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Journeys along the Sepik River:

Tribal Art from Papua New Guinea

Volume 13, Number 3 | May 2012

By Nicole M. Crawford
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Nicolas M. Salgo was best known as a Hungarian immigrant who prospered as a financier and a builder of the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., and who later served as the United States’ ambassador to his native country.

But Salgo also was an adventurer who amassed a sizable and eclectic collection of art during his lifelong travels, including objects from a trip in the early 1970s that are widely considered by experts to be among the best and most creative works from Papua New Guinea.

University of Wyoming Art Museum patrons can see for themselves through Aug. 18 in the exhibition, Journeys along the Sepik River: Tribal Art from Papua New Guinea. The UW Art Museum recently acquired approximately 65 objects donated by The Salgo Trust for Education, an art history research center located in Port Washington, N.Y., that has exhibited his collection in museums in this country and overseas.

Made of carved and painted wood, the objects in the collection are based on traditional art from the Sepik and Maprik rivers.

Included in the new acquisition are several large and rare yipwon figures that first appeared on the art market in the early 1960s. These distinctive hook figures were kept within the men’s ceremonial house of the Yimam people in the East Sepik Region of New Guinea. These figures played a central role in hunting and warfare. The powerful spirits depicted in the yipwon figures were called on before a hunt or raid and presented with offerings.

If the hunt or raid was successful, the men showed their gratitude with an offering of a portion of the game or smearing it with the victims’ blood. If it was a failed effort, the yipwon figure was neglected or discarded.

The figures are stylized human representations meant to be viewed as two dimensional figures, yet are carved in three dimensions. The body is reduced to a series of large semi-symmetrical and opposed hooks to depict ribs surrounding a central element representing the heart, that when combined with a relatively naturalistic head and a single leg, creates an interesting play of light and dark.

Also kept in the men’s ceremonial house were skull racks, board-like objects decorated with natural pigments that were used after a successful raid to display trophy skulls, several of which are included in the collection.

The carved image is anthropomorphic, with a relatively large head and stylized limbs that depict important ancestors, often the mythical founders of village clans. The skulls of the slain enemies were hung from the prong-like limbs by loops of rattan. As time passed, a platform was often constructed in front of the rack to support the growing weight.

When combined with the skulls, the rack served as both a shrine and a source of spiritual power. The displays of trophy skulls were a status symbol that marked the clan’s skill in warfare.

The collection also features a number of masks, each unique in its ceremonial use. The masks were often made and decorated with ephemeral materials such as rattan bindings, feathers, shells, plant seeds and grains, depending on the specific tribe and its location.

For example, the masks created by the Gogodala people, who lived around the Aramia River, are far more refined and softer than those found elsewhere in New Guinea. Gogodala objects are also recognized by their extraordinary coloring—everything is painted garishly in black, white, red and yellow.

The addition of the Salgo collection offers a number of affinities with the museum’s existing collections, and these new linkages will offer opportunities for research for students and scholars at UW and other institutions.

Nicole M. Crawford is curator of collections at the UW Art Museum.

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