THE MELPA OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA
One of my favorite subjects is in recreating the numerous and colorful tribes of Papua New Guinea (PNG). There are an estimated 700+ tribes. The uniqueness of some highland tribes is in their body display to define their individual, group and tribal identity. The overall effect is just visually stunning.
Documentation is extremely sparse on PNG natives. Their unique and diverse culture is covered in academic books which generally lack any systematic visual documentation on their visual appearance.
The odd articles on Papua New Guinea found in old books, travelogues and magazines featured tantalizing glimpses of these magnificent people dressed in all their tribal finery in multiple photos, all without context as to the rationale for various tribal displays. The captions would often be general in nature, and would lack critical details on visual appearance.
I set out many years ago to start collecting and organizing bits of visual documentation and related text from diverse sources on these people. In a notebook, a series of drawings were made to create powerful visual schematics that allow rapid identification of obvious tribal markings, followed by group and individual distinctions.
Schematic Display of Melpa Headdress
The Melpa are a highland tribe and are always dressed for festive display. There are various exchange (moka) festivals, initiation rites and ceremonies for which different tribes would place different emphasis. The most famous would be the Sing-Sing festival which is an annual gathering of the numerous highland tribes and held alternatively at Mount Hagen and Goroka towns annually.
For festive or ceremonial occasions, the participants have to ensure that their group display is suitably fitting. Great effort is made prior to these displays, with long detailed planning, prior gathering and making of decorative items suitable for these displays. The participants would wear their headdress, long aprons and rear coverings of cordyline leaves. Make-up is then applied and feathers are then inserted into the headdress. Additional foliage, ornaments and shell decorations would then complete the ensemble.
At a moka, these groups would try to outdo each other with their display and the size of their gifts. Generally, these gifts are pigs and valuable shell ornaments. The activities usually comprise gift exchanges and group dancing displays. The groups are broadly divided between donors and recipients, with both groups being adorned differently. In addition, helpers who are generally family members will participate on either side and also be appropriately adorned. The groups are admired for their overall conformity in decorations. Certain groups have their own display styles. The men dominate these events and are most prodigiously displayed, in imitation of the various bird of paradise species found in PNG. The women generally take a secondary role in these proceedings.
The dancers cover themselves with charcoal and rub pig grease over their bodies to create a shiny dark display. They may apply small daubs of colour on the forehead, nose or cheeks for group displays.
Either head nets or wigs could be worn. The most basic form of head dress is a head net, wrapped around the wearer’s head. This is also worn for casual display, unadorned or with bits of foliage and plumage added. Sometimes, an animal skin is wrapped around the head net. Women do not generally use wigs and the feather sets may be inserted directly into the head nets. The head net could be left in dark brown, or daubed with red ochre or white clay.
Wigs (peng) of either black or reddish-brown colour supported by bamboo frames are built up from hair or seed burrs and worn on top of the wearer’s head net.
Papua New Guinea abounds with numerous bird species, the most colourful being the various bird of paradises, parrots, lorikeets, cockatoos, eagles and others. Their plumages are featured profusely in native display. Depending on taste and the occasion, various groups may decide to wear certain feather combinations on their wigs or head nets. Only certain combinations of feathers are allowed in specific displays.
An interesting video can be seen on this link:
Creating the Figure
This is a realistic and completely unique figure made from epoxy putty. Real feathers cut down to size were used for some of the plumage such as the fluffy Red Bird of Paradise or Ranggania plumage. Dried small fronds painted black were used for the Black Sicklebilled bird of paradise and Princess Stephanie plumes. The Crown of Saxony plume was made from wire detailed with tiny blobs of acrylic paint. For vegetation, dried flowers and brass-etched foliage were used.