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Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea
Maro (barkcloth). Painted bark cloth (tapa), 29 x 60 inches. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.
HOUSTON, TX.- European navigators began traveling to coastal areas of New Guinea in the sixteenth century, but it was not until 1858 that the Dutch Etna Expedition reached Humboldt Bay and Lake Sentani (in the present-day Indonesian province of Papua, located in western New Guinea). Subsequent scientific and surveying expeditions piqued mounting interest from the West and prompted Europeans to visit the region, observe the culture, and collect works by living artists.

Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea features works acquired by two of those pioneering visitors to the region: Swiss explorer, ethnologist, photographer, and collector Paul Wirz and French adventurer, art dealer, photographer, and author Jacques Viot, both of whom were active during a notable period of research and collecting that began in 1921.

On view at the Menil from May 6 through August 28, Ancestors of the Lake features 50 works, including a group of highly stylized and abstracted wooden sculptures and decorative designed barkcloths (called maro), presented along with rare photographs of these objects in situ. In the twentieth century these exquisitely carved figures and objects and delicately rendered maro inspired Surrealist artists and caught the attention of notable collectors – including John and Dominique de Menil.

Curated by Virginia-Lee Webb, an art historian specializing in non-Western art and a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Ancestors of the Lake juxtaposes selections from the Menil’s permanent holdings with pieces drawn from public and private collections in Australia, Europe, and the United States.

As Westerners became more exposed to the art of the Pacific Islands, they began to appreciate its formal artistic qualities: modernists identified with its linear elegance and Surrealists found kindred spirits in its abstract patterns and pure sculptural forms. The art of Lake Sentani reached its greatest acclaim in the West in the 1930s. On the impetus of renowned Parisian gallery owner Pierre Loeb, a champion of Surrealist artists such as Joan Miró and Max Ernst, Viot journeyed to New Guinea to collect carved sculptures and purchase maro samples from local artists. Galleries in Paris and New York highlighted works brought back by Viot, which were shown to a wide public at New York’s Museum of Primitive Art groundbreaking exhibition of 1959. More than half a century has passed since that landmark exhibition.

Ancestors of the Lake unites the famed Viot collection with equally superior examples of Sentani and Humboldt Bay art gathered by Wirz and others. Among the illuminating pairings in the exhibition: Viot’s photograph of the sculpture Double Figure from a Housepost (The Lilly) with the sculpture itself, presented alongside newly discovered stills by Man Ray. This visual chronology highlights the unique dynamism of Lake Sentani art. Among the eight maro works on display are two collected by Viot in 1929 and purchased by the de Menils in 1932. In the following years, the de Menils would add three Sentani sculptures and another barkcloth to their collection – all the results of Viot’s expeditions. Today, these works form a core strength of the Menil’s collection of art from the Pacific Islands – a sampling of which is now on view in the museum’s newly installed Pacific Islands gallery.

Ancestors of the Lake will be accompanied by an extraordinary catalogue, edited by Virginia-Lee Webb, including essays by leading scholars as well as historical photographs of Sentani and Humboldt Bay. The 128-page volume features new scholarship on Western explorations of northern New Guinea, including Viot’s journey, as well as the stills by Man Ray. Never has a publication so keenly represented masterpieces from these regions.

Following its presentation at the Menil, Ancestors of the Lake will travel to Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, an institution renowned for its focus on the art of the Pacific Islands.

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