The surreal value of a Papua New Guinea statue


New Ireland statue sells for over K7 million and highlights the importance of Papua New Guinean culture and influence on Western Art.

The 140-centimetre Uli statue that was sold by Christie‘s auction house
in Paris.

An historic winning bid of €1.8 million (K7.29 million) for a ceremonial wooden statue has drawn international attention to the significance of New Ireland’s culture and its influence on Western art.

Sold by Christie’s auction house in Paris, the 140-centimetre Uli figure led sales among Papua New Guinean statues, masks and decorative objects in a recordbreaking auction of African masks and Oceanic works of art.

The statue was part of an early 20th century collection by Wilhelm Carl Friedrich Wostrack, a German colonial officer stationed in Namatanai. Other collectors included Franz Boluminski, stationed in Kavieng, who donated more than a thousand Malangan pieces to German museums.

Their boxes of artefacts and wild tales back home helped spread European interest in New Ireland’s art beyond the ethnographers.

The elaborate, multi-meaning sculptures appealed to the Surrealists and
their preoccupation with dreams and worlds beyond reality.
‘Dreams played a key role in the Surrealist philosophy,’ says Christie’s African and Oceanic art specialist, Victor Teodorescu.

‘Surrealists found the confirmation of their own artistic approach, based on the reality of dreams and not on rational thoughts,’ he says. ‘They saw in these sculptures a source of inspiration for the fundamental departure from the Western traditions of rationality and logic.’

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‘The statue was part of a collection by Wilhelm Carl Friedrich Wostrack, a German colonial officer stationed in Namatanai.’

Carvings in the British Museum particularly fascinated Henry Moore, considered one of the most important 20th century artists. Closely connected with the Surrealists, Moore began studying New Ireland sculptures in the 1920s and they became a strong influence on his colleagues.

The movement’s leader, Andre Breton, and other prominent members owned and exchanged New Ireland statues used in funerary and fertility rites.

A century later, New Ireland’s influence continues. Controversial New York artist Jeff Koons melted down a collection of 67 guns owned by Hollywood actor Sean Penn to create Uli – a metal sculpture inspired by an original Uli statue.

According to the story, Penn was persuaded to give up his arsenal about seven years ago, when he was dating fellow Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, an anti-gun activist. (Ironically, she later played Furiosa, the heavily armed War Captain in the Mad Max movie Fury Road.)

Commissioned by Penn, Koons’ sculpture was sold at a charity auction for K4.94 million ($US1.4 million). Not bad, but well short of the real thing.

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