Frank Herrmann, Frank Herrmann Art, Frank Herrmann Painting, Frank Herrmann Drawings, Frank Herrmann Watercolors, Frank Herrmann University of Cincinnati, Frank Herrmann Recent Work, Frank Herrmann 2017

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CONTEMPORARY TRANSLATIONS OF A PRIMORDIAL WORLD

by Steve Chiaramonte

 

In an inhospitable lowland jungle of mangroves and unpredictable flooding tides. Caught between a massive equatorial cordillera and a shallow, innavigable and roiling sea. Teeming with mosquitoes, the largest of ferocious salt water crocodiles and deadly snakes that glide through the air from trees above to strike at the throat of those unwary. Brackish and muddy, a fragile alluvial wasteland hardly able to support life of any kind. Six thousand square miles mostly swamp and isolated from all the world. Unsuited to agriculture and unapproachable from the sea, a nether land where introduced livestock falters and fails. This is the paradise and the paradox of Asmat.

Humankind could not possibly exist here, yet they do. Somehow. Perhaps seventy thousand Asmat people make their home here. These are the Papuan descendants of a people thought to have crossed, almost impossibly, north to south from the lowlands of north-central New Guinea to the swamps of the southwest. Escaping tribal war, famine, ecological decline, natural disaster and perhaps all of these to some degree, the Asmat are thought to have arrived at their present home on the coasts of southwest New Guinea only some four hundred years ago.

While an ancient culture on Easter Island was erecting the last of its giant Moai, at a precipice about to fade from existence, the ancestors of today’s Asmat were undertaking a migration that would allow them to persevere. A people without written language, they are a culture of storytellers. Myths; creation, war, salvation. Celebration; life, death, initiation. The stories of the Asmat have indeed been recorded for a century or more; if not by written word then instead sculpted in wood. These are the libraries of the Asmat; a rich and diverse collection of history, knowledge and religious belief carved into wood and blended into their material culture at every point. The Asmat are held at all times in the graces of their ancestors; protected but controlled. The spirits of those passed, every tree, every tool, each day, inhabits all of Asmat. The art of the Asmat is how man communicates with the greater cosmos.

For the first several centuries in their new home, the Asmat must have struggled to establish themselves, learning to live in a place perhaps more difficult that that from which they had fled. These must have been the times of their historical genesis, as little in their mythology can be understood to reach further in their history. By the 17th century the Dutch explorers Willem Jansz and Jan Carstenz had recorded brief, chance encounters with the Asmat and later, upon making landfall in Asmat to replenish supplies of fresh water and food, the men of Captain James Cook exchanged hostilities with frightened Asmat warriors. A nearly forgotten holding of the V.O.C. (the Dutch East Indies Company) for a long period, then a buffer between the Allies and Japan during the second war, Asmat land and people became world news in the 1960s upon the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller and descriptions of his demise in this land of unforgiving seas, fierce crocodiles and headhunting cannibals.

The Asmat of the 21st century lead a challenging existence. An overwhelming cultural swell from the west has brought an end too much of their tradition of headhunting, cannibalism has all but been eliminated and Catholicism along with pockets of protestant missionaryism has created a hybrid Asmat cosmos. The sovereign authority of Indonesia, a desire for the material wealth exhibited by missions and tourists, and the exploitation of the regions rich natural resources have provided an unyielding catalyst for change. The Asmat today are torn by the coercion, temptation and innovation brought about by a cultural evolution which pits traditional beliefs against western concepts of progress.

From a visual perspective, Asmat art fits reasonably within our expectations for the arts of coastal New Guinea. Of course this has a great deal to do with the materials available to the New Guinean people, and otherwise to their environment, their beliefs and ways of life. Historically a land with no stone or metal, the Asmat had learned their intricate carving skills using bone and shell as their primary tools. The trees or particular woods chosen for carving were governed by a belief system which required that particular objects could be carved from only a single species of tree, and further, that other species were completely taboo. Many of these trees are softwood varieties that yield themselves well to a bone chisel pounded with a coconut or wooden mallet. The heavy and hard ironwood trees were never carved by the Asmat until they were convinced in the 1960s by missionaries that they would not sicken and die if they did so. Soon after, they were taught how to roughly carve this difficult wood when green and finish the fine details once the wood had dried. Finish-carving on the hardwoods required the flattened nail found in flotsam on the shore and eventually the steel chisels provided by outsiders, but surprisingly, only in recent years have western tools found general acceptance. Likewise string and cord was fashioned from the bark of the paper mulberry as seen in so many traditional cultures and only slowly did the fishing line and bits of western cloth find their way into Asmat "modern art". There have been other changes to Asmat art over the century or so of historical record and of course, today there is also a "market" for Asmat carvings that find there way to various collections across the world.

What has changed little in Asmat however is the respect and awe that is reserved for the best of the ritual carvers. Perhaps more so than in our familiar western society, The Asmat carver is cared for and revered as a shaman of sorts. Once recognized for his capacity to carve powerful imagery into his work, he is similarly known for his ability to embody the spirits of the ancestors into wood. In this way the Asmat are able to both placate and control the ancestral spirits who share their world at every moment. The ritual wood carver is among the most important member of the Asmat village, an important figure who shares his wisdom amongst the similarly respected orators and warriors in the village. These carvers, there may be just one or several, are called upon professionally by the people in a village to create commissioned objects for many of the most important life events. For instance, when a person dies in Asmat and his death is not a direct result of warfare, it is traditionally thought to be the result of magic perpetrated by a neighboring village. These deaths and indeed nearly all deaths must be avenged if there is to remain equilibrium in the village. The carving of wood, and the embodiment of the spirit into that carving, is required in order to placate the spirit world. Today nearly every Asmat man might carve objects for everyday use or sale to tourists, but the ritual carver remains a powerful man at the core of this language of art.

So what is it then that connects the work of a western painter and university professor with the expressions of ritual hunter-gatherers a hemisphere away and across the equator? Is it some primordial desire of expression? An artists sense of space, color or texture? Are spirits embodied in these paintings and is equilibrium somehow restored? Does the completion of a painting here in the American Midwest initiate a feast? Clearly not a cannibal feast to appease the ancestors!

As a collector, enthusiast and student of Asmat art and culture for many years, I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank Hermann since the earliest part of 2001 when we became acquainted pursuant to his research on Asmat art. Passionate about his pursuits, I discovered Frank to be an inquisitive man of untold artistic talents. Ours was a fast friendship founded on a common passion for art and academic study. In my case the study of Asmat art and culture and in the case of Frank, the study of how these very same data would come to affect and influence his own creative art. Once coming to know Frank better, I found him thoroughly infused with the imagery of the Aboriginal churinga. Within a short time however, I witnessed his interest migrate and evolve toward a concentration on the complex and profound imagery resident in traditional Asmat carving. Over time, I watched Frank adapt and change to his growing knowledge and wonder about the Asmat and their art. 

In discussions with Frank, he relates three stages in that development. Initially of course, his discovery of the imagery and a beginning to understand the history, myth and ritual that forms the basis of thought underlying the powerful imagery. The series of painting the Frank calls “Thinking” draws on these initial discoveries. Next Frank became interested and perplexed at the same time by his understanding of the physical conditions of Asmat. These thoughts and discoveries formed an intellectual basis for the series of paintings he called “Safan I, II & III” as well as the paintings “Decline, Change Evolve I & II and Asmat Specimen”. The latest developments of Franks continuing interest in Asmat imagery is represented in his third series is a series of paintings. These paintings stretch the boundaries of Asmat thought and display the raw influence of their work in various abstractions in paint. Derived from a now well-assembled database of Asmat imagery, perception and experience, this abstract series departs from direct Asmat forms to incorporate threads of thought and bits of data in a true development of western origin.

Wielding both his enthusiasm and his wondrous ability to draw on the imagery of the Asmat for his own creations, within just a single year Frank had made a profound impact on my own interpretation of traditional art. In the autumn of 2001 I was honored to host Frank at an exhibition I had assembled for the Department of Visual Arts at Weber State University in Utah. Spellbound Vision (viewing Asmat art through the eyes of the western contemporary artist) was a smashing success due in part to the nine insightful paintings contributed by Frank as well as to his thoughts and discussions freely shared with students, faculty and patrons of the exhibition. Describing for me the influences provided him by the Asmat, Frank opened an entire horizon of study that now accounts for a good deal of my work with Asmat material and beyond.  

Speaking as a steward of the Asmat in our culture of the west, standing as a surrogate for the Asmat in this world as we know it, I have found Frank Hermann’s western eye and modern artistic talents to serve as a Trojan Horse within which the Asmat carver is able to enter the consciousness of a public not always willing or able to accept the strong and initially foreign concept of Asmat imagery. Having created and interpreted this bridge between two artistic worlds is an important feat.