Function & Ceremony: The Art of Melanesia in the Marsh Gallery
For the first time in its 15-year history, the Schmidt is exhibiting works from its Melanesian collection. Objects include, but are not limited to, Gope (spirit boards), a Mwai mask, Sepik River Region canoe prows, and Kaima costumes.
Iatmul Mwai Spirit Mask, Papua New Guinea, wood, pigments, fiber, claystone inlaid with cowry shells, boar tusks, & human hair
Sago Bowls, Koiwat & Kamangauwi Villages, Papua New Guinea, terracotta and pigment
Curator’s Essay by Jessica Mannisi:
Defining Melanesia is a bit tricky, whether it be culturally or geographically. Anthropologists cannot agree on definitive boundaries. Generally, it is considered as a sub region of Oceania, consisting of four countries: Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, as well as the territories of West Papua and New Caledonia. In such a small region, the area is home to more than 1,000 languages – the densest rate of languages in relation to land mass on earth (approximately 435 miles² per language). The indigenous populations are divided amongst hundreds of small-scale societies, ranging from a few dozen to 200,000 people, and these societies are often completely cut off from each other due to the extreme topography of the lands.
Nevertheless, there are some common artistic ties that most scholars can agree upon. Common traits among the people of Melanesia are:
- The tools they use have the technical development of the late Stone Age. (Materials for tools include stone blades, shark teeth, shell splinters, sea urchin spine drills, files made of shark or ray skin, and obsidian.)
- Artists’ names are unknown. (Religious significance of objects always takes precedence – not the maker.)
- There is a firm connection with religion that dominates all aspects of daily life. (Even the most functional objects commonly have religious or spiritual connotations and are never merely decorative.)
Unlike Polynesian and Micronesian art, Melanesian art is based on ancestor worship, totemism, and other religious concepts, but never on chieftains or those of the living.
There are some things to consider while walking through this exhibition.
First of all, it is important to remember that the people of Melanesia never make something just for aesthetic reasons. A work of art in and of itself is an absurdity to them. Every swirl, embellishment, or animal depiction has a spiritual or sacred purpose or meaning. For example, the decision to use crocodile heads on canoe prows is not because they look beautiful (or menacing). The crocodile is a sacred being. Origin stories claim a giant, ancient crocodile brought the land up out of the primordial ocean, and the land still rests on this animal. Upsetting it can mean earthquakes and destruction.
Also, several of the objects in the Schmidt’s permanent collection are believed to house ancestral spirits. From a Western perspective it is a little difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea, but these objects are not just remembrances or images of an ancestor – they ARE the ancestor.
This is the first time in the Schmidt’s 15-year history that these works have been exhibited together, and there are several reasons for this. To begin with, they are all somewhat fragile. The materials used to create these pieces are far more delicate and ephemeral than a work of art made of metal, oil paint, or even glass. Even with their sacred nature, the people of Melanesia understood this and made replacements once the object had reached the end of its lifespan, so to speak.
Furthermore, there is the sacred nature to consider. It is important as a museum to be a respectful steward of such spiritually valuable objects, whether one believes in them or not. To display an object that potentially holds an ancestral spirit should be done so with care, respect, and the proper knowledge.
I have passed these objects almost daily over the last 6 years, and have wanted to give them their moment to be appreciated by the public. For much of 2015, I’ve done careful research to determine the identity, culture, and purpose of these objects, and I have gained an even greater appreciation for them. Amazingly, this collection is in excellent condition, and several of the objects are somewhat rare examples of their kind.
With all this being said, I hope you enjoy this rare viewing of our Melanesian collection.
About the Collection
Most of the works in our Melanesian collection come from a generous donation by Charles J. Stathis in 1999. The Mwai mask was acquired through a purchase by the SWIC Student Committee for the Visual Arts in 1992.
Exhibition runs through February 25th. For more information, visit swic.edu/TheSchmidt.