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Collection testifies to magic art of lost culture

Wooden sculptures from the tropical rainforest. Culture Museum Basel

A unique collection of wood sculptures from the tropical rainforest of Papua New Guinea is casting its magic spell on the culture museum in Basel.

“Korewori: Magic Art from the Rainforest” bears testimony to the creative power of people who lived in one of the world’s remotest regions between 200 and 400 years ago.

But for all its artistic brilliance, the exhibition also sheds light on the fate of hunting communities who for centuries roamed vast tracts of the rainforest around the Korewori river.

Curator Christian Kaufmann says the story is an all too familiar one in what remains of the world’s tropical rainforests.

“Their way of life was disrupted even before logging operations,” he told swissinfo. “Since the 1960s it has been threatened by diseases introduced from outside as well as by environmental change caused by the irresponsible use of the forest by loggers.”

Concealed in caves

The objects on display only became widely known about 40 years ago. Concealed for centuries in caves in the hidden depths of the region, these cult figures are now considered the last witnesses of a lost culture.

They were made, says Kaufmann, to aid communities hunting such wild animals as cassowaries, pigs and tree kangaroos: “Their ritualistic importance as helpful hunting figures to please the spirits was very great. They were used to intensify contact with spirit beings who determined each male’s success as a hunter.”

By the 1960s, the hunting traditions of the depleted communities were dying out. Woodcarvings had lost their purpose for them and they decided to sell the sculptures to local agents and dealers.

The Basel culture museum applies stringent criteria to its purchase of such objects. Now owning over half of the 200 figures existing worldwide, it says decisions to expand the collection are taken against a background of close cooperation with the societies and countries of origin.

“We document the objects and help organise exhibitions in those countries,” says Kaufmann, “while at the same time working with their national culture centres and museums.”

The Basel exhibition ends on January 18, 2004.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

The woodcarvings were made by people living in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea between 200 and 400 years ago.
The carvings were used to make contact with spirits thought to determine hunting success.
By the 1960s, the number of inhabitants in the region was dwindling due to diseases introduced from outside and environmental change caused by irresponsible logging.
The rainforest dwellers decided to sell the woodcarvings to local agents and dealers.
Basel culture museum owns over half of the 200 figures existing worldwide.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR