The Mariwai Project

Shiva Lynn Burgos is the first international contemporary artist to work in Mariwai, a small Kwoma village located in the Upper Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. She has returned annually following her first trip there in 2013 during which the idea for the project first came about. Although it is not part of Kwoma custom for women to paint and carve she was accepted as an artist.

She carved monumental wood totems and painted bark panels alongside the other Kwoma artists that together form the construction of the new spirit house constructed to replace the “houseboy” from the 1970’s. We witnessed and participated in the naming ceremony and opening celebrations which lasted for five days in August 2016. We filmed these extraordinary ceremonies using photography and video as well as both aerial drone technology and also the latest innovations in 360 degree virtual reality filming. These new components have been edited to create an immersive experience thereby allowing the viewer to “enter” the spirit house as a participant in the ceremonies.

In addition, Burgos intervenes using western materials and techniques to bridge the contemporary with the ancient spiritual traditional art practices. She creates live performance installations that invite the villagers to interact with a contemporary western dialogue. She uses photography and film as a creative tool to capture and document the project and to reveal a wider story about the value of allegory, myth and the spiritual intentions imbued into physical objects. Through her anthropological research and collaborations with museums and field experts her proposition is to illuminate the relationship between the artists and the works they created now held in those museums.

Working together with a group of village women Shiva Lynn Burgos developed the Women’s Tapestry Initiative using embroidered tapestry as a means for artistic expression by stitching the wool onto a substrate vinyl mesh that has a commercial purpose as mosquito netting. Together Burgos and the group created a series of these tapestries which combine representational symbols, such as fish and birds, together with bilum-style motifs and contemporary designs to create a new art form in which women can participate fully.

In every exceptional museum the objects tell exceptional stories. Such is the story of the journey of one group of objects charged with spirits; these decorated panels from a spirit house are known as the Kwoma Ceiling and are now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Having been transported across the globe and through the ages, the ceiling is now positioned as one of the most important records of a much studied and culture. The story of the Kwoma Ceiling panels from their inception, commission, creation, migration and installation and their future consecration is a pivot for The Mariwai Project New York.

The Mariwai Project

The Mariwai Project is a broad-reaching long-term two-way artistic and cultural exchange that came about from Burgos’ time spent with the people of Mariwai during which she was taught traditional styles and contributed carvings and paintings to the new ceremonial house being built in Mariwai.

We have since embarked on an extensive research project at the Goldwater Library, MMA archives, MPA archives, the Douglas Newton Archives as well as our own field research in the Kwoma community. We have worked with several distinguished experts in the fields of anthropology, art anthropology, ethnography, museum curators and art dealers both in Papua New Guinea and internationally and since have received a great deal of support for our project from the academic, artistic and diplomatic communities. Additionally, we have taken photographic copies of Kwoma objects for identification by village elders on behalf of several major ethnographic museums.

The Mariwai Project has a number of diverse aims:

  • To encourage and assist the Kwoma in keeping their culture alive in a changing world.
  • To inspire museums to engage with and encourage the living cultures and communities represented in their collections and to bring a new audience and purpose to the museum collections.
  • To encourage a live dialogue with ethnographers, anthropologists, museum personnel, collectors and dealers and a new engagement with the region
  • To tell the story of the Kwoma Ceiling panels and the people that made them and in doing so to reveal a wider story about the value of myths and culture.
  • To provide artists materials and support for the new ceremonial house in Mariwai
  • To take artists and others (linguists, dancers, musicians, architects, scientific community, etc.) to Mariwai to engage with and be inspired by Kwoma culture and traditions. We currently have a discreet search and selection process in progress and have been working with the village to ensure a welcome and enable guests to have a deep and meaningful engagement with the community.
  • To give to the people of Mariwai the opportunity to study their own history and culture as it has been recorded, analyzed and presented by outsiders. We have presented them with copies of the available books on Kwoma art and history along with other relevant historical documents and photographs to form a small library.
  • To research historic museum collections and their relation to current practices in the region
  • To encourage and facilitate responsible cultural tourism in the region
  • To work with other agencies to provide support for healthcare, education and development in the region.
  • To work with local communities and other organizations to ensure the continued awareness and preservation of the natural environment and ecosystem of the Sepik River.