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Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition
-The Shape of Emerging Spirits-

Nobutaka Hirahara
Cultural Planning Section, Cultural Affairs Division, Waseda University

In 2010, Tsurugashima City, Saitama Prefecture donated 1089 Oceanic ethnic artworks to the Waseda University Cultural Affairs Division. On this occasion, the Cultural Planning Section at Waseda University Cultural Affairs Division, in association with the Aizu Museum, is holding an "Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition", and introducing Oceanic ethnic artworks from various angles.

Oceanic Ethnic Artworks

The artworks donated to the Waseda University Cultural Affairs Division come from the late Ryuhei Imaizumi of Ishiuchi Village (now Minami-Uonuma City), Niigata Prefecture, who collected the works through ethnic art importer Akio Ohashi. This collection is formed especially of works collected from the region spanning from the Sepik River Basin to the north-eastern region of New Guinea Island. Of the 1089 pieces, the largest number comes from the Sepik River Basin, the area representative of ethnic Papua New Guinean art, with a total of 842 works. This may be a great amount, but there are also many types of art. Starting with the symbolic building, the spirit house, the wide-ranging artifacts include masks, carved statues, musical instruments, trinkets, occupational tools, living tools such as cooking utensils, armoury such as weapons and shields, sailing tools and luxury grocery items.

In the 125th Anniversary Room on the 10th floor of the Okuma Tower, the exhibition is centered on works gathered from the Sepik River Basin. Until February 29, with the aim of creating a space where one can feel the various shapes of that region and the world view of the people who created them, works expressing the shape of spirits, starting with ornaments (photo 2) that decorate a spirit house (photo 1), masks (photo 3) and spirit statues (photo 4), are on display. After that, we will replace the exhibits, and from March 10 to April 21 with the aim of a space in which people can learn about a fragment of the people's lives by displaying articles related to the collection of sago starch, which has been given importance as the staple diet, and armoury used in conflicts between tribes, articles used in yam harvesting and harvest rituals, and trinkets. Through both exhibitions, I hope people will enjoy the world view of Papua New Guinea and part of the people's lives from these ethnic artworks.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is a country situated below the equator in the South Pacific Ocean, and consists of the eastern half of the world's second largest island, New Guinea Island, and the surrounding 700 islands. The country is located about 6,000km south from Japan. It takes six and a half hour by direct flight from Narita Airport to the capital Port Moresby. It's total land area of 462,000 km2 (1.25 times that of Japan) hosts a population of approximately 6.45 million people belonging to 800 various tribes. At present, English and Pidgin are the official languages and are used as common tools of communication, but traditionally, due to each tribe possessing its own language, it is said that occasionally even neighbouring tribes couldn't understand each other's language. With an enormous natural environment in the background, it is believed that there are actually various mutually related factors, such as deliberate change to language originating from intermittent migration from island outside of New Guinea Island, strong tribal ties, and conflicts between tribes that have formed the diversely abundant tribal society we see today.

Spirit Houses

Spirit houses are, as the name suggests, symbolic buildings which bear the fundamentals of the spiritual world of, especially, those living in the Sepik River Basin. It has also been adopted as the motif for the Papua New Guinean parliament building, and can be said to be the representative building of Papua New Guinea. It is called "spirit house" in English and "haus tambaran" in Pidgin. The exterior and interior of these are unique to each region and tribe, but all have the following points in common in having large qualitative differences from normal houses. Those points are; spirit houses are many times larger than regular houses and are owned by the clan. It is a sacred space, in which, starting with the Rites of Passage, many rituals are held, and only males who have completed the Rites of Passage are permitted to enter inside, and so on. A clan is a group of relations formed by people who believe they have, or can follow their lineage back to common ancestors. Where there are cases that a spirit house is owned by a single clan, there are also cases where a spirit house will be jointly owned by several clans living in the same village. In the latter case, there are many times where each clan will cooperate from the building of the spirit house to the holding of rituals, and it can be thought that the spirit house also bears the role of socially unifying multiple groups.

Many masks, spirit statues and musical instruments are kept within the spirit houses, and by performing various rituals, people call on the strength of the spirits to pray for a large catch, bountiful harvest, victory in battle and good health etc. One ritual held in the spirit house is the Rites of Passage for boys in their mid-teens (and girls in some areas.) In this ritual, especially in the Sepik River Basin, the body is cut to form keloids like the scales of a crocodile. This is due to the people in the region who believe the crocodile is a symbol of bravery, and the crocodile is often taken up as the object of formative arts. Not restricted to the Sepik River Basin, the inside of the spirit house is seen as the womb of a female, and by taking this ritual inside, the young boys are believed to be reborn as men.

The Shape of Emerging Spirits

Then, what exactly are these "spirits" expressed in formative arts and followed by the people of Papua New Guinea? They are called "tambaran" in Pidgin, and translated as "spirits" in English. When conducting research in Papua New Guinea, I found out that people actually believe the "spirits" exist in various ways. From the natural environment in the form of water, the earth, and forests, to celestial bodies such as the sun, the new moon and stars, these are all taken to be "spirits." Also, one's ancestors or the founder of a clan, or even, for example, the non-existent being with the upper-half of a man and lower half of a snake (snakeman), are said to be "spirits." What is common among them is, regardless of being real or not, is that they appear in "stories." "Stories" are thought to indicate stories in general that are passed down by mouth, including myths and legends that are spread throughout the clans. In other words, it can be thought that "stories" are the phenomenon and things existing in one's surroundings that people interpret and express in accordance with their own world view. The important role "stories" have to play in the artwork can be understood from the words of the people when they say that if you can't understand the "stories", you can't create masks or spirit statues, and you also can't understand the meanings of the creations. The designers are only males who have experienced the Rites of Passage, but it is said that if you don't have superior imaginative power, you cannot carve. Excelling designers earn respect and prestige from the people and are called "artists."

Oceania Ethnic Art Exhibition Donated by Tsurugashima City
  1. Cultural Affairs Division, 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. -The Shape of Emerging Spirits-
  2. December 12, 2011 (Mon)-February 29, 2012 (Wed)
  1. -Passing Down the Fragments of the Living to Today-
  2. March 10, 2012 (Sat) - April 24, 2012 (Sat)
  3. Opening hours 10:00-18:00 Free entry
  4. ※Closed on Sundays, December 29-January 5, January 10 (will be open March 25 and April 1)
  5. Venue: Okuma Memorial Tower, Waseda University, 125th Anniversary Room
  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

Nobutaka Hirahara
Cultural Planning Section, Cultural Affairs Division, Waseda University

Born in 1986. Entered the Master's Program of the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2010, and his current position in 2011. Majors in Japanese archaeology and ethnoarchaeology.