The exhibition Plumes and Pearlshells art of the New Guinea Highlands harbours many stories, intermingled between the lustrous cassowary feathers, the mud/hair head pieces, the oyster shell nose pieces, the decorative shields and spears, the bones and teeth and the odd 7Up can.
First and foremost, there are the stories about the people who crafted and invariably wore these extraordinary objects and their journeys into the 20th century world.
There are the stories behind the insightful documentary photographs and then, there is the classic 21st century story of using social media to identify and locate one of the men in one of these photographs – alive, well and slightly older, living in the Highlands and thrilled to be on show in Sydney.
A really compelling story, is the Sydney ad man who took his first holiday in 20 years in 1961 and headed to the Highlands of New Guinea – a place in which he has always been fascinated. He loved it so much, he stayed for 4 months and then returned every year for the next 9 years, for lengthy periods.
Another interesting story would be more like a debate about the politics and fashions which dictate the collecting and exhibiting policies of cultural institutions.
On so many levels, the exhibition Plumes and Pearlshells is a must see.
It is the first time in more than 40 years that a significant component of the large collection of art from the highlands of New Guinea, donated by Stanley Gordon Moriarty, has been given due respect and prominence. In terms of levels, it is upstairs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is significant. It shows a real commitment to this Collection by the powers that be at the Gallery. Previously minor but interesting displays from the Gallery’s Melanesian collection were relegated to glass cabinets outside the library, ie downstairs. Here, now, the Collection has been cleaned and conserved (with funds from Gallery benefactors), promoted, described (no art or anthropological speak here) and displayed with a lively clarity and sophistication not always seen with the presentation of ethnographic artefacts. All credit to Curator Natalie Wilson.
Eminent Australian artist Tony Tuckson was Deputy Director of the Gallery in the 60s. A major legacy of his tenure was the development of the Melanesian collection, within which the Moriarty Collection resides. It was common knowledge that a number of artists had travelled to New Guinea (Dobell was a war artist there and Margaret Olley had travelled there a couple of times) but it was Sidney Nolan who inspired Tuckson to visit.
At the time of Tuckson’s visit to New Guinea in 1965, the Gallery had 19 Melanesian works in its collection, including a mudman’s mask from Goroka given by Nolan on long term loan – which can be seen in Plumes. (It has subsequently being formally acquired into the Collection). On Tuckson’s initial New Guinea trip he was prepared with cash and bought about 90 works. During his leadership at the Gallery, the Melanesian collection increased significantly.
At some point Tuckson and Moriarty would have met – both were passionate about the art of the Highlands. Moriarty was entranced by New Guinea and collecting. He was a true collector, driven not by profit but by the quest to preserve the astounding creativity and craftsmanship he found everywhere he went. He also collected items for the Papua New Guinea’s museum and art gallery in Port Moresby, and opened his home display to visitors from around the world and local schools. “[Moriarty] thought people needed to know about these things. He saw the art in them.” Simon Moriarty, SMH 29.05.2014 as quoted by Jacqui Taffel.
It seems his family, at home on the northern beaches of Sydney, were tolerant and accepting of his passion. They supported his efforts to house and display his ever-growing collection at home, which was opened for public viewings. Jean Moriarty his wife did lament that at times, dusting of the 3,000 odd artefacts proved an overwhelming task. Dawn: A magazine for the Aboriginal people of NSW [sic], August 1968
Moriarty discovered New Guinea at an extraordinary time in its history – it was opening up to a wider world and to itself. The Australian Protectorate encouraged the many different Highlander groups – both Eastern and Western – to come together, to unite warring tribes and bring stability to the region. These were akin to country fairs, where the old fashioned English style country show met the more ceremonial New Guinea sing sing. The first show was in Goroka in 1956 and grew from there. The shows became an opportunity for the different tribes to show off their creativity, their prowess, their people.
Thousands of tribespeople would descend on a large oval and strut their stuff. Resplendant in tall headdresses of cassowary feathers, possum fur or human hair, with body paint and oyster shell breastplates and nose pieces, the individual tribes stood out by their traditional and innovative approaches to dress. The white Government officials were not to be outdone, though the modest 60s attire – gloves, hair sets, military attire and plumage on the pith helmet – paled next to the exotica and flamboyance of the locals.
Mud men’s masks were not a thing of stone-age times, rather were first seen on the sing sing catwalk in 1957 at the Goroka Show! It was an opportunity for the Dano people from an Eastern Highlands province to show off a new range at the biggest gathering that year. The masks were a hit.
Moriarty visited many of these Shows: the Mount Hagen and Goroka Shows in particular. He literally picked up decorative armature and body ornaments, always considered temporary and discarded at the end of the day. He bartered for and bought masks, figurines, belts and girdles and, importantly, he took many photographs. He was aware of the significance of what he was witnessing and collecting and documented his travels and his acquisitions, in situ. This is a curator’s idea of heaven.
The 1963 Mount Hagen Show is filmed and on display at the rear of the exhibition space. Moriarty was there – he must be in the background somewhere. It makes for riveting viewing: dialogue, choreography, costuming, hair and makeup of this calibre go beyond an Academy award. There is bicycle racing, though without shoes, helmet or pants – just feather skirts. Archery excellence can be seen with the bulls-eyes on the woven grass targets. Marching brass bands – why do brass bands march? – and bagpipes reminiscent of an Edinburgh Tattoo, 2 stroke dodgem cars and blaring gramophone recordings play out alongside spear throwing and traditional dancing. A bit like the Sydney Easter Show but with so much more depth and style.
There were individual stalls, devoted to particular geographical and cultural areas, including that of the Australian Baptist Society. The missionaries had made a foothold into New Guinea a few decades earlier, using a forceful authority to encourage the New Guineans away from their existing animiste beliefs to embrace that of Christianity. I am not sure what Moriarty made of this, but it made his collecting job slightly easier as many animiste-charged relics and artefacts were increasingly deemed to be no longer required, and so were more readily discarded. It was with respect though for these items, that Moriarty took them into safe-keeping.
The Aiya headdress of the Yandapu-Enga people (a very stylish hat) made entirely from cassowary feathers with an internal net and string: pull the string and the net gathers the feathers into the net for ease of storage and carrying.
The Rimbu headdress of the Kewa people which Moriarty collected at the 1963 Mount Hagen Show which is woven plant fibres of various types, with a now faded 7Up can inserted in the middle for structural and decorative effect. It would have glittered gloriously in the sunshine in 1963.
The mask used for initiation ceremonies by the Tairora people at the entrance to the exhibition which must have been an almost full body suit. Made from some 50,000 cassowary feathers – grouped in small bunches and tied together – with pig tusks, seeds, fur and plant fibres, it was found by Moriarty at the Goroka show in 1966. His children loved this piece and fondly remember it as ‘Cousin It’. This has been cleaned to perfection and is breathtaking in its freshness and beauty.
I also have a thing about hair (I am particularly fond of Georgian and Victorian memorial jewellery which incorporates hair) so I was particularly taken with the human hair headdresses/hats.
Take advantage of the Gallery’s associated film program. The film First Contact produced in 1982 by Arundel Productions, is being shown at regular intervals and gives great insight into the colonisation of this territory.
Plumes and Pearlshells continues at the Art Gallery of NSW until 10 August.
With thanks to my dear friend Paula for her insights.