KORWAR, STATUE OF A SITTING ANCESTOR
Origin: MacCluergulf, Papua New Guinea
Height: 53 cm
First part of the 20th century
Provenance: Lucas Dosi Delfini (1939-2012), curator Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Anthropomorphic figures originating from the Teluk Berau (MacCluergulf) in Papua Barat are rare. About their function and significance is little known. Only divided by an isthmus from the better known Teluk Cenderawasih (Geelvinck Bay) these statues were likened to the korwar, ancestor statues, but aesthetically regarded of lesser importance, (Van Baaren, 1968).
Simon Kooijman, at that time the curator of the Leiden National Museum of Ethnography responsible for the Melanesian cultures, was in 1962 the first author to write on this subject and eventually the last one. He could rely on only five reports written by such persons as government officials and missionaries. Most of these reports were published well before World War II and only one report was written as late as 1959. Relying on fifteen examples Kooijman made a distinction between standing and sitting figures. He concluded that the former were distinct ancestor figures and the latter were more recently deceased ancestors, locally referred to as mutuo or mutuai. It was not always clear which function and significance they had as these were poorly communicated by local informants, but one field reporter in the early 20th century remarked that these ‘wooden dolls’ were made after a death. They were used as a medium to communicate with the spirit of the deceased (Kooijman, 1969-1970). Kooiman, working with this limited corpus of statues agrees when he states that the human figures are characterised by ‘a certain flatness, by a static, often stiff posture, and by an absence of expression’ admitting, though exceptions referring to a statue acquired in the 1950s by the colonial physician M. van Rhijn (plate: IX, fig. 3a-b) (Kooiman, 1972). The present item also refutes the common charateristics of this cultural area.
The local way of carving which comes to the fore in the wedged thin legs and narrow torso has been treated in such a way that it escapes stiffness. Cut out of dark hard wood the surface shows the treatment with a carver’s adze. Abraison, small insect holes and partially dark patina bear witness to the statue’s age. Not only in this respect, but also in the treatment of specific details, such as the legs, eyes, mouth and ears this statue can be compared to the MacCluergulf statue once in the possession of Gijsbertus Oudshoorn (1894-1965) and which is now in the collection of the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam (TM 4133-131).
The head has been rendered with an expression not commonly found, the white ceramic shards inset eyes in combination with holes for mouth and ears, accentuated nostrils and the hands delicately touching the cheeks bestows it a feeling of a kind of astonishment.
Ref.: Kooiman, S. (1962), Ancestor figures from the MacCluergulf area of New Guinea. A variation of the korwar style’, Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, no.: 15, 63-80
Baaren, Th. P. van (1968), Korwars and korwar style, The Hague: Mouton