Ritual Art Is Exotic, Hardly `Primitive'

Article excerpt

In a culture such as ours, which tends to compress its experiences of magic, myth and mystery into an hour or so on Sunday mornings, the ritual art of Oceania might be expected to draw stares as blank as the ones that seem to arise from the familiar wooden ceremonial masks of the Pacific Islands.

As any number of contemporary American artists will tell you, the divorce of art from ritual in our own culture is nearly complete.

A few bold men and women continue to pursue ritual art here in the forms of roadside shrines, altarpieces, masks, etc. But they do so with the near-certainty that their work won't perform well in the marketplace.

A recent visit to an exhibit called "Spirits Within: Ritual Art of Melanesia," currently showing in Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville's University Center Gallery, prompted this reflection.

Hung about the gallery are a few dozen ancestral masks and icons, ceremonial tools, vessels and garments, and other assorted artifacts. They derive from a part of the world that remained an almost total mystery to Westerners until about the midpoint of the current century, when the United States, England and Japan enjoined the great sea- and land battles in places such as Bougainville and Guadalcanal.

Melanesia lies in the vast area of the Pacific known as Oceania and is situated generally south of the equator and north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Its central and most prominent landmass is the main island of New Guinea.

The mythology of the diverse peoples who inhabit these islands tends to focus on ancestral culture heroes who might be credited with creating everything from the landscape to the most minute human customs. …