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Bubble Artefacts Oceanic Tribal Art Gallery

Collector Series Interview


Michael Bates

Based in Australia, and with a fascinating background growing up in Hagen, Michael has considerable experience and exposure to collecting Art and Artefacts in New Guinea. He has wonderful stories and memories of his time there and also understands the logistical challenges one faces in collecting pieces in PNG. Michael has since refined his own tastes in artefacts over time however at his core, loves all New Guinea art. A wonderful interview and he even managed to squeeze it in with a baby due any day now!

WC - In one word how would you describe yourself?

MB - atypical


WC - Approx. how many pieces do you have in your collection of New Guinea Tribal Art?

MB - In my collection, at my current home, I probably only have around 25 or so pieces. Having a young family doesn't give a lot of space for my art, so, a lot of pieces are at my mum's place now. Although, many of those were jointly bought with her anyway. I think she probably has around 80 pieces at her place.


WC - Can you recall the first time you came across Oceanic Art?

MB - I grew up in the highlands of PNG. My parents had a lodge on the Karawari river (a tributary to the Sepik), which was originally built by John Pasquarelli (of One Nation infamy). So, I spent a lot of my time in the Karawari area with Sepik art all around me - the main support post in our house was carved in the same style as the support posts in an Iatmul Haus Tambaran. So, it's really been all around me since birth.Growing up in the highlands, I wasn't only exposed to carvings but also to body art. My mum was the treasurer for the Hagen Show for a couple of decades and so my attendance at the Hagen show was pretty regular. I went to the international school in Hagen and one of my fondest memories was of "United Nations Day" where students would dress up in some sort of traditional dress. We had students from all around the world - the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, China, and so on. About half of the students were from PNG, and I remember thinking how wonderful it was to see my friends in their traditional dress. My parents also had a lodge in Tari, which is the home of the Huli Wigmen. So, I have seen a lot of Huli wigs and singsings. It all seemed pretty normal and not a big deal to me at the time, but, I now realise how utterly amazing aspects of my childhood were.


WC - What was the first artefact you purchased and what made you want to buy it?

MB - As a small child, art wasn't really of much concern to me. But, the first piece that I recall buying (or, more correctly, asked my parents to buy) was a spinning top made with a stick and part of a coconut shell. I did have a lot of fun with it, but, I must have lost it somewhere along the way as it is no longer in my possession.


WC - When did you realise you had earned the title of “Collector”?

MB - In my 20's I went back to PNG and worked for my parents for a few years. It was really then that my passion was ignited. In the slow season I would take K50,000, a couple of big motor canoes and a few 200L drums of petrol and spend a week travelling around different parts of the Sepik buying art to then sell at our lodges to our overseas clients. We had a policy of not haggling and never asking for more than a second price because we wanted to make sure that the artists got a fair price. This meant that we were often paying much better prices than the overseas collectors who would travel through the area and after seeing we were paying fair prices, people would often bring out "the good stuff" - some of which I would keep for myself. It was a bit wild on occasion too - I had a run in once in Angoram with someone who had a longstanding beef with my uncle. On the same trip, I contracted scrub typhus. I started showing symptoms a week after I got home to Hagen - it has similar symptoms to malaria and it was misdiagnosed. When I had a temperature of 41C it was decided I should be medivaced to Cairns. I was apparently an interesting specimen and had tropical medicine students come around to look at me.

I would also go out of my way to go to new places to try and find different art. We were flying down to Western Province once and I convinced everyone we needed to stop in Ballimo because I had heard that there were people still carving Gogodala art there. There wasn't much, but, I cleaned them out. I also knew a guy from Finschhafen. Each year he would travel out to the Tami Islands and buy for me and would bring it all up to Hagen by ferry and PMV. I still have a couple of the fruit bowls he brought us.


WC - What is your most treasured ‘find’ and where and when did you find it?

MB - To me, the Kamangabbi from the Karawari is my most treasured. It doesn't matter whether it's old or new or what style. I just love it because Karawari obviously has a very special place in my heart. The Inyai people of the upper Karawari are the carvers of that particular style. But, a bunch of them migrated to Menjamai village which would probably be described as "middle Karawari". I worked with a number of the Inyai descendents in Mejamai to get their carving happening again, and turn it into a good income for them as we put effort into making it a big deal of it at the lodge. At the same time, my good friend Nancy Sullivan (an American anthropologist living in Madang) had a project where she was documenting the culture of the Inyai. They were still occasionally finding stone Kamangabbi in the caves of the upper Karawari. The stone Kamangabbi are, to my understanding, a bit of an enigma because there were no carvers of stone in the area and some of the stone carvings were dated to be many hundreds of years old. Tragically, Nancy died in a car crash a few years ago. That combined with me no longer pushing the Kamagabbi sales for the Menjamai carvers, I fear that there is not much carving going on anymore and there will be much traditional knowledge lost from the Inyai.


WC - What methods to you use to find pieces for your collections – i.e. charity shops, online, auctions, garage sales?

MB - As I've sort of said above, most of my purchases have been from carvers themselves. I did have a contact who lived in Angoram who was good at finding unique pieces and, again because we paid a good price, would often give us first dibs at anything he found. Since moving away from PNG I haven't bought much, so, I actually wouldn't really know how to go about acquiring new pieces.


WC - What mistakes have you made with collecting and what can your experience teach new collectors out there?

MB - For a while I was obsessed by old pieces. I was apparently not the only one as there seems to be enough demand that there are artists who are expert at making things look old and I was tricked by them a couple of times. That is a huge mistake - for this and also a bit more maturity, I have come around and I love the art for itself, new or old. Art and culture (PNG or otherwise) is not static and never has been - it is evolving and that is something to be embraced. Indeed, some highlands cultures would traditionally buy and sell religions!


WC - What other advice would you give to new collectors?

MB - One thing I wish I had done more of is to better understand the pieces that I have. For many of them, I even met the artist. I wish I had sat down with them and asked them about it. Knowing, even part of the story or inspiration for a piece, gives it so much more personal value. If there is a way to try and understand the piece, it utility or the story it's portraying or the inspiration behind it, try to find out and write it down so you can enjoy it later.


WC - What are your three top tips for getting a good deal on a piece you love?

MB - Since we were almost always buying direct from the artists and it was important to us that they are fairly rewarded for their time and effort, it was important to pay a fair price and not haggle. I know that doesn't apply so much to buying on the international market, but, I think it's something to bear in mind. These artists will often spend a very long time making these pieces - they don't just pop down to the local hardware store and buy some timber; they actually need to fell the tree themselves. Similarly, tools are really hard to come by and are expensive to purchase new in PNG by Western standards, let alone for someone who lives a largely subsistence life. So, it's a huge process and so I'd say that if there's a way to ensure the original artist gets a fair price, it is important to ensure that is the case.


WC - What are you most passionate about collecting now?

MB - I'm usually looking for ways to reduce my collection, rather than add to it. Having said that, one can never have too many Kamangabbi's!


WC - Where do you see the New Guinea Arts industry going in the future?

MB - I hope that it continues to thrive. The areas where they carve are more in touch with their culture and much of it continues today. Throughout the Blackwater Lakes and Iatmul (Middle Sepik), there is very active carving and there are numerous spirit houses, some of which continue with skin cutting ceremonies and traditions are upheld. On the Yuat River, the main income is growing and selling betel nut. Whilst I haven't been to Biwat (who have a tradition of great carving), my friends from the Sepik tell me it's not a place worth visiting because it's just overrun with highlanders buying betel nut to transport and sell in the highlands.


WC - Has the use of technology made it easier or harder to buy pieces? If so, how?

MB - From the perspective of purchasing from the artists, I don't think so (yet). I can't imagine that collecting of art in the Sepik now would be done any differently to how I was doing it 15 years go - you travel around from village to village in a couple of canoes with a big wad of cash, buying pieces and hoping that you spend it all before some bright spark hatches a plan to relieve you of the cash without exchanging it for anything, but not spending it too quickly so that you run out and can't get around to every village you want to visit. I dream of setting up my own website that sells Kamangabbis and other Karawari art with my friends in PNG handling the packaging and shipping of the art to the buyer so that the artist gets a good price, the buyer knows the story of the piece and the artist themselves, and most of the middlemen are in PNG and making their own decent living. It would be really difficult to set up, I'm not sure the technology is quite there yet in the Sepik, and I'm not sure it would make enough money to justify the time it would take given how busy I am already with a full time job, freediving business, and a young family. But, I can dream.


WC - Give 5 words that describe the emotion when you sit in a room with your collection?

MB - Memories. Happiness. Sadness. Curiosity. Adventure.


WC - Any final words?

MB - I think I've waffled on enough!

Many thanks to Michael for this wonderful interview and I wish him and his wife all the best with their newborn when they arrive!.

Kind regards,

Warren Campbell

Executive Director

Bubble Artefacts Oceanic Tribal Art Gallery