Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea

May 5 – Aug 27, 2011
Main Building

The island of New Guinea is home to distinctive art traditions, and some have been rarely exhibited since their initial appearance in the Europe and the Americas. In the 19th century outside visitors saw and collected works by artists living in the Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay regions of the island situated on the north coast in the present day Indonesian province of Papua. The distinctively stylized wood sculptures and the decorative designs of the barkcloths (called maro) were greatly admired. The minimal and inventive abstraction of the works received great acclaim and also inspired 20th-century Surrealist artists in Europe. This exhibition will present many of these important works together for the first time.

While European navigators traveled to the coastal areas of New Guinea beginning in the 16th century, it was not until 1858 that the Dutch Etna Expedition reached Humboldt Bay and its members sighted Lake Sentani in the distance. Large scientific and surveying expeditions followed. In the 1903 Netherlands New Guinea Expedition surgeon G.A.J. van der Sande was commissioned to make a physical anthropological survey, which resulted in photographs, a detailed and illustrated publication, and collections that are now in Dutch museums. Paul Wirz, a Swiss ethnologist who visited in 1921 and 1926 and published an important book about Sentani culture, collected sculptures and made photographs and films.

The art of these waterside communities received greatest Eurpean acclaim in 1929, when French writer and art dealer Jacques Viot gathered a significant corpus of art. Asked to embark on the expedition by renowned Parisian gallery owner Pierre Loeb, Viot collected sculptures—many that had been submerged in the lake—and he purchased decorated barkcloth from the local people. Today, these works are considered masterpieces of the Sentani and Humboldt styles. The Viot collection was exhibited at galleries in Paris and New York between 1930 and 1934 and at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Paris, in 1933. In the United States in 1959, the first survey of these regional art styles was in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, accompanied by a catalogue by Simon Kooijman.

This exhibition comprises approximately 50 works and unites Jacques Viot’s landmark collection with equally fine examples of Sentani and Humboldt Bay art gathered by Paul Wirz and other visitors. Works in the Menil Collection will be featured, along with domestic and international loans from important public and private sources. The Menil’s holdings include six masterworks from Viot’s corpus—three figures and three decorated barkcloths.

This exhibition is generously supported by Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, National Endowment for the Arts, Anne S. Brown, Ballard Exploration Company, Inc., George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation, Dedalus Foundation, Bettie Cartwright, Pride International, Inc., Stardust Fund, Texan-French Alliance for the Arts, W.S. Bellows Construction Corporation, the City of Houston, and by proceeds from Men of MenilL. Exhibition underwriter United Airlines is the Preferred Airline of the Menil Collection.