Ancestor Figure (Korwar)

late 19th–early 20th century
Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Cenderawasih Bay region
Cenderawasih Bay
Wood, glass beads
H. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Fred and Rita Richman Gift and Rogers Fund, 2001
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Formerly in the collection of the Surrealist poet and theoretician André Breton (1896–1966), this remarkable korwar, or ancestor figure, exemplifies the distinctive approach to the human form that prompted many Surrealists to seek inspiration in Oceanic art. Created in the Cenderawasih Bay region of northwestern New Guinea, korwar represented individuals who had recently died. Each served as a supernatural container into which the spirit of the newly deceased ancestor could be called for consultation or the presentation of offerings.
    Korwar imagery was highly conventionalized, depicting the ancestor in a seated or standing position with the robust head and arrow-shaped nose that are the hallmarks of the style. Although the sex of the figures is often difficult to determine, all were originally male or female, depending on the gender of the deceased. Normally kept in the house of the deceased's family, korwar were also carried along on dangerous sea voyages to assure a successful outcome. Cenderawasih canoes had korwar heads incorporated into their prow and stern ornaments, and miniature korwar were carried as amulets. The pervasive presence of these ancestor images protected the living and emphasized the importance of ancestors in all aspects of everyday life.

  • Provenance

    Musée de L'Homme, Paris; André Breton, Paris, until 1931; (Hotel Drouot Rive Gauche, Paris, 1931, no. 37); private collection, possibly more than one; [Anthony J. P. Meyer, Galerie Meyer, Paris]; Luciano Lanfranchi, Milan, Italy; [Davide Manfredi, Milan, Italy, until 2001]

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History