Male ancestor figure named Malabi

c. 1890–1910

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art
Dallas, United States

At the village of Yamok, north of the Sepik River, Sawos men carved larger-than-life figures. Each figure represented a male ancestor, probably more mythological than real, and each had a name. These monumental sculptures once dominated the interior space of the men’s ceremonial house, where they were probably tied to the supporting architectural posts. As the posts supported the house, so the founding ancestors and their descendant clan members supported the village.

Standing tall and erect, seemingly on tiptoe, Malabi embodies vitality and authority. The large, oval face shows remnants of curvilinear painting, probably a reference to headhunting, and the spikes on the shoulders may once have supported skulls taken in headhunting raids. Painful scarification accompanied a young man’s initiation into the secret, exclusively male world of the ceremonial house. Several motifs on the sculpture probably represent scarification: the crescents on the breast area, the serpentine form that terminates in two bird heads (possibly cockatoos) on the torso, the concentric diamonds that surround the navel, and the parallel zigzag elements on the back and the left thigh.

The crocodile on Malabi’s right thigh may represent a specific clan totem (an animal, plant, inanimate object, or natural phenomenon with which man has a special relationship). During initiation rites, it is said that a supernatural crocodile devours the initiate, and that the incisions made in the initiate’s skin are intended to satisfy the appetite of the crocodile. The masklike faces on Malabi’s hands and feet represent bush or tree spirits associated with the hunting of wild pigs, which the Sawos considered a legitimate substitute for a human victim.


  • Title: Male ancestor figure named Malabi
  • Date Created: c. 1890–1910
  • Physical Dimensions: Overall: 89 1/2 x 13 1/4 x 9 in. (2 m 27.33 cm x 33.65 cm x 22.86 cm)
  • Type: Sculpture
  • External Link: https://www.dma.org/object/artwork/4230870/
  • Medium: Wood and paint
  • culture: Sawos people
  • Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.

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