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Malcolm Kirk on the Asmat coast of West Papua (1970)

I was born in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1941, and spent the first seven years of my life there and in India, Malaya (Malaysia), and China. In October 1948, shortly before Mao’s forces entered the city, my parents and I departed Shanghai aboard a passenger-ship bound for the UK.

Between 1949 and 1960 I attended a couple of Scottish boarding schools where the routine included cold baths before breakfast, discipline by caning, instruction in Latin and Greek and afternoon sports to instill team spirit. Meanwhile my parents had returned to the Far East where my father resumed his banking career. Once every three years they were granted a six-month leave to return to the UK.

In 1956, at the age of fifteen, I was rushed to a hospital ward, where I lay for six months encased neck-to-ankle in a plaster cast following a complex spinal fusion. I endured the ordeal thanks to the support of the patient in the adjacent bed. A Canadian in his early forties, he had come to Scotland to direct a play but contracted polio shortly after arriving. He now lay in an iron-lung, destined to spend the remainder of his existence imprisoned in a metal coffin. Despite his fate he maintained an unremitting optimism, which proved infectious. Upon discharging me from hospital the surgeon who had operated on me wrote to my father, “I took the opportunity to warn him not to do anything foolish or to get himself into any dangerous predicament. I think he is the type of person who is liable to try and go one better than anyone else in order to prove that he can do it.”

Shortly before I finished school in 1960 my parents wrote Ralph Barlow, my headmaster, exasperated that I had thus far exhibited no interest in leading any kind of conventional career. His response, which I discovered decades later amongst the memorabilia my mother had kept on me, concluded: “ I know he is difficult (but he) has a great desire to do things. He has this curious restless spirit. I don’t think he will become a rolling stone; indeed, I rather think he may do something good one day. I have a feeling that, if you give him your genuine support, you won’t regret it.”

As it turned out it was not the expensive schooling that determined the future trajectory of my life but rather a fortuitous acquaintance with a true gentleman - in every sense of that word - named Brigadier Gordon Osmaston. He had spent his working life exploring, surveying and photographing many of the great peaks in the Himalayas and closed his career with the distinguished title of Director of the Survey of India. He and his wife subsequently retired to the English Lake District, where they opened their sprawling home to a dozen or so boys and girls whose parents were ‘Out East’ and needed a place to spend their school holidays. Following my hospitalization my parents arranged for me to stay here while I regained strength in my wasted muscles.

Uncle Gordon, as I came to know the Brigadier, instilled in me an enthusiasm for rock-climbing by taking the more adventurous of us to various crags on neighboring mountainsides and leading us up challenging routes clad only in gym-shoes (sneakers) and connected to one another by suspect jute ropes. I am forever grateful for his tutelage and his patience in dealing with my rebellious nature. He continued rock-climbing until the age of 65, when his wife forbade him to risk his life any further.

Such was his modesty that he rarely spoke of his exploits in India until I discovered a cache of his photographs one day and begged him to recount the circumstances under which he had taken them. I was enthralled with his adventures and to learn that he had once accompanied Shipton and Tilman, the legendary climbing duo of the interwar years, whose 1935 reconnaissance of Everest revealed the eventual route to its summit.  His most loyal porter had been a Sherpa man named Tenzing, who – together with Edmund Hillary – duly went on to make that first Everest ascent in 1953. Thanks to his ongoing friendship with Tenzing he acquired for me the autographs of both Tenzing and Hillary, but to my dismay I can no longer find where I put them!

Keen to assuage my parents’ anxiety Ralph Barlow arranged for me to interview with the Goldsmiths’ Company in London for a grant to attend university in Christchurch, New Zealand. Approval came shortly after I left school in 1960, whereupon I procured a berth as sole passenger aboard a cargo ship making a run between Liverpool and Auckland via the Panama Canal. The trip took six weeks, during which time I established new climbing routes up and around the vessel’s superstructure during the daytime, took my dinners at the captain’s table, and on balmy nights slept out on deck beneath the stars. Thanks to both Barlow and the Brigadier I knew now what I truly wanted to do. It was to travel and climb and mingle with fellow restless souls who had tales to recount and adventures to share. Only one minor problem remained – how to achieve such a lifestyle.

Arriving in Christchurch I elected to major in zoology in the belief it might lead to a career in the great outdoors. However I very soon began neglecting my studies, consumed with the urge to climb amongst the Southern Alps. A couple of years later, daunted by the more realistic prospect of employment within the confines of some office or laboratory, I quit university and caught a boat to Australia. After roaming around Tasmania briefly I made my way north to Sydney where I made the acquaintance of a locally-based photographer, who to my amazement was not only travelling the world but actually getting paid to do so! This, I suddenly realised, was the missing element in my life. Following his advice to study photography at a particular London institution I duly boarded a Greek passenger-ship bound for Athens then made my way overland to the UK, where my parents were now based. Unspoken between us was their belief that Barlow had been profoundly mistaken about me. I was indeed a rolling stone, albeit a rather adventurous one.

The comprehensive photography course I enrolled in was scheduled to take four years to complete. At the close of the second year I made an appointment to show my portfolio to the photo-editor of a respected magazine and was ushered into his office anticipating a lengthy appraisal of my images accompanied by some requisite polite praise. Instead he thumbed very quickly through my book before snapping shut the covers and remarking, “You must be from the Regent Street Polytechnic.”

“How do you know,” I asked in astonishment.

“All the work I see from there looks the same,” he responded.

It was time to depart London again.
It was late December 1964 when I arrived in New York, Mecca for every established and aspiring photographer with its myriad of advertising agencies and magazine publishers. I had plans to linger here a brief period before continuing on back to Australia. However while making the rounds of various photographic studios looking for temporary work I was fortunate enough to be hired as an assistant to Irving Penn, the renowned fashion and portrait photographer. But despite the privilege of being employed by Penn it became clear after a few months that I could barely cover my living expenses on a salary of just $50 a week. So when a successful advertising photographer later offered me a more rewarding position in his studio I gratefully accepted.

During my free weekends I became casually acquainted with several of the better-known figures in New York’s art world - individuals such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Jim Dine, Saul Steinberg and Tom Wesselman - who, notwithstanding my inexperience, graciously invited me to photograph them in their studios. Warhol subsequently appropriated my photograph of him to create a series of silk-screened “Self-Portraits”, which now sell to art-collectors for seven or eight figure sums and grace the walls of museums around the world. Nowadays images automatically become copyright of the creator, but then it was necessary to file a form with the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office and pay a fee, which I had omitted to do. It was a vexing experience.

Impatient to embark on a freelance career I self-financed a trip down the Amazon river in 1966, from its source in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. At that time the river attracted few outsiders and the mere mention of its name conjured up visions of piranha-infested waters winding through vast expanses of unexplored jungle inhabited by warlike tribes and menacing wildlife. My gamble paid off because upon my return to New York one of America’s premier travel publications – Holiday magazine – immediately purchased my photographs. It seemed like an auspicious beginning.

Before departing on my Amazon adventure I had approached the National Geographic Society with the hope that its magazine might sponsor my trip, but when requested to produce examples of my previously published work – of which there were none – I was understandably turned down.  Now, following Holiday’s acquisition of my images, I felt emboldened to contact National Geographic again with a proposal to lead a small expedition on foot across the interior of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. This time I was invited to fly down to Washington, DC, to elaborate on my plan, and was elated to receive the Editor’s approval.

My initial 1967 expedition to Papua New Guinea lasted six-months. Along with two companions I traversed the island on foot from south to north, following the Fly River up to its origins in the island’s mountainous spine, before descending the rugged northern flanks to the Sepik River and thence out to the opposite coast.

In those days a handful of young Australian patrol officers – while conducting government census surveys – were still discovering isolated pockets of uncontacted tribes, most notably in the region around Nomad River, a distant tributary of the Fly. Despite ongoing inter-tribal conflict and reports of cannibalism the three of us spent a memorable month amongst them, trekking through the jungle separating their fortified communal longhouses. It was undoubtedly the highlight of that first expedition and despite their feuding and fear of ambush the people accepted our presence with a wary curiosity.

One particular event that I observed there had a major influence on my future work. It was a healing ritual (hobora), which occurred after dark within a cavernous ceremonial house. Flames from a fire on the earthen floor illuminated the magnificently decorated healer, a Samo tribesman named Igaiyo. He carried a drum and wore a fibrous brown kilt beneath a wide belt of tree-bark. His body was intricately painted in yellow, ochre and black and his head was framed by a halo of white cockatoo feathers. A band of marsupial fur covered his forehead and a twin-row of dogs’ teeth adorned his brow. A hollow bone nose-plug protruded through his septum and a slender crescent of gold-lip pearl shell traced the line of his jaw and chin. Upon his chest rested a cowrie-shell necklace, flanked by loops of grey grass seed attached to his ears. The burnt-umber plumage of four birds-of-paradise sprouted from the back of his headdress. Inserted in his armbands were whisks made of palm frond while a more copious bundle of green fronds, tucked under the rear of his belt, cascaded down to his feet. Behind this ensemble arched a tail made of cane, which had a rattle of dried crayfish shells affixed to the end.

An ailing girl sat crouched on the ground by the hearth. Rhythmically beating his drum the healer commenced dancing around her, feet together as he hopped and bowed and ruffled up the feathers and fronds attached to his back. The rattle bobbed in unison with his movements, emitting an eerie rustling sound. It soon became evident that he was mimicking the hypnotic courtship display of the male Raggiana bird-of-paradise, a reclusive denizen of the surrounding forest hunted for its dazzling plumes for ceremonial use. By attaching its feathers to himself and simulating its mesmerizing dance both healer and onlookers believed he had acquired the bird’s power, which he was now employing to cure the girl of her illness.

Until very recently these people had had no contact with the outside world and relied upon resources in the surrounding forest and occasional barter with neighbouring tribes to sustain themselves. In that respect they led a primal existence, but they were not primitive in the misunderstood context of that word. They might appear unwashed and ‘wild’ to the Western eye, wield stone axes, attack one another with bows and arrows, practice cannibalism and believe in witchcraft and spirits, yet here I was witnessing a performance that would impress audiences anywhere else in the world. Their choice of costume and ornamentation, fused with dance and musical accompaniment, evoked a sense of euphoria familiar to all cultures.

It troubled me that only a handful of outsiders would ever witness this event in an authentic setting, and that assimilation with the outside world would ultimately result in its  demise. The thought inspired me to begin documenting examples of self-decoration as practiced by other tribes on the island. Thirteen years later, following six subsequent trips to the island, my book on the subject, “Man As Art: New Guinea,” (Studio Books, Viking Press, 1981) finally came to fruition.

Another memorable experience occurred late one night as I lay asleep in a village hut. I was awakened by an unearthly whirring sound, which varied in pitch and intensity, sometimes close by, then distant and barely audible.  When I enquired about it in the morning the villagers confided I had heard the voices of their ancestral spirits. Only later did I learn that a secret ceremony had taken place overnight, to the accompaniment of a bull-roarer wielded by a shaman. I cursed myself for omitting to bring a tape-recorder with me and made a point of doing so when I next returned to the island.

In 1970, sponsored once again by National Geographic, I flew into the Asmat region on the south coast of West Papua, a flat expanse of sweltering jungle and mangrove swamp intersected by numerous rivers, which originate in the central mountains and snake their way out to the Arafura Sea. Mud permeates the forest floor and extends out thigh deep for a considerable distance beyond the shoreline at low tide.

The Asmat people occupy small settlements strung out along the river banks, their huts elevated on wood stilts to protect them from flooding and potential attack. Their headhunting tradition is related to an affinity with the sago tree - their primary food source - and its similarity to the human body. Legs correspond to tree roots, torso to trunk, arms to branches, while the head is analogous to germinating fruit, ensuring the continuity of life. Each village has its ceremonial bachelors’ house, or jeu, where seated boys periodically undergo initiation into manhood, clasping freshly severed heads between their thighs in their transition to sexual maturity. After undergoing a ritual death and rebirth by submersion in the ocean they subsequently assume the names and physical attributes of the victims, and are even recognized as reincarnations of those individuals by the victims’ own relatives.

The cycle continues unabated when the kin of those killed seek revenge upon the attackers. Tall wood bisj poles, carved with representations of relatives whose deaths must be avenged, are mounted outside the jeu prior to the departure of the raiding party. Following the boys’ initiation the skulls are flayed and used as pillows to ward off the vengeful spirits of the dead when they emerge at night. Cannibalism is a subsidiary aspect of the headhunting ritual, with body parts being distributed to members and relatives of the successful raiding party. Lower jaws are detached from the heads and worn on the killers’ chests as a symbol of prowess, while leg bones are fashioned into daggers engraved with handsome designs.

I spent over three-months amongst the Asmat together with two companions, travelling from village to village in a canoe outfitted with an outboard motor. In the remote headwaters of one river we came across a headhunting party en route to attack a settlement further upstream. I stopped to photograph them until our local guide nervously pointed out that we were in imminent danger ourselves, so we made a hurried departure and continued further upstream to warn the people there of an impending assault. En route back downstream the raiders paddled towards us in their canoes in an attempt to cut us off but we managed to speed past them to safety.

On another occasion I witnessed an elaborate adoption ceremony intended to forge a bond between two rival villages. During the ritual six adults (three men and three women) from one village underwent a symbolic birth before being adopted by members of the other village. Each individual was decorated with strips of palm-leaves and the three females presented with bamboo food-tongs, signifying their obligation to feed their new parents once they came of age. They also wore symbolic umbilical cords fastened to stone axe-heads around their waists.

All the men in the adopting village lay side by side, face down, on the floor of a hut, while the women stood astride them, legs apart, to form a tunnel representing the birth canal. Each infant then crawled through the canal over the mens’ backs, and upon emerging at the other end was hidden beneath a pile of fronds (the placenta) by two elderly women acting as midwives. The midwives then parted the bundle to reveal the newborn infants within and after opening their eyes proceeded to sever the umbilical cords with slivers of sharp shell.

The six infants, now transformed into children, were then escorted outdoors where the men were given toy bows and arrows to practice with. Later still they were paddled out to sea in the canoes of their adoptive parents, and on the return journey were taught the names of the trees and animals they passed along the route. By the time they arrived back in their new home they had matured into adult members of the community.

I also investigated the fate of Michael Rockefeller, who had disappeared here in 1961 during an expedition to collect Asmat woodcarvings. His father, Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York State, organized a major search party, but no trace of him was ever found. I spoke with a Canadian missionary who was there at the time. Reluctant to talk openly he requested that I turn off my tape-recorder before confiding that the locals had informed him Michael was killed by men from Otsjanep village, in payback for the shooting of five of their members by a Dutch patrol officer three years earlier. Two other Dutch missionaries, one of whom had organised the Rockefeller search party, confirmed what he had said. I twice visited Otsjanep myself hoping to uncover additional evidence, only to meet with a hostile reception on both occasions.  
In addition to photographing their rituals and daily lives I made numerous tape-recordings of Asmat songs and oral histories. Some years later I was contacted by the renowned ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax, who asked if he might copy my material saying he was collaborating with the astronomer, Carl Sagan, to compile a record of music representative of all mankind to be beamed into outer space from the Voyager 1 and Voyager 11 spacecraft. As Sagan himself so eloquently described the mission, “Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished … on the distant planet Earth.”  

I never learnt whether an Asmat song was included on either Voyager craft but copies of the recordings I made in New Guinea now reside with the Library of Congress in Washington, DC as part of the extensive Alan Lomax Sound Archive, and with the Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My eighth and final visit to New Guinea occurred in 1985. Over the prior two decades I had been fortunate to receive numerous magazine and occasional advertising assignments that took me far flung locales in almost every corner of the globe. But after being on the move for as many as nine consecutive months my wife encouraged me to settle down and travel together at a more leisurely pace.

On July 4th, 1985 - Independence Day - a real-estate agent brought us to admire the expansive view from a hilltop property in Columbia County, 100-miles up the Hudson Valley from New York City. It took but a few minutes to confirm that we wanted it. The land had recently been farmed and the 26-acre parcel consisted of an abandoned hayfield bordered by woods. The prospect of erecting a house where none had previously existed posed an appealing challenge. If homes and gardens do indeed replicate the personalities and preferences of the individuals who created them then we looked forward to leaving an imprint of our own presence here.

Old barns have an unfathomable allure and since every traditional farmhouse in the surrounding area had at least one adjacent barn such architecture seemed appropriate for our site. In 1987, having inspected numerous different examples, we eventually came across one that had been constructed in the late 18th century by a prosperous  landowner named Deertz, whose forbears had been Lutheran immigrants from Southwest Germany. Unlike barns more common to the region this one was aisled like a church, with a central nave that had served as the threshing-floor. It was a type favored by the early Dutch settlers in contrast to the later monospan structures erected by the British. Relatively few still survive in North America.

We purchased the barn in 1987 and began dismantling the structure’s timber framework in order to clean and make necessary repairs to the two-century old posts and rafters. The following year we re-assembled the frame on our property in Columbia County, some 60 miles (almost 100 kms) away. Since the barn is an historically significant exemplar of its type we felt a responsibility as temporary guardians to retain evidence of its original function and layout, so we proceeded cautiously with the assistance of a talented craftsman. Transforming it into a living space preoccupied us for the ensuing six years.

During that period I began researching the origins of aisled barns and travelled on various occasions through England, The Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium and South Africa in search of early precedents to our barn. The most striking examples I came across had been built by monastic orders, the Cistercians in particular, who owned extensive agricultural estates. They date from the 12th to 14th centuries and the fact that they remain standing is testimony to their robust construction. My book on the subject, “Silent Spaces: The Last of the Great Aisled Barns,” ( Bulfinch Press, Boston, 1994) was published the same year that we moved into the Deertz barn and made it our home.

Although our hilltop location afforded a magnificent vista over the valley beneath we were equally conscious that we lay open to the gaze of everyone below. To lessen our visibility we planted over two hundred oak trees around the perimeter of our property but our desire for privacy called for an additional screen even closer to home.

The solution we decided upon was to create a small garden on the terrace immediately in front of the barn, to serve as an outdoor extension to the living-room behind it. We surrounded it with a waist-high boxwood hedge, which provides the requisite seclusion when we are seated yet affords a view of the landscape beyond whilst standing. We had the option to erect a  stone wall or wooden fence instead, but live vegetation seemed a more fitting choice.

Curious to learn more about the function of boundaries I embarked once again on a series of tours of public and private gardens across Europe and North America. During my travels I came across a work by the English geographer, Jay Appleton. In his book, “The Experience of Landscape,” published in 1975, he argued that the twin requirements of all animal species are for food and security. The most sought-after habitats are those that present hunting or foraging opportunities together with secure places in which to raise offspring or retreat to in moments of danger. Human appreciation of landscape, he suggested, is biologically related to such needs. The most desirable landscapes afford both prospect and refuge. His theory struck me as entirely plausible since this was precisely the motivation that led to the creation of our own enclosed garden.

A few years after “Silent Spaces” appeared my wife and I received an invitation from the Dutch public-art group, Observatorium, to inspect a project it had completed in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. The area’s traditional coal-mines had long-since closed and grants had been awarded to reclaim and beautify the disfiguring slag-heaps left behind. As we drove along the A57 autobahn a familiar profile appeared atop one of the tall heaps ahead of us. It was a full-scale replica in steel of our barn’s timber frame, which the Dutch team had seen and copied from my book.

In its new role it is suggestive of a temple without walls, affording a contemplative sanctuary to passers-by. It is also a tribute to the thousands of impoverished migrants forced by circumstance to depart the region centuries ago in search of a more productive life in America. The sight of our barn transposed back to the Old World and re-defined as a work of public art was a poignant and uplifting experience.

I look back now gratified to have been able to lead the sort of adventuresome life I had yearned for as a schoolboy. My youthful thirst for adventure was stimulated by reading Heinrich Harrer’s account of his “Seven Years in Tibet,” and Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific aboard the “Kon Tiki.” I subsequently visited both Tibet and Easter Island; ruminated amid the ruins of Machu Picchu, Monte Albàn, Tikal,  Angkor Wat, Borobudur, Prambanan, Petra, Abu Simbel, and other lost cultures; stepped back in time within the monasteries of Mount Athos; luxuriated amongst Bali’s temples and rice terraces; trekked around Nepal’s great Himalayan peaks; ballooned over the Swiss Alps and climbed the Matterhorn; roamed the Pacific islands and lived like a castaway on a remote Kiriwina beach; safaried in Africa; caught giant catfish on an Amazon tributary; gazed awestruck at some of the world’s most immense trees in California, Mexico, Tasmania and New Zealand; and wrestled in the heart of New Delhi with an Indian money-changer. Meanwhile I continue to travel up to four months a year, together with my wife.

My work has been published in a variety of magazines and exhibited at museums and art galleries in America, Europe and Australia, but it is particularly rewarding to know that the projects I undertook on my own initiative - ‘Man As Art’ and ‘Silent Spaces’ together with the songs and oral histories I recorded in New Guinea - have been deemed worthy of inclusion in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University’s Avery Library, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Towards the close of our lives we each hope to have made some small contribution to humanity. With acknowledgement to my longtime partner and wife, Bryce Birdsall, for her support and companionship, this is my own legacy.


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