Prow sculpture, depicting a female ancestral figure


Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

Throughout New Guinea, ancestors play an essential role in the life of the living: villagers who have recently died, as well as mythical primeval ancestors. They are depicted in wooden sculptures and help the living in various aspects of life. These two probably represent mythical ancestors. The records that were supplied with the figures when the museum received them in 1930 are limited. Moreover, these are the only figures like this known from the period in this part of New Guinea. So it is difficult to say much about their significance.

Museum modesty
A photo taken in the 1930s, suggests that museum staff of the time feared that the conspicuous genitals might cause offence. The figures were displayed in the museum in skirts made of bark to cover the exposed body parts of the two ancestors.

The Tropenmuseum has several wooden sculptures sawn off the bows of boats. Many of the objects that European collectors sought were too big and heavy to transport whole. So they would ask for the ornaments on boats and houses to be sawn off. There is a famous story told by C.M.A. Groenevelt, a professional collector, sponsored by the Tropenmuseum and Rotterdam’s Ethnography Museum in the 1950s to buy items in New Guinea. He describes a meeting with government anthropologist Jan Pouwer who was researching the south coast:
“When I asked him whether I could have a couple of prow sculptures, he said that it was impossible. So I had a word with some of the guys and out at sea they sawed off the figurehead from a huge prow for me.”
Further along in the same report, Groenevelt admits that the transaction made him feel like an iconoclast, but to ship the whole 14-metre boat would have cost 2,500 guilders.

circa 201 x 30 x 27cm (79 1/8 x 11 13/16 x 10 5/8in.)

Source: collectie.tropenmuseum.nl

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  • Title: Prow sculpture, depicting a female ancestral figure
  • Date: 1/1930
  • Location: Humboldt-bay