Friday, September 12, 2008

Sea and Coral Reef the source of art inspiration, the case of Dore people

by Charles Roring from Dore bay, Manokwari

Coral reef is a term which is now increasingly related to diving and eco-tourism. Breathing underwater with the help of regulators, air bottles, fins and BCD among the corals and the fish is a unique experience. Recreational divers, when diving underwater, like to take pictures, or make videos of underwater life. All these recordings are shared with their loved ones at home, at work and of course on the internet. The beautiful pictures of hard and soft corals combined with various ornamental fish are displayed in modern art media i.e. photos, film and internet screen.

Canoe prow, wood, paint, and cassowary feathers, from Geelvink Bay, Irian Jaya; in the Basel (Switz.) Museum of Cultures. Basel (Switz.) Museum of Cultures (Vb 5980); photograph, P. Horner

As a matter of fact indigenous people, whose life depend on the generosity of the sea in providing food, have long been using the sea and the coral reefs as their sources of art inspiration. This can be seen from the writing of a famous naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. After making an expedition to Dore bay in 1858, a small bay which is part of Geelvink bay, he wrote his appreciation to indigenous people's love of art despite "their low state of civilization". In a book entitled "The Malay Archipelago," he wrote:

It is curious that a rudimental love of art should co-exist with such a very low state of civilization. The people of Dorey are great carvers and painters. The outsides of the houses, wherever there is a plank, are covered with rude yet characteristic figures. The high-peaked prows of their boats are ornamented with masses of open filagree work, cut out of solid blocks of wood, and often of very tasteful design, As a figurehead, or pinnacle, there is often a human figure, with a head of cassowary feathers to imitate the Papuan "mop." The floats of their fishing-lines, the wooden beaters used in tempering the clay for their pottery, their tobacco-boxes, and other household articles, are covered with carving of tasteful and often elegant design.

Did we not already know that such taste and skill are compatible with utter barbarism, we could hardly believe that the same people are, in other matters, utterly wanting in all sense of order, comfort, or decency. Yet such is the case. They live in the most miserable, crazy, and filthy hovels, which are utterly destitute of anything that can be called furniture; not a stool, or bench, or board is seen in them, no brush seems to be known, and the clothes they wear are often filthy bark, or rags, or sacking.

Along the paths where they daily pass to and from their provision grounds, not an overhanging bough or straggling briar ever seems to he cut, so that you have to brush through a rank vegetation, creep under fallen trees and spiny creepers, and wade through pools of mud and mire, which cannot dry up because the sun is not allowed to penetrate.

Their food is almost wholly roots and vegetables, with fish or game only as an occasional luxury, and they are consequently very subject to various skin diseases, the children especially being often miserable-looking objects, blotched all over with eruptions and sores. If these people are not savages, where shall we find any? Yet they have all a decided love for the fine arts, and spend their leisure time in executing works whose good taste and elegance would often be admired in our schools of design!

One hundred fifty years have passed and todays Dore people do not know him. I try to tract whether the love of art still exists among them. There are still some people who decorate their houses and canoes with paintings of fish and coral ornaments but their number is significantly reduced. I wonder why such wonderful talents of art have lost. Many planks look empty now - no relief, carvings or paintings. They have to race against the time, working for money. No time for carving and painting.

Dore bay has now become a rapidly growing town, Manokwari. It is the capital of the province of West Papua. The economic demands, the pressure of capitalism, the increasing pressure of life competition might be the cause of the lost of love of art among the Dore people. They do not live in a relax life like what Wallace had reported 150 years ago. It is so regretful.

Dore bay still offers its attraction to foreign tourists. Here lies around twenty wrecks waiting for divers to dive them on. But the beauty of the carved canoes has disappeared. There is a West Papuan artist, a prominent one - I dare to say, who works day and night to preserve the talents of the people living in this bay. He records design styles, ornaments, carving, and painting styles of the Papuan people in hundreds or even thousands of pages. His name is Thonny Mansiraken Krey. Unfortunately, most of his manuscripts haven't been published waiting for philanthropists to help him fund the publications of books. If you happen to read this article and intend to help him publish his works, you can contact him at his mobile: +62 852 44 7680 18
I am afraid that if we don't support the publications of his books, the art styles of the Geelvink people will disappear and be forgotten forever as if they never exist.