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A Fine New Guinea Sago Spathe Painting Keram River Lower Sepik River Area East Sepik Province Papua New Guinea

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Collection No. T-5553
Size Height 112cm

A Fine New Guinea Sago Spathe Painting from the Keram River Area in the Lower Sepik River Area of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea

Throughout New Guinea, men’s ceremonial houses or Haus Tambaran were the primary focus for painting and sculpture. This beautiful painting represents a specific clan’s ancestors’ spirits or supernatural beings & totemic animals like birds.

Typically, entry into the ceremonial house is restricted to initiated men, although in some cases, women and children can enter under certain circumstances for specific events. Ceremonial houses serve as the venue for nearly all important male religious rites – such as initiation rites for young boys – and at other times function as meeting houses or informal gathering places. Their structure and the way they are decorated can take on many different local forms and styles.

Paintings are made on sheets of bark or sago, the bark-like bases of the leaves of the sago palm tree, which are trimmed and flattened to create a flat roughly rectangular surface that tapers slightly according to the natural form. After a curing process, the artist covers the smooth side of the sheet with a wash of black clay. The main outlines of the design are laid out in clear water, retraced in paint, and then filled in with colour. Although one man lays out the design, an assistant may perform the work of infilling and painting the bordering dots.

When completed, the paintings are tied to the rafters on the underside of the ceiling with lengths of split cane. The panels are arranged lengthwise along the axis of the house, with a few rows placed laterally at its midpoint. The midpoint forms not only the center of the structure–the most ritually important area–but also roughly indicates the sectors allotted to each clan evoking the strength, unity, and identity of the village clans, whose members gather on the earthen floor beneath them to perform religious rites or initiation ceremonies.

Provenance: The Todd Barlin Collection of New Guinea & Oceanic Art 

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