Sepik sculpture on show in Aust

National, Normal

The National, Friday November 8th, 2013

 A CENTURIES old wooden sculpture of an ancestral being from Papua New Guinea, is on view at the National Gallery of Australia.

Mogulapan is a sculpture made from a dense hardwood to fit around a post of a traditional Haus Tambaran or spirit house in villages in East Sepik.

He represents an ancient being from the creation stories of the Sawos people, and is believed to have been carved with tools of stone, shell and bone, around 200 years ago.

The sculpture was acquired in 1969 for the yet-to-be-built National Gallery by artist and portrait painter Sir William Dargie. 

He bought it from a missionary priest in Wewak, who had been collecting and reselling local artefacts.

In his diary he wrote: I got the impression that they do not so much buy artefacts from the villagers within their flock and trade them for the promise of an aid-post, an extension of the mission school, etc. As Fr Heinemans said ‘we need the money for our work’.

When the sculpture first arrived in Canberra, it was covered in dried grey mud. 

Crispin Howarth, curator of Pacific Arts at the NGA, found a Polaroid image of another photograph showing Mogulapan painted with vivid orange and yellow ochre and black triangles on the face.

An inscription on the envelope, by former NGA adviser Douglas Newton, suggested the photograph was taken by Anthony Forge who had conducted groundbreaking field work on Sepik cultures. 

A search of the Forge Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York revealed the original photograph, with important information on the back about the sculpture’s identity and origins.

Howarth said human saliva proved the best way to clean the carving. 

“One of our conservators had a really difficult time actually just licking a cotton bud,” he said, “and gently removing the layer of dirt off the object – and that’s what revealed this colour as we found on the Polaroid.”

Time has robbed Mogulapan of his limbs but has not destroyed the striking nature of his face with its protruding “coffee bean slit” eyes.