By Emma Payne
To a casual passerby, the corner of Santa Teresa and Lomita Drive may appear to be an overgrown blight amid an otherwise perfectly manicured campus. However, a few steps down a rocky, dirt bike path reveal what is actually a culturally rich array of wooden and stone sculptures underneath a serene canopy of trees.
On the third Sunday of each month at 2 p.m., two docents from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts give a free tour of this often-overlooked street corner, home of the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. In a recent tour, guides Marion Smith and Joan Inglis lead students, community members and other visitors around the various stone and wooden sculptures while simultaneously detailing the history of the garden and telling ancient legends that relate to each piece of art.
The Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden was the brainchild of James Mason ’91 M.A. ’93, an anthropology grad student at the time of the project’s conception. While completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford, Mason spent a significant amount of time performing research in Papua New Guinea, a small country off the coast of Australia. He first traveled there in 1987 and returned in 1989. He formed close bonds with the people of the Middle Sepik River region that he studied, and at the suggestion of two artists that he met, Mason resolved to bring some Papua New Guinean artists back with him to Stanford to create a sculpture garden.
He returned to Palo Alto and spent five years raising funds for the project–reportedly raising in excess of $1.5 million–and then in May of 1994, 11 carvers came to Stanford from Papua New Guinea. Additionally, Mason formed a joint team of American and New Guinean landscape architects, and together, the group began construction of the sculpture garden. The building materials were similarly cross cultural, with wood imported from Papua New Guinea and lava stone shipped from the Mono Lake region of California for the sculptures.
The artists came from the Kwoma and the Iatmul societies, both of which are located in the Middle Sepik River region. As the guides carefully pointed out, each group has a unique artistic style with notable characteristics visible in the sculptures here at Stanford. For example, where Iatmul art tends to feature more curves and small indentations called “wind waves,” Kwoma art is rougher and utilizes a zigzag pattern called “chevron.”
Shared by both societies, however, is a great emphasis on legends that they preserve through their sculptures. As Smith and Inglis snaked the group through the various pieces of art, they stopped to tell a complex tale at each one. The stories ranged from how the Sepik River was formed by crocodile tears to the discovery of the Sago tree and yams by the great warrior, Sussep. The guides described how the crocodile was responsible for creating the world and helping to make it round and pointed out towering sculptures with wagging tongues–apparently used to instill fear.
“The world was flat, like a sandwich with no filling,” said Inglis to the attentive tour group. “Then the crocodile came, and with the help of the wind, they separated the Earth.”
Walking through the display of painted pillars, wooden figures and rock sculptures, it is easy to forget that one is in the middle of a large and bustling university campus. This sense of intertwined communities is hardly accidental, giving the Papua New Guineans an opportunity to share their culture with the Stanford community while dispelling the Western stereotypes of “primitive.” While their artwork had previously been displayed as “artifacts,” the completion of the garden allows it to be appreciated as what it is intended to be–art.
“The things that we made here…are our most sacred things–things from the souls of our ancestors,” wrote Papua New Guinean artist Navi Saunambui for a plaque in the garden. “We brought them here, and now we leave them for you.”
Despite cultural differences, the visiting Papua New Guineans began to bond with the greater Stanford community. During their four-month stay, the artists participated in weekly Friday barbeques, at which they played music and demonstrated art techniques to their Bay Area counterparts.
“You saw us, and you thought we were from a wild area–the jungle,” said a translator for one of the artists, Kwospi Marek, before returning home to Papua New Guinea in 1994, his words also on a plaque. “You didn’t know us, and we didn’t know you. But now we know each other, and we are brothers. Now we are friends.”
As the project was a blending of two cultures, the Papua New Guinean artists stayed true to the basics of their native art forms, but did not try to re-create their homeland. Instead, some of the pieces are reinterpretations of what they found at the Rodin sculpture garden, including “The Thinker” and “The Gates of Hell” (though the artists couldn’t get over the seemingly “useless” nature of the Rodin garden as their native sculpture gardens serve as important meetinghouses). As further proof of the cultural mixing, the artists used plants native to California in the garden and American carving tools and acrylic paints.
In recent weeks, there has been discussion among the Cantor staff about ending the monthly tours due to sparse attendance. However, official tours or not, Smith and Inglis plan to continue sharing their knowledge of the Papua New Guinea legends and art and hope that the garden can be enjoyed by the Stanford community for years to come.
“Yeah, wood doesn’t last forever,” Smith said in the tour’s closing moments. “But we hope it will last a long time.”