Skull Art in Papua New Guinea
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by Sabine Jell-Bahlsen
color, 28 min, 1999
This video documents the over-modeling in clay of a real human skull in Lae, Papua New Guinea, in the spring of 1997. A painted skull had been purchased from a trader. When Adam Kone visited, he found the skull poorly decorated and set out to mold a more elaborate skull-portrait, adding modern materials, in his friend's house. Asked to sculpt in the garden, he refused. Adam had nothing to do with the dead person, but was weary of head hunting suspicions, and feared arrest.
Historically, skull art is associated with tribal warfare and headhunting, banned by the colonial administration in the 1920's, and equally outlawed in modern independent Papua New Guinea. Because of its association with a banned practice, skull art has become rare and is carried out in secrecy.
In Adam's home on the Sepik, decorating skulls is a prominent, highly developed form of body art. A skull-portrait commemorates an initiate's first kill, a great warrior, a fierce enemy, an extraordinary, or beautiful person. The portrait honors a deceased person - friend or foe - and is held in high esteem. Sepik societies are known for their artistic wealth, but also as fierce warriors. The Iatmul people of the middle Sepik are the most prominent. Headhunting was once their major pastime, indulged like a sport, and feared by their neighbors. Among these warriors, killing an enemy was regarded an adult man's duty, a source of male pride, and a symbol of masculine identity. Ritualized homicide was part of initiation.
Skull art belongs to the spirit house, "Haus Tambaran". Adult men spend most of their time there. Only fully initiated, adult men are allowed into the men's house. The "Haus Tambaran" is the venue for all major male activities, including meetings, artistic exploits, religious rituals, and initiation ceremonies.
Several long stones in front of the "Haus Tambaran" once served as sacred locations where a slain enemy's head was ritually severed from his body. Warriors' heads once provided the physical and spiritual foundations of Sepik society and its spirit houses. Skulls were buried under a "Haus Tambaran's" major supporting posts, adorned its cornices and windows, were kept inside on special shelves and skull racks, displayed, and carried around on special dance wards during funerary rites.
An adorned skull commemorates and honors a dead person. Some have linked skull art to masking. Others have observed that skull art is quite realistic. Historic skulls-portraits capture individuals' real life features.
“A wonderful work for use in ethnic studies and cultural anthropology courses. The film serves as an important bridge between what was and what is now. It celebrates not only diversity but also and importantly the variety of human endeavors to interpret life and existence.” — Michael Mbabuike, Prof. and Chair, Africana Studies/Humanities Dept., City University of New York
“Everyone with visual imagination should see this great, original video, which captures the spirt of the most vulnerable side of our souls... Adam's rhythm, pace, and singing while working intensely on this skull is unforgettable. This is a rare, spiritual experience” — Mary Frank, Artisit and Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters