During this year’s Tribal Art Fair, a new category of art emerged -- "Pop Tribal." From the Central Highlands of the main island of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific came large wooden fighting shields emblazoned with Lee Falk’s comic book hero, the Phantom.
The buff-bodied Phantom appeared on shields dating from the 1960s to the 1980s at several booths. The comic books they were based on may have arrived in New Guinea as early as the 1940s during WWII, where the Japanese and the United States fought along the coast, eventually making their way to the interior.
Though startling at first, it makes sense that a warrior (whose tribe already used masks) would adopt as his alter-ego a masked crusader who would never die.
Art from Papua New Guinea is as varied as the thousands of tribes scattered over the eastern half of the main island (the western half belongs to Indonesia) and its surrounding islands. Art from these regions has been prized for years.
But the peoples in the rugged interior valleys of highland New Guinea were isolated from the modern world the longest. They remained as they were for thousands of years, with fighting between tribes as a way of life. Colonial contact was made in the 1930s, and the highlands produced its first literate generation in the 1970s.
While other areas of New Guinea produced more carved figures, the highlands, focused on war, spent more energy on creating tattoos and body decorations that would increase their warriors’ powers and on large fighting shields.
Whether or not you saw the Phantom shields at the Fair, one of the dealers there, Cavin-Morris, is presenting several Phantom shields within a larger show of art from central New Guinea at its Chelsea gallery at 210 Eleventh Avenue. That exhibition, "Geometrics of Aggression: Shields of the New Guinea Highlands," May 17-July 13, 2007, offers a far-ranging look at art from this little-known region.
Fighting shields were traditionally made from the trunk of the "tapi" tree, which was split, smoothed and painted. In the Wahgi Valley of the Western Highlands, typically shields had a circle representing the sun in the center and designs were "punctuated," or outlined in small holes. The Phantom shields appeared in this region painted in enamel over traditional designs.
Cavin-Morris has a fine display of these more traditional shields, along with smaller underarm shields from the Southern Highlands, carved pipes, gourd masks and a terrific lichen mask as well as stone ceremonial bowls that go back to the Neolithic (1000 BC).
A set of 12 arrows with tips made from the bones of human ancestors were considered very potent. Each was intended for a specific victim (male or female) and caused a particular kind of death (fast or slow through septicemia). They differ in shape and color.
A rare dance figure of carved wood decorated with feathers, shell, bone, pigment and woven fiber bands on the arms and legs looks eerie and is an absolutely wonderful piece of mixed media. It’s already sold, but there are still Phantom shields available for under $8,000.
A "Moka Kina," or pectoral, was displayed during a festival when hundreds of pigs were killed, roasted and eaten. A pearl shell is set into a circle of resin on wood with bamboo tally sticks in a row, with each stick counting as one pig. Only the wealthy could afford such a luxury adornment.
A pig-killing skirt was another prestige item. More like a girdle than a skirt, the woven and painted fiber wrapped around the torso. From this were suspended various woven strands with tufts at the ends that would swish with movement.
More enigmatic are the flat woven-fiber human or animal forms with holes in the head and navel, areas which are prominent in the wooden spirit boards from the southern coastal area of New Guinea, too. These "Timbuwarra" figures are earth spirits, appropriately painted in bands of earth colors. They were made by elder men in times of disaster, such as wide-spread disease, earthquakes or famine. Moved to the Spirit House and used for rituals, they were buried later to refertilize the earth.
I have read of men wearing them on their heads during fertility rites. Whatever other uses they may have had, their forms are visually striking and their palettes different from those used in other works.
For fans of New Guinea art, spring offered two other exhibitions in New York that featured excellent material from other parts of the region. Masterpieces from the more studied northern coastal areas around the Sepik River were featured in "Melanesia," which was on view May 11-June 16, 2007, at Pace Primitive.
The southern coast is the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, "Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art of the Papuan Gulf," Oct. 24, 2006-Dec. 2, 2007, a long term show mounted while the Met’s Oceanic Galleries are closed for renovation.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.