The Anthropology of Creativity in Art 
Ross Bowden
Brunei Gallery - B204
Friday 1 June, 11:30-13:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel will consider creativity in art from a cross-cultural perspective. Detailed consideration will be given to how creativity in art is manifested in indigenous societies and how this is understood by artists and others.

Long Abstract

The topic of creativity raises complex and far-reaching issues in the study of art cross-culturally. For the purposes of this panel 'creativity' refers to the way individuals introduce new motifs and modes of representation to their society's visual repertoire. Creativity in art is arguably found in all societies. But cross-culturally there are radical differences, among other things, in:

(1) the way artists, and others, understand it,

(2) how local understandings affect the treatment of 'art' objects over the longer term,

(3) how it relates to judgments of quality in art, and

(4) how it relates to differences in artists' personal styles.

Speakers are invited to address these or other relevant topics. To keep the session manageable papers will focus on particular societies, mostly indigenous, but speakers are welcome to place their data in wider ethnographic frameworks, including comparisons and contrasts with the modern West. (144 words)

Accepted papers:


Ross Bowden

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines creativity in the art and architecture of the Kwoma of the Sepik River region of northern New Guinea, how artists and others understand it, and some of the implications for the way 'art' objects are treated.

Paper long abstract:

The Kwoma of Papua New Guinea are the source of some of the most distinctive visual art in the Pacific. The speaker will argue that there is probably as much scope for creativity in the art of this society, relatively speaking, as there is in any other, and will provide illustrations. But Kwoma themselves view their art not as the creation of humans but of supernatural beings and consider that all artists do is replicate, with minor variations, the forms spirits created at the beginning of history. Differences between artists in terms of the quality of their achievements are explained not on the basis of personal creativity but technical skill.

This view of art has major implications for how artists and others in this society understand and treat those objects that in the modern West would be called 'art'. This includes how quality in art is judged, why Kwoma lack a term equivalent to 'art', whether or not any effort is made to remember who made particular artworks or preserve the names of the greatest artists, and whether any attempt is made to preserve artworks themselves once they have begun to decay and served the purpose for which they were made.

The speaker will draw out some of the implications of these beliefs for museum practices.


Harry Beran

Paper short abstract:

The question I pose has not been posed before as far as I know. Publications on 'masterpieces' of Oceanic art do not help in answering it. I provide evidence that in the Massim region of PNG there are artworks which display exceptional artist talent.

Paper long abstract:

We can reasonably assume that traditional Oceanic artists producing physical works differed as much in artistic talent as those of other regions of the world. So one can consider the question whether the traditional art practices of some Oceanic regions permitted the expression of exceptional artistic talent. This is a question that needs to be answered for an adequate understanding of any art practice but one which has not previously been posed regarding Oceanic art as far as I know. The next question is whether Western students of this art can recognize works in which exceptional talent is expressed, with or without the help of local informants.

There are a number of publications which present 'masterpieces' of Oceanic art. I argue that they are of little help in identifying works by artists of exceptional talent.

In some parts of the Massim region a distinction is made between master carvers trained in an apprenticeship system and other carvers not so trained. However, I argue that fully-fledged master carvers are not necessarily artists of exceptional talent.

I will present evidence that the traditional woodcarving practice of the Massim region of Papua New Guinea did provide scope for the expression of exceptional artistic talent. However, I propose that the question I pose is more important than the evidence I can offer regarding it from Massim art.


Deborah Waite (University of Hawai'i)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focuses on the image of A'a, Austral Islands and deals with presences as affective entities of any and all sorts that convey a certain visual/physical tangibility contextually recognizable for (and by) socially appropriate viewers.

Paper long abstract:

A dialectic of simultaneous presences operates visually (indexically and iconically) and materially to define the high-ranking social aagency of the figure of A'a from Rurutu Island, Austral island group in Central Polynesia. The image has been thoroughly analyzed, resulting in recently established age (AD 1506-1645), sandalwood material (a somewhat controversial designation from a Polynesian perspective) and suggested evidence for the use of the figure as a coffin (cf. Hooper, Adams, et al (200, 2016). It has been analyzed by Gell as a fractal image having different scales of magnification/minification (Gell 1998). I go beyond Gell to include ritual and material presences found in other arts from Rururtu and Ra'ivavae island, Australs group, Tahiti and Cook Islands to conclude with an ultimate definition of presences as affective entities of any and all socially relevant sorts that convey a certain visual/physical tangibility contextually acknowledged by socially appropriate viewers.