How PNG tribal art inspires sculptor Dion Horstmans

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Sculptor Dion Horstmans describes his passion for items he found in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Plus his love of a more urban object: his 1964 Pontiac Parisienne.

You’re an artist who collects ethnographic art. How many pieces do you have?

About 100, from crocodile skull pendants to bone daggers to tapa cloths. One of my favourite pieces is from a village called Waskuk in Papua New Guinea; it has a nose that looks like a phallus. I bought that on an earlier trip in 1995, when I was on a buying expedition with a guy called Jim Elmslie. We collected items from villages up the Sepik River and along the way we stopped in Waskuk. The villagers brought out their pieces from under their huts and there was this piece that I bought for a kina [40¢].

What was the first piece you bought?

A shield from the PNG Highlands. I was working for Elmslie, who had a business importing primitive art from New Guinea. He had a bunch of high-end stuff. Since then the primitive art market has kind of gone belly-up and I’ve gotten rid of a lot of pieces. But I’ve kept the pieces that resonated with me.

Such as your shield and spear?

The spear is from Tambanum, which is a village on the Sepik River. You fly into [Port] Moresby, and then fly to a town called Wewak, on the north side of New Guinea over the Highlands. Then you truck from Wewak to a village called Angoram. Then you take a canoe to Tambanum. It’s a real spear, used daily to hunt crocodiles or pig or cassowary. Any bush tucker that moves, that you can eat, they use the spear for.

The shield is also from Tambanum. The swirling pattern, that shape is used on their buildings, on poles, it’s carved into stools. It’s a recurring shape.

What drew you to this art form?

Horstmans with one of his favourite pieces. Louie Douvis

Growing up in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. The tribal graphics in NZ are really bold; the diamonds and triangles are very linear. Everything is drawn from nature, whether it’s a fern frond or a shell or a palm frond. Those primal shapes and colours, I really relate to them.

Tell us about your Polynesian heritage.

My father is from Niue, which is a little island in the middle of the Pacific. Captain Cook called it Savage Island. It’s a rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty isolated and harsh. I went out there once looking for my father, in my early 20s.

Horstmans with his beloved Pontiac Parisienne. Louie Douvis

You’re known for your geometric and jagged sculptures made of powder-coated steel. Do these ethnographic artworks influence your own art?

Yes, those bold patterns and shapes, that you see on tapa cloths from Samoa or Tonga, they’re very much diamonds and triangles. The patterns are repeated over and over. Where I started from, I extrapolated a shape out of the repetition of triangles. And then I strung them together in a random way. From there, my practice has evolved. I passed light through it and ended up with a shadow. I really liked the shadow so I rebuilt the shape of the shadow, and then I’ve cast light and rebuilt that. It’s an ongoing process.

Your crocodile-shaped coffee table must be a talking point when guests come around?

In New Guinea it’s referred to as a puk puk. The first time I went there, I stayed in Yangoru on the way to Tambanum. There was a guy called Geoffrey who’s the same age as me; we bonded straight away. I was 27, pretty young, and I saw this table and thought it was amazing.

Geoffrey’s old man had made it. It’s a beautiful piece and I wanted to buy it. But I didn’t want to just give money. So I went back the following year in 1996 with a big Sony boom box that I’d bought duty-free and a bunch of batteries and some discs, and traded him all that for the puk puk table. I still have the table and can guarantee you that Geoffrey doesn’t still have the boom box.

Is your girlfriend as much into ethnographic art?

Not at all. She looks at it and goes ‘yeah, that’s your thing’. I think Grace would have much less stuff in the house. She would have dust-free, object-free surfaces.

You’ve also got a 1964 Pontiac Parisienne? What do you love about that?

What’s not to love? It’s got a fat wide arse. It’s low. It’s like sitting in a lounge. It’s the best of what the Americans created; in the Space Race in the ’60s, they were trying to get a man on the moon. There were missiles and rockets; it was smack bang in the middle of the Cold War. From the back it looks like a flying saucer.

How do you find parallel parking?

It’s easier to park my Parisienne than a Toyota Yaris.