Collection of Oceanic art

Collection of Oceanic art
Figure of a Cultural Hero or Creator Ancestor
Ancestor Figure
Hunting Spirit, yipwon
Hunting Spirit, yipwon
Openwork Figure Board, malu-samban
Male Figure, nalik, 19th century
Male Figure, nalik, 18th/19th century
War Shield, jamasi
Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (according to Mike Gunn: “head-rain”)
Mask, wowoi susu/gitvung susu
Trumpet Mask, vungvung (also vungbungka, central Baining) or vurbracha (Chachet Baining), 20th century
Mask, kepong or matua
Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (Mike Gunn) or mandas (Augustin Krämer) with Bird
Scepter, hoeroa, 18th/19th century
Mask, le op, “man-face,” probably first half of 19th century
Dance Paddle, rapa
Figure of a Cultural Hero or Creator Ancestor
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Collection of Oceanic art
Figure of a Cultural Hero or Creator Ancestor

Biwat group,Yuat River, Lower Sepik region, northeastern New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood, reddish clay slip overlay, fringed apron, and bone dagger, height 197 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

This figure of a man wearing a woman’s fringed apron was intended for the house of an elder from the Mundugumor tribe. It is likely to have held mythical significance, as it recalls an ancestor who is believed to have been a wandering hero in New Guinea. Just before he died, the man asked his three brothers to sit on his body so that his spirit could be carried away; this explains the presence of one brother’s head – as the man’s mirror image, so to speak – on his stomach. At the same time, it is also an idol figure that was meant to aid the tribesmen in warfare situations and during hunting expeditions. The incorporation of cubic, highly abstract elements into the composition is particularly impressive.

Ancestor Figure
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Collection of Oceanic art
Ancestor Figure

Eastern Iatmul or southern neighbors, Middle Sepik region, including the southern Blackwater and Korewori tributaries, northern New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood, painted, height 136.7 cm (excluding pedestal)
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

In the minds of many Melanesian peoples, the early ancestors serve as role models to be emulated. The veneration of these ancestors takes many different forms, and cult images are often devoted to them to mark specific occasions. One particularly interesting aspect of such figural sculptures is the way in which the human body is translated into abstract ornamental symbols. The present work serves as a good example: it offers the sculptural suggestion of a human frame where the head, legs, and two arms extending out from the chest are discernible. The torso, reduced to little more than a spike-shaped baton, is continued downwards to form the phallus. The interplay of material and space lends the figure a three-dimensional aspect, although it is intended to be viewed from the front.

Hunting Spirit, yipwon
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Collection of Oceanic art
Hunting Spirit, yipwon

Yimar villages, Upper Korewori River, southern Sepik region, northeastern New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood and cassowary feathers, height 275 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Such distinctive ‘hook figures’ (yipwon) are intended to be viewed in profile. In the present work, space is encompassed by solid form, creating an impression of volume and a sense of something intangible that is nevertheless an inherent part of the figure. The artistic form of the sculpture creates a symbiosis with its mythical significance and its practical function as a hunting aid, whereby only the external, visible aspect of the hunting aid is portrayed. As an additional, internal dimension, the hunting spirit itself is merely alluded to. It is this spirit which goes ahead to slay the soul of the animal, thus enabling the men to kill it easily during their subsequent hunt.

Hunting Spirit, yipwon
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Collection of Oceanic art
Hunting Spirit, yipwon

Yimar villages, Upper Korewori River, southern Sepik region, northeastern New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood and cassowary feathers, height 220 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Such distinctive ‘hook figures’ (yipwon) are intended to be viewed in profile. In the present work, space is encompassed by solid form, creating an impression of volume and a sense of something intangible that is nevertheless an inherent part of the figure. The artistic form of the sculpture creates a symbiosis with its mythical significance and its practical function as a hunting aid, whereby only the external, visible aspect of the hunting aid is portrayed. As an additional, internal dimension, the hunting spirit itself is merely alluded to. It is this spirit which goes ahead to slay the soul of the animal, thus enabling the men to kill it easily during their subsequent hunt.

Openwork Figure Board, malu-samban
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Collection of Oceanic art
Openwork Figure Board, malu-samban

(Malu “suspension hook”) Sawos or Iatmul, Middle Sepik region, northern New Guinea, Melanesia
Wood with traces of red and white pigment, height 168 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

The idea of presenting this figure alongside Henri Matisse’s large decorations Océanie – le ciel, la mer suggests itself naturally, as both works depict what appears to be an entire universe within a single ornamental composition, and both play with the relationship between form and space. Here we see a face with an elongated, fish-shaped ‘nose’ flanked by two parrots. Two intertwined hornbills also appear, holding an object between their beaks that precisely marks the central axis of the figural composition. The sculpture is described as a malu-samban, which probably means “malu suspension hook” and is thus intended to represent a human form; in Sawos tradition, malu was the first man.

Male Figure, nalik, 19th century
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Collection of Oceanic art
Male Figure, nalik, 19th century

Used in uli feasts
Probably interior of New Ireland (area of Mandak language family), northern Melanesia
Wood, painted, and inset eyes made from top of Turbo petholatus snail shells, height 140 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Uli ceremonies on New Ireland were ritual celebrations of the transition from life to death – from a visible existence in this world to an invisible one in the next. Such extremely expressive nalik figures played a key role in these rituals, and at the conclusion of the celebrations they were put on display in ceremonial houses. The figures combine female and male elements, representing the moon as the symbol of both female fertility and male regeneration. The larger of the two sculptures is particularly fascinating and is also one of the most significant works of this kind known to exist: the depiction of one figure apparently standing on top of and being supported by another can be taken as a reference to the lunar cycle.

Male Figure, nalik, 18th/19th century
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Collection of Oceanic art
Male Figure, nalik, 18th/19th century

Used in uli feasts
Malom, northeast coast, New Ireland, Melanesia
Wood, painted, partly over setting made from chalk or lime, beard made of plant fibers, and snail shells, height 182 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Uli ceremonies on New Ireland were ritual celebrations of the transition from life to death – from a visible existence in this world to an invisible one in the next. Such extremely expressive nalik figures played a key role in these rituals, and at the conclusion of the celebrations they were put on display in ceremonial houses. The figures combine female and male elements, representing the moon as the symbol of both female fertility and male regeneration. The larger of the two sculptures is particularly fascinating and is also one of the most significant works of this kind known to exist: the depiction of one figure apparently standing on top of and being supported by another can be taken as a reference to the lunar cycle.

War Shield, jamasi
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Collection of Oceanic art
War Shield, jamasi

Northwestern or possibly central Asmat, southwestern New Guinea (Irian Jaya), Melanesia
Wood, painted, and fiber tufts, height 139 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

The shields of the Asmat not only provide protection in battle; they also illustrate tradition and the line of succession. Each shield has its own name – that of a deceased relative, whose image appears as the head at the top. They are handed down to a member of the next generation, in other words, not necessarily from father to son. The shield also wards off evil spirits. The Asmat people were probably just as impressed by the protective powers of the ornamental design as we are today by the repeated asymmetrical forms and the coloration of the wooden relief: this work also demonstrates that modern forms of abstraction also appear in non-European art.

Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (according to Mike Gunn: “head-rain”)
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Collection of Oceanic art
Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (according to Mike Gunn: “head-rain”)

Tabar Islands, New Ireland, Melanesia
Wood, painted black, height 58.5 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

The expressive intensity of this weighty and highly stylized black head, which has been sculpted in the round, is truly mesmerizing. Heads like this were part of life-sized dolls, made of plant fibres, which were ascribed rain-making powers on the Tabar Islands near New Ireland. Malanggan or malagan is the umbrella term for the ceremonial culture of the New Ireland region: the ceremony may vary greatly from village to village, but typically involves rites of passage at funeral ceremonies.

Mask, wowoi susu/gitvung susu
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Collection of Oceanic art
Mask, wowoi susu/gitvung susu

Sulka, southeastern New Britain, Melanesia
Plant material like pith, palm leaves, light wood, feathers (among them those of the cassowary), and two cone shell bottoms, height 110 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Susu masks, made by the Sulka people, are a combination of human and animal forms. Apart from some cassowary (ostrich) feathers and cone shell bottoms, they consist entirely of plant materials and completely cover the bodies of the wearers. The black-stained teeth indicate that these masks were worn at initiation ceremonies.

Trumpet Mask, vungvung (also vungbungka, central Baining) or vurbracha (Chachet Baining), 20th century
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Collection of Oceanic art
Trumpet Mask, vungvung (also vungbungka, central Baining) or vurbracha (Chachet Baining), 20th century

Baining, Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain, Melanesia
Bark cloth, painted, mounted on a frame and bamboo cane, cockatoo feathers, and chicken down, approx. 200 x 350 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

This very impressive mask consists of a central piece with a stylized face at the front and a kind of feather ‘antenna’ at the rear; protruding from the front is a trumpet-like tube decorated with ornaments and feathers. The structure is balanced at the back by a stick which, like the trumpet, the central piece and the face, is covered in bast with an ornamental design. The mask was worn during nocturnal dances that were performed in the light of a large fire. It was probably part of a much larger ensemble that was intended to represent a cobweb. Spiders are said to have connections to woodland spirits and are of great significance to the Chachet Baining tribe.

Mask, kepong or matua
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Collection of Oceanic art
Mask, kepong or matua

New Ireland, Melanesia
Wood of the Alstonia species, painted, and a piece of European cotton print, height 76 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Matua masks are used at malanggan ceremonies where the village community bids farewell to the deceased. The masks may represent the souls of the dead or portray bush spirits. They constitute the expression of a taboo in honour of the person who has died, and this taboo remains in force until the mask has been carried through the village, accompanied by silent dances, and put on display in the mask house.

Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (Mike Gunn) or mandas (Augustin Krämer) with Bird
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Collection of Oceanic art
Head of a Life-size malanggan Doll, kovabat (Mike Gunn) or mandas (Augustin Krämer) with Bird

Probably Lemakot, northern New Ireland, Melanesia
Wood, painted, and inset eyes made from top of Turbo petholatus snail, height 77 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

The precise origin and designation of this weighty and almost crudely expressive mask are not known. It probably represents a powerful mythical ancestor. In stylistic terms it bears a strong resemblance to a similar object in the Fondation collection. Both masks are associated with rain-making rituals.

Scepter, hoeroa, 18th/19th century
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Collection of Oceanic art
Scepter, hoeroa, 18th/19th century

Maori, North Island of New Zealand (Aotearoa)
Whalebone, length 146 cm, height 9 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

This whalebone staff has an impressively elegant form, characterized by a striking contrast between its extensive planar areas and the intricate ornamentation at the top and sides. Bone staffs of this kind are associated with Maori chiefs, who carry them with them in order to “retain in their memory the succession of generations leading back to the divine ancestors. […] Their significance becomes clearer if one considers that, according to Maori tradition, people of a common origin are descended from the same primeval canoe, and also refer to one another as people of the same bone” (Christian Kaufmann).

Mask, le op, “man-face,” probably first half of 19th century
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Collection of Oceanic art
Mask, le op, “man-face,” probably first half of 19th century

Mer Island, eastern islands of the Torres Strait (between Australia and eastern New Guinea)
Tortoiseshell, human hair, and traces of red paint, height 41 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Tortoiseshell masks like these are apparently only made on the islands in the Torres Strait. Although their precise cultic significance is unclear, turtles are commonly regarded as intermediaries between man and the divine creation ancestors in this region. The present work with its stylized face, human hair and bared teeth is both impressive and sinister. This piece is a prime example of how little we really know about the cultural context in which so many objects and artefacts were created.

Dance Paddle, rapa
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Collection of Oceanic art
Dance Paddle, rapa

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Wood, height 76.5 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

From a formal perspective, this strikingly elegant paddle is one of the finest objects in the collection of non-European art. The precise cultic significance of the highly stylized human form is not known. The arching browlines around the eyes also delineate the ears and converge to form the nose. The head tapers into the shape of a drop which suggests a body, with a stick-like projection that can be interpreted as a phallus. The paddle was probably used during war dances, where it would be spun around to strike fear into those present.

Coming to the understanding that the art created by peoples untouched by Western civilization possessed autonomous meaning and profound expressivity was of great importance to modernist art. Many European artists such as Picasso and Matisse not only collected works of art from beyond Europe, but they also drew inspiration from their forms and expression. A prime example of this is Picasso's Femme from 1907 in the Fondation, whose facial form is influenced by African masks. So it is altogether logical to do as Hildy and Ernst Beyeler did and supplement a collection of modern Western art with non-European art. Even if these works have been divested of their actual function as objects of cultic veneration invested with supernatural powers, they are displayed in the museum in the belief that they can take their place on an equal footing alongside the works of modern art. Besides, could there be a more appropriate way of presenting these religiously inspired works outside their original cultural context than to exhibit them in the company of pictures by the great masters of modernism?

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