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Sand paintings from Enga

By: Dr Robin Torrence, Category: Science, Date: 24 Mar 2010

Traditional culture meets modernism in new artworks from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, writes Dr Robin Torrence.

Sand painting by Jospeh Kuri

Robin Torrence © Australian Museum

The very densely populated highlands of western Papua New Guinea are home to strong vibrant cultures such as the Enga.

While attending the opening of the innovative Take Anda Cultural Centre in the Engan capital, Wabag, I met local artists and acquired a number of items for the Australian Museum’s collection, including two examples of sand paintings.

Enga is a long way from the beach or desert so it’s surprising to find sand being used as an artistic medium here. It’s an innovation of sculptor Akii Tumu, who graduated from the National Art School in Port Moresby in the early 1980s. He developed the time-consuming technique while he was head of the Enga Culture Centre in response to a lack of funds for buying canvas, paints and brushes.

To make the sand used in the artworks, the artist grinds up coloured stones from secret source locations and sprinkles single colours of the ‘sand’ onto small glued areas on a board, and then removes the excess sand once the glue has dried.

The new acquisitions, from artists Lucas Kiske and Joseph Kuri, expand the selection of PNG painters represented in the Museum’s collection to include artists from rural areas.

Unlike earlier versions that were more similar to traditional motifs, the recent forms of sand paintings depict vignettes of traditional Enga daily life in a realistic modern style, making them more readily accessible to Westerners.

Lucas's picture shows a hunter shooting at a possum in a tree, his dog ready to pounce should the prey try to escape; Joseph's artwork portrays a courting man and woman seated, wearing full traditional finery of shells, feathers and woven cane. In both pictures the man carries the traditionally important stone axe.

The Australian Museum is the first institution to collect what are likely to be very important records of not only the vibrant local culture, but also the creativity and resourcefulness of Enga artists.

Please note: these items are not on display.