For several years, the island of Papua New Guinea off Australia was one of the world's last primitive frontiers.
For several years, the island of Papua New Guinea off Australia was one of the world's last primitive frontiers. Within living memory, head-hunting and cannibalism was commonly practised. Today, the newly independent nation is attracting attention -- but this time, is a growing centre for tourists and collectors on primitive art.
SYNOPSIS: Papua New Guinea's wide, brown Sepik River still offers a slightly mysterious face to the world -- something different for the well-travelled western tourists who wants to see something of the old world. And villagers are not being slow to take advantage of their one speciality -- primitive art form, often quite lavish and skilled in spite of the name. Some of the work is in very fine detail.
The finished products are everything a western tourists thinks they should like -- bold, menacing, evocative of the dark, murky, savage past, and sometimes quite gruesome in barbaric detail.
Once, valuable older works of art were available on the island. But these have swiftly been lost to earlier, shrewder collectors -- virtually denuding the ration of its historic treasures. Today, the art works are hardly allowed time to dry before being put up for sale -- and sold quickly, too. But at least the method of work is traditional -- almost usually an axe, and paints based on wood ashes the techniques of ages, working with methods handed down by their fathers, grandfathers before them. The government has introduced restrictions on the export of older works which in looks may well have served as models for today's sculptures. But art experts agree that the restrictions are too late -- most of the older works are already easier to find in Australia, Britain and they United States than in Papua New Guinea itself.
The river, once a barrier to the encroachment of civilisation, now plays an opposite role -- making it easy for the tourists to get to the villages. When the visitors arrive, the rod is passed around -- western clothing is off, and primitive clothing, beads and face-paintings go on to create a suitable setting for white visitors who like to feel they're in a bygone age. Currently, some 200 tourists a month are visiting the Sepik River area in search of primitive art -- and the number is growing steadily as the Government expands it facilities for visitors. A tour group from the United States was perhaps typical -- voting the visit the highlight of a tour across several other Pacific nations. Prices of art works are perhaps artificially inflated by demand -- but visitors will get a bargain. The work itself is good, and close to the original, and in Europe can command up to thirty times the price of locally-bought works -- thus ensuring an instant bargain for any visitor a soon as he gets back home.