The difference between a carving and an artifact will be clearly defined right now before delving into the fascinating subject of native art.
A carving describes any piece of timber which has been transformed into a face, totem pole, spear or whatever by knife or chisel or sharpened shell. As such, it can describe an artifact. But an artifact is more generally an object of historical value — something of great age. An artifact, therefore, is classified legally as a 'National Treasure' and any carving or item of native art which predates 1962 is considered a National Treasure. As such it cannot be taken out of the country without the consent of the Customs Department.
Carvings of more recent origin can freely be taken out of the country, the only limit here being the visitor's country which might have laws referring to the import of such items. For example, Australian Quarantine do not like skins and grass and hair or anything of an animal or vegetable nature. Therefore, there is an excellent chance of a mask fringed with grass and topped with human hair being refused entry (although they will probably just spray it and let it through).
Also, in Australia, the traveller is only allowed to return with $250 worth of goods per person. Thus, the master of a yacht returning with more than this amount in carvings per person is liable to pay sales tax on amounts above that figure.
Very few people will visit Papua New Guinea without buying at least one decent carving, be it National Treasure or of more recent origin. For these people the following information is provided.
Opposite: The art of canoe building is very much alive in Papua New Guinea where the village environment demands a cheap form of transport. This canoe, found on Nimoa Island in the Louisiade Archipelago has its topsides built up for rough water work plus a bit of fancywork at each end.
A rare sight nowadays is this ceremonially dressed native of New Britain known as a 'Duk Duk\
The best carvings come from the Trobriand Islands off the south east tip of the mainland of Papua New Guinea. But, as stated in the description of that area later in this book, the people have become very aggressive salesmen, never letting you alone until they have made a sale and, once having made a sale, others will see you as an easy touch and pester you also.
The next best carvers are probably the Sepik people or perhaps the Kombes of West New Britain. Both do wonderful work with the Sepik art being the most recognisable form throughout the world. The Kombes and Sepiks work and sell their products in Rabaul and Madang with the latter area offering more opportunity of a true artifact turning up because of its close proximity to the Sepik area.
The carvers from both Rabaul and Madang try hard to sell but they are not aggressive and have a sense of humour about it. Indeed, once you get to know them, and they you, it becomes rather fun to barter on a street corner or be taken into a dim alleyway because they have a National Treasure that, to them, is as hot as stolen jewels.
The price of a good carving is fairly high. Not in relation to the amont of work involved, but in relation to wages in the country generally. Certainly there is very little profit margin available to anyone thinking of buying up big to sell overseas.
The standard practice is to ask their price then, if interested, immediately offer half. Stand firm until you are sure he won't meet you then, presuming you are determined to get the piece, start raising your bid but do not go above two thirds his original asking price. If you buy regularly, the carver or seller (sometimes he is both) will know your pitch and start the bidding at a more reasonable price in which case you cannot continue to screw him down to the above suggested figure. Fair play must prevail.
Do not be fooled by a carving which appears to be positively ancient and because the seller assures you that it is older than 1962 he will ask a much higher price. There is a vague chance of it being a National Treasure but nine times out of ten it will be a recent carving which has been buried, left out in the rain or placed amongst a white ant colony; anything to cause rapid aging.
The identification of true artifacts is a specialised task. The following is only a vague guide for the information of the casual visitor.
An artifact will probably have been carved with a sharpened shell, stone or axe. It will therefore have poorly defined edges. It will also be of hardwood and may be very smokey from having sat for decades in a meeting house in which fires are lit to drive away mosquitoes or to cook food. An artifact will not be finished in boot polish or modern paint and, unless restored, will not be filled with modern putties.
Modern carvings are, generally speaking, better than the older ones because the carver's skill has been assisted by the use of modern tools. Quite often the carver uses soft wood which, if not seasoned, will crack on extreme features like the nostrils of a protruding nose. The timbers most used nowadays are cedar (soft) and quilla (hard). Both are excellent timbers but the hardwood carving will cost more.
Apart from the many carvings of masks, there are also carvings of frogs (Rok Roks), crocodiles (puk puks), walking sticks, miniature figures, dolphins and so on. Baskets are woven in some areas — notably the Buin area of Bougainville, and at certain missions cottage industry is encouraged where it manifests itself, not as a reflection of the past, but as a combination of the old habits and the new demands. For example, at one mission they were making superb coconut shell handbags.
A less common form of native art are these jugs found in the Madang market. Of modern construction, they originally came from the Chambri Lakes and reflects a Sepik tradition.
Those visitors with only a passing interest in primitive art will find an interesting display at the Smugglers Inn in Madang and on the pavement close to the Travelodge at Rabaul. Both these centres also have good displays at the native market every Saturday.
In Port Moresby there is a primitive art shop where some wonderful pieces will be seen, but the prices are well above those of Madang and Rabaul. Also, it should be remembered, that the museum in Port Moresby has a fabulous collection for public viewing.
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