One of the stars at Frieze Masters 2018 was a remarkable 19th century Papuan Gulf skull rack in the Entwistle stand...
The extraordinary skull rack, or agiba, from the Kerewa peoples of Goribari Island in the Papuan Gulf was one of the stars of Frieze Masters 2018, the renowned yearly art fair in London's Regents Park.
Photographed in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea as early as 1930 by the anthropologist Paul Wirz [1892–1955], the skull rack can convincingly be attributed to the same master-hand of two other known agiba’s – one in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ex. Collection Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, and another in a private collection, Ex. Collections Thomas Schulze-Westrum (field collected), John Friede, New York, Entwistle, London and now in a private collection.
The agiba was exhibited in the seminal show 'Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society of the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea,' held in 2006 at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, CT, and in 2006/7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The skull rack is the work of the greatest graphic artists of the South Pacific – the extraordinarily crisp and animated lines were sculpted with stone-tipped tools; it is also the result of the work of lively colourists and the combination of these qualities gives this work exceptional decorative appeal notwithstanding its powerful emotive character.
The agiba seeks to exhibit the anthropomorphic figure of an ancestor while also being ingeniously surrealistic as the head element is exaggerated and the corporeal features are stretched and conflated.
The flat oval upper section is representative of the head, which is presented as a large ovoid form; within its perimeter sit large dark circular eyes and a large flaring nose above a pleasant mouth with upturned corners.
The facial element, which exhibits sections of kaolin pigmentation, descends down a short, wide neck of black pigmentation to the openwork structure of the body, where raised, broad shoulders outline the encased body.
The surfaces of the body are patterned in chevrons, concentric circles, arcs and undulating line motifs along the outer arm-like perimeter or in reniform shapes on the stylized torso. The pigmentation of the motifs is mostly ochre red with black highlights, both on the predominantly white kaolin of the surface.
At the lower extremity, two circular designs with dark circular motifs are found and it is from this base that emerge the functional appendages central to this figure: the skull hooks. The vertical hooks on this superb agiba terminate in convergent points from which the trophy skulls, oro or opuoro, of slain enemies would be exclusively hung with loops of rattan.
The agiba was certainly a trophy case demonstrating clan prowess in warfare but it was also a family shrine – it was housed in a clan’s allotted space within the ceremonial house, dubu daima, where the married men would sleep. The agiba was carved by a man when he took a head but other men could add skulls; a platform was often added to support this growing assemblage of skulls, which could be either plain or decorated.