Monday, 14 November 2005

at the bottom of everything

In Indonesia we stopped for one afternoon and night in Sentani. Sentani is a satellite town, really; it is home to Jayapura’s airport. But it is also known because it sits on one edge of Danau Sentani (Lake Sentani).

[there are pictures but not loading today; will post later; imagine shot of lake here]

I had forgotten until last night that I knew a (true) story about European desire and repression that was set on this lake. In the early years of the last century, European missionaries entered the Sentani area and set to work saving souls. Part of this work involved the destruction of images that locals had carved and painted: obscene images of naked bodies and sacrilegious images of pagan idols and false gods.

At Sentani, missionaries threw almost anything with imagery into the lake. Spears, prows from canoes, masks, drums, wooden bowls, sculptures, figurines: all were drowned.

And remained so for years. Until, in the late 1920s, the Surrealists in France became fascinated with the art of Oceania. One man named Jacques Viot, a member of the set, travelled to the Pacific from Paris and collected work to sell back in Europe (he had debts to pay, and dealing with primitives was a low-cost, high-return venture). He came to Lake Sentani, hiring locals to paddle out onto the lake, dive down and collect and surface what they could find. If what they produced pleased him, he would pay them; if not it was discarded again.

He collected a huge haul, which was packed and shipped back to France. A lot of it remains in private collections today, but the National Gallery of Australia is one public place that has a few items. As I said, this is a European story, and I do not know a local version. Did people salvage a few key items without the missionaries’ knowledge? Did they surrender their images willingly, or was there a struggle? (How did they make everything sink, and stay down?) Did they convert, make Christian images? What happened in the time after their iconography was sent to that watery grave? What happens on an abstract level to a community without its imaginings? And on a practical level: what did people do, who had once carved and painted? Could they still see and understand the world, without their reference points? What did they think of the lake? And of this Frenchman who came and watched and selected and took away.


The lake is huge. Imagine several lakes joined together, and it’s still probably bigger. Late in the afternoon we set out to visit its shores; according to the map there was a track which would take us there in no time, but as we walked it appeared that a new aircraft hanger was being built right where the track ought to be. So we detoured, through a rubbish dump and a settlement (lots of attention; who are these crazy whites, why would anyone walk this way) and a bit of swampy bushland, before hitting a road.

[imagine shot of road, bit of tropical jungle on side]

A road that, ahem, would have been the direct route; it turned out that we didn’t need to detour at all, that you could just walk through the airfield (we saw kids running on the strip seconds before a big plane took off). Oh well; wouldn’t want to be one of those know-it-all, successful, irritating travellers anyway.

[imagine shot of airfield]

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