This very fluid painting features a central spirit figure with seven subsidiary figures, which can be read or understood as dual forms. The overall composition is lively and vigorous, drawn rapidly on bark cloth using charcoal and an ochre-coloured pigment.
The central spirit figure is depicted with four antennae sprouting between its eyes, and is looking directly at the viewer. Around its neck a halter supports an inverted T-shaped pendant, which may suggest a small group of glass beads or a polished stone blade.
On the right side of the painting is a black figure, either supporting another figure or perhaps a tall headdress above its head. Between it and the central spirit figure is an eel-like being, with its head towards the bottom. At the top of the left side of the painting hang three drying fish. Beneath these are five pairs of creatures, most of them fish-like and possibly mating.
Another work by the same artist, now in The Menil Collection, Houston, depicts two related spirit forms, each wearing a different type of pendant.
These painted bark cloths, now major artworks, were originally created as skirt-like garments or waist wraps, worn by young women during the ceremony marking their transition to adulthood. They were referred to as maro, which is a widely used Austronesian word for such garments.
This work has had an influence far beyond the dreams of its creator. Jacques Viot, a Paris art dealer who collected the painting at Lake Sentani in the 1920s, represented contemporary artists such as Joan Miró. Viot eventually sold the painting to the major surrealist artist Max Ernst who kept it until his death in 1976.
Michael Gunn, Senior Curator, Pacific Arts
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014