Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Of Power and Menace: Sepik Art as an Affecting Presence

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Of Power and Menace: Sepik Art as an Affecting Presence

Article excerpt


The Sepik Basin has often been proclaimed as the most creative and prolific region of so-called traditional, primitive or tribal art production in New Guinea, if not the world (e.g., Anderson 1989: 47; Altman 1967: 9; Buhler et al. 1962: 103-6; Guiart 1968: 24; Linton & Wingert 1946: 103). It secured this reputation at an early point in its contact history, when early German scholars such as Behrmann, Finsch and Thurnwald first introduced the European world to the quantity, diversity and aesthetic power of the art they had encountered along the Basin's banks and shores. With the outbreak of the first world war and the decline of the German colonial presence, however, the anthropology of the Sepik region entered an ethnographic limbo that was to last for several decades as anthropologists turned to other areas and cultures, in preference to a region growing ever more disrupted by pacification, labour recruitment and European wars (Guiart 1968: 6-7; Lutkehaus & Roscoe 1987: 577-78; Tuzin 1976:10 & fn. 6).

During these years of anthropological neglect, many of the Sepik masters continued to produce the art of their ancestors. Not until the mid-1960s, however, was thorough anthropological insight cast on their work by the late Anthony Forge. In a series of pioneering papers focusing primarily on the Abelam of the southern foothills of the Prince Alexander and Torricelli mountains, Forge (1966; 1967; 1970; 1973; 1979) advanced an ingeniously perceptive theory of the nature of Sepik art that continues to influence scholarship both within the Sepik and beyond (e.g., Bowden 1983; Dubinskas & Traweek 1984; Guddemi 1993; Hanson 1983; Kaufmann 1979; Tuzin 1980).

Taking as his primary ethnographic focus the painted facade of the Abelam korombo, the archetype of the towering A-framed spirit houses for which the Sepik is now famous (Forge 1966; 1973; Kaberry 1941: 356-7; 1971: 41-2), Forge argued that traditional art is primarily a medium of communication, a means of rapidly conveying, in a kind of condensed, visual shorthand,

fundamental assumptions about the bases of the society, the real nature of men and women, the nature of power, the place of man in the universe of nature which surrounds him (1979: 285).

The mechanics of this transmission, according to Forge, lie not so much in the elements of this art as in their juxtaposition, which objectifies and communicates what might be called the cultural syntax, those systemic patterns and structures of interrelationship which give fundamental meaning to concepts such as male, female, power and nature (Forge 1979). A common artistic design on korombo facades, for example, depicts the head of the ngwalndu spirit, the epitome of all Abelam male values, within a pointed oval, a symbol with a quintessentially female, maternal character. This visual encompassment of masculinity by femininity 'expresses the primacy of female creativity, which in Abelam terms is natural, over male creativity which is cultural' (1973: 189), an assumption that exerts a profound influence over every domain of Abelam culture (see, for example, Forge 1971: 141-2).

Forge's analysis of Sepik art typifies what is still perhaps the most influential of anthropological and archaeological approaches to traditional art. In the general spirit of semiotic and symbolic anthropology, it proposes that the analytically salient aspects of art are what might be called its semantic properties, its ability to communicate (usually unconsciously) intellectual meaning. Thus, traditional art becomes a means of information 'storage' in non-literate societies; a mode of communicating the sorts of relational meaning in which Levi-Strauss and his followers are interested; a representational code that functions rather like language; or, as in Forge's argument, a quite distinctive means of communication, more direct than language. In some approaches, the 'messages' communicated concern natural phenomena: the whereabouts of food, the behaviour of bison, and the like. …

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