The Art of Papua New Guinea

Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, has for decades been portrayed in the Western press as a lawless place overrun by ferocious gangs of “raskols.” However, these sensational reports have not kept collectors of Papua New Guinean art away from a store called PNG Art.

PNG Art, tucked away on Spring Garden Road, has been a Port Moresby institution since 1977. It is run by Joe Chan, whose family came as merchants from China to the New Guinean province of East New Britain over a hundred years ago.

Mr. Chan’s store, the size of a small airplane hangar, is stuffed with art: spirit masks from the Sepik, smiling dance masks, colorfully painted shields, spears, fertility statues. Woven ritual costumes dangle from the roof. You can browse through piles of carved storyboards and finger the intricate carving on rare canoe prows, ancestral boards and house finials in the shape of spirit-birds taking flight.

Hard-core collectors, gallery owners and interior designers from Europe, Asia and the United States make annual or biannual trips to Port Moresby just to see what Mr. Chan’s buyers have brought in from across the country.

Carved cult hooks, bows and arrows, ceremonial axes and adzes, drums, flutes in the shape of long-billed birds, dishes, pots, bowls and pipes — all exquisitely carved and painted with animals, spirits and abstract designs — make for an overwhelming experience. It’s like walking through a museum and being allowed to buy anything you like.

Among my favorites at PNG Art was the ritual jewelry: pigs’ teeth necklaces, shell headbands, the crescent-moon-shaped mother-of-pearl necklaces (which are still used as a traditional form of payment for “bride price” and compensation ceremonies; their name, kina, was given to present-day Papua New Guinea currency); shell and tusk pendants; dogs’ teeth necklaces; shell armlets; woven chest bands made with fur; wide bark belts; and intricately patterned armbands.

PNG Art will deal with all the red tape needed to send large and collectible pieces (this is included in their shipping and handling fees). You can pack smaller items in your suitcase. Staff members will advise you on what you can and cannot take through customs.

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