Monday-Morning Moving: Hunting Art Where Once They Hunted Heads

An elder with a group of young natives. (All photos Ericka Hamburg.)

By Ericka Hamburg

Below us, the Sepik River twists through a carpet of spongy green vegetation like a squiggly ribbon of brown toothpaste. A patchwork of villages — straw boxes hedged by strips of cultivation — hug its curves. The pilot of our plane (little more than a winged SUV) searches breaks in the mist for a dirt landing strip.

The Sepik River winds through the New Guinea jungles.
The Sepik River winds through the New Guinea jungles.

Soon, we’ve dropped down through the clouds, landed, and spilled to the ground, to be met by handlers, villagers, and a rush of steamy air.

The MV Sepik Spirit, a roomy box of a boat, awaits. We settle into our rooms in happy anticipation of our river safari, and four days among the artistically prodigious Iatmul people. Reciting the itinerary twists the tongue: Tumbunum, Mindabit, Kaminibit, Palembai, Kanganaman.

The first outsiders to penetrate Papua New Guinea’s interior spoke of extreme discomfort; mosquitoes, leeches, being smothered in a black shroud of flies. Steep serrated ranges and impenetrable hidden valleys isolated its inhabitants from outsiders and each other. There’s a history of clan wars, headhunting, cannibalism and general mayhem.

Today we’re coddled tourists, glimpsing village life, taking snaps, spending kina money, in the local dialect. Our first visit is bustling Tumbunum, with an established history of western contact.

The hum of our motor means commerce; from the deck I see kids and dogs race along the floodplain to meet us. Stairs cut into the steep muddy riverbank are redefined by some quick work with a shovel.

The local artwork references sacred objects and can be very elaborate.
The local artwork, including this feathered headdress, references sacred objects and can be very elaborate.

We ascend through a gauntlet of masks, decorative carvings, hooks, totems, stools, woven animals, and phallic gourds, a gesture to tourist demand. Bilas, jewelry fashioned from shells and seeds, and billums, woven string carryalls, are spread in profusion across palm leaves.

I notice a captivating carved bat. Its maker stands besides it, and behind him, his wife and a graduated lineup of seven children, two inches apart in height.

“Flying fox,” he says.

Small villages are perched on the muddy riverbanks.
Small villages are perched on the muddy riverbanks.

“Yes, I know – I like them,” I say.

“They are very sweet to eat,” says he.

The blak bokis, or fruit bat, is a clan symbol and recurring visual motif.

The world’s museums house signature pieces, appropriated during years of past expeditions. But high-quality work is still being created, and good carvers are rock stars. Art sales supplement a subsistence living from fishing, hunting, and cultivation. A mask can translate to medicine, mosquito nets, pigs, or outboard motors for dugouts.

In Mindabit, a sinewy gent taps me on the shoulder, gestures me to follow. We do-si-do through dangling clusters of orchids, pass skittering chickens and pigs, and stop at a small muddy enclosure. The owner of said enclosure has captured two medium-sized crocodiles, or pukpuks, and wants me to take their picture.

Crocodiles loom large in Sepik mythology, in carvings, masks, and as canoe prows. These penmates cling to each other in sleep, their fate uncertain.

Local artists spread out their wares for sale throughout the villages.
Local artists spread out their wares for sale throughout the villages.

We return to the market, where bargaining is minimal; first price, second price. Back onboard, our treasures are labeled, sprayed for insects, and added to the growing pile of artifacts to be shipped home.

The spirit houses, or Haus Tambaran, that anchor Sepik spirituality soar like tropical cathedrals. These are men’s places, mostly off-limits to women and visitors, but in Kanganaman we are welcomed inside; I haul myself up the log ladder into the cavernous smoky darkness. Light leaking through the split palm floor reveals a solemn wall of guys dispersed among stunning ritual objects; spirit masks, an elaborately carved orator’s chair, and sturdy hooks, formerly used to hang skulls. The grass below is a fifteen-foot drop.

Sunset on the Sepik.

Beneath the Haus, carvers rest in the shade among more stunning ceremonial wares, awaiting customers. By now many of us have spent our limit. But this is our last Sepik village; we are unlikely to ever return.

I reach deep into my pack to forage for more kina.

Ericka Hamburg is a New York-based writer, photographer, and artist.

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