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Exhibitions/ Coaxing the Spirits to Dance

Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art of the Papuan Gulf

October 24, 2006–December 2, 2007

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition presents some sixty powerful and graphically elaborate sculptures and thirty rare historical photographs from the Gulf province of Papua New Guinea. The sacred objects, alongside photographs that show them in context, demonstrate the deep connection between art and community life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Drawn from public and private collections, as well as the Museum's own holdings, many of the works are being exhibited for the first time in the only in-depth investigation of these art traditions in forty-five years.

Representing spirits in the form of masks, figures, and ancestor or spirit boards, the sculptures in this exhibition were originally used to cajole or coax supernatural beings into attending to human needs. Highlights include a mask called hokore with a bold design depicting a gecko, a clan totem; a carved and painted spirit board called titi ebiha, with an image of a spirit in human form with asymmetrical legs animated in dance; and a masterfully carved wooden figure called agiba that celebrated Kerewa ancestors and the communal longhouse identity, ensuring success in conflict.

Rare historical photographs are presented alongside the sculptures, allowing the viewer to see the objects in their original contexts. Taken by nineteenth- and twentieth-century travelers to the Papuan Gulf, these images are drawn primarily from the Museum's Photograph Study Collection in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Photographic highlights are: Irivake Figure in the Longhouse, taken by Paul Baron de Rautenfeld (Swiss, 1865–1957) in Maiaki village on May 19, 1925, recording the exceedingly rare sculpture called Irivake; Young Men with Maiva Shields, 1881–1889, one of the earliest photographs documenting art from the Papuan Gulf, made by William Lawes (English, 1839–1907) between 1881 and 1889; and Women Dancing with Hevehe Masks along the Beach, February 1932, by Francis Edgar Williams (Australian, 1893–1943), capturing women dancing "with their arms held high like a flock of mountain birds" alongside towering hevehe masks, which represent sea spirits that have been placated and coaxed to dance.

About Papua New Guinea

The Gulf region of Papua New Guinea extends for some three hundred miles along the independent nation's south coast, from the Fly River in the west to Cape Possession in the east, about one hundred miles northwest of Port Moresby, the bustling, modern capital. Consisting of deltas or bayous, this region is the fourth-largest province (out of twenty) in the country—about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. In terms of population, however, the region is the second-smallest province, with fewer than one hundred thousand inhabitants, and large parts of the inland rain forest almost uninhabited.

Papua New Guinea's population is made up of approximately five major groups of related peoples, each with its own stylistically distinct forms of masks, figures, and spirit boards. Nearly every object on view in this exhibition was created to communicate with or control the spirit world for the benefit of the family or community. Local sculptors attracted spirits to live in the boards, which were kept in community shrines, or to inhabit the masks and activate dancers during community performances.

The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

It was organized by the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.