Wednesday, February 8, 2012

art communion: skull rack

Today I spent some time with this Skull Rack (agiba) from Papua New Guinea, ca. 1925. I know next to nothing about the cultures who created this art, but I pass through the Oceanic gallery on a daily basis, and it's always one of my favorite collections to see at other museums too. Perhaps because it IS so enigmatic to my uneducated eyes. Why is this skull rack guy smiling, for example? Is that even meant to be a smile? He looks very cheery to me, but perhaps I'm misinterpreting something. His backside is unfinished, and the base is worn. I assume he was perhaps attached to, or embedded in, some kind of wall or structure, and would stand upright ready to receive new skulls.

This agiba is made of wood, with big round eyes, and patterns resembling scales, feathers, flames, or waves carved into his sides/arms/ribs. The center of his torso looks like an upside down fish, with that ominous black hole in the center, mirroring the black circles of his eyes. His eyebrow looks like a boomerang. There are three skulls attached to him with cords, and one empty harness awaiting a fourth skull. Apparently people would attach the skulls of their enemies and/or their ancestors to such an object, and each skull is modified with mud elongating their noses and cowrie shells for eyes.

The Oceanic galleries are very humid. I don't know if this is intentional -- to create that tropical island environment -- or merely a result of poor air circulation. The walls are light with a faint pattern of dripping paint, which is honestly a little bit creepy. And of course there are the bizarre green benches which I think most people presume they're not supposed to use, but they're quite comfortable! One whole wall is windows, which gives the gallery a very pleasant atmosphere, but it's also a tease, inviting you out into a sculpture garden full of trees and Rodin sculptures, but offering no obvious way to get there.

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