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The New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University Primitivism, Hybridity, or Aesthetic Ambiguity? Eric Kline Silverman Depts. American Studies and.

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Presentation on theme: "The New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University Primitivism, Hybridity, or Aesthetic Ambiguity? Eric Kline Silverman Depts. American Studies and."— Presentation transcript:

1 The New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University Primitivism, Hybridity, or Aesthetic Ambiguity? Eric Kline Silverman Depts. American Studies and Human Development Wheelock College Boston, MA USA

2 Entrance to the Garden. The path evokes a village walkway and also the Sepik River; the posts (modeled after house posts) symbolize a village.

3 General photo of the Garden—with the wonderful juxtaposition, or clash, between a tranquil grove of primitivism and the parking lot.

4 Throughout the Garden are placards with information, descriptions, and quotations from the carvers

5 Spirit or Men’s house (left) at Palimbei village (shown at the Garden), and one in Timbunke village (right)

6 In the shadows

7 Amid the trees

8 Temporary sign during the creation of the Garden

9 An eagle atop an ancestress. This type of sculpture traditionally adorned the roof of a Iatmul men’s house.


11 An exaggerated version of a Iatmul orator’s stool: an ancestor, eagle, and ancestress. The ancestral penis (but not the breasts) proved controversial on campus in terms of reproducing (ornot) stereotypes about ‘black savagery.’

12 Close-ups of the Orator’s Stool

13 Iatmul house posts with typical or ‘traditional’ mythological motifs and figures: ancestor with splayed tongue (sign of aggression and sexuality), a phallic totemic fish having sex with an ancestress.

14 Unfinished Iatmul post on the ground during the creation of the Garden

15 Traditional Iatmul garamut (slit drum). On the drum, which is a pig, you can see an incised spirit face (called a sabi) framed by swirling leaf-water patterns. (The round-shaped objects on the ground are lights)

16 A crocodile-shaped garamut drum, with information plaques

17 The crocodile garamut

18 Close-up of a Iatmul post: ancestress with typical motifs that variously represent water waves, vegetation, and sometimes fish or crocodile scales. This sort of aesthetic ambiguity is common in Iatmul art.

19 The same post as the former image. Although the general patterns and motifs are traditional, and pertain to traditional mythology, the portrayal of the skulls are far more realistic, in a Western representational sense, than Iatmul once carved.


21 Close-up: the Iatmul gothic!

22 A non-traditional post that resembles certain types of tourist art. The post exhibits Western-style naturalism, almost like a landscape painting. The animals (turtle and bandicoot) may refer to episodes from the carver’s clan mythology—or they may simply be naturalistic animals. Either way, the post displays contemporary realism—a turtle swimming in the river, a bandicoot in the bush.

23 A towering Iatmul post, with typically traditional spirit countenance

24 An unfinished post. Nothing like this existed traditionally. This post embodies very modern aesthetic concepts such as process and human temporality (i.e., not enough time to finish it). The post, too, disperses authority by inviting, or requiring, the audience to complete the image, thus sharing in its creation. The latter fits with the overall collaborative ethos of the entire project.

25 Stanford University boasts one of Rodin’s famous sculptures of “The Thinker.” It is perhaps the most famous art object on campus.

26 Not to be outdone, my Iatmul friend, Gamboromiawan, responded: “What’s the big deal? That’s nothing. I can do that…only better!”



29 Kwoma posts

30 Kwoma posts of mythological figures

31 Kwoma posts: creation of the cosmos on the left; yam masks on the right



34 Kwoma post. Note the carver’s signature on the bottom (a token of modern individual aesthetic creativity). On this post, the carver has done something new: followed the contour of the wood in carving his figures, which exhibit ‘modern’ realism rather than mythology.

35 Same post as in prior image. Note the realistic male figure at the top of the post (right), as an example of modern aesthetic creativity.

36 Traditionally, Kwoma men painted totemic emblems on panels (from the stems of sago palms) inside their men’s houses. This example is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

37 The installation of the panels at the MET

38 Painted Kwoma poles. This is a new artistic style, whereby Kwoma transfer the traditional practice of totemic paintings to posts and, as in this instance, the shape of a tree. Many of the paintings, we will see, depict innovative designs and patterns that lack any immediate totemic and mythic reference.


40 (notice the cartoon-like face)



43 The stone sculptures

44 Large stones are almost entirely lacking in the entire Sepik flood plain. Hence, Sepik people have absolutely no tradition of carving stone. In an effort to foster artistic creativity and innovation, the organizer of the Garden, Jim Mason, encouraged the Iatmul and Kwoma carvers to experiment with stone. Generally, the men depicted traditional mythic figures and spirit faces.





49 Perhaps the second most famous sculpture at Stanford, after Rodin’s “The Thinker,” is his “Gates of Hell”

50 And, here again, the Sepik carvers would not be outdone: this is their rendition of “The Gates of Hell.” Ironically, as in the thinker, Sepik men innovated by emulating, and attempting to best, Western masterpieces.

51 Faces of the Sepik


53 A mythic lizard creature that came to be known as “Richard Nixon”!


55 School outreach programs during the creation of the Garden


57 Kwoma man sketching a face

58 Playing flutes for an audience of wealthy Palo Altoans

59 Performance of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra in April 2008

60 An unanticipated form of collaboration: spirit crocodile as playground!

61 Another playful use of Sepik art!

62 Another unanticipated use of the Garden!



65 Photo Credits All photographs taken by E. Silverman except: “the crocodile garamut” bin/pictures.cgi?loc_id=566#/images/locations/566/1079_large.JPG “Close-up: The Iatmul Gothic: http://home-and- Rodin’s “The Thinker” and The Iatmul Thinker: Painted Kwoma panels: and The Stone Sculptures: Rodin’s Gates of Hell: Stanford Laptop Orchestra: ( Kids playing: Wedding kiss: ( 061505.html)

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