also the model for the Papua New Guinean parliament building, so it can truly be said the spirit house is representative of Sepik Art. Spiritual power extends over various matters from people's health and prosperity of the tribe to prolific crops, successful hunts and victorious battles. Also, there is a belief that snakes, birds and crocodiles etc. are their own ancestors, and various forms are drawn on the carved statues. Searching for the animals hidden in the statues is another way to enjoy the exhibits in addition to viewing them.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Next, let's turn our attention to the works from Madang Province and the Highlands. The region in the Ramu River Basin in Madang Province is known as a district for producing carvings that ranks alongside the Sepik River Basin. In ancient times, the Sepik and Ramu rivers formed a large bay and are believed to have belonged to the same culture area, and the works take on similar expressions to those from the Sepik River Basin. The Highlands are the mountain ridges in the central mountain range area of New Guinea Island, and despite being in the tropics, snowfall can be seen. Compared to other regions the climate is mild, and because there is little risk of tropical diseases, many people have been living there from long ago. There are many aggressive tribes compared to other regions, and even today there are occasional battles between tribes. The shields are thin and light, and more warfare-like shapes can be seen. The "Madman clay masks" (Photo 3) were created by weak tribes and used to chase away their enemies.

Photo 3

Photo 4

On the other hand, works from Morobe Province and Milne Bay Province, compared to the primary colour-rich works from the Sepik River Basin, give a somewhat calm appearance. These regions, the regions called the coastal and island areas, are interspersed with many islands. There are various environments such as islands with infertile soils where crops don't grow well, and islands where there is no clay to make the necessary earthenware for everyday cooking, and trade with neighbouring islands was indispensable for the people and their lifestyles. "Kula" in particular, a ceremonial gift exchange which can be seen in the Trobiand Islands, is widely known through the research of B. Malinowski. Among the donated works is a canoe bow ornament used in Kula (Photo 4), as well as earthenware and wooden tools produced as semi-local specialties in each region. Works from this region have strong characteristics as objects of trade, and you can see many sophisticated objects that have been made with extreme care.

The exhibition at the Okuma Memorial Tower 125th Anniversary Room on the 10th floor is divided into sessions titled "Shape of Emerging Spirits" and "Passing Fragments of Living Down to Today". The former will exhibit the spiritual world centered around spirit statues and masks, and the latter will display farming and daily life tools and weapons. I hope you will gain a deeper understanding of the world of Papua New Guinea by attending both.

Wantok spirit

In Papua New Guinean society there is a culture called "wantok". Derived from "one talk" and meaning to speak the same single language, it is a language that indicates family, friends and associates. I have been to Papua New Guinea for research numerous times until now, and every time I have been warmly greeted by the people in wantok, and they cooperate with a smile. However, there are times when I am questioned, "What will your research bring for us?" They are satisfied with the answer "It is entirely academic research", but to the wantok culture, having information provided may be one-sided. By having many people learn about the world of Papua New Guinea through this exhibition, I hope I can repay them, even a little, as wantok.

Oceania Ethnic Art Exhibition Donated by Tsurugashima City
  1. Cosponsors:Waseda University Cultural Promotion Division・Aizu Museum, Waseda University
  2. Cooperation:Tsurugashima City・Tsurugashima Board of Education
  1. -Diverse Ethnic World-
  2. November 21, 2011 (Mon)-January 12, 2012 (Thurs)
  3. Opening hours 10:00-17:00(Entry until 16:30) Free entry
  4. ※Closed on Sundays, Holidays, December 23-January 5, January 10
  5. Venue: Aizu Museum, Waseda University 1st floor temporary exhibit room
  6. http://www.waseda.jp/aizu/index-j.html
  1. -Shape of Emerging Spirits-
  2. December 12, 2011 (Mon)-February 29, 2012 (Wed)
  1. -Passing Fragments of Living Down to Today -
  2. March 10, 2012 (Sat)-April 21, 2012 (Sat)
  3. Opening hours 10:00-18:00 Free entry
  4. ※Closed on Sundays, Holidays, December 29-January 5, January 10 (will be open March 25 and April 1
  5. Venue: Okuma Memorial Tower, Waseda University 125th Anniversary Room 10F
  6. http://wasedabunka.jp/event/exhn/archive/2011/ex125log_20111108.php
[Related project]
  1. Polytribe Special Exhibition-Life in the Spiritual Forests of Papua New Guinea
  2. December 13, 2011 (Tues)-December 22 (Thurs)
  3. Opening Hours 9:30-17:45
  4. ※Closed on December 19 (Monday)
  5. Venue:Tsurugashima Central Library 2nd floor Exhibit Room

Ryota Nakakado
Waseda University Aizu Museum Assistant

Born in 1982. Entered the Doctorate Program of the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2009. Has been in his current position since April 2011. Majors in Japanese archaeology and ethnoarchaeology.