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A Superb Old New Guinea Kowar Ancestor Figure from Geelvink Bay West Papua Irian Jaya Indonesia


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Collection No. TB-1819
Size Height: 39cm
Oceanic Arts Australia buys and sells tribal New Guinea art

A Superb Old New Guinea Kowar Ancestor Figure from Geelvink Bay West Papua Irian Jaya Indonesia dating from the late 19th Century 

This fine old Korwar Ancestor Figure is from the Geelvink Bay area on the NW Coast of West Papua Irian Jaya Indonesia.

Carved by a very skilled artist from a single piece of wood. The figure’s hair is made of cassowary bird feathers neatly put into small holes over the entire head.

What’s special about this Korwar is that it was clearly made to honour an important or high-ranking female ancestor, possibly the wife of a chief.  She may also represent the wife and child of the “supreme divinity” who is the creative power in the universe.  She is distinctly female with breasts but most significantly has an infant clinging to its back which is unique.  The impressive facial tattooing was carved and then highlighted with a heated metal object or glowing wooden poker.  The angles and fluidness of the sculpture’s hands and legs are carefully duplicated in the infant.

The peoples of the coasts and islands of Cenderawasih Bay in northwest New Guinea formerly created Korwar, figures that portrayed recently deceased ancestors. Korwar images served as supernatural intermediaries, allowing the living to communicate with the dead, who remained actively involved in family and community affairs. When a family member died, his or her relatives summoned a carver, typically a religious specialist, who created a korwar and enticed the spirit of the deceased to enter it.

Although the sex of the figures is often difficult to determine, all were either male or female, depending on the gender of the deceased. Kept by the family, korwar was consulted during crises and prior to important undertakings, such as trading voyages, warfare, or fishing. When a Korwar‘s advice proved sound, it was shown great deference. However, if the advice a korwar provided proved wrong, the living at times vented their anger on the figure, hurling it against the walls or house posts or even destroying it.

Many Surrealists artists gained inspiration from Korwar Figures and Oceanic Art in general.  Andre Breton was one of the leaders of the surrealist movement in art and literature that flourished in the early twentieth century it was aimed at expressing imaginative dreams and visions free from conscious rational control. In his office, there are photos of serval Korwar Figures on his magnificent Art Wall one of which is now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Provenance:  The Todd Barlin Collection of New Guinea and Oceanic Art.

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