b. sakata garo

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February 7, 2002
Art Review

Far out, from faraway
By Jackson Griffith, Sacramento News & Review

Rufus (Asmat from Sawa Village, Irian Jaye, Indonesia) "male ancestor figure" from wood, sago fiber and pigments.
New Guinea isn't your typical vacationer's destination. It's a large tropical island north of Australis, divided neatly in half--the western half comprising Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia; the east forming most of Papua New Guinea, a separate nation. Many of the island's inhabitants still live in conditions that might be called prehistoric, and their reputation, whether deserved or not, for the usual Club Med no-nos--headhunting, cannibalism, bellicose behavior not attributable to excessive tequila consumption--tend to scare away all but the most intrepid of travelers.

For anyone who collects primitive art, of course, this is a boon. Phyllis Hischier has been visiting the Asmat people for a few years now, venturing through the swampy jungles up the Pomatsj River off the southwestern coast of Irian Jaya by dugout to find and buy pieces to help satisfy a private and institutional market that's seriously hungry for indigenous art objects. While in one sense Hischier is taking something away from New Guinea to satisfy Western demand, she claims to respect the culture and inherent dignity of the people who created them, and she works at cultivating artists amont the Asmat. The items on display at b. sakata garo this month have been culled from her collection.

Many of these objects are carved from wood, some have fiber from the palm-like sago cycad, shelles, feathers from the cassowary and various pigmnets added. These have been animated with the forces they are fashioned to represent, like the fearsome yard-long carved canoe prows, which depict two to four figures riding in tandem, are meant to transfer to the canoe--and the warriors who ride in it--protection and fighting ability. Likewise, intricately carved shields conver strength and agility upon the warrior, while tote bags woven from sago fiber carry ritual items for the traveling sorcerer. And figures carved to represent ancestors become inhibited by their spirits.

Whether they will inhabit you is another story. One way to find out is to go look. A Second Saturday reception will be held February 9 at b. sakata gallery, 923 20th St. It's open from Tuesday through Saturday, from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.