Art History:   Grade 6 Lesson 7

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Papua New Guinea is a land of incredible beauty, with awesome mountains, plunging gorges and rushing rivers.  It is part of the largest non-continental island in the Pacific and is in the middle of a long chain of islands which form part of a great arc of mountains stretching from the Asian mainland through Indonesia and into the South Pacific. It has more than 600 islands and is south of the equator, some 150 kilometres north of Australia.


  1. A Man From Highland New Guinea, decorated for festivities, photograph by Dr. Robert Glasse, c.1960. Reproduction photo.

          1a. “Man as Art” photo by Malcolm Kirk

          1b.  Men’s body art

    Dutch explorers name the second largest island in the world New Guinea, because it reminded them of Guinea in Africa. They named it Ilha dos Papuas, Island of the Fuzzy-Hairs. In New Guinea men say that the physical beauty displayed in their dances is linked with both economic and spiritual factors. The feathers and other decorations are a form of wealth, and therefore marks of material success both for the individual wearing them and for the kinsmen from whom he has borrowed some of the ornaments. Furthermore, a good appearance is likely to magically help a man increase his available supply of ornaments, wealth objects, and women, who are a special form of wealth.

         Finally, a beautiful appearance is impossible without the assistance of ancestral spirits, who help a man hunt birds for decorative plumage. The ancestors also help make the plumage look bright, and to assure this aid, the men observe various religious customs intended to secure ancestral blessings. If these rituals are carried out properly, the spirits will congregate in  a man’s hair and will help him achieve his desired goals. Many peoples believe that the head is the center of energy, with special power ascribed to the hair. The highlands people of New Guinea see a man’s hair as the focus of his strength. The ghosts of his ancestors live in his hair, and a luxuriant coiffure is evidence of their support. To enhance this strength, they augment their own hair with wigs, combs, and other ornaments.

    (1a., 1b.may show other images of men’s body art)

    1a. “Man as Art,” photo by Malcolm Kirk)

    1b. Huli warriors and a young Asaro mudman during a festival in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. “Men are the objects of beauty. To be masculine is to be well made – up” Women, though, court danger if they are too attractive. “Men are already mortally afraid of the power of women’s biology”.

     Papua New Guinea Body Art *Slideshow of images found from Google search of: body art papua new guinea

  2. Dance Drum, wood, reptile skin, lime powder; Papuan area, New Guinea. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Reproduction photo.

    The complicated ceremonial practices of New Guinea people require musical accompaniment for both public and secret rituals. Drums and other percussion instruments, as well as whistles and flutes are used for this purpose.

    Sepik mythology describes the creation of the world. One legend tells of the crocodile who is said to have given birth to a bird and a snake, thus forming the channel of the Sepik River.


  3. Shield, wood and lime powder, Papuan area, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Reproduction photo.

    The interiors of the men’s ceremonial houses were divided by racks filled with trophy skulls of men and animals, and decorated with oval shield-like boards carved in shallow relief. The figures depicted appear to be protective and war-making spirits.


  4. Carved Board, Papua, New Guinea (East Sepik Province, Kaminimbit village.) Collected before 1924. Painted wood, H. 50” W. 13”. Vatican Museum. Reproduction photograph.

    This board carved with stone tools and perforated, at first seems to be a fanciful, random design, difficult to interpret. It was originally painted ocher and white, but the color has almost completely disappeared from the front, the uppermost part of which is culminated by a large face in low relief. Enormous eyes surrounded by white and dark of the neck is a small pig and in the spaces between the thin body and the edges of the slab, four large birds (perhaps) eagles are symmetrically arranged – two facing up and two down.

    The female figure depicted here is probably the aquatic Kamboragea. However some scholars have recognized the figure as a depiction of the tree of life. Others have seen it as an archetypal portrayal of a cannibal, endowed with supernatural powers, although incorporating natural forms. If this last interpretation is correct, the board would have been used as a rack for human trophy skulls.

    Skull shrines were kept in the men’s ceremonial house. Heads are taken on a variety of occasions, such as initiations or the completion of a new house. Sometimes as many as fifty or sixty skulls would be heaped up in front of a single shrine. Each shrine was carved to represent a particular ancestor.


    The term Oceania is normally used to designate all the islands of the Central and the South Pacific including Australia (continent), New Zealand, and sometimes the Malay Archipelago. On this Web site, the focus is primarily directed towards the Pacific Islands of Melanesia (including Papua - formerly Irian Jaya), Micronesia and Polynesia (including the Polynesian nation of Hawai'i), as well as both Australia and New Zealand.

    The islands of the Pacific are divided into three main groups - Melanesia which lies mostly to the south of the Equator, Micronesia which lies mainly to the north of the Equator and Polynesia which covers a huge area to the east.


    Melanesia is taken from the Greek words melas which means black and nesos which means island. Melanesia includes Papua, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. The people are very dark skinned with Afro hair and are thought to have their origins in East Africa migrating by ways of Indonesia.

    Papua New Guinea has 1000 tribes and 700 languages, 1/4 of the world's languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea.

    The crocodile plays a prominent part in many of the myths of creation of Papua New Guinea. For example, some Kiwaians believe that their "father" was a crocodile. The myth tells how a being called Ipila carved a human figure out of wood and brought it to life by painting the face with sago milk. First the eyes opened, then the nostrils quivered and the "man" made a noise like a crocodile. His name was Nugu and he was not satisfied until Ipila made three more men as companions for him. These men refused to learn the things Ipila wanted to teach them and after a while two of them became tired of only eating sago and started to kill animals for food. Almost at once they turned into half-crocodiles. They then tried to make some of their own kind but they found that they could only make men because Ipila secretly altered their work. It is from these new men that their descendants claim the crocodile as their father. 
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