Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Arthur Beau Palmer

Ethno Essay 15.

"On comprend enfin que les especes naturelles ne sont pas choisies parce que "bonnes a manger" mais parce que "bonnes a penser."

(We understand in the end that natural species are chosen (for totemic association) not because they're "good to eat" but because they are good to think with, good to ponder on).

In the Mutuaga corpus of master carvings, discovered to date, there are some 25 lime spatulas and four staff finials identified as having handles decorated with a pig figure. Few of these zoomorphic figures appear to display critical specific features associated with pig anatomy nor any general overall resemblance to pigs. This review proposes a revision of both the current generic pig design classification and the Mutuaga naturalism style intent. A number of local Massim fauna are closely matched to features in the Mutuaga carvings to identify those native animals more likely represented in these carvings. For a detailed analysis of the congenital deformities present in Mutuaga human figure corpus see previous Ethno Essay No.14. Full biography of Mutuaga the 19th. Century Massim Master Carver see Beran 1996. Mutuaga was active as a carver from the late 1870s to approximately 1920, with a known corpus of some 130 + works, although the actual number may be many times greater. Sir Cecil Able states in his introduction to Beran that Mutuaga must have sold a great many carvings to visitors passing through the Suau passage. His carving style became increasingly naturalistic over this period. All photos of Mutuaga pieces used in this essay courtesy of Harry Beran.

If we are accepting of Beran’s self evident classification of Mutuaga’s formal style of carving (sculpture) as naturalism (Realist) then fig. 1.96 Plate 130 below is readily interpreted as a pig.
The carving looks like a pig and has a number of pig anatomical features i.e. cloven hooves, pig snout, oval piggy eyes (not round nocturnal marsupial eyes), thick pig body conformation with minimal neck head link and a pig’s tail.
If it is possible to identify a Mutuaga naturalistic carving as a specific animal, in this case a pig, and also recognise the highly stylised ubiquitous Massim (frigate?) bird motif when added as a decorative component to these spatula handles, then ipso facto, the other carved fauna which do not possess pig like features must be other species specific portrayals of native mammals or purely imaginary freaks.
If there is a rule anywhere then the rule is everywhere .CLS.

PNG pig possibly reluctantly involved in feast preparation.


As in the Mutuaga pig sculpture (Plate 103) PNG Village pigs overtly display those physical traits which are faithfully and realistically portrayed in the carvings. Body shape bulk and conformation, legs, hooves, tail straight or kinked, eye and ear position all accord. Long tapering muzzle behind the snout


Pigs were first domesticated in Papua New Guinea some 10,000 BP., several thousand years before Europe or elsewhere in the World. Pigs play a significant role in Papuan village daily life, economy, social, ceremonial & ritual. (See References for full link to PNG Pig prehistory paper - domestication in Papua & spread to rest of World).
However the pig motif is not well represented in Melanesian art forms with the exception of pig tusks as both body adornment & nose pieces in Sepik masks. Pig-snouted pottery on the Sepik and Iatmul over modelled pigs’ heads. Basketry masks from the Maprik , Malagan mask from New Ireland are infrequently in pig head form. Also large full pig body basketry works are made in the Sepik. Pig tusk symbols appear in Asmat art. Pig motifs are generally unusual in New Guinea decoration for drums, masks, shields, canoe splashboards , flute-stoppers, bag hooks etc. Birds, fish, crocodiles, snakes - yes and often. Pigs hardly ever. It is possible that because the pig is a significant capital item, which plays a vital ceremonial and economic role in serious matters such as dispute settlement and marriage arrangements, the avoidance of realistic images is deliberate. This prohibition would avoid any possible supernatural sanctions and the pay back repercussions for the carvers’ clan should the village pig population suffer future loss or pestilence. It is unknown if pigs are totemic on the same level of relationship as local native fauna. If not this may be a further reinforcement of the capital trade economic status of Papuan domestic village pigs which would effectively prohibit such totemic monopolisation.


And whether pigs have wings. Lewis Carroll
Following plates & titles are from Beran 1996.
In Beran (113) it is noted that other writers on this subject have identified the animals carved on these lime spatula handles as Cuscus (possum) in Haddon 1894,p.210, & Douglas Newton 1975, 111. 15.
Crocodile by Chauvet 1930, Dog by Frith in 1936 & Bandicoot by Sir Cecil Ables to Beran in 1988. Only Black catalogued pig for an unknown reason. Ables identified Bandicoot for the obvious reason that the animal looked more like a bandicoot than any other. He later changed this interpretation, not on a revised taxonomy but on the basis that on reflection he considered the pig to be more important for Suau culture. So for 90 years Sir Cecil thought of these carvings as representing a bandicoot. There appears to be no record of Mutuaga identifying the animals he was carving in the new realist style – perhaps he considered, that naturalism as an art form dictates that the object was meant to look like the subject, it required no great explanation? What you see is what you get.

Revised taxonomy & associated discussion are in red

Plate 72
. Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in stance on tip toe, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face.
Plate 73. Quoll (or pet possum, bandicoot) . Over sized hands unusual for Mutuaga. Pearched on top of owner head normal traditional Papuan position for carrying climbing pet. Dogs & pigs carried across back or draped over neck. Plate 74. Quoll (or pet possum, bandicoot). Plate 75. Dog/Quoll (or pet possum,bandicoot).

Plate 44
. Banieva bowl. Pig realistically carved – snout, head, ears, eyes.
Rolled hind legs reverse of Mutuaga figures?

Plate 104-110
. All of the above (carved mammals appear to display zero pig like features. These creatures possess a distinct neck ( pigs have thick neck) (the architectural decoration bridging the shoulder to back of head is discussed later),cuscus/quoll type ears, long thin bandicoot type nose & limbs, clawed /rolled paws not cloven hooves, a long prehensile tail roll as opposed to a pig kink or straight tail. Round nocturnal marsupial eyes

Most notable is that pigs do not lie or crouch in this position with feet/legs tucked up. Pigs normally stretch out on their side either in a wallow depression or on flat ground. The crouch as portrayed in these carvings is more typical of a quoll, bandicoot or dog crouch. Kim Akerman notes that Pigs on Japanese netsuke often shown sleeping with legs tucked beneath them.

The snout/nose decoration of a frigate bird (or pigeon, osprey – Beran p 118)(plate 104, 105, 106, 109 & 110.) is a possible indication that the main animal portrayed is a carnivore or scavenger (eg quoll). Possums also make a bird like tree nest so this may be representative of a traditional Massim taxonomical similarity between bird & mammal not existent in European science or cognition. From a design perspective this decorative feature appears to directly extend from the upper lip or tongue & in two cases (106, 110) from the lower lip as a double motif. All have a decorative design element which appears as a laid back crest which bridges from the back of the head to the shoulder top. This may be a structural element to strengthen the architecture of the thin neck or may have Massim local cultural significance. As a form following function dictate none of these decorative elements particularly lend themselves to a smooth comfortable ergo dynamic easily manipulated spatula handle form. This alone is indicative of a cultural imperative for this decoration rather than a functional dictate perhaps. It has been suggested that the more decorative exaggerated rolling scroll frieze on the snout top and bottom of some examples may represent the large prominent whiskers of nocturnal quoll and bandicoot species. (See examples 31, 43.)

Plate 115. Banieva (Flying Fox Totem). A crouching creature perched on a branch structure appears to display zero pig like features. This mammal has large nocturnal bandicoot ears, long thin bandicoot type nose & limbs, clawed paws not cloven hooves, a long prehensile tail. Male? Scrotum under tail.
A marsupial with curled tongue licking a frigate bird. Rolled prehensile tail. Rolled paws. Prominent back bone ridge.

Pate 117
, Dicephalus marsupial monster. Possible foetal deformed monster. Second small head is joined to shoulder/ spine by lower & upper extended jaw. Main head has long folded tongue protruding from mouth back along full length of nose. Reverse head undershot lower jaw. Small under developed legs & paws. Prominent back bone ridge. The role and significance of human and animal physical & intellectual deformity as direct links to the supernatural (spirits and ancestors) in traditional Papuan society may be a factor of artistic intent.

Plate 101
. Male quoll like body, long tail & head. Defined neck & large scrotum.

Plate 102. Ring tail possum type animal. Defined neck sans bridge decoration.
Plate 103. Rolled feet & tail. Nose decoration upper & lower jaw. Bandicoot type. Foetal abnormality? Small underdeveloped limbs. Frigate bird decorative nose freize.


The New
Guinean Quoll (Dasyurus albopunctatus), also known as the New Guinea Quoll or New Guinea Native Cat, is a carnivorous marsupial mammal native to New Guinea. It is the second largest surviving marsupial carnivore of New Guinea Quolls feed on a large range of prey including birds, rats and other marsupials, small reptiles and insects. They are reported to feed on prey larger than themselves. They are good climbers but also spend time on the forest floor. Although nocturnal, they spend the daylight hours basking in the sun. They nest in rocky banks, hollow logs or small caves. Because they are known to scavenge, persecution by humans may be putting pressure on the population. They also face predation and competition from introduced species such as dogs, cats and foxes.

The New Guinean long-nosed bandicoots (genus Peroryctes) are members of the Peramelemorphia order. They are small to medium sized marsupial omnivores native to New Guinea.

Ccuscus genus Phalanger , centred in New Guinea and extending south to the rainforest of Cape York, east to the Solomon Islands and west to Sulawesi (Celebes). It has a flat face, short ears and dense woolly fur on the body and limbs; its long prehensile tail is naked and scaly for most of its length. Most
cuscuses are large animals, about 60 cm (24 in) long, not counting the tail. They nest in hollow trees. The best known cuscus is P. maculatus , the spotted cuscus, which is chiefly creamy white in colour, with spots of chestnut and black on the back and with grey or reddish legs.

Plate 126. Head unpiglike. Nocturnal eyes. Rolled tail. Foetal abnormality?
Plate 127. Possum or Quoll head, paws & tail. Nocturnal eyes.
Plate 128. Head unpiglike. Paw or hoof? Rolled tail. Nocturnal eyes.
Plate 129. Quoll crouching. Nocturnal eyes. Grasping paws. Quoll tail and scrotum

Plate 151. Young clinging to belly typical of possum family.
late152. Praying Mantis. (Totemic Association).
Plate 153. Tree Kangaroo in defensive posture? European Pussy Cat?
Goodfellow's Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi goodfellowi)


Mutuaga carved one perfect pig, however to extend this pig clade to any of the other known Mutuaga mammal carvings of his Realist corpus requires an unsafe leap of faith and misplaced imagination which cannot be justified . On the physical evidence o the carved animal figures anatomical features the irresistible conclusion is that all display many of those key elements which naturalistic sculpture of local native mammals would portray. Equally clear is that the decorative elements are not full explained and that we are yet to know the whole story and traditional meaning of Mutuaga’s intent. Totemic association of the traditional carvers to local native fauna, particularly mammals, is a possible explanation for the subject animals represented in the realistic sculpture from the Suau region during Mutuaga’s time.

Beran, Harry. 1996. Mutuaga .A Nineteen- Century Master Carver. Wollongong. Wollongong University Press.
Brodsky, Isadore. 1943. Congenital Abnormalities, Teratology and Embryology: Some evidence of Primitive Mans’ Knowledge as Expressed in Art & Lore in Oceania. The Medical Journal of Australia. May 8 ,1943. P.417-429. Sydney NSW.
Lewis Carroll The Walrus and The Carpenter ( Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
Pig Pre History PNG link:

THANKS Kim A Akerman, Dr Ross Ainsworth, David Said, Dr Brenda Presson Bush.

Striped Possum: Dactylopsila trivirgata.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Essays in Ethnography No.14

Dedication for Dr. Isadore Brodsky (1905– 1975) the clinical collector par excellence.

Arthur Beau Palmer. July 2010.

Abstract: A significant number of Mutuaga anthropomorphic Massim carvings in the naturalism (realist) style, when subject to justified medical examination & diagnosis, display a range of recognisable human medical conditions & physical deformity. Evidence is presented and examined that may suggest Mutuaga’s primary consideration for the adoption of naturalism was to accurately depict such abnormality traits & that the development of this realism style allowed for deliberate portraiture of identifiable individuals within a Massim social & cultural context. Data suggesting that this is not atypical of Melanesian intent & purpose in art & other aspects of Mutuaga’s creative drive & influences are discussed.

Harry Beran, in his bench mark Entho Art book on master carver Mutuaga (1860-1920s), & other sculptors of Massim naturalistic figure lime spatulas, casts aside the 'veil of anonymity that usually hides individual nineteenth-century Melanesian artists' (Beran. 1) & asks a very pertinent question.

Why did Mutuaga decide to depart so radically from the established traditional Massim stylised iconography & introduce his naturalistic realist style art form to depict human (anthropomorphic) & animal (zoomorphic) figures?

The answer is unlikely to be simply so Prof Beran could positively attribute Mutuaga’s creative hand to Massim masterworks with some certainty 80 years on.

Beran notes that the degree of naturalism in Mutuaga’s anthropomorphic carvings is unusually high (op cite,129) & that he may have created his personal style by increasing the degree of naturalism above that of other contemporary 1880 -1920 carvers to create his masterpieces. Beran further observes (p13) The naturalism style indicates the musculature of the limbs, the anklebones, the bony prominence of the ulna near the wrist joint ( the ulna prominence), the vertical grove between nose & upper lip ( philtrum), the groove the runs down the middle of the back (spinal sulcus).

Additional to this list of significant features are; tongue, bellybutton, nipples, teeth, pierced septum, eyebrow ridges, prominent eyes & genitalia.

Mutuaga was active as a carver from the late 1870s to approximately 1920, with a known corpus of some 120 works, although the actual number may be many times greater. Able states in his introduction to Beran (.x) Mutuaga must have sold a great many carvings to visitors passing through the Suau passage. His carving style became increasingly naturalistic over this period.

Brodsky 1943 Paper

In 1943 Dr. Isadore Brodsky published a small, tightly argued seminal justified diagnostic paper in the Medical Journal of Australia; Congenital Abnormalities, Teratology and Embryology: some evidence of primitive Man’s Knowledge as expressed in Art & Lore in Oceania. Brodsky identifies various medical conditions as the subject for artefacts from this region and argues that considerable traditional medical knowledge and skill existed pre contact.

Brodsky had been a young medical doctor on Burns Philp ships in remote districts of Papua including the Massim before the WW11 & was an avid collector of Melanesian artefacts (the Brodsky collection was acquired by the Palmer family after his death). Brodsky had a narrow database of examples from any one area; however his artefacts are stylistically representative of each region.

Amongst other illustrations of artefacts used in this paper which purport to show medical conditions, including New Zealand Maori, (wry neck) Solomons (conjoined twins), New Ireland (dicephalus congenital abnormality & child birth) & Dutch New Guinea (child birth), is a small Massim figure .

This figure is described by Brodsky as: Carving from Fife Bay, Papua, Australian Museum Collection E 27502. (Figure IV & V)

Brodsky Figure IV &V Beran Plate 90 & 91.p231

“Collected by Capt. W. H. Steele, of the London Missionary Society ‘s Steamer John Williams, and was presented to the Museum by Mrs. S.A. Steele in 1923. The carving has been made in wood, the subject being human. The length is eight inches. The attitude of the figure especially the oblique antero-lateral view, the facial expression & the deformed right wrist, are the interesting features.

The Fife Bay carving arouses interest for more than one reason. The right hand shows the condition of club hand, which may be either congenital or acquired. I regard it as an example of the congenital type because of coincidental abnormalities – namely, short right humerus ( as compared with the left), and idiotic expression and stance, which with the protruding tongue may be taken as collateral evidence of cretinism, itself an abnormality of the thyreoid gland.”

Neither Brodsky nor The Australian Museum in 1943 were aware that this figure had been carved by Mutuaga.

This same figure appears in Beran p. 231 Plate 90. Human Figure with recessed eyes by Mutuga. Nose damaged. (1.68) Notable is that the figure Plate 91 alongside also displays a clear case of what Brodsky would have described as bilateral (both) club hands.

Present Justified Medical diagnosis identifies that both figures display Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, bent knee toed in stance, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face.

This recent Etho medical reassessment has dictated that changes to Brodsky’s diagnostic observations are necessary. These are made on the basis of a constellation of physical manifestations in a large number of other Massim figures pointing to more specific diagnoses of the deformities Brodsky identified in this one example.

Brodsky’s club hand deformity /cretinism diagnosis has now with more certainty, in conjunction with the other symptoms evident in several additional carved figures, been attributed to cerebral hypoxia causing spastic diplegia.

The finding of cretinism is unsafe & more accurately diagnosed as congenital cerebral insult identified as consistent with a range of evident collateral physical manifestations presented in these figures. Neither this figure nor any of the other known Mutuaga works display enlarged thyroid. The Suau enjoy an Island/Ocean economy, so an iodine rich fish diet makes “cretinism” highly unlikely.

Brodsky’s symptom identification was correct but the diagnosis has subsequently changed & the database has expanded, as has medical terminology & clinical assessment.

Of the figures illustrated in Beran’s Mutuaga opus there are fourteen (14) anthropomorphic carvings which appear to display the club hand condition as identified by Brodsky.
Of these twelve (12) are most clearly observable & readily identified by present day qualified orthopaedic medical interpretation as a physical deformity. Some figures display multiple physical clinical symptoms of disease in what is described as a constellation of physical manifestations of cerebral insult and spastic diplegia.

Obviously since Brodsky’s 1943 observations there have been advances in clinical diagnosis and club hand is now regarded as a lay term. At the time Brodsky may have deliberately chosen this terminology to reach a wider audience despite publication in a medical journal?
Nine (9) figures display the bilateral (both hands club) condition – Seven (7) are attributed to Mutuaga and two (2) possibly carved by Banieva.

Medical opinion is that bilateral club hands (both hands) are most commonly congenital i.e. abnormality developed in utero & present from birth.

A further five (5) figure show unilateral club hand type condition. Mutuga carved four of these examples and one (1) is by the Master of the Zigzag scroll.

Unilateral club hand may be congenital or acquired later in life through injury or disease.
Beran (1996) attributed thirty-one anthropomorphic lime spatulas to Mutuaga.
As of March 2010 another eleven have been located (Beran Sothebys 2010).


The methodology for the current reassessment of Brodsky’s initial observations of one figure the & general survey of Mutuaga’s published catalogue was straight forward. Experienced medical practitioners, some with a background in Melanesia, went through the Beran book un briefed, save the instruction that the works were realistic. All were asked to comment on any medical abnormalities or observable symptoms presented in each figure.


No.1 Cretinism. (Unlikely due diet) Plate 90 Brodsky 1942.
No.2 Prominent Eyes. (Goitre? Graves disease) Plates 16-19.
No.3. Macrocephalic. (Proportion differential may be Children not adult or stylistic)
No.4 Microcephalic. Plate 56, 40, 22, 23, 24.
No.5 Small low Forehead. (Atypical of local population). Plate 69.
No.6. Flat face. Dysmorphic Features. Plate 50, 51.
No.7. Cerebral palsy? Hand Contractions. Plate 68, 40.
No.8 Bent knee stance. Tip Toe stance. Toe pointing in. Plate 40,
No 9. Unorthodox squat Position. Plate 68.
No. 10. Prominent Nipples. ( Plate 26, 50, 84.). Male (graves disease) or Female Plate 80?
No.11. Hydrocephalic. Plate 26.
No.12. Spina bifida. Plate 61 & 88.
No.13. Protruding Tongue. (oral projection Plate 12, 13.) Plate 56, 89,90.
No.14 Heavy Raised Eyebrow Ridges. (Atypical of local population). Plate 79,56 Beasley Drummer.
No.15 Club Hands (lay term – specific Spastic diplegia due constellation of combined symptoms)
No.16 Down Syndrome Trisomy 21.
No 17 Hypochondroplasia Dwarfism . Plate 26.
No.18 Dysmorphic face. Plate 94, 96,98.
No.19 Conjoined twins. Plate 85.
No.20 Spastic diplegia Plate 40, 68,72.(cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage)
No. 21 Head Ache Forehead band? Plate 17.
No.22 Circumcision. Plate 81.
No.23 Genetic inbreeding. Plate 29
No.24 Pronounced frontal nasal protuberance. Plate 29

Beran Figures Plate 87, 88, 89 Spina bifida colour plate

Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage) 89, Cerebral palsy 89 , Spina bifida 88 & colour plate, Microcephalic 87, 88 89, small low atypical forehead 87,89, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance 87,89, short legged bent knee toed in stance on tip toe 88, protruding tongue 89, Dysmorphic face 87,88. , Hypochondroplasia Dwarfism 88, anxious hand to lower face position – intellectual disability 87.

Now aware of another thirty-four Mutuaga carvings discovered since publication of Beran (1996). (Beran pers com).

Photos of these new figures indicate that nine display clear clinical physical deformity consistent with all the above and will be discussed in a separate paper.


Mutuaga was disabled. Able describes Mutuaga walking with a stout shoulder high stick because one leg was shorter than the other, but in spite of his ungainly up & down gait had no difficulty walking (Beran x).

A limp significant enough to make a lasting impression on a small girl and to be later remembered clearly as an old lady some 60 years on. Sir Cecil Able’s sister, Badi Smeeton, “remembers Mutuaga well as a famous carver with a limp” ( Beran p16).
Like wise, Weibo another elderly informant of Beran’s in the 1980s recalled Mutuaga’s limp & date of death as significant.

This indicates Mutuaga’s condition was pronounced & permanent - not a temporary injury or passing lameness. It is not possible to determine if Mutuaga’s disability was congenital (e.g. club foot?) or acquired (injury?). Given that his art largely became a medium for expressing congenital deformity the limp was probably not due to an accident.

Curiously Mutuaga’s nick name, Oitau (carved man) does not seem to directly reflect any disability or remarkable physical trait. Most obviously this is an acknowledgement of his art form, although it may refer to a stiffness of his lower limb as in his creations? There are no know articulated limb sculpture from this region, nearest is the Solomons.

Beran suggests Mutuaga’s nick name Oitau has biblical association as in the second commandment “You shall not make a carved image for yourself” (p.27) when translated into local Suau.

As Mutuaga ‘s carving of naturalistic human figures was encouraged by the missionary Charles Able from 1891 on, this may be a source of some irony if so(p17). Also Weibo claims Mutuaga did not adopt Christianity (18) but was not a sorcerer (19).

All this needs to be weighted against other evidence & the scope of this paper is to place & attribute influence for & intent in the development of Mutuaga’s realism style. Carving human form figures in this society at this time was not to be taken lightly. The potential for sorcery and malevolent magic would have been a very grave matter and a cause for serious concern. It is notable that none of Mutuaga’s figures have sorcerer’s hats as do other more stylised carvings by his peers (Beran Plates 3 & 4 p196).

Quiet a few of the other local peer group carvers’ nick names do indicate & directly relate to physical disabilities or perceived peculiarities & not their work.

Beran (p23) records a carver Togoanina nicked named Nimabu’u (short hand) due to the fingers on at least one hand being abnormally short from birth. Also known as Nimabu’u (short arm) or Daelo (unbalanced) was Taulelegi ,another carver of the Flying Fox Clan , who had his right arm amputated after a tree fall.

Banieva the only carver from Mutuaga’s generation was called Tauseuseuli (Lefthander).
Ninia Saidaeva was called Diki after Europeans had called him so (p22). Begs the question, Dicky what ? Dicky knee perhaps?

This is a fair indication that remarkable physical aspects of an individual, in this case disabled creative carver members of group, were deemed worthy of a personal linguistic marker denoting & possibility even celebrating a disability. So to perhaps disability was equally raised to a significant element in Massim plastic realist art?

The history of Justified Medical diagnosis of art works as an of offshoot of Fine Art , science , history & ethnography has involved some spectacular leaps of faith & pronouncements followed by additional research producing embarrassing retractions.

Prime recent example would be best illustrated by Adam Gross
Institute of Forensic Medicine, Collegium Medicum, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland

“When a physician casts his professional eye to examine individuals portrayed by various artists, sometimes weird ‘diagnostic conclusions’ are formulated and published [1–5]. Hence, the literature reports spectacular ‘medical diagnoses’, such as the one where a maxillofacial surgeon ascribed the cause of the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa to an alleged past injury of her upper jaw and teeth, while an anaesthesiologist regarded the wound in the neck of a nymph portrayed by Piero di Cosimo as the first illustration of a tracheotomy [3, 4].

The same type of ‘justified medical diagnoses’ is represented by the detection of a malignant tumor involving the left breast of La Fornarina by Raphael [1], the left breast of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba [2] and the left breast of one of the ‘Three Graces’ – the one situated in the extreme right – in the painting by Paul Rubens [3]”

Inconveniently for the dire belated diagnosis all these women were identified & their fates, long & happy lives, reasonably documented. One outlived the portrait painter by 30 years.

Gross concludes;” seen from this viewpoint, the survival time of these three women with ‘neoplastic disease’ living in the 16th and 17th centuries rules out the validity of such
a ‘medical diagnosis’ based on the analysis of their portraits.”

There are fortunately other ethno medical studies with great impact & scientific validity.
The Robertson (Anthro), Scandizzo’s ( Med) analysis Physical Deformities in the Ruling Lineage of Palenque, and the Dynastic Implications .

Also this years travelling exhibition ; DYNASTY AND DIVINITY: IFE ART IN ANCIENT NIGERIA Organized by the Museum for African Art, New York , are excellent examples of important medical analysis of ethic art and the contribution this makes to accurate structural interpretation of the traditional society & culture.

Brodsky’s background position on the medical evidence for the Mutuaga figure differs significantly from most Ethno Medical studies in some important respects.
As a medico he had some first hand experience with the Massim region, the people & disease at a time of developing early contact with Europeans pre WW11.
Brodsky was a knowledgeable collector with a very fine clinical eye. His interest in Ethno medicine includes his 1938 paper on the Trephiners of Blanch Bay New Britain – the surgical efforts of the native “healers” of New Britain are justly entitled to recognition & admiration. Brodsky expanded upon Parkinson’s 1907 Thirty years in the South Sea section on trepanation directly with traditional surgeon. His summation – the Toli were conducting brain surgery with a higher level of success than their London counterparts. Brodsky was also well ahead of his time in terms of his disposition to & respect for traditional peoples.

Mutuaga’s works are 3 dimensional contemporary realist sculpture with explicit depiction of limb & extremities bone structure, conformation & proportion as noted by Beran.
There is no suggestion they are medical dolls however naturalism as a style by definition is realist in intent & Brodsky relied on a similar assessment of style.

He has applied a medically educated clinical eye for diagnostic analysis of the related elements evident in this one figure; however he did not have access to any other examples of Mutuaga or other Massim carvers.

Likewise the other regional examples chosen by Brodsky are graphic & he has drawn no long bows in interpreting nor in attempting to analysing enigmatic encoded stylised technique as manifestations of physical illness. His retraction in this paper, attributing the Maori He Tiki exaggerated head tilt style to the condition Wry Neck (congenital muscular torticollis), can now be regarded as unnecessarily cautious.

Beran Plate 40 p.211

Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in stance on tip toe, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face. (Why European chair?).

In the preparation of this paper, during July -Nov 2010, to re assess Brodsky’s observations of the one Mutuaga figure available to him, several medical opinions have been sought. To broaden the data base all figurative works by Mutuaga in Beran & other sources were interrogated as photographs of each work. Some of the doctors who looked through & commented on each piece of the Mutuaga corpus are also client collectors of Melanesian ethnographic pieces & familiar with the Massim realist style.
Given Mutuaga’s style is accepted as realism there is general contemporary medical consensus & agreement with Brodsky’s 1943 diagnosis & interpretation i.e. that the conformation & bone structure of the lower arm together with the fold back curled hand is indicative of deformity.

Sculpture of power beauty & meaning

La vraye science et le vray etude de l'homme, c'est l'homme.
The true science and study of man is man.
Pierre Charron De la Sagesse, 1601

As a traditional Suau, Mutuaga did not think as a European any more that his patron, mentor missionary Ables, thought as a Papuan. The production of human figures in the realist style, a radical departure from the traditional Massim stylistic design, would have not been lightly undertaken by Mutuaga. Even with Ables support & protection, Mutuaga would have sought & been offered sanction by other senior members of his language group. The Massim Suau was then & now a society where there is no death or sickness without politics & blame, no action without consequences, no obligation without reciprocity and no art without meaning - menace or protection.

Mutuaga would have been very much alive to the edginess & risk of his new art in the realist style. How he managed this transition & conducted himself & family safely through the potential threat is a testament to his stature & diplomacy skill. Also indicative of his unlikely position as a sorcerer & therefore not considered a threat? None of his figures have sorcerers’ hats.

It is axiomatic that without the artist’s personal statement on these issues, any pronouncement is relatively speculative but not altogether unsafe if supported by the pieces.

All research theories rely on clues linked by gossamer threads, firmed up or destroyed by particular knowledge, additional information & interpretation.
Pull the bow back too far or too hard & the string snaps.

Conclusions can be arrived at if the works have been created in a manner that precluded total esoteric idiosyncratic enigma (something belong him) & provides sufficient evidence to sway the balance of probability, in a raft of possibilities, to one side.

Such is the case with the Mutuaga figures.
Based on the premise that Mutuaga’s style is naturalism or realism there exists an opportunity for legitimate analysis, interpretation & derivation.
The paradox would be the unlikely suggestion that Mutuaga produced work without meaning.

The desire to caricature: Realism v/s artistic licence?

and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.Duke of Wellington 1769 - 1852
Croker Papers (1885)

It is possible that as with most creative individuals, there is no one major influence.
Mutuaga’s early manhood coincided with initial western contact & missionary settlement, both monumental events which would have caused quantum shifts in the local traditional world view. It is generally accepted that social & political change of such magnitude produces a discernable influence in art if the culture still remains functional.
In Mutuaga’s case this could apply.

Mutuaga’s development of naturalism as a style was certainly encouraged by influential resident Europeans. The missionary Able’s intent & approach was not unlike many other art marketing enterprises formulated for traditional people with a view to providing an independent income source. It is a methodology still applied today – don’t make trad stuff – make what will sell.
There may well be other influential considerations at play at this time in Mutuaga’s world.

Close by in the Trobriand Islands & Solomon Islands, realistic portrait figures were being produced in great number for traditional ritual purposes & from 1880 both trade sale & (See McCarthy 1951; Palmer 2007).

Solomon Island Portrait Figures (Palmer Family Collection)

Diffusionism is possible & politically attractive as it would keep the influence within a Melanesian corpus, however not as likely as a product of the European influx.

It would be interesting to know what Christian images were known to Mutuaga.
What crucifixion statues had he seen or handled? He surely would have recognised the pain, suffering & redemption present in any statues of the crucified Christ in Able’s house?
Did Mutuaga consider the possibility of such images having the power to heal the sick?

As a seafaring coast people, and attuned to boat decoration, what early sailing ship with bow figureheads had been noted by Mutuaga the Suau carvers?

Ships Figure Head. Spatula handle shape ?

The permanent arrival of Europeans, Government reps & missionaries in the region had a number of obvious initial impacts on the way locals conducted their lives.

The enforced cessation of internecine revenge raids (Beran p23) & European medical treatment are perhaps most relevant here for evaluating Mutuaga’s corpus for medical conditions & resultant stylistic intent and purpose. Medical clinics at the mission or Government DMO visits & the general treatment of even simple complaints would have been welcomed by all Suau except perhaps the traditional village sorcerer.

Although not necessarily the death of magic, the simple remedial intervention action of splinting a broken arm, thus avoiding the traditional fate, if survivable, of a lifelong disfigurement/ disability would have commanded serious local attention.

The moratorium on revenge raids likewise must have drastically reduced wounds & other forms of trauma inflicted injury. Breaking the chain reaction of self-perpetuating never-ending disruptive sequence of retaliation & the serious toll of human suffering would have had further social & cultural consequences.

Boy child malnutrition pot belly, rickets arms and legs. Expected aftermath of revenge raids – parents killed or captive, gardens canoes destroyed with resultant food shortage.
Fig. 2. 19th century Trobriand figure. Kevin Conru. 1999. The Colour of Melanesia. Conru Primitive Art. Pp. 38-9)

Orchiston’s 1975 research into warfare in Melanesia for the Leonhard Adam Ethnological Collection leaves no doubt of the scale of psychopathic deadly destructive raids, killings, routs, escalation of hostilities, massacres, plunder, slaughter of women & children, rape, torture of captives, head hunting & destruction of entire villages & gardens. Shields, bows & arrows, daggers, clubs & spears may have been decorated but were not just for show. No man went about unarmed, ever.
When warfare as an ingrained cultural norm ceased the vacuum was filled with other pursuits.
All this change would have been established rapidly and the chief “ forms of recreation became love-making & sexual intercourse amongst the young, betel-chewing & tobacco-smoking among the young & old, and participation in feasts by all.” (Beran p21from Williams 1933 & Armstrong1921).

All thanks to the missionaries and a few District Officers – you beauty - thank you very much.
The Missionaries came to do good & did well.

If Mutuaga’s subject was physical illness then naturalism is the only style available to the artist. Modern realist is the single option. That he saw this in European sculpture, both religious and secular, is a given.

That Mutuaga’s figures were produced for trade with Europeans is clear. But why disfigure them with human disabilities? Not a subject with a big track record as an art sales gimmick.
To depict physical abnormality with any detail you need naturalism as the artistic style & realism as the convention. There is no way around this technical limitation.

What about the figures that display no discernable abnormalities? There is a possibility of sympathetic magic as intent for these figures. Are all these figures sympathetic magic in intent & purpose?

Although there is no suggestion that Mutuaga’s figures are in any way meant to serve as anatomical medical models, in the traditional Japanese or Chinese sense, the realism & detailed physical deformity begs the question of portraiture and or documenting disease for social or spiritual reasons?

Do these Massim figures record a scourge very personal to him? Physical disability, which Mutuaga thought the coming of the European would eliminate as thoroughly as warfare had faded into history? Are they a token of thanks & hope - portraits of the promise of a new age? Mutuaga had this quality in him as a man & an artist. The possibility is there. The probability is speculative but not lacking in support.

Spastic diplegia right hand (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy , Spina bifida ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in unnatural stance, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face, Hypochondroplasia Dwarfism .

This area on three Mutuaga figures (61,88 & above) have been previously described as loin cloths. Paint (ochre) red infill significance?
Why did Mutuaga carve faces with low/no forehead ? This is the complete reciprocal of the high forehead common amongst Papuans of this region. ( Beran photos of carvers Ninia Plate 48 and Banieva Plate49. Both modern men with proud high foreheads).

Mutuga’s figures may not be portraits of individuals in the accepted European tradition, however the depiction of identifiable physical traits, eg club hands, carved into a figure would positively identify known local individuals, who displayed such abnormalities, to the entire village community & district. As such these figures would on one level function as portraits for those with local knowledge.

Why depict abnormalities if not to identify & portray known individuals?

Certainly the rounded off heads have not been executed for design reasons. If they were the result of form following function, so as to produce a rounded palm end for the handle, Mutuaga would have not produced the zoomorphic sharp end handle spatulas?

Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in unnatural squat (seated unable to stand?), protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face.
Realism –
Some premise need to be established.

Hypochondroplasia Dwarfism . Nipples?

Are Mutuaga figures adults or children?

If children then dwarfism may not be an issue, however other problems evident in this figure include Spastic diplegia (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Mild Cerebral palsy ,Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in unnatural stance, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face & enlarged nipples.

Did Mutuaga produce naturalistic anthropomorphic figures before Able’s arrival?
Sympathetic magic?

How prevalent were birth defects in Suau familys? Given the comparatively young age for first births it is considered very possible that small frame mums leading to difficult deliveries & complications was common. If survivable cerebral hypoxia causing spastic diplegia - Cerebral palsy is result.

Young mums, delivery problems, disabled children.

Is this Mutuaga’s subject – Peri Natal problems.

There is a new body of Medical thought suggesting CP may be viral related however no evidence of clusters in a population are yet theorised. This has no impact on the diagnosis of conditions evident in the Mutuaga figures.

Left Plate 61: Spina bifida , (cerebral hypoxia –oxygen starved brain damage), Microcephalic, small low atypical forehead, pronounced frontal nasal protuberance, short legged bent knee toed in unnatural stance, protruding tongue, Dysmorphic face, Hypochondroplasia Dwarfism.

Right Plate 50-51: Dysmorphic face flat face, round unblinking eyes aimless staring into space, anxious hand to lower jaw, enlarged nipples.

Are the drummer’s code? There is a medical response to these figures ; the dysmorphic face , unnatural squat position is suggestive of aimless drumming of the intellectually disabled.

Code iconography – large nipples equates to old age & wisdom or child medical problem ?

Body decoration – full scrolls? Unrelated to traditional body tattoo – code for pain, suffering or abnormality?

There are many open questions of which the figures may continue to remain mute.
The extent to which Static sculpture, whose creator is deceased, can be interrogated is limited.

Mark 10:14 Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God. 16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.

Middle figure of an adult (parent?) & child has all the elements for the ultimate statement of piety & hope (Beran Plate18 p201) by the master(s) of the prominent eyes.
The small child is held up in a difficult standing position, clearly incapable of standing unsupported by the adult. A Madonna figure presenting a disable child to whom? To the European dominated & hopefully benevolent future? The pleading presence of the adult figure who may also be disabled, coupled with the helpless pleading presentation of the limp child.
A Massim moving portrait of human need?

Plate 17 may represent a traditional forehead headache treatment band?
Plate 29 short legs & arm position are anatomically difficult to interpret for an adult, so a child perhaps?

Schildkrout writes that these "lifelike representations are not simply portraits but rather expressions of the divinity inherent in living things, especially human beings."

No, perhaps these are more humble than that?


The irresistible conclusion is that Mutuaga deliberately chose both naturalism as a style & human disease as a common subject. Realism his convention & portrayal of medical conditions his intent.

Subject dictating style.
Both lend weight to the power & presence of each piece.

Mutuaga’s motivation may have been personal due his own infirmity coupled with a more general artistic universal response to local human suffering and its relief.

The major influence appears to be a response to European presence, thus making his works homage, not to sprits & ancestors, but to a new age & his fellow man.
Mutuaga’s modernism is evidenced in artistic style & representative of a quantum shift in his world view.

Portraits of a time for hope & individual need to end suffering but perhaps not necessarily portraits per say?

Beran, Harry. 1996. Mutuaga .A Nineteen- Century Master Carver. Wollongong. Wollongong University Press.

Brodsky, Isadore. 1943. Congenital Abnormalities, Teratology and Embryology: Some evidence of Primitive Mans’ Knowledge as Expressed in Art & Lore in Oceania. The Medical Journal of Australia. May 8 ,1943. p417-429. Sydney NSW.

McCarthy, Fred. 1951. The Human Sculptures of the Solomon Islands. The Australian Museum Magazine.Vol.X,No.5. 139-143. Sydney NSW

Orchiston, D. Wayne. 1975.Warfare in Melanesia: The Leonhard Adam Ethnological Collection, Part Two. University of Melbourne.

Palmer, Arthur Beau.2007. The Dancing Girls. 19Century Solomon Island Realist Dynamic Portrait Figures. Oceanic Arts Society. Vol.12. Issue 2. May 2007.Syndey NSW.
The Robertson ( Anthro), Scandizzo’s ( Med) analysis Physical Deformities in the Ruling Lineage of Palenque, and the Dynastic Implications

Radial Club Hand


• occurs in between 1 in 30,000 & 1 in 100,000 live births
• underdevelopment, or aplasia, of the radius is universally associated with thumb hypoplasia, or absence, & hypoplasia or absence of the radial aspect of the carpus
• severity of the radial deficiency determines the extent of the associated deficiencies of the thumb, digits, ulna, & elbow
• spectrum of anatomic deficiency can range from mild radial deviation of the wrist & minimal thumb hypoplasia, to complete absence of the thumb & radius; camptodactyly of the index, long, & ring fingers; foreshortening of the ulna; & a stiff elbow
Associated Anomalies

• commonly associated with other congenital malformations
• Forty percent of patients with unilateral radial club hand & 27% of patients with bilateral have associated malformations
o Congenital cardiac
o Genitourinary
o Respiratory
o Skeletal
o neurologic problems