By Dr. Andrew Motou, Director, PNG National Museum and Art Gallery
A small yet elegant piece of sculpture, by the name of Kinjinmbunduo, has now been adopted into the Museum family of masterpieces.
Kinjinmbunduo comes from the Tambunum Village in the middle Sepik area of Angoram in the East Sepik Province. The story of Kinjinmbunduo is owned by the Bowi clan in Tambunum and this story inspired the clan artist, Kwaru Bowindu, to carve the image of Kinjinmbunduo in wood. The carving is now known as Kinjinmbunduo. The piece is made with stone tools and is a very old piece and parts of it are almost fossilized. The carver, Kwaru Bowindu, is now an old man in his 70’s and lives in Tambunum Village. The Museum came to know of Kinjinmbunduo through Billy Gawi, the son of Kwaru Bowindu, who brought the piece from his village to elicit the interests of the Museum to acquire it as part of the Museums national treasures. The father and son thought that instead of allowing such a sculpture to be sold to international art dealers, they would prefer it being acquired and housed in the National Museum & Art Gallery.
In Tambunum understandings, the story of Kinjinmbunduo tells of a mythical female flying fox who lives in the mountains of the Torecelli Range located to the northwest of Tambunum. In contrast to the modesty of the sculpture, the mythical flying was huge and commanded enormous strength and immeasurable abilities that exceeds the strength of humans and other animals known to be existing in the area then.
The flying fox however lived in a place that was invisible to humans. She would leave her abode only at night to pursue her nocturnal activities. However, because of her strength and weight her flights in the night sent out huge air waves that thundered through the Sepik River basin sending fear and intimidation to all living creatures in the basin. In the same vein trees and coconut palms which are in her flight path would bend and sway to the charms of her might and terror. Upturned trees and fallen coconut palms bear the traces of her movements in the night.
Despite possessing such power and strength, Kinjinmbunduo was also not only fearful but was greatly admired and commanded a certain respect amongst the people of the Sepik River basin. She was revered and held up as a kind of god until the arrival of Christianity when that belief was suppressed. There is no clear indication from the mythology that there was a religious worship or veneration of Kinjinmbunduo as a god. She was nonetheless revered for the strength and prowess she exhibited.
In local understandings, the name Kinjinmbunduo is a combination of Kinjin which refers to the quality and character of giving while Mbunduo is a feminine suffix which added a gendered inflection to the name. Thus Kinjinmbunduo idealises a female spirit or a mother who gives and blesses those who receive at her hands. When applied to the mythical female flying fox ancestress, Kinjinmbunduo, describes the ability of the ancestral bird to replenish the Sepik River basin with fruit plants such as mangoes, breadfruit and other fruit trees by dispersing seeds after the basin goes through flooding or a wave of strong winds. Kinjinmbunduo flies only in the night to look for food. When she realizes that some places have been devastated by wind and floods, she helps people re-grow their fruit trees by dropping off seeds in places where she visits in the night. An explicit moral of the Kinjinmbunduo is a story of supplication, replenishment and re-collection. But at the same time, an intriguing ambivalence is apparent: the flying fox who devastate plant trees in her path of flight is also the one who goes back and supply seedlings which regenerate new food trees.
As a sculpture, Kinjinmbunduo, measures 58 centimetres in length and 20 centimeters in width. Bill Gawi states that the carving was made from a local tree known in Iatmul as miemba, garamut in Tok Pisin and vitex coffassus in scientific or botanical terms. The wood is aged and is clearly in the process of becoming fossilized. The manner in which the sculpture is carved out of the wood can only be attributed to the ingenuity of the artist. The figure that is laid within the wood is carved in such a way that the shiny patina left on the carving makes it seemed as antiquated as the fossilized wood.
This is made intriguing because we don’t know whether the carving was fossilized after it was made or whether it was made from a fossilized wood. If a material form (such as wood, canvass, paper, fiber or linen etc) imposes a constrain within which an idea can be expressed or made to appear then the artist that carved Kinjinmbunduo has succeeded in blending its look and feel or its form and its appearance.
In the culture of the middle Sepik area, where Kinjinmbunduo is held as a totemic ancestor, it is common to find recurring patterns of ambivalent combination of opposing and sometimes contradictory relations such as in the notorious initiatory complex where ‘crocodiles’ eat and birth novices, where mother’s brothers relations are held in balance with father’s sisters antics where laughter becomes exaggerated with comical theater, or the way in which secret information is revealed and concealed or the episodic alternation of unity and opposition of ceremonial men’s houses etc.
In this humble piece of artwork, which will now be absorbed into the Museum’s collection of master pieces, one can possibly see that the dual qualities of Kinjinmbunduo of devastating power and sympathetic grace, destruction and reconstruction, as captured in the mythology, seemed to have been given an elegant artistic rendition.