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by Entwistle on 20 May 2019

A major highlight at our recent 'Pacific Treasures' exhibition was a delicate Massim lime spatula from the renowned master sculptor known as Mutuaga...

One of the highlights from our recent exhibition 'Pacific Treasures' was a delicate lime spatula attributed to the renowned Massim master sculptor known by the name of Mutuaga, also known as the 'Master of the Naturalistic Style.' He came from the Maliboi clan and lived in Dagodagoisu village, on the mainland opposite Suau Island, in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea, and was active from about 1880 to 1920.

The spatula was once in the collection of the celebrated collector and scholar, George Terasaki, and will be published in Dr Harry Beran's forthcoming sequel to Mutuaga: A Nineteenth-Century New Guinea Master Carver entitled More Mutagas, further woodcarvings by the 19th Century master carver of the Massim region, Papua New Guinea.

The superb independent figure that forms the handle of the spatula exhibits a squatting figure – an iconic theme in his best-known works, with comparable examples in the collections of the British Museum, London, Ex. Collection Henry Beasley (2065), [Oc1944,02.1900]; the Buffalo Museum of Science [C8335]; the Museum of New Zealand [FE6960]; the Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen [ABDUA:180] and the John and Marcia Friede Collection, San Francisco.

The figure exhibits the same sculptural variations that have been identified by Dr. Harry Beran, the foremost specialist in the field of Massim Art, as belonging to Mutuaga’s ‘Naturalistic sub-style – Style Variation 3,[1] where face is rounded, and the eyes are carved as incisions in the shape of scrolls.

The animated character of the squatting figure is highlighted by the incised scrolling, filled with lime, found on the zygomatic areas as ornamental bands that descend down the maxillofacial planes to the temporal areas. They are echoed at the forehead as an arched flange that sits above thick eyebrows. The naturalistically stylized ears are carved, in high relief, and below them is exhibited a further band of ornamental scrolling that descends at a slant to the maxillary area.

The ocular features flank a majestic aquiline nose below which there is a prominent philtrum. The mouth is carved as two concentric indented ovals that highlight the thick lips. Below this feature is found a finely carved serrated line, denoting facial hair, which curls into whiskers at the cheeks and emphasizes the virility and seniority of the figure. The head is simplified in shape to a semi-sphere.


The magnificent and varied patterning is further carried from the temporal regions around to the back of the skull, which it circles, and is echoed further in two bands that curve downwards from the crown to follow the line of the ears. Observed from the back, the spatula reveals further scrolling on the occipital region of the head, above the nape of the neck.
The graceful limbs of the figure are expressed from the straight trunk of the torso, slightly bent forward as the figure places its head on the clasped hands, to the positioning of delicately stylized arms, bent at the elbows and placed on the knees of the bent, squatting legs, creating a rhythmic play of curves and counter-curves.

The figure sits on a circular platform, whose edge is decorated also with zigzag incisions, or motamota [2] and, below this, at the beginning of the blade, two brackets flare outwards from the blade to curl into coiled forms – these scrolling forms are generally considered to both represent birds’ heads and, by their style, to be the signature style of different carving schools. The present example, where the birds’ heads have effectively been concealed, is classified as belonging to the Master of the Naturalistic Style.[3]
The Massim people see their world reflected in their spatulas and identify strongly with the anthropomorphic figures represented on their handles. The spatulas are used in the chewing of areca palm seeds (also known as betel nuts) mixed with lime made from burnt coral and the fruit of the betel plant.
The chewing of lime causes euphoria by the nicotine-like properties of the areca-nuts, released by the alkaloids in the lime.[4] Some spatulas were reserved for the use of chiefs, others were used as gifts for partners in the kula, a ceremonial exchange of gifts, and yet others were used, according to legend, in sorcery.[5]


[1] Harry Beran, ‘The Woodcarvings of Mutuaga, a 19th- century artist of the Massim district of Papua New Guinea’, in: Barry Craig, ed., Art and Performance in Oceania, Bathurst (NSW), 1999, p. 181
[2] Harry Beran, Mutuaga: A Nineteenth-Century New Guinea Master Carver, Wollongon, NSW, 1996, p. 137
[3] Ibid, p. 33, fig. 7
[4] Ibid,  p. 219, pl. 59
[5] R.F. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu, New York, 1932,
pp. 163-165

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