SEPIK – Arts from Papua New Guinea is the first exhibition in France to be devoted to the arts of the peoples who live on the banks of the longest river in Papua New Guinea: the River Sepik. The work of the curators of the exhibition, Philippe Peltier and Markus Schindlbeck, crowns 35 years of passion and research.
The communities who populate the Sepik’s banks have a lot in common despite their differences. This river is a provider of food and raw materials but also the heart of traditional beliefs and social rites, as well as a social network. The timing of the exhibition is well chosen, because while Paris is welcoming the COP21 (the Global Conference on Climate Change) from November 30th to December 11th, 2015, the exhibit questions the relationship between a culture and its environment.
This rare ethnographic exhibition is an amazing gathering of 230 works from the Quai Branly collections and from those of 18 European museums. Many artifacts belong to German collections and especially to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, as Papua New Guinea was colonized by Germany from 1886 to World War 1.
Through German, Swiss and later Australian expeditions, the Sepik culture arrived to the hands of art collectors in Europe in the 20th century. This symbolic world fascinated many artists, especially the Surrealists including André Breton and Paul Éluard.
Sculptures, hooks, adornments, slit drums, bamboo flutes, masks or modeled-over skulls, whether they belong to the daily routine or the ritual, are beautified by engraved or painted figures. If you find a mix and match of consecrated objects and everyday utensils, it’s because in the Sepik area there is no clear boundary between the sacred and the secular. The border between the spiritual and material is diaphanous and the myth always close to the reality.
At SEPIK, to be part of the sacred circle you will have to follow an initiation journey by yourself. At the entrance you will be welcomed by two huge sculpted canoes in the shape of crocodiles and a screening of rowing men. Once embarked, let the immersive scenography of Didier Blin carry you across a Papua village. A traditional village is always divided into hierarchies, as women live strictly separated from the men and the initiated from the uninitiated. Discover first the ‘profane’ area of women, children and uninitiated men.
Then, visit the men’s house where you will understand the notion of rituals and spirits. The most spectacular pieces are large sculpted hooks used to hang precious belongings such as jewelry, baskets with goods, or even human skulls that are headhunting trophies. They often represent an erotic legs-spread-apart female figure symbolizing the fecundity of a mother-goddess.
You will also explore the initiation ritual. One of the most impressive ceremonies is the male initiation that includes painful skin cutting after a several months of reclusion. The scars represent the scales of a crocodile. In the Papua mythology, it’s a crocodile that created the Earth and that’s why it is the totem animal of the Sepik people.
Finally, you will be ready to meet the real protagonists of the exhibition: the Ancestors. They are mainly the Founding Ancestors, creators of the world, but they can also be legendary heroes and forebear warriors. Masks, sculptures or musical instruments are the multiple forms under which they manifest themselves. And if an ancestor can embody an object, every human being can metamorphose into an ancestor too. However, to achieve this metamorphosis, the person has to wear the appropriate costume in order to re-enact certain mythological events. But this ritual is more than a cosplay game or a storytelling stage setting. If the villager adopts the behavior and body language of the ancestor he portrays, he really incarnates it and merges with it.
The room, dedicated to masks and ornaments made with soft wood, bark, plant fibers, shells and feathers, is an aesthetic ravishment for fashion lovers.
And if you are more attracted by the beauty of sounds than by the plastic allure, you will enjoy the musical instruments room. The instruments are sacred and secret. During the ceremonies, bamboo flutes and water drums are the voices of the spirits. You will have the luck to see these hidden instruments and above all, to listen to Sepik’s music. Take the time to have a stimulating break by sitting on the bench of the music room and relish in this unique experience.
SEPIK really succeeds in conjuring up the setting of a village in which each house is a true temple to Primitive art. It will please all the esotericism enthusiasts who will love to discover the mystical and occult universe of an unknown spirituality.
But when you disembark the canoe at the end of the route, keep in mind that this staged village represents a 20th century village and that all these traditional beliefs and rituals, just like in many corners of the world, are threatened by extinction.
Sepik exhibition from October 27th, 2015 – January 31st, 2016
Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday from 11 am – 7 pm / Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 am – 9 pm
Musée du Quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, Paris, +33 (0)1 56 61 70 00