Throughout the month of April, the Eide Dairymple gallery will be home to “The Bird and the Flute: Mythic of Images of New Guinea”: the brainchild of Augustana Anthropology professor Dr. L. Adrien Hannus.
Planned in conjunction with Hannus’ triennial Museum Methods class, the exhibition serves as an opportunity for Hannus’s students to work within both “real life” and “textbook” museum environment and for the Augustana community to experience the firsthand power of primitive New Guinean art.
Over the course of the exhibition’s duration, each Museum Methods student will “adopt” a piece in order to research its history and purpose more fully.
“I’d like to think it causes the students to immerse themselves in the role that their particular piece played in the culture they’re studying,” Hannus said.
And each piece is, in its own self-contained way, rather stunning. Along with intricately carved masks and various other items including musical instruments, a canoe and a shaman’s bag, “The Bird and Flute” is punctuated by the presence of a reconstructed cross section of a traditional male hut where tribesmen would have carved and fashioned many of these items after undergoing a ceremonial rite of passage.
“New Guinea is the most prolific of primitive art-producing cultures,” Hannus said. “Part of [why New Guinean art was chosen] is circumstantial, and I also think the New Guinean pieces are as vital and interesting in their craftsmanship as any primitive art.”
Hannus also provides a reminder of the significance of an exhibition of this kind and why collectors like Joe Maierhauser—who owns most of the pieces on display—place so much value, in particular on New Guinean art: Aside from the tremendous craftsmanship and the purpose their art plays in day to day living, the humid climate of the Oceanic region often means that the wood and bone material from which most everything is constructed will begin to rot after a short period of time.
This natural rarity is reflected by the price tags that accompany several items on display and provide a sinister reminder of the historical attitudes of Western civilizations regarding peoples they considered “inferior” to themselves.
While the term “primitive” has had its meaning tweaked slightly to reflect a culture of political correctness, it is still, to a certain extent, the same “primitive” of the art that inspired Picasso in the early 20th century: The same “primitive” that both romanticizes and condescends simultaneously. Hannus makes it a point to bring this topic to the forefront as well.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “We try hard to inform the students that many of these pieces would be of deep importance to the people and it is clear there are some pieces that would never be shown under museum conditions.”
I could not say that attending this exhibition was unpleasant; in fact, I must confess I have always enjoyed museums and find such glimpses into other cultures to be enlightening and fascinating in equal parts. However, there is always something morally unsettling about the deep meaningfulness of someone else’s life forcibly changed into a primarily aesthetic commodity or something to gawk at as archaic and exotic.
The price listed the pieces still doesn’t measure up to the price paid by its creators in order for us to marvel at its beauty.