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Coaxing the Spirits to Dance

New exhibition at Hood explores social life and artistic expression of Papua New Guinea

The Hood Museum of Art's new exhibition, Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea, on view through September 17, explores the relationship between social life and artistic expression since the 19th century in one of the most important art-producing regions of Papua New Guinea. It includes 100 magnificent art objects, most from the Hood's own important collection of Melanesian art, which includes the Franklin Family Collection. Select objects from other public and private collections round out the stunning presentation of hand-carved and hand-painted ancestor boards, masks, drums, skull racks, and personal items. The exhibition examines the variation of styles among differing social structures and cultural practices, the relationship between patterns of collecting and interpretations of art and culture in the Papuan Gulf, and the effects of colonialism on artistic production.

Bark cloth mask
This bark cloth mask, currently on display at the Hood, was created by the Elema people of Papua New Guinea to communicate with the spirit world. (Photo courtesy of the Hood Museum of Art)

On March 31, the Hood opened the exhibition with a public lecture by Robert L. Welsch, visiting professor of anthropology, and special remarks by His Excellency Evan J. Paki, ambassador of Papua New Guinea to the United States. The lecture was followed by a reception and a symposium the next day. A fully illustrated scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition, which will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from October 24 through September 2, 2007.
Linguistically, the island of New Guinea, immediately to the north of Australia and east of Indonesia, is one of the most diverse regions on earth, boasting nearly one thousand distinct languages. The cultures of New Guinea produce a dazzling array of social, ritual, and artistic variation. Coaxing the Spirits to Dance examines some of this diversity by considering the relationship between art and society across the Papuan Gulf. Known to outsiders for well over a century, the region's art has remained one of the least understood traditions on the island.

Each society in the gulf had its own elaborate traditions of carved, painted, or decorated masks, boards, and hand drums that filled the men's longhouses for use in dances and performances. Nearly every object was created to communicate with or control the spirit world. They depicted distinct religious interpretations of these powerful spiritual forces and played a key role in native ritual and religious thought. Local carvers were able to attract their spirits to live in their boards, figures, masks, and other decorated objects. Carved boards and figures brought these spirits into the longhouse and bark cloth or rattan masks allowed dancers to temporarily become them. Today these art objects offer a glimpse into the varied cosmologies and ritual lives of these surprisingly diverse societies before they had been changed significantly through their contact with the West.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Marcia and John Friede, the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund, the Philip Fowler 1927 Memorial Fund, the William Chase Grant 1919 Memorial Fund, and the Eleanor Smith Fund. Curatorial research for this project was funded in part by the Claire Garber Goodman Fund through the Department of Anthropology.

By SHARON REED

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Last Updated: 12/17/08