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14 July 2006 - 29 October 2006, Heleneum - Lugano

Wagan. Art and Music of Sepik

The first exhibition of the cycle “Altrarti” is entitled Wagan. Art and Music of Sepik. It comprises 46 masterpieces that belong to various collections and institutions such as the museum0s own Brignoni Collection, the Schäfer Collection of the Regione Lombardia that is entrusted to the Musei Civici di Como (MCC), the Musée d’Ethnographie of Geneva (MEG), the Dinz Rialto Collection of the Museo degli Sguardi of Rimini (MSR) and a private collection from Rovigo, the ex-Hruska Collection. Each artwork comes from New Guinea and has been collected in the field, or by intermediaries (third parties), between the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century

Foto gallery

The exhibition

Wagan is a polysemic term that played a relevant role in the system of classification of the people of the Sepik middle valley: it was the name of the ancestral spirit of the clan while it possessed the shaman and talked through him. It was therefore the very name of the shaman as well and was known as the spirit who listened to the prayers of humans. It was also the name of a large slit drum with a rhythmic ‘voice’, which was perceived as a being with a will of its own. Since they have a similar shape, the slit drum was associated the canoe and both were linked to the idea of generating force. Wagan were thus connected to the water and were evoked during ceremonies which called for the temporary renewal of things. 

Other personifications of the Wagan were the so-called teket, or ceremonial seats. The assembly of the elders would gather around them to record the genealogies and to take major decisions concerning the community. 

So-called 'hooks' were also related to the ideological system of Wagan. These were sculptures that were fixed to the ceiling beams of a house in order to hang various objects. They were carved with distinctive features corresponding to different members of the clan. The biggest hooks represented entities of mythical and cultural relevance and were subject to a particular veneration. 

The exhibits show a specific path of discovery and the main focus revolves around the fact that “everything interacts”: art, myth, literature, music and dancing are part of the same entity, together with rituals and social organisation. They form an organismic and immanent conception which allowed both individuals and their cultures to live in close harmony with their environment and history. 

The exhibition includes several musical instruments from the region of Sepik. Their decorations evidently resemble human and animal shapes which represent ancestors and guardian spirits. The vibrations and sounds from richly carved and painted flutes and drums were considered to be the voices of spirits; these were as omnipresent in ceremonial contexts as in everyday life. These artworks played a major role in the culture of the Sepik peoples. Their main function was to emit vibrations and melodies that altered the normal sounds, so that the virtual ritual universes could manifest on earth. 

Wagan. Arte e musica del Sepik.

a cura di/edited by Francesco Paolo Campione
Edizioni MCL / Città di Lugano, Lugano 2006, 200 pp.
Altrarti 1
Chf 50.-