In 1967, sponsored by National Geographic, I traversed the island on foot from south to north together with two companions. We followed 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. 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) was finally brought to fruition.