Mariwai Project New York

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 New York is a proposition from the artist Shiva Lynn Burgos. It links the New York Kwoma Ceiling, with the people of Mariwai, a small Kwoma village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. It was in Mariwai that the ceiling panels were painted in the early 1970s. Of this group of artists only one is now alive, Paul Yapmunggwiyo Kwanggi. They were collected by Douglas Newton, director of the Museum of Primitive Art and later curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the intention of building a complete spirit house in New York. The whereabouts of the ceiling was unknown to the village and we do not believe that any Kwoma has ever seen the ceiling in New York.

Shiva Lynn Burgos is the first international contemporary artist to work in Mariwai. She has returned three times 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.

In August 2016 we again returned to Mariwai for a month. Shiva worked with the artists in painting the yamba finials and making the last decorations to make the new spirit house complete. We witnessed and participated in the naming ceremony and opening celebrations which lasted for five days. 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 are being edited to create an immersive experience by allowing the viewer to imagine being inside 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.