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Massim people

1860 – 1920

Artist's cultural association:
Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea
The drummer Dagodagoisu village, Massim region, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea
sculptures, ethnographic objects, ebony, lime
Technique: ebony, lime
36.5 h x 4.0 w x 5.5 d cm
Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.566


  • It is rare that a Melanesian work of art from the nineteenth century can be attributed to an artist with any certainty, so the artist known as Mutuaga is a phenomenon. He is the only named New Guinean artist who was active during this period and who is responsible for a known body of outstanding work characterised by small yet monumental figurative sculpture.

    The artist was known to be of positive and cheerful disposition and, as a carver of great standing, Mutuaga was nicknamed Oitau (carved man) by his peers. His ability to transform the utilitarian object—in this case, a lime spatula (known as enale or gem in the Suau area)—and to make it into something attractive and covetous was exceptional. While all lime spatulas from the Milne Bay Province are decorated to some extent, and many also include a small figure as the handle, Mutuaga’s works are usually far larger and show a greater level of sculptural strength.

    Little was known about the artist’s identity until 1996, when art historian Dr Harry Beran published groundbreaking research. Beran identified Mutuaga and his body of work through some hundred sculptures that had been mainly sitting unrecognised in museum collections. We now know Mutuaga was born around 1860 in Dagodagisu Village in the Milne Bay province of Papua New Guinea. He died around 1920.

    Mutuaga, although he did not adopt Christianity, gained the friendship and patronage of the missionary Charles Abel at the nearby Kwato Island Mission. Mutuaga’s relationship with Abel provided a conduit for his art beyond the traditional exchange practices of his community. Missionaries, commodores and even two of Papua’s first governors acquired Mutuaga’s sculptures. Unsurprisingly, many of these works later found their way into galleries and museums across the world.

    The National Gallery of Australia’s The drummer—like the Gallery’s Double figure from Lake Sentani—was once part of sculptor Jacob Epstein’s collection on non-Western art. Epstein was known to spend hours silently contemplating objects in his collection. One can almost see Epstein sitting in silence with this work in his hands, enjoying its superb tactile qualities and reflecting on the work of another great artist obscured by time and distance.

    Crispin Howarth
    Curator, Pacific Art
    in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010

    in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010