Figure 1: Keram River spirit figures on bark panels. This gable section, approximately 15 feet high (5 meters), was part of the Angoram Haus Tambaran in the 1980s.
Village buildings are framed with log posts and beams lashed together without the use of nails. The bottom posts are stilts elevating the living area above the yearly wet season floods. Roofs are thatched with rows of plaited palm fronds and walled with plaited panels. Floors are made from the bark of the limbom tree which is unrolled in long sheets. Using these techniques, the clans build enormous ceremonial houses, the Haus Tambarans.
Bark paintings are displayed in the gable ends of a Haus and sometimes over the whole ceiling and parts of the walls. The panels, called pangals, are made from flattened pieces cut from the thick sheath end of the sago palm leaf. Pigments are clays, charcoal, powdered lime from shells and paints from the trade store.
The Angoram Haus Tambarans were built by men from many different villages after World War Two as a place to gather, carve and market their artifacts. Angoram is the administrative post for the Sepik River. It sits at the end of one of only three roads that go out through the jungle to this enormous river from the small coastal town of Wewak.
During the 1960s, some of the Keram River men came up to Angoram to work. They also sold their carvings and bark paintings in the Haus Tambaran. The barks illustrating their clan stories were beautiful, but hard to sell since they are difficult to pack and ship. Some of the men began to experiment with other surfaces.
Figure 2: Two bark panels lashed to a cane support. These are tied in sequence to the timber supports that form the gable. Panels may decorate both the inside and the outside faces and sometimes the walls.
Next: Story Boards
Diary entry, 1986: Buying in the Angoram Haus Tambaran
Copyright Carolyn Leigh, 1996. All rights reserved.
The Haus stands on a hot, treeless knoll above the Sepik River, set off from the faded fibro administrative buildings that make up the town center. The peak of the gable towers over 40 feet (13 meters) high.
We back Clem, our green Toyota pickup, into the morning shadows near the front. The flatbed is encased with a big hoop of security weld mesh like a covered wagon. Bom stands on the tailgate, waiting for the action to start. He's worked for Ron since he was a small boy without a mother. He ran errands for 1 shilling each. Now he is our best man, smart, strong and reliable. Plus he knows how to pack the truck so that the carvings don't break.
There is no bubble wrap in the bush. Even bales of old newspaper are expensive and hard to get. We just stack artifacts in like firewood, filling the chinks with smaller pieces, trying to put the more fragile ones on top. If it rains, we have a blue tarp that bungees over the weld mesh.
All our men are from Kambaramba Village. It is a poor village without traditional land of its own, built on stilts over the Sepik upstream from Angoram. Jeremiah is Ron's old boss boy, but he considers himself semi-retired i.e. he'll carry the backpack with the money, but he's not going to carry any artifacts. Sori is our round-faced canoe motorman who reads his Bible, but nicks off a bit of our petrol each trip. Mowanga is a little hunchback who works almost as hard as Bom. James has tattooed his name on his chest using a mirror, so it's backwards. There are always several small boys who help out for a kina each. (The kina then was worth at least 1 US Dollar, sometimes more.)
We climb 7 feet or so (2.5 meters) up the lashed log ladder onto the springy limbom floor.Our eyes try to adjust to the cooler shade inside. Limbom is rolled out in big sheets. Where they lap, or the bark splits, are holes. We watch our step.
The 30 x 70 foot area (10 x 23 meters) is divided down the middle by rows of carvings which continue around the sides and the far end. Boldly painted bark paintings (pangals)from many villages cover the steeply pitched ceiling and the gable ends. Each side post is carved in the distinct style of a different village.
This is not a ceremonial Haus Tambaran, but a place to sell carvings. Like a village haus win, it is a breezy, comfortable place where people can work and socialize. Every village and clan has its own spot. A few men work on their carvings. Some women cluster in the airy space near the front ladder to work jewelry or knot net bags (bilums). In the heavy tropical heat, people doze off, chew betel nut. Children play near their relatives. Dogs curl up in the damp shade under the floor near the smouldering mosquito fire and a big garamut (slit gong drum).
We stroll along the rows of carvings to see what's for sale and to say hello to friends. We can't look too interested in anything or the price goes up. Carvings may have a scrap paper price tag, or a relative may know the starting price, but they can't bargain. We have to wait for the owner to come in. Someone thumps on the garamut to let people know we are here.
There are two big fish. Each about 6 feet long, carved out of kwila (Intsia bijuga), a very heavy hardwood, and priced at 5,000 kina each. They came to a master carver in a dream. After he carved them, he gave a party for them which is the proper thing to do. Now he has to recoup the price of the party when he sells them, or lose face.
(They were beautiful, but we never could buy them at that price. In the mid-90's, we came back to find the old carver had died. His son sold us a smaller fish, but the two big ones were still there, moved under his house after the Haus Tambaran fell down.)
I always like this quiet period with time to visit, see the carvings and take some photos in the morning cool. Looking out the back over the town, I watch people crowding to the morning market. Beyond, the Sepik snakes in a wide, calm band of muddy water. A few dugout canoes glide in from the settlement across the way.
We always act as if we might not buy much this time: business hasn't been good, we still have a lot of those masks left from when we bought before, etc. They always say no one has been coming to buy: the big tour boat came last week, but the tourists didn't buy much, "One, one, that's all." Ron casually asks a price here and there, gives out a few cigarettes to some of the Big Men coming up.
They are impatient. Big Men talk strong. Gawi jabs at a row of masks laid out on the floor with his cane. "You like them?" It takes hours to buy this whole place, they tell us, so get going.
Ron casually returns to a man with a group of masks close to the price he wants to pay. There is a rhythm to buying artifacts. Each piece has to be first priced, countered with a number two price and maybe a third, last price. If they agree, it's turned face down in a sold pile off to one side. Then they do the next one. Sometimes similar ones are grouped together. Size seems to determine the carver's asking price more than complexity.
Ron runs the total tally up in his head as he goes along. Usually there is a man who helps check the math, sometimes with a calculator. When everyone agrees on the total, Ron takes the first roll of kina out of the backpack. He counts the notes and lays them down so everyone can see.
The carver checks that it's right, then picks them up. Mowanga and his helpers move in to carry the masks out to the truck. Each carver and each piece is done this way. It gets very intense.
(In those days, we carried cash. Sometimes we took 5,000 kina at a time into the jungle. We would make up rolls of 20, 10, 5, and 2 kina notes of about 200 kina each and stash them in different places in our truck and canoe. Now because of the crime, we write checks. That means the carvers have to go to town to cash them, a long way by canoe and truck. It's dangerous for them, too.)
Suddenly there's a mob of people pushing up against us to see what the prices are. The carver has to decide. Should he sell a lot to Ron at lower prices, or wait for that person who might buy one piece for the higher, tourist price?
Ron buys from several men to establish his prices, then we walk back to the front of the Haus and start working our way down one side at a time. This makes everyone on the other side nervous. They know we might get tired, run out of money or fill up the truck before we get to them. Now that the word is out that we are buying, more people are hurrying up with their carvings, pushing in to get a space. We try to buy at least something from everyone, both to be fair and because it's hard to leave easily if too many people are cranky at us.
There are hundreds people in the Haus by now. The floor shakes. The noise level surges up. It's hot. Everyone pushes around us to watch. Sometimes we quit buying until the Big Men clear the crowd enough for our loaders to get through and keep up. If we move on and leave a sold pile, it might not make it out to the truck.
After a couple of hours, we take a break for tepid water, warm Fantas and bickies (cookies) from the trade store. Later, it's a quick lunch of tinned corned beef with crackers washed down with canned pineapple juice.
Back to work. It's exciting even when we are soaked with sweat. Sometimes, an unusual piece appears, or an innovative one, or just someone who has done an extra nice job of carving. Whatever we buy, Mowanga and crew patiently carry it out. Bom works under the hot afternoon sun, wedging the carvings into the truck.
It is tricky business to maintain some control and still keep moving along at a good pace. There are only two of us. Ron bargains, his voice getting hoarse as the hours wear on. I help check the totals, peel the correct bills out of the rolls, watch to make sure that the carvings go out to the truck. Everyone gets so excited because there are so few opportunities to make money. The men we buy from early on sometimes go to the bar, get drunk and threaten to start fights.
We try to finish in one day. Often we drive to a friend's place on the road out, so that we don't have to worry about any later arguments in town. Someone might sell a piece that isn't theirs, or decide it sold for too low a price, but it's worry belong them, not us. Once a piece is sold, it has to go in our truck for good. No second thoughts or we would be unloading the whole lot.
Most of the time, all goes well. We spend lots of kina. They sell lots carvings. Everyone gives a big round of applause when we finish.Bom discreetly closes the tailgate and climbs into the last niche in the back, his bush knife handy just in case anyone is cranky or drunk. I take the backpack and the truck keys, casually walk over to the passenger side, get in, but don't close the door yet. Ron gives out the last cigarettes to the Big Men, advances some money to our crew to hold them until payday and hands the little boys their kina. He gets in. We close the doors, locking them with our elbows so we don't look rude, give a final wave back to the people remaining around the Haus and take off down the rutted road out.
1997: It was hard work and a lot of fun buying in the Angoram Haus Tambaran, but nothing lasts long in the tropics. When the Haus fell down, the PNG National Museum gave money to build it back, but the money went missing. A new building is up, but it is just a haus win. There are no carved posts, no painted pangals and the sense of community has gone finish.
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