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The Project

Photo of Sculpture

Project Summary:

In May, 1994, ten master New Guinea carvers and a team of American and New Guinea landscape architects began working in-residency to develop a major outdoor sculpture garden of New Guinea art on the Stanford University campus. For the participants, this collaboration was not an attempt to recreate a "traditional" New Guinea art/landscape environment, but rather an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with and reinterpret New Guinea aesthetic perspectives within the new context of a western public art and landscape architecture project. This cross-cultural exchange promised to open challenging new territory for the artists to explore their aesthetic visions while simultaneously putting the artists in control of the representation and interpretation of their art works and culture.

Given the extended on-location carving, the project also created a unique opportunity for the Stanford community to interact personally with the artists and to develop an appreciation for the concerns, life experiences, and aesthetic interests that motivate their works. This cross-cultural artistic encounter was developed through on-site guided tours and discussions with the artists, New Guinea bark painting classes, a lecture series on New Guinea art and interpretative issues, and on-site musical performances. Through these interactions, it was hoped that a type of cross-cultural artistic experience not possible in the traditional western museum exhibitions of New Guinea art could be created; an experience that would rehumanize these arts and artists that have been consistently dehumanized by western images and stereotypes of the "primitive."


The artists participating in the project came from the Iatmul and Kwoma societies of the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Artistic works from these societies have had a long and celebrated history of museum exhibition in the west but New Guinea artists have rarely been able to select the works nor the display context in which they are presented. This ground-breaking exhibition grew out of a request by two Kwoma artists who worked with Jim Mason, the project director, during his anthropological fieldwork on the Sepik River in 1990. These artists had just completed work on the Woyndabyne International Sculpture Garden in Australia and wanted to organize similar venues for direct artistic production, interaction, and self-representation in other western countries. Returning to Stanford University, Jim Mason gathered support and funding for the project and then returned to PNG to work with the artists and the National Museum to assemble the final team of participants. The artists are: Naui Saunambui, Yati Latai, Membor Apokiom, David Kaipuk, Gutok Yantaka, David Yamanapi, Yarame Mambegawi, Simon Marmos, Joseph Kandirnbu, and Teddy Balangu.

During their four-month residency at Stanford, these Kwoma and Iatmul artists produced a variety of large relief carved poles, free-standing individual figures, garamut slit drums, and other large-scale site-specific works. These works were carved using indigenous carving woods selected by the artists in Papua New Guinea and shipped to the U.S.

Integral with the actual carving, the artists collaborated with Kora Korawali, a New Guinea landscape architect, and Wallace Ruff, an American landscape architect, towards generating the site design, landscaping, and display information for the garden. This collaboration was an interactive design process focused on expressing and reinterpreting New Guinea aesthetic values within the design of a western landscape space. The process was an open forum for the team to address the complexities of producing and exhibiting artistic works across cultural boundaries. Through this collaborative forum, the artists were able to control the display context in which their works are to be presented to and interpreted for a western audience.

When New Guinea arts have traditionally been displayed in the western world, the display context has often reduced the status of these works from art, as creative individual expression, to artifact, representing merely the mechanical reproduction of timeless and unchanging forms. This artist/designer collaboration begins with the realization that New Guinea artists have never been simply craftsmen reproducing ancient templates, but rather have always worked as creative agents producing unique works that express a specific intention and subjectivity in relation to a specific context, purpose, and audience. Working in this new setting at Stanford provided an engaging opportunity for these artists to employ the possibilities of New Guinea aesthetic traditions towards the creation of site-specific works and site/landscape designs that address this new physical context and cultural audience. Through this process, the collaboration resulted in concrete expressions that visually challenge the constraining narratives of art/artifact, authenticity/inauthenticity, and primitivism that are often forced onto non-western artists.


The artists hoped this extended on-location carving would allow for significant personal interaction and discussion with the local audience at Stanford. We encouraged this interaction through programs such as:

All these events were open to the general public and people from off-campus were encouraged to participate.

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