Anthony Forge: Research in Papua New Guinea

Meaning of Abelam art

In 1958, while in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, Forge commenced his research on the Abelam people of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. He believed them to be 'the last of the lowland rich cultures in the Australian half of New Guinea who practiced their traditional art for the traditional reasons' (1972: 258).He later reported:

During two and a half years of fieldwork I attended more than twenty ceremonies, each involving considerable artistic work, and missed twice as many. In the six-month ceremonial season of 1958-59, fifteen new ceremonial houses were built within five miles of my base village, and in 1963 there were over 100 ceremonial houses in the Northern and Eastern Abelam villages whose total population is about 15,000 (1970: 271).

Fieldwork involved an extensive collecting of artefacts and Forge was a diligent collector. During his fieldwork in 1958, he met anthropologist Alfred Buhler from the Museum fur Volkerkunde (Museum of Ethnography), now the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland. The following year they both went on a collecting expedition through the Sepik district. They acquired numerous objects for the Museum fur Volkerkunde, including the carved Kamanggabi figures and Yipwon hooks (hunting charms). Forge collected for the Basel Museum again in 1962-63.

Forge frequently commissioned artists to produce drawings to supplement his field notes and photographs. He asked them to paint the designs normally used for house facades, on rectangular sheets of grey paper. These paintings were lent to the Museum of Primitive Art in New York for the Three Regions of Melanesian Art exhibition in 1960. In 1962-63 Forge also commissioned 22 artists to produce 363 works of art, now held at the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego.

Through the 1960s several academic symposia were dedicated to vigorous discussion amongst anthropologists and art historians about theoretical approaches to the study of non-Western art. One of the most important contributions to this debate was Primitive Art and Society, edited by Forge (1973), which resulted from the 1967 Interdisciplinary Conference on the same subject. By the early 1970s Forge had written several articles, discussing Sepik art and symbolic systems and was actively looking for a new area of research where art continued to be used in social and ritual contexts.

Quoted Publications:

Forge, A. (1970). Learning to See in New Guinea. Socialization: The Approach from Social Anthropology; P. Mayer; New York, Tavistock: 269-92.

Forge, A. (1972). Tswamung: A Failed Big-Man. Crossing Cultural Boundaries: The Anthropological Experience; S. T. Kimball and J. B. Watson; San Francisco, Chandler Publishing Company.

Forge, A, (1973). Primitive Art & Society. London, New York, Oxford University Press; for the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

 


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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