Accepted Paper:

Primeval skins: the smooth and the engraved surface  
Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (University of Göttingen)

Paper short abstract:

The property of the skin of mythical beings, the yam and the crocodile, serve as keynote to which the the Abelam and the Iatmul (Papua New Guinea) continuously produce new aesthetic accords. Artists shape surfaces accordingly: either smooth and bright or engraved. Thus, surface design is a basic aesthetic principle.

Paper long abstract:

Among the Abelam and the Iatmul (Papua New Guinea), there are myths about how the yam and the crocodile respectively created the world. The skin of the yam and the crocodile serve as a keynote to which the Abelam and Iatmul continuously create new accords in different media of expression. Both the yam and the crocodile are conceived as eternal beings. Each generation of men thrive to identify with the primeval yam and crocodile anew by aligning their skin to theirs. The yam – a particular type of ceremonial yam which senior men grow every year – displays a skin “smooth, bright and shining”. It serves as a beauty ideal for the bodies of Abelam men. Smooth and shiny surfaces are also important in other fields of aesthetics, such as the gable painting of ceremonial houses and shellrings. By contrast, the Abelam’s neighbours, the Iatmul, align their (the men’s) skin to the “engraved” skin of the crocodile. According to this visual keynote, which is continuously pulled up to the present, senior men scarify the skin of young men with crocodile patterns. Iatmul artists produce a number of accords all consisting of the interplay between elevated and deepened surfaces (such as carvings). Thus, the Abelam and the Iatmul’s aesthetics differs fundamentally in the way they assess the quality of surfaces. However, they both take the primeval beings and the property of their skins as a visual keynote on which fundamental aspects of aesthetics are based.

This contribution draws on data collected between 1972 and 1983.

Panel P052
Artefacts and visual systems in Oceania and America