Thursday, April 24, 2014


I've never considered myself a collector, but I am one.  I caught the bug from my husband Bruce, who inherited the gene from his mother, Marge   My impression was that collectors bought German Hummel figurines  and displayed them on a mantel, or purchased silver spoons from countries around the world that are hung on a wooden rack.   One of my friends buys a Christmas ornament or two or three in every country she visits.   She must have several hundred, at least.  


My mother was not a collector per se,  but for some reason, she thought I should be, so when I was first married, she started me on a collection of porcelain tea cups and saucers.  These are the delicate ones painted with pale pink roses or purple violets,  with tiny handles too dainty for fat fingers.   "You don't drink tea from these cups," she'd say.   "No, you display them in your glass china cabinet, so guests can admire them when they come to visit."  I didn't even own a glass china cabinet, but she did.  After receiving five or six cups over multiple visits, I begged her to stop, politely  explaining that these were more her style than mine.   Years later,  I sold them for cheap at my garage sale.   In the 1960s, a friend convinced me to buy Bing and Grondahl blue and white Christmas plates.   "They are an investment," she told me, "because the mold is broken after the release of each edition, so over the years your plates will grow in value."   When my friend moved away, I stopped buying the plates, and now I wonder what I'll do with the ones I have stored in my garage.   On the Ebay website, these plates go for about the same price I paid almost fifty years ago.


I think I should tell the rest of this story by using the collective "we" instead of the singular "I" and give credit where credit is due, because it is really my husband who got us into this collecting business, although I've happily gone along.   I should have known what was to come when he told me 15 years ago about his "almost complete" collection of Mad Magazines from the '50s and '60s,  and his elaborate stamp collection that sits in a cardboard box labeled  "Bruce's mementos."


Our first foray into collecting indigenous art began ten years ago on a trip we took to Papua New Guinea, where we were confronted with amazing tribal artifacts carved and painted by talented artisans, living simply in rural villages along the 700-mile Sepik River.   It was very easy to get caught up in the exotic beauty and the spiritual interpretation of these traditional crafts, especially when you are rubbing shoulders with the local people in a village setting that requires one to walk a good distance on dirt paths through a jungle that smells like wet dog, unlike any place we'd ever been before.    A crowd of villagers, mostly kids, stood on the black volcanic sand waiting to greet us, since they knew the schedule of the very few boats that bring tourists up river.  A few called out to us, "Mornin now and yu stap gut. Translated from a form of the pigeon English they speak, this friendly greeting means good morning and how are you.  Eager for some kind of connection, we replied with similar words we'd memorized the night before. 

Palembei kids awaiting our arrival


We scrambled through a labyrinth of entangled vines to reach Palembei Village, a small community in the region of the Middle Sepik, where electricity and running water are light years away.   Like in most tribal villages the women were busy doing chores, either breast feeding their babies, or carrying water in plastic buckets up from the river.  Men wearing dog teeth headbands decorated with bird of paradise feathers greeted us in ceremonial costumes.  Others brought out their imaginative carvings and posed proudly alongside them, offering prices that sounded more like thousands of pennies rather than thousands of dollars.   


Lynne, one of our experienced travelers, had already spotted Bruce as the authentic shopper in our small group, and since she had plenty of tribal art at home, she was reluctant to buy more.   Instead, she saw my husband as her shopping surrogate.  She pointed to a large carving of a young boy lying half-naked, with his small arms and legs outstretched on the back of a wooden canoe that had been carved in the shape of a crocodile.   She called out to Bruce. "You've got to come see this," she said.   We were walking inside a large thatched-roof house,  a place where ancestral spirits are worshipped and carvings of cultural significance are sold to the few tourists who come to this out-of-the-way place.    "Look at the intricate detail of this piece," she said.   Bruce gently touched the boy's back, feeling the roughness of the wood which represented the razor- inflicted cuts made by tribal elders during this village's coming-of-age ceremony.   Like scarification in Africa, this brutal tradition of skin cutting continues to be part of a Papua New Guinea tribal culture, connoting signs of bravery and manhood.  Because of possible infection, the ritual is considered very dangerous.  Some teenage boys don't survive this terrible ordeal.   

Note the detail on the back and face

Immediately Bruce and I were emotionally engaged with this piece.  We realized it was something we wanted to own, so after discussing a figure somewhere between the customary first and second price, a happy deal was struck.   The artist Raymond Dumoi learned English from the Marui Catholic Missionaries, but his tribal life centered around the spirit house or the Haus Tambaran as it is known in their language called Tok Pisin.  He and other villagers spend many hours in the Haus Tambaran  since it is the most symbolic and respected place in the village.  Outside we took photographs of The Boy, after which three tribesman hoisted the heavy carving over their heads and walked toward the river and the small boat on which we are traveling.  

The Spirit House

The Happy Family, 2004


On that exotic trip we purchased seventeen pieces of ethnic art, mostly carvings, big and small, and a few colorful masks, all of which were shipped to us in a large wooden crate.  After seven months and more government bureaucracy than we expected,  the crate eventually reached us in California, although at times we wondered whether we would ever receive it.   There was no buyers remorse, but I did have one regret, which was bringing home a rattan-woven full body mask.   Bruce thought this piece was so fantastic that I couldn't talk him out of it, although I did question its size and its condition because I wasn't sure it would work in our house.   I'm not a told-you-so sort of person, but it irks me when I see this piece sitting unseen and lonely in our garage because, as I suspected, it doesn't fit in our house.   We've tried selling the mask, but to no avail.  We can't even give it away.  I guess it's like an acquired taste and not everyone's cup of tea.

This full body mask has a special place in our garage but
it's for sale if anyone is interested

On the other hand, The Boy from Palembei's Spirit House is a focal point in our growing collection of indigenous art.  He tells an unbelievable story about a tribal tradition that is quickly vanishing and becoming very rare today.   Looking at The Boy displayed prominently in our living room reminds us how fortunate we were to have had a glimpse into the window of such a rich culture and to meet these extraordinary people, who live in an environment that is truly another world.   

THE BOY has a special place in our home and in our hearts

Watercolor by Marjorie Berger

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