A new look at the Ulis

By Artkhade
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No monograph had so far treated the sculpture Uli from New Ireland (Papua New Guinea) with an exhaustive and analytical approach. This is soon to be done, with a book to be published in December under the direction of Jean-Philippe Beaulieu.

Science in discussion… Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, before becoming an ethnologist or art historian, was an astrophysicist. A specialist in exoplanets, he is currently CNRS research director at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris. After many trips to New Ireland since 2002, he has explored Europe and its museum reserves to constitute the first reference monograph on Uli sculpture.

How did this project come about?

I have always had a strong interest in the arts. I first encountered those from the Oceania through Surrealism. After a first trip to New Guinea in 1997, the deep-rooted traditions left a strong impression on me. After a few pilgrimages, especially around the Sepik, I wanted to head for New Ireland, intrigued by the aesthetics of the Malangas, these figures made for burial and memorial ceremonies of the dead. So I went to the Tabar Islands, where I was once again marked by vivid aspect of traditions there and was able to attend a great ceremony in memory of a deceased chief in 2006. With the help of two friends, we filmed and documented the preparations and the ceremony during a one-month stay. The sculptors made the effigies, others prepared the dances – it was fascinating – but only a first step to identifying and understanding the culture and objects of the island. I wanted to know more about the Malangas, and I started focusing on one particular type of those, the Ulis, since 2012.

What would you say are the main specificities of Ulis?

Ulis are rare stylised human representations, with large bearded heads topped by ridges. They are stocky with broad shoulders, camped on short legs. They dart pointed chests and thick penises, displaying toothy grins and attitudes of mistrust. These images of ancestors embody, in their appearance and attributes, both absolute power, strength and fertility and commanded long and complex funeral rites. They were only used in a 40 km long region in the centre of New Ireland. Unlike other statues in the region, which were generally destroyed or abandoned after Malagasy funeral rituals, the Ulis were carefully preserved in men’s homes. About 250 Ulis were collected at the very beginning of the 20th century. They must always be seen from below, to crush their power. Ulis always look like they are about to throw themselves at your throat, with fierce smiles.

/Uli Walden-Loeb-Vérité, collected by Edgar Walden © Christie's Images

How were these effigies used in rituals?

As with Malangas, ceremonies are long and complex, with whole series of steps following the death. We found a precise description of an important 1905 ceremony in Lamassong village where ten Ulis were used. A uli ceremony is very similar to a Malangan ceremony, and follows its different stages. The deceased body is buried after two or three days, with his head close to the ground, while planting fast-growing crops. This constitutes the first ceremony. A few months later, the skull is exhumed and placed in a basket hung in the beams of the men’s house. This is followed by a succession of intermediate celebrations. The process takes several months. Then, they build some kind of a tipi that is capped with a small Uli and filled with food. The master of ceremonies, embodying one of the spirits, then distributes the food. The large Ulis are taken out of the men’s house – where they were stored – are repainted and presented in a small funeral hut, sometimes standing on a bench, sometimes hung on a pole… They are given eyes and incantations are sung, which convert the effigies into loaded objects. During the rituals, people would celebrate their love for the deceased, in the presence of the Ulis, and sacrifice pigs. The Ulis stay in their funeral huts for three moons, then their eyes are removed and wrapped in banana leaves to keep them in the beams of the men’s house before the next rituals some years later.

What was the context of these collections?

In 1900, the German Empire regained control of the Bismarck Archipelago. In metropolitan France, interest in the curiosities of the South Seas was strong. The Berlin Museum saw many objects coming in, but without much information… so the colonial government started setting up more rational collections, the aim being to contextualize and understand the objects – and thus to better rule their owners. Albert Hahl, who was Governor at the time, considered the islanders as subjects and wanted to assimilate them. It was important to supplement the somewhat messy collections with surveys and scientific approaches. The art of New Ireland has a strong specificity: objects are often used only once. They find their meanings in the creative process, during the funeral ceremony, and then it can be thrown away, burned, abandoned in a cave or sold. Ulis, unlike the Malangas, could be used several times, but were also the subject of frenetic trade as soons as the Germans noticed them. Colonial administrators began to collect these statues… Captain Karl Nauer, Colonial administrators Boluminski and Wostrack, the Walden and Krämer missions… The vast majority of Ulis have been collected between 1904 and 1910, when Krämer and Nauer were no longer able to find new ones. It is important to know that the people of New Ireland always chose what they sold. There are almost no Malagan Wawara in the collections, as they were systematically destroyed. We have several photos of Malangas and overmodeled skulls right before being destroyed; the witnesses could never prevent those acts, despite offering important sums to acquire those. Therefore Ulis have enjoyed flourishing trades. Their price got extremely high! At that time, a tax had been introduced by the Germans: islanders had to work for the colonial administration or pay 5 marks per year. When overmodeled skulls would sell for 5 marks, Ulis were traded between 150 and 200 marks – one even achieved 800! By selling an Uli, all the taxes of the village were paid for a year or more, and 10% of the money collected was going back to the village chief. Governor Hahl complained that Colonial administrator Boluminski invested part of the proceeds of the taxes he collected to buy items. In several notes we see some mentions like “bought”, or sometimes the author complains that he found Ulis but that they are too expensive, or not for sale.

/Uli Speyer-Ratton, collected by Georg Friederici © Sotheby's

What were your sources?

The main ancient sources are of German origin, the archives of the German Naval Expedition of 1908-1910 (works by Krämer and Walden), the correspondence – the Ulis being rare, when one was found, it was mentioned in letters – and photos of Captain Karl Nauer, Franz Boluminski, Wilhelm Wostrack and others. I read Elisabeth Krämer's book, published in 1916 – one of the first women to explore the South Pacific islands in 1908-1911 with her husband, Augustin Krämer. I thought that the drawings in her book were based on photos, so knowing that Krämer had spent most of his career in Tübingen, I contacted the curator to ask him if he had any photos. He replied that he had 80 unseen ones… so I went to Tübingen. He also told me that one of his former students had found 14 notebooks in the archives of the Göttingen Museum, which turned out to be those of Augustin Krämer. An entire notebook is dedicated to the Ulis, with photos of the Ulis that entered the collections of the Linden Museum in Stuttgart before 1908. Krämer glued the photos in the notebook, and talked to his informants, taking lots of notes. For these Ulis, we find the village of collection, the village of origin, the names of the sculptors. The information in these notebooks is amazing, but written in Old German [Kurrent], before the spelling reform of 1913, and mixed with Latin and Mandak. For a 21st century German interpreter, this is totally incomprehensible. We pulled our hair out to achieve those translations… and finally, it was Marion Melk-Koch, former curator of the Leipzig Museum, who found the key. This allowed us to get to know the villages of collection of other Ulis, and sometimes even their sculptor. It is too often said that the Ulis are anonymous masterpieces: with this book, some will come out of anonymity. I also found Alfred Bühler’s unpublished notebooks, Georg Federici’s, all unpublished. The wildest experience was with the notebooks of Edgar Walden, who was part of the German naval expedition. He died during the First World War, his notes were published in an summarised form, but they have been lost since 1940. It so happens that a copy of one of the notebooks was kept in the reserves of the Berlin Museum, its pages scattered in seven archive boxes of the expedition. I photographed the pages of these archives one-by-one, and I learned to recognise his writing to reconstruct one of his notebooks.

Did you also conduct surveys in the field?

Yes, and it was a delicate situation. In science, you have clear and unchanging laws that allow you to draw conclusions from an observation. Here, we reason with humans, so extrapolation or directivity skews the results. For the fieldwork, the best way was to ask few questions, never be directive, but be attentive and share. It is by giving a little bit of yourself that you can learn from others. During the November 2018 trip, I never uttered the word “Uli” in three weeks of travel. When one of the elders of the village of Sovan told me “We took a very powerful magic from the hills, and we transferred it here, this magic is called Uli”, it was the only time the word was spoken before me.

How will your book be structured?

It will include everything, from rites, traditions, collectors, to life in the colony. I hope readers will be able to get a sense of the context of New Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century as well as the Mandals and the different characters who collected the Ulis. In this book, we discover them and we witness a fierce competition for acquiring them. We also follow the German explorers in their contacts with the local population, what they have learned from their informants. We also place the Ulis in the context of Malangan ceremonies and describe their specificities. I also paid particular attention to the provenances, and I found those of many pieces. For about sixty of them who were orphans, I attach them to their original museum, for others, I correct their provenance, because some were quite eccentric. It is quite unique, in tribal art by the way, to see half of the objects in a corpus whose collection has been traced. For about a hundred, I rediscovered the original village where they have been collected… Sometimes, it is even possible to specify the day of acquisition and the names of the sculptors. This is the level of detail that we have achieved. All this is completely new, yet it was simply sleeping in thousands of manuscript pages lost in museums archives.

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