This fine old Ancestor Figure from the Keram River area which is a tributary of the Sepik River in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Dating from the late 19th – early 20th Century and using a unique iconography of a father carrying his son on his back. I looked at this sculpture for a long time trying to see if I was seeing it correctly, possible a double ancestor figure but I keep coming back to the idea that it is a father carrying his son on his back. The Keram River area has a unique style of art out of the many Sepik river cultures close by.
Carved from a single piece of hardwood and it never had a flat base to stand up independently as many early Sepik Figures are. The front view is a standing male ancestor with elongated almost vertical eyes, the nose is pierced and has a fibre string through the septum, the elongated head suggests he might be wearing a hair ornament. The reverse side of this figure looks like the normal back view of the ancestor figure except for the child that appears to be riding piggyback style but facing outwards as when people carry their kids in a backpack type carrier.
The German Anthropologist Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954) joined the expedition in January of 1913 and was assigned the Töpferfluss, known today as the Keram River. He reported on the many types of artworks made in this area especially the superb feather mosaics that were arranged into large-scale assemblages inside the men’s ceremonial houses for the initiation ceremonies of young men. See the fine article and photos in the Tribal Art Magazine by By Valentin Boissonnas in Winter 2018.
There are many types sculptures that are termed ” Maternity Figures” being a mother & child, this is a common artistic theme in all cultures including the Sepik River cultures but as far as I have seen this is a unique sculpture of a father and son. The many times I visited villages all of New Guinea & West Papua I often saw fathers carrying their children & holding them in a tender loving manner. So why not an ancestor sculpture of that subject matter.
Provenance: The Todd Barlin Collection of Oceanic Art. ( I am looking the other provenance for this figure, still to come )