It has been a little more than a year since Canadian artist Christopher Griffin traveled to remote Irian Jaya, unaware of plans under way to build an environmentally destructive dam on a river called the Mamberamo.
He had come to the easternmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago to draw inspiration from its reclusive aboriginal people. Griffin now hopes that by sharing the beauty of that culture, he can focus world attention on saving it.
The Mamberamo dam, if constructed, will flood the surrounding old-growth tropical forest, destroying the homeland of a West Papuan tribe. This volatile environmental issue and the profound contact Griffin had with the people of Irian Jaya are at the heart of the exhibit "Mamberamo" in the Esther Prangley Rice Gallery at Western Maryland College.
In Irian Jaya, Griffin, one of the few white men welcomed by the tribe, traveled with an ink bottle attached to his belt, using bamboo implements to draw the indigenous people.
Calligraphy winds across "Irian Jaya" (black ink on textured rice paper), with vertical stick marks -- representing swords -- across the top craggy fibers of the stock. Simple and definitively applied black impressions establish the elegant, sparse boldness of the ink as one figure starts and flows into another.
This orchestrated flow is reminiscent of writer/artist Henri Michaux's spontaneous, mescaline-induced drawings. Here, a personal free-association method imprints a visual re-enactment of tribal activity that is immediate and deeply moving.
Many of Griffin's paintings have a recurring pattern of tiny, rough-hewn squares. In "Sunspot," these mechanically repetitive shapes seem to represent the constancy of destruction and modernization.
This canvas of wraith-like charcoal figures and cold gray-blue boxes, unremittingly placed, symbolizes the conflicts and possible chaos associated with environmental disasters and displaced indigenous peoples.
"Yangasingilu II" (oil on canvas) is a direct rendering executed by Griffin while the entire tribe was watching. "It put incredible pressure on the person because the people of the tribe would laugh or point," Griffin said. "Some of the models seemed to like this attention, while others seemed to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed."
Griffin works rapidly. The portrait "Yangasingilu II" was composed in about 20 minutes using a stick as a brush. A face appears surrounded by cobalt blue and dark gray-black strokes. Neon-orange highlights envelop inscrutably dark eyes. Yellow ocher daubs form the model's nose, a nose that accommodates an electric white, bone nose piece. It is a rare, unadulterated view of a Papuan.
There is an obvious reverence at the heart of the works in this exhibition, an example of documentation that breaks through the restrictive image boundaries set by camera and film.
Where: Esther Prangley Rice Gallery, Western Maryland College, Westminster
When: Monday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Through Nov. 5