Sunday 18 September 2016

The Man from Kutubu and the Lai Valley Spirit Man




“Be not affeared, the Isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not:
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after a long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again”  Caliban

Wm. Shakespeare.  “The Tempest”  Act III, Scene II

Papua New Guinea, even after 45 years, is still very much part of our lives. When a regular visitor to our exhibitions recently ordered portrait prints of two of our favourite PNG characters, photographed in 1972, we were overwhelmed, as usual, by a flood of nostalgia.  We produced two prints on canvas, 57cm sq., mounted on foamboard and we were very pleased with them.

It was not until the 1930s that the outside world discovered that the Highlands of Papua New Guinea were not, as previously thought, an empty and inhospitable range of forested and jungle-clad mountains occupied, if at all, by a few wandering bands of hunter gatherers.  One of the first expeditions to enter what became the Southern Highlands walked north from the Gulf of Papua.

As they began to climb into the high mountains members of the expedition encountered more and more local population.  One morning, from a ridge looking north, the leader saw an astonishing sight.  As the clouds rose from the mountain tops, he saw a large lake, 17 Km long, in a valley densely populated with neat huts and villages and geometrically laid-out gardens stretching as far as the eye could see.  The smoke rising from the huts and the lake reflecting the sky were one of the most glorious sights he had ever seen and this he described as a Garden of Eden.  Lake Kutubu is New Guinea’s largest Highland lake and one of the richest natural environments on earth.  Another early explorer, again taking a northerly route through the Strickland Gorge, suggested that this was one of the most magnificent wildernesses on the planet and that it would remain so unless, of course, oil or gas were discovered in the area.

We photographed the Man from Kutubu in 1972, a visitor to the Lai Valley near Mendi in the Southern Highlands.  His headdress is largely of cassowary quills with parrot feathers and shells traded from the coast.  As the centrepiece, part of the bright label from a tin of fish.  The body painting looks to us like that of a proud warrior.  The brooch by his right ear has a Polynesian look about it.

Apart from subsistence gardening, the people from Kutubu were trading intermediaries who carried goods that they received from the Papuan coast and delivered them to the Highlands.  At the discovery of the the vast Highland valleys and their populations, much was made of their warlike natures and the precarity of their lives.  True enough but, when one considers the warlike follies of our own civilisation, the early discoverers’ concerns could have more to do with easing their consciences than with their deeply held convictions.  In fact, the Highlanders’ 4000 year old civilisation was one of the four independent agricultural cultures and one of the first exploiters of forestry.

Perhaps unfortunately for the Highlanders and catastrophically for their culture, there was gold to be found in their rivers and streams and now oil and gas have, indeed, been discovered.  Kutubu has a refinery and the lake and the people  have suffered from the inevitable consequences of such developments.


We were fortunate to live in Mendi in the Southern Highlands at a time when the local culture was still alive and well.  A few miles from Mendi by a very bumpy track we could drive to the Lai Valley where the culture was almost completely unchanged.  The first government employee had moved into the valley only a few years before and lived in a house that was only a small step up from the other village houses.  When there was a traditional meeting or celebration all was very much as it would have been a century or so before. 

In common with most of the Highland tribes, the people of Mendi and the Lai Valley are highly theatrical by nature.  There is a lot of symbolism in the dress, costumes and make-up which applies to various situations and can, of course, be readily understood.  This imagery includes brides, who in the region are covered with a mixture of vegetable oil and soot and carry a wand, and widows who smear themselves with mud from the river and wear bulky necklaces of beads from the grass aptly named Job’s Tears.  The various dress and make-up of young warriors, ‘Big’ men etc. mean a lot to the local people though we were not there long enough to be able to decipher many implications.

The Lai Valley Spirit Man may not be a shaman at all though his forbidding appearance suggests something of that sort.  It has been suggested to us that he is demonstrating his unhappiness with someone or some event as he has adopted the widow’s make-up of river mud with clear tear marks. The widow’s beads add to the impression and his choice of feathers for his headdress speak volumes.  Most of the traditional headdresses are of Bird of Paradise  and parrot feathers, all of radiant colours.  He has chosen the feathers of night birds and probably birds of prey.   As he leads the parade at a large tribal congress, his public display will not go unnoticed.  The bones add another macabre detail.