Obsidian blade technology in the Admiralty Islands.
Clayton Frederickson


Variation in retouched obsidian blade (point) form on Lou island is examined for the last 2100 years. A sequence of change is proposed in which heavily modified points are replaced between approximately 1600 and 7àà years ago by simplified forms resembling those recorded ethnographically. The uggestion is made that this technological change reflects a reorientation of the overarching system of production and distribution.................


The Oceanic collections in the french public collections. an inventory (external link)
R. Boulay - 
(Chargé de mission with the Direction des 
Musées de France for the Oceanic collections)

pdf 168k

After the heyday of the creation of the natural history museums in 
the second half of the 19th century, interest in the freshly assembled 
Oceanic collections declined until they were all but forgotten towards 
the 1930s. The colonial exhibitions together with those organized by the 
religious congregations would periodically revive this interest more or 
less anecdotally with, for example, exhibitions of “savages”, often 
accompanied by displays of objects, all of which spawned something of a 
popular craze. 


Les deux lauréats du Prix International du livre d’Art Tribal 2010 ont été désignés le 29 novembre dernier chez Sotheby's à Paris et en présence de Wendy Grossman et de Jan Martens, directeur de Fonds Mercator.
Ouvrage en langue française :

Fleuve Congo
Auteur : François Neyt
Editeur : Fonds Mercator et musée du quai Branly

Ouvrage en langue anglaise :

Man Ray, African art, and the Modernist Lens
Author: Wendy A. Grossman
Publisher: International Art & Artists


 Warfare is a major aspect of Highlands life, and shields are the supreme artistic expression connected with it. Made by all Highlands cultures, these works are colorful and abstract in design, and reflect many elements found in both body decoration and other ephemeral art objects of the area. In keeping with Highlands ceremonial traditions, shields are used in dramatic mass displays for wartime. Among the most durable of Highlands art works, they are generally made of hardwood and are carefully preserved between battles.________________________________________________________________________________

Shields are arguably the most representative and powerful expression of New Guinea Highlands arts. They are the only genre of carved and decorated object found throughout the region. Though primarily functional, shields carry on their carved and painted surfaces a power and meaning beyond mere visual impact.

Highlands shields are used exclusively for combat and are not related to ceremonial occasions as they are in other parts of Melanesia. During periods of peace they were usually stored in their owner's abode above the fire or in the Men's House. The smoke of the fire blackened and hardened the timber so that shields often lasted a century. Periods of peace were always unstable due to ever-changing alliances. When warfare inevitably erupted, these stored shields were brought down, repainted, and used.
Under the Australian colonial rule policy of "pacification," which was initiated in the Highlands from first contact in the 1930s through Independence in 1975, large-scale inter-tribal warfare all but ceased, and even the smaller skirmishes were largely contained. Many shields and other weapons were burned during this period, but during the late 1970s, both warfare and shield production began to revive. In the 1980s, the introduction of shotguns into tribal wars modified warfare strategy. Steel shields were made from car roofs or 44-gallon oil drums. Designs on these steel shields usually employed enamel paints and often featured concepts and symbols from their Western-influenced surroundings (fig. 16). High-powered guns have recently made these shields obsolete.

Highlands shields traditionally take three basic forms:

Large rectangular shields made from wood or bark, which more or less cover the body (figs. 12 and 15). These tend to be used in highly organized, almost ritualized battles that occur on the open valley floor. In these, few people are killed but maximum display is achieved.

Ovoid wooden shields, which are smaller and are supported on the shoulder by a rope sling (fig. 18). These are used in fighting that requires maneuverability and speed. They are usually carried by a spearman or bowman.

Shoulder shields, also of wood, and found only in the Southern Highlands (fig. 13). Their unusual notched form allows a bowman to use his weapon, while the shield slung from the shoulder protects the underarm torso. Its form closely relates to the shields of the Papuan Gulf and suggests influence from the south coast. Anthropomorphic designs on Southern Highlands shields, not found elsewhere, add weight to this link with Papuan design.

Highlands shields were traditionally stone-adzed, but the introduction of steel blades has resulted in little alteration in shape, size, or design. The patterns on the surface are often rendered as bold slabs of color. These patterns are generally geometric, with circles and triangles being the predominant motifs. Grooved channels may be cut into the wooden surface to form a bold design, or the designs may be punctuated. In certain areas the surface of the shield is pecked and more often than not painted red.

Color is an important element in any Highlands gathering. In war the body is painted black and the bright feathers of ceremony are generally absent, although some feathers and body ornamentation may be worn, especially in the large ritual wars. Shields are, however, painted boldly and brightly. Brilliant colors reflect the warrior's physical and spiritual superiority over his enemy. The shield is given its own headdress when carried to war. This takes the form of rows of cassowary feather spikes along its upper edge (fig. 15).

Highlands shields are not heraldic emblems. Each tribal group has a recognizable style of design and color use, but within these boundaries individuals have as great a degree of scope to paint their shields as desired, sometimes changing the colors and even design between uses. Creativity, however, is tempered by the knowledge that shield and war magic must follow certain prescribed canons to work effectively, as well as by the fact that ancestral ghosts are ever-present to judge the living by customary ancestral law.

Shield designs are generally geometric, and although there are similarities to body and face design, by and large they cannot be equated. The circle is a pervading design, described as a navel or the sun, an important symbol in Highlands myth and ritual. Various designs are described as "butterfly wings" (bold opposing triangles), the "spider," "teeth," "waterfall," or "man." Some sources attribute different meanings to the same design. The anthropomorphic images of the Southern Highlands range from being obviously representational to entirely abstract. When individuals are questioned, the motivation they express for depicting the human form on a shield varies considerably, but what becomes apparent is that specific combinations of elements and colors are considered meaningful. These designs symbolize that which may not generally be verbalized and serve as a direct and graphic expression of a message of deep spiritual or cosmological significance.
excerpt from 'Highlands Art of New Guinea' by Chris Boylan and Greta North

Pig Killing Aprons
Many of the aprons from the highlands of Papua New Guinea express similar colour contrasts as those of the 20th cent abstract minimalist painter Mark Rothko.

The Papua New Guinea Highlands is famous among anthropologists for the elaborate systems of ceremonial exchange through which “big-men” gain prestige, but is less conspicuous through museum collections of Oceanic art. This was because the most elaborate art forms were ephemeral, and were in particular connected with the spectacular decoration of the human body for dances associated with inter-clan exchange events, pig-killing ceremonies, and warfare. Dancers required a set of accoutrements including wigs, aprons, leaves, and feathers. Pearl shells, which were formerly very scarce, having been traded up from the coast, were mounted into resinous boards worn across the chest; large, solid wigs supported lorikeet, parrot, cockatoo, and cassowary feathers; fur, bones, grease, ferns, and croton leaves (ritually important across the Pacific) were added; while the most arresting feature was perhaps the heavy ochre face painting. Different paints and suites of decorations were appropriate to different occasions, and communicated appropriately: some were intended primarily to evoke the admiration of spectators, and to attract women; in other cases, colours bear meanings appropriate to particular cults, that preserved male well-being from the threat of female pollution. Associated religious beliefs were vital: decorations could not be worn without the approval of ancestors, but the person wearing the decorations was empowered by the evident proof of ancestral support. This typifies the way in which Oceanic art is often less about meaning or representation than about presence: decoration is not a symbol that stands for something else, but a manifestation of power and vitality.

While Highlands art was, therefore, bound up with performance and context, various types of artefacts are nevertheless to be found in museum collections. Those most closely connected with the body arts are shields, painted in ways that echo painting on warriors’ cheeks; indeed, the shield as a whole was modelled on the body. The head or top was often decorated with feathers or tassels, and the circular motifs around the centre were identified with the navel. Highlands shields differ from those of the Sepik, the Asmat, and other low-lying and coastal New Guinea peoples in generally featuring solid fields of paint rather than a plethora of carved, low-relief motifs.

"Oceanic Art," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


The apron adorner is a pig-tail-fringed piece of knitting, varying in size and shape, from relatively small and triangular ... to large and rectangular, with long pig-tail-bedecked streamers. Regardless of size and shape the constant feature of adorners is the pigs' tails hanging along one side. Men wear them tucked into their bark girdles by two side straps, dangling sporran-like in front of their aprons. They put them on when donning their best 'yort onda' finery only, to enhance further their appearance for some grand event. These apron embellishers have never been popular with the Wola, in contrast to the Huli who commonly wear them as part of their daily dress. Until recently they were exceptionally rare, having passed out of fashion, but in the early 1980s there was a limited revival of interest in them, particularly in large streamered adorners knitted in bright red and yellow string ... They last for years, kept safely protected in leaf parcels, and worn at infrequent intervals ...

For the knitted piece a man requires string, which may be rolled from any suitable bast fibre ... the number of hanks required varies with the style of adorner: up to a dozen or more for a large streamered one ... Pigs' tails are in ready supply, even though they are somewhat in demand for ornamenting various other objects too. A man will collect them over a period of time, from animals he slaughters and those killed by relatives and friends ... The other materials required are, for colouring an apron adorner knitted in traditional dun string, ochre or powder paint, together with tigaso oil or pig grease ...

Although the knitted string parts of apron adorners vary in shape and size, the general pattern followed is constant, knitted in 'tesop' and 'minyaeb' stiches [in Wola] ... A man attaches a fringe of between one and two dozen pigs' tails to the knitted piece, either directly along the lower edge of the smaller ones or, if triangular-shaped, as they frequently are, along their two lower sides. On the larger versions he suspends them from the ends of the streamers that hang down from the pinafore piece. He removes the bone from the tails before tying them on, cutting them along one side and peeling it out, and pierces the skin near their base to dangle them from a piece of string ... some men thought that in the dim past apron adorners were more highly valued than today, which invites speculation about the tails and the origin of the adorner.

excerpt from Paul Silitoe, 'Made in Niugini: Technology in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea', British Museum Publications, London, 1988


Scholarly/Book; Made in Niugini: Technology in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea; Paul Sillitoe; 1988, 454-456, For comparative apron adorner made by the Wola of Southern Highlands Province, see chapter 7, 'Finery and self-decoration'.

Oceanic art and the Surrealists
By Dennis Gaffney
In "Tips of the Trade," ANTIQUES ROADSHOW usually informs readers about the prizes and pitfalls of specific collecting areas. Sometimes, however, we come across a category of object with scant examples available to collect.
A primer on the powerful and often overlooked art of the South Seas.

That's largely true of the traditional art of Oceania. ANTIQUES ROADSHOW featured this art from the South Pacific when it visited a collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. "These items are increasingly scarce," notes Michael Gunn, the museum's associate curator of Oceanic art, a vast catch basin that includes New Guinea, Micronesia, Polynesia and more. Supply is limited because islanders were often small groups who made few pieces. Tropical weather also rotted older pieces. Michael says that it's unusual for pre-contact Oceanic art—defined as art made before Europeans made contact with these islanders—to land on international auction blocks. Pieces that do reach the market often sell for five or even six figures.
Given the scarcity of these pieces, we asked Michael and ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser John Buxton, an antiques consultant from Dallas, Texas, to provide a primer, rather than collecting tips, about the powerful and often-overlooked art of the South Seas. Here's what they offered.
What is Authentic Art?

In terms of Oceanic art, so-called "authentic" art is "made for tribal use," John says, distinguishing it from art made for export and sale. John encountered an example of its opposite—inauthentic Oceanic art—at the Miami ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. He saw an orator's stool, which the owners referred to as "Freddy," made in the Middle Sepik River style of Papua New Guinea during the last few decades. Its features, including Freddy's face, eyes, and his privates, had "extraordinary exaggerations," John notes. "Modern copies are often over-sized and clumsy," he adds.
John believes that those unfamiliar with Oceanic art can feel the difference between old and new. "When you look at great old pieces, even the untrained eye can sense the dynamic life force," John explains. "The contemporary pieces are often dead, lifeless objects."
Spiritual Art

Oceanic art is often infused with ancestral spirits, as well as spirits of water, air and land. These spirits are contacted in ceremonies to ensure fertility, or invoke protection from famine, disease or enemies.
Sometimes these invocations serve extremely practical purposes. A colleague of Michael's witnessed a ceremony in Papua New Guinea where ancestral spirits were activated in a carved wooden crocodile. Men carrying the crocodile were then led, like people holding a divining rod are led, to the home of a local murderer. While on a recent visit to New Ireland, a South Seas island, Michael watched the local people use malagan art objects during a public ceremony to mark a transfer of land ownership. The art objects were witnesses to a legal transaction in the community.
"Authentic Oceanic art is not made for decoration," John explains. "It is made to be used as a tool in the culture." Adds Michael: "Traditionally, the people of Oceania did not make pictures of people or paint landscapes to make money. But since they realized that tourists would pay money for their art, this has changed.
Pre and Post "Contact"

Oceanic art can be divided between pieces made before contact with the West, which are more highly valued, and pieces made afterward. One of the pieces in the St. Louis Art Museum's collection is a paddle from the Hermit Islands carved with rat's teeth, the tools used to carve wood before metal tools were brought by Europeans 250 years ago. Notes John: "That paddle is absolutely exquisite."
Post-contact pieces are also valued. The first collectors were Western missionaries and traders who brought back pieces as curiosities in the mid-19th century. Oceanic art found its way into German museums and curiosity cabinets in the later decades of the century.
In the 20th century, Cubist painters, and especially Surrealists, were moved by the power of Oceanic abstractions, as they were by traditional African art. "If I were to say anything universal about Oceanic art, it's that it's abstract," says John of this extremely diverse art world, which has also evolved over time. "If you look at African art and Oceanic art, you see a much more stylized art form in the South Pacific," John explains. While at the Madison, Wisconsin, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, John saw a Dogon horse and rider replica from the Mali people of West Africa. In the statue, the horse resembled a horse and the rider resembled a rider.
"Traditional African art is much more accessible," explains John. "Oceanic art can be more subtle, certainly more elusive."
Today, collectors respect the right of Pacific cultures to hold on to the objects that are used in their culture, a right respected by an international UNESCO treaty now a quarter-century old. "We're careful to not remove essential cultural artifacts which are still used today," Michael says. "We record practices, we document them, but we leave the pieces where they are.

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