Fact Sheet: Art

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Ancestral board, gerua wenena

New Guinea, Eastern Highlands Province, Siane people
20th century
Wood, pigment
591/16 x 197⁄8 x 13/16 in. (150 x 48 x 2 cm)
Gift of Marcia and John Friede in honor of Diane B. Wilsey and Harry S. Parker III
Provenance: Collected by Stanley Gordon Moriarity in the Siane area; S. G. Moriarity Collection, Sydney

A gerua wenena is a carved and painted board made of a light wood and worn like a headdress in ceremonial dancing at the culmination of the grand Pig Festivals. Important men (referred to as “Bigmen”), who have many pigs and several wives, wear these large, elaborate headpieces. Smaller gerua decorate children and are found over a wide area of the New Guinea Highlands, but it is with the Siane people of the Eastern Highlands that the gerua reaches its artistic heights. Made by specialists, this board, in its graceful, simple form with delicate geometric painted motifs, is one of  the most elegant of Highland artworks.

The gerua wenena has the anthropomorphic form of a squatting figure, combining elements of eastern Highland creation myths that often feature the sun and the moon: the circular head, fo numunc (house of the sun); the diamond body, afanili (hand of the moon); and the lithe hands or wings, oma (the way, or the road). The Gerua spirit is a powerful force among these Highland people. It directly controls the health, growth, and well-being of pigs and children. The gerua wenana symbolize the potent presence of this powerful spirit that demands respect and pig sacrifice.

Stanley Gordon Moriarty collected this spirit board in the 1960s. He was a passionate collector who filled his house with New Guinea sculpture, excavating caves beneath his Sydney home to display them when the upstairs was full.


Shield, reipe

New Guinea, Western Highlands Province, Nebilyer Valley, Melpa and Imbongu peoples
Early 20th century
Wood, pigment, fiber
407/16 x 23¼ x 8¼ in. (123 x 59 x 21 cm)
Gift of Marcia and John Friede in honor of Diane B. Wilsey and Harry S. Parker III

Fighting shields, reipe, were used in large formalized battles that once took place between hundreds of warriors in the wide grasslands on the floor of the Wahgi Valley in the New Guinea Western Highlands. Leading warriors painted black with soot carried brightly colored shields decorated with waving feather headdresses to protect the spearmen and, further back, the bowmen.

There is one main timber used for shields in the Wahgi Valley, called reipe or teipe; hence the common term for a shield is kumbe reipe (literally, “wall of the reipe tree”). The designs on individual shields are abstract, with combinations of circles and triangles punctuated into its smooth surface and boldly painted colors made from ochres. These bold colors can be outlined in charcoal to highlight the dark and light elements. On this particular shield, design elements can be readily named: the central circle is a navel; inside are swiftlet wings; the small circle above depicts a forehead decoration made of shell; and on the sides are designs like those painted on the cheeks of dancers. However, discerning an overall meaning for the complete design is more difficult. Fundamentally, there is evidence to suggest an anthropomorphic interpretation, with the bold “X” forming a figure with outstretched arms and legs. The center being designated “navel” reinforces this notion.

Highland shields are ideal for use in traditional warfare against spears and arrows, but since the introduction of guns into tribal fighting from the mid-1980s, shields have gradually become obsolete.


String bag, kabeel men

New Guinea, West Sepik (Sandaun) Province, upper Sepik River, Telefol region, Mountain Ok people
20th century
Fiber, feathers, shell, skin
31¼ in. (79.4 cm)
Gift of Marcia and John Friede in honor of Diane B. Wilsey and Harry S. Parker III
Provenance: Walter Randel Collection, New York

Throughout New Guinea and West Papua string bags are essential companions to men, women, and children. In the Mountain Ok region, men and women have separate roles in relation to the production and use of the string bag. Women hand-spin bark fibers and loop expansive, unadorned bags which they use in their everyday tasks to store and carry produce from their gardens and to cradle their babies. Women’s bags thus become associated with motherhood, nurturance, protection, and fertility. Men, on the other hand, are the “elaborators.” Men decorate the outer side of the bags (made by their close female kin) with feathers and wear them across their shoulders like a cloak.

The kabeel men, embellished with shiny black hornbill feathers, are presented to adolescent males after an initiation rite modeled on the nesting habits of the hornbill. Just as the mother hornbill incubates her eggs in the hole of a tree, nurtured by the male, so the initiates are secluded in the men’s house, amid hot fires (incubation), and emerge as men, adorned with their new kabeel men feather bags, body paint, and feather headdresses.


String bag, tiyaapl men

New Guinea, West Sepik (Sandaun) Province, upper Sepik River, Telefol region, Mountain Ok people
20th century
Fiber, feathers
24 x 12 x 14 in. (61 x 30.5 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Marcia and John Friede in honor of Diane B. Wilsey and Harry S. Parker III

The tiyaapl men is a cassowary feather string bag worn only by men who have achieved the highest grade of male initiation. Men cover over the loops of a woman’s plain string bag (aam bal men) with the shining, long cassowary plumes, and so outwardly proclaim male prowess as hunter. Cassowary feathers are prestigious because the aggressive birds are difficult to hunt. The long sweeping plumes that hang down in the middle of the bag are remarkably similar in appearance to an actual cassowary tail.

The process of attaching cassowary feathers is delicate and time consuming. Aesthetic appeal is heightened with a few carefully selected colorful plumes. As men dance, wearing their bags, the plumes quiver and flash in the light, evoking deep emotion and feelings of well-being in all who are present.