Shake that tail feather: Plumes and Pearlshells art from the New Guinea Highlands

A Benabena dancer with headdress as worn by widows/ widowers, 1977 Goroka Show. Image courtesy AGNSW

A Benabena dancer with headdress as worn by widows/ widowers, 1977 Goroka Show. Image courtesy AGNSW

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.

2.Rimbu headdress Kagua-Erave District, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New GuineaKewa people, coil woven rattan, bamboo, plant fibres, metal '7UP' drink can, white clay, red and blue pigments 77x48x45cm Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977

2. Rimbu headdress
Kagua-Erave District, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New GuineaKewa people, coil woven rattan, bamboo, plant fibres, metal ‘7UP’ drink can, white clay, red and blue pigments 77x48x45cm
Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977

 

Kund gale Effigy mixed media. Wahgi people 207.0 x 38.0 x 24.0 cm. Coll: AGNSW,Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977 © Wahgi people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Kund gale Effigy mixed media. Wahgi people 207.0 x 38.0 x 24.0 cm. Coll: AGNSW,Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977 © Wahgi people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Serving bowl, ceramic. East Sepik Province. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1965

Serving bowl, ceramic. East Sepik Province. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1965

Wanjagawi mask. painted wood 53.5cm Iatumul people. East Sepik Province. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1965

Wanjagawi mask. painted wood 53.5cm Iatumul people. East Sepik Province. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Tony Tuckson former Deputy Director AGNSW and Stan Moriarty with carved figures from Abelam haus tamberan Sydney 1960s  Photo Margaret Tuckson. Courtesy AGNSWArchives

Tony Tuckson former Deputy Director AGNSW and Stan Moriarty with carved figures from Abelam haus tamberan Sydney 1960s Photo Margaret Tuckson. Courtesy AGNSW Archives

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

Ofafina mask. Okapa District, Eastern Highlands Province Fore people. wood, rattan, vine, cassowary feathers,pig tusks, coix seeds, nassa shells, plant fibres, plant fibre string. Purchased 1977 © Fore people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Ofafina mask. Okapa District, Eastern Highlands Province
Fore people. wood, rattan, vine, cassowary feathers,pig tusks, coix seeds, nassa shells, plant fibres, plant fibre string. Purchased 1977
© Fore people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Gaheisi ceremonial dance banner. Kaveve village, Goroka District, Alekano people. Barkcloth stretched over bamboo and rattan frame, edges outlined with white feathers, red and black natural dyes. 238.8x121.9x55cm Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1978

Gaheisi ceremonial dance banner. Kaveve village, Goroka District, Alekano people. Barkcloth stretched over bamboo and rattan frame, edges outlined with white feathers, red and black natural dyes. 238.8×121.9x55cm
Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1978

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

1964 Goroka Show Australian News Information Bureau  and Traditional Dance banners. Photo by Stan Moriarty

1964 Goroka Show Australian News Information Bureau and Traditional Dance banners. Photo by Stan Moriarty. Courtesy AGNSW Archives

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.

Holosa (mud mask) from the Dano people. Early 1960s mud, looped plant-fibre string, leaves, rattan, mammalian teeth, coix seeds 33x35.6x35.6cm Coll: AGNSW, purchased with grateful acknowledgement to Cynthia Nolan 2008 © Dano people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Holosa (mud mask) from the Dano people. Early 1960s mud, looped plant-fibre string, leaves, rattan, mammalian teeth, coix seeds 33×35.6×35.6cm Coll: AGNSW, purchased with grateful acknowledgement to Cynthia Nolan 2008 © Dano people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

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.

Bone necklace. Baruya people. 28 mammalian bones, 89cm l. COll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty, 1977.© Baruya people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Bone necklace. Baruya people. 28 mammalian bones, 89cm l. COll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty, 1977.© Baruya people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Girdle. Duna people. Plyed plant fibre, 26x23.2x25.5cm. Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriary, 1978. © Duna people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Girdle. Duna people. Plyed plant fibre, 26×23.2×25.5cm. Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriary, 1978. © Duna people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

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.

Gourd mask Goroka District, Benabena people , coix seeds, plant fibre string, white pigment 31x20x14.5 cm. Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977. © Benabena people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Gourd mask Goroka District, Benabena people , coix seeds, plant fibre string, white pigment 31x20x14.5 cm. Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977. © Benabena people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Female fig, Goroka District, possibly Alekano people.  Gourd,human hair, machine-wove cotton fabric, plant fibre string, coix seeds,white clay, pale red and red ochre pigments, gold-lipped oyster shell fragment, dried plant fibre. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1977. © Alekano people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Female fig, Goroka District, possibly Alekano people. Gourd,human hair, machine-wove cotton fabric, plant fibre string, coix seeds,white clay, pale red and red ochre pigments, gold-lipped oyster shell fragment, dried plant fibre. Coll: AGNSW, purchased 1977. © Alekano people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

My favourites?

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.

Aiya cassowary feather headdress Laiagam, Enga Province, Enga people. cassowary feathers, plant fibre string plaited to form cord, headdress folds inwards by pulling a cord top centre inside hat 33x40x40cm approx. Coll: AGNSW Gift of Stan Moriarty 1978

Aiya cassowary feather headdress Laiagam, Enga Province, Enga people. cassowary feathers, plant fibre string plaited to form cord, headdress folds inwards by pulling a cord top centre inside hat 33x40x40cm approx.
Coll: AGNSW Gift of Stan Moriarty 1978

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.

Rimbu headdress, detail

Rimbu headdress, detail

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.

Mask.  Kainantu District, Eastern Highlands Province, Tairora people cassowary feathers, rattan frame, 2 pig tusks, wood, pangi seeds, rattan, plant fibres, nassa shells, marsupial fur, wood, red and black pigments, green, blue and red parrot feathers 183x79x75cm Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1974

Mask. Kainantu District, Eastern Highlands Province, Tairora people
cassowary feathers, rattan frame, 2 pig tusks, wood, pangi seeds, rattan, plant fibres, nassa shells, marsupial fur, wood, red and black pigments, green, blue and red parrot feathers
183x79x75cm Coll: AGNSW, Gift of Stan Moriarty 1974

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.

Mánda hàre (bachelor cult initiate's wig) Drummer's wig, Bachelor's wig. Hela province, Huli people. Human hair, Superb Bird of Paradise breast shield (Lophorina superba), red ochre pigment, white glass beads, machine-made button, rattan, plant fibre string. Coll: AGNSW, Purchased 1977.© Huli people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics

Mánda hàre (bachelor cult initiate’s wig) Drummer’s wig, Bachelor’s wig. Hela province, Huli people. Human hair, Superb Bird of Paradise breast shield (Lophorina superba), red ochre pigment, white glass beads, machine-made button, rattan, plant fibre string. Coll: AGNSW, Purchased 1977.© Huli people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association’s (PIMA) Code of Ethics

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.

First Contact, Arundel Productions, 1982

First Contact, Arundel Productions, 1982

Still from film, First Contact. Arundel Productions, 1983

Still from film, First Contact. Arundel Productions, 1982

Plumes and Pearlshells continues at the Art Gallery of NSW until 10 August.

With thanks to my dear friend Paula for her insights.

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2 Comments

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    Nice job Fi. I want to see the work and the film !

    - by peter english in June, 2014
  2. You are such a good writer, Fiona! This is an absolutely delightful and informative summary of this exhibition. You brought these stunning objects to life. Thanks for paying tribute to Stan Moriarty, the man whose passion and generosity made all this possible. He really deserves the accolade. Well done!

    - by Paula Latos-Valier in June, 2014