Visual Arts

"Ancestors of the Lake": The Rarely-Seen Art of New Guinea Opens at the Menil

Your life is not that hard. Promise.

The daily happenings at Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, located on the western portion of New Guinea in the 1800s and early 1900s? Now that was a difficult existence.

In the early 1920s, a couple of gonzo European explorers, Paul Wirz and Jacques Viot, ventured to the obscure area to collect the art, figurative sculptures, sounds and images of the native people. Before Wirz and Viot, the 1858 Dutch Etna Expedition expanded the world's consciousness about the region's culture, and an influx of curious European art collectors would visit the area.

However, none appreciated or documented the sometimes-difficult-to-exist region like Wirz, a Swiss ethnologist who shot 1,100 meters of silent film and created found-sound recordings on wax cylinders, and Viot, the French writer and art dealer who would exhibit his findings in New York and Paris.

Opening this weekend, the pieces on display in The Menil Collection's "Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea" showcases 50 works - ranging from decorative barkcloths to abstract wooden sculptures - that would inspire future surrealists Man Ray and Max Ernst. Many of the art works in this show are complemented with circa 1920s black-and-white photographs of the New Guinean artists. There's also a wonderful 128-page companion hardcover book available for purchase.

The show, curated by Virginia-Lee Webb, runs from May 6 through August 28 at the Menil, 1515 Sul Ross. For details, visit the Menil's website.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen