The Art of Adventure

For Palos Verdes art collector and gallery owner Michael Hamson, a meeting of quality, utility, clarity, power and elegance separates the art from the artifact.

Picture yourself traveling half-way around the world to the island of New Guinea. Forty-six times. Imagine collecting artifacts and cultural objects from this mostly undiscovered country—10,000 of these items. Over the course of 17 years. All the while, contracting malaria. Eight times. And being robbed in the thick bush of untamed tropical rainforests. Three times. Twice at gunpoint. Think how these events might affect you, especially after having voyaged for some 20-odd hours through multiple time zones to get to this seemingly inhospitable territory. First by jet. Next by truck. At some point by dingy. Then by Cessna. Finally by foot. Keep walking. You’re almost there.

Would you come out the other side of this life experience stronger and more dedicated to your adventuresome spirit? You would if you were Michael Hamson, an intrepid Palos Verdes-based art dealer and gallery owner who specializes in the collection and sale of New Guinea art.

Now, be honest. Is your mind racing, trying to grasp any facts about New Guinea that may be lying dormant in your head? No worries. I did some research on behalf of all of us. Located in the southwest Pacific, New Guinea is the world’s second largest island. The island is divided politically into two halves.

The western half of the island was annexed by Indonesia in the early 1960s. It is made of two provinces, Papua and West Papua. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the island makes up the mainland of the country Papua New Guinea (PNG), which gained its independence from Australia in 1975. The latter region is where Michael collects ceremonial and ritually used items, such as figures and masks, as well as utilitarian objects, such as bowls, plates and drums.

I know. I know. You still want to know what prompted a member of our South Bay clan to venture to Papua New Guinea in the first place—where 80% of the population lives in traditional, rural societies that depend on subsistence-based agricultural practices to survive. One doesn’t just walk into a gallery, even in the urban capital of Port Moresby, and start making art deals. Right?

Well, yes and no. Although PNG is off the beaten track, Michael did have predecessors who paved at least a bit of the way for him in this part of the world. And with good reason. Michael shares, “It is when the local and Western aesthetic notions of quality, utility, clarity, power and elegance meet that one separates the art from the artifact.” This particular opinion was certainly shared by some of the first art collectors who were drawn to the island.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the West “discovered” the art of New Guinea. And while only a handful of explorers and dealers tapped the island for its unique tribal work, a substantial number of authentic objects were collected over a relatively short period of time. In these same active decades, more and more of the native people were converting to Western religions with the help of a sturdy missionary body. As Christianity made obsolete the need for objects that were once believed to embody spirits, the art of making these treasures fell by the wayside.

Of course, the market had gotten used to the revenue stream. And thus mass reproduction of popular artifacts got underway. These “tainted” creations hold no particular value by Michael’s standards. They do not possess any of the three main traits—age (pre-1950s), authenticity and beauty—by which a true piece of New Guinea art is evaluated. Generally speaking, New Guinea reproductions, by nature, are soulless, having not been made for or used within the intended cultural capacity.

On the contrary, the 19th-century Lumi Bowl in Michael’s collection gets three out of three stars for exhibiting the holy trinity of traits. The collector explains why: “The opposed hooks, set poised at the end of their armatures, seem ready to move and create energy. New Guinea art is all about power and doing the real work of hunting and warfare, and it is rare that this ancestral potential for action is expressed in such an abstract and elegant fashion.” But where exactly has Michael sourced museum-quality pieces like this one over the years?

For the most part, Michael steers clear of the Papua New Guinea coastal communities, where the authentic art supply has either been exhausted or contaminated. The inland areas, not easily accessible, are where treasures still have a chance of being discovered. But to go to these areas is to go where few Westerners have gone before. And given the extremely rugged geography of the country, the faint of heart need not sign up for the adventure. When Michael conducts a field-collecting expedition to gather ceremonial items and utilitarian objects in the country, he starts walking. Roads in the vast rural areas of PNG are few and far between, and once you drive to the end of one, you had best be ready to do some strenuous hiking.

Accompanied by a local crew of men, Michael slings a pack holding a high-quality mosquito net and a camping mattress over his shoulders. Eventually, his posse arrives at a tiny village made of tribesmen who usually have had only minor contact with people from the outside world. At this point, the introductions begin.

Fluent in Tok Pisin—the primary language of New Guinea—Michael requests to speak with “the Council,” the local leader of the village. While “the Council” is a title of honor, the person bearing this title is like every other person in his community: a simple worker. When he approaches Michael, he does not wear a special headdress or an ornate arrangement of jewels. Rather, he is most likely dressed in ragged clothes, marked with stains of hard labor. Michael thanks the man for meeting with him and informs him that he is interested in buying traditional items, such as masks and bowls, from his villagers. This is when things start to get really interesting.

“The Council” pounds on a huge drum, alerting the villagers to take a break from their work in the gardens and rendezvous around the “colonial” white man. With all eyes on him, Michael greets the villagers. He asks them if they have any traditional objects for sale. Slowly but surely, items begin to appear. And when Michael is presented with a piece worthy of collecting, he can tell immediately.

The Lower Sepik Mask from the early 20th century, which makes its home in Michael’s private Palos Verdes art gallery, is an example of a tremendous find. A dance mask that exemplifies the talent of an expert carver, the work is delicate and fierce all at once. On the back of the mask, an ancient patina and signs of shell scraping—an early method of smoothing the inner surface of masks in the Sepik River area—reveal an age and authenticity that provide a living history to the object.

Whether or not a visit to a particular community procures invaluable art finds, business is still conducted with a high level of respect. And once all agreed trading is complete, the village hospitality unfolds. Michael and his crew are invited to join their newfound friends in their homes for some food and much-needed shut-eye.

In the morning, the members of the expedition wake early to start a new journey. They are off to the next remote village, spurred on by the prospect of collecting and preserving a part of New Guinea history. Mind you, some of the objects collected are less spectacular than others. Michael explains, “The affecting presence that is found in the best pieces of New Guinea art is the sense that the spiritual being originally manifested by the pieces still lurks within.” He should know. Along with his countless years of field experience in New Guinea, Michael also holds a master’s degree in African and Oceanic art history. That’s right. He’s an adventurer with stellar credentials to boot. I don’t know about you, but I’m sold.

Find out more about Michael Hamson Oceanic Art and Material Culture at michaelhamson.com. A visit to this virtual world of New Guinea promises to be thrilling, but not perilous. You don’t even need to pack a mosquito net.

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