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Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art of the Papuan Gulf

Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript of the pioneering photographer Kathleen Haddon chronicle indigenous ceremonies and traditions of the Papuan Gulf in the early twentieth century.


Virginia-Lee Webb: The art of the Papuan Gulf is among the world's great sculpture traditions. There, traditional sculptures in the form of masks, figures, and spirit boards represented and became the embodiment of supernatural beings that were placated, cajoled, and coaxed to attend to human needs. The first-ever survey exhibition of these dynamic works was seen at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York in 1961. Now, forty-five years later, The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents this inventive art—and photographs of it in its original cultural context—in a new exhibition, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art of the Papuan Gulf, on view from October 24, 2006, through September 3, 2007.

My name is Virginia-Lee Webb, research curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan, and curator of the exhibition.

The medium of photography has played an important role in our knowledge of the original contexts in the Papuan Gulf. Photography was used as early as 1874 by members of the London Missionary Society, who sought to change what they saw around them. Visitors with diverse personal and commercial agendas followed, and many had cameras. For the first time, this exhibition presents a selection of historical photographs that provide a record of what the photographers saw, perceived, and pictured with their cameras. The creativity manifest in the sculptures and the indigenous perspective is apparent in these remarkable images. In several instances, the sculptures are seen in their traditional contexts, or in situ. Many of the photographs have recently been located and are united in the exhibition for the first time with the actual sculptures pictured in them.

The visitors who witnessed the events and made the photographs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are no longer with us. In addition to the photographs, a few left behind diaries, letters, and unpublished manuscripts that tell us about their adventures and feelings. One photographer who stands out among them was 26-year-old Kathleen Haddon, who lived from 1888 to 1961. She was the daughter of ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon, best known for leading the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898. Kathleen Haddon received a degree in zoology from Cambridge and traveled with her father several times. In 1914, she was appointed the official photographer for her father's third and final voyage to Papua.

The photographs she made are artistic accomplishments and visual treasures. She is one of the first non-local women to enter and photograph art in the men's longhouses, and her photographs bridge the gap between the earlier missionaries and travelers. She used two different types of cameras: a standard view camera with glass plate negatives, and a small, quiet Vest Pocket Kodak camera that used roll film. Approximately eighty prints and numerous negatives were given to the Cambridge University Museum, where they remain today, along with an unpublished manuscript she wrote in 1915. The following are excerpts from her manuscript:

Woman: "As the steamer which had brought us up to Thursday Island from Brisbane glided down the strait and headed for the open sea, I felt that the last link with the familiar world was broken. The voyage along the Queensland coast had been a memorable one, bringing us a glimpse of the tropics and occasional coral reef, but all the time we were in the midst of friends, living on a large steamer with its routine of games and meals, and it was difficult to realize that one was at last in that enchanted region of coral islands and coconut palms. The departure of the steamer, however, and the goodbyes of our homeward-bound companions awakened us to the realities of life; henceforward, for two months or more, we were to cope with unknown phenomena—tides, currents, and trade-winds—as factors in our locomotion, for practically all our traveling was to be done by boat. Our food was to be tinned and our bedding was rolled up in the familiar Australian 'swag.' What more could the heart desire? We were both brimful of eagerness, my father to revisit some of his old haunts and friends, and I with the excitement of my first tropical island and the sense of childhood's dreams of adventure come true.

"The ravi at Maipua were of enormous size, the top of the gable being about sixty feet from the ground in some cases. Most of them had great screens over the entrance, and this, we found, was due to the fact that there was dancing going on inside in connection with the initiation ceremonies of some boys. Over the tops of the screens there bobbed four weird masks and the sound of drums and chanting came from within. We made straight for the largest ravi and again to my surprise, I was allowed to enter, in spite of the fact that a ceremony was being conducted. Inside the clubhouse, the light was bad, owing to the great screen across the door, and it took me a little time to become accustomed to it after the glare on the water. A group of men were seated on the ground, beating drums in a rhythmical manner and chanting, whilst one of them blew occasional blasts on a large conch shell. In the space around them danced two men holding long bamboo poles, about thirty feet high, on the top of which were the grotesque masks we had seen from outside. These figures had to be kept continuously in motion and the men moved backwards and forwards in time with the chanting, jiggling the poles in their hands. In the hot atmosphere, this dancing with heavy poles was tremendously tiring work and the dancers were often streaming with perspiration, although they were frequently relieved by others. We heard later that this part of the ceremony was introductory, serving to scare away the evil spirits, and that the dance proper began four or five days later. In preparation for this, all the great masks were ranged along the ravi, a most impressive sight, for they were from six to twenty feet high and painted brilliant white with black and red designs on them.

"Orokolo consists of a series of villages scattered along the beach, and the main one—where the London Missionary station is situated—was about three miles from ours. Accordingly, we started off soon after breakfast, deciding to go there by the beach and study the canoes, have lunch, and then return through the villages to see the houses and people. The tide was up, and discarding our shoes and stockings, my father and I kept along the water's edge on the cool, wet sand. Every now and again, a canoe was drawn up high on the beach, and we went and examined these, taking notes and, if need be, a photograph or sketch.

"Now, after several months at home, the whole thing seems more dreamlike than ever, except for an occasional fierce longing to be up and away again. Perhaps someday I shall go back and no doubt find that I have immensely overrated the pleasures of travel in Papua, but meanwhile, with my photographs and my memories, I can revisit it at will and once more glide down the palm-shaded rivers or bask on the coral strand."

Virginia-Lee Webb: The exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Excerpts are used by permission, courtesy of Professor Henry Rishbeth, son of Kathleen Haddon, and the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, England.

We gratefully acknowledge Penelope Taylor as the voice of Kathleen Haddon.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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