Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Figure (Nggwalndu)

19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Prince Alexander Mountains, Middle Sepik River region
Abelam people
Wood, paint
H. 93 x W. 12 x D. 9 1/2 in. (236.2 x 30.5 x 24.1 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1967
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
The Abelam people of the Prince Alexander Mountains north of the Sepik River practice perhaps the longest and most spectacular initiation cycle of any New Guinea people. Beginning in childhood, each Abelam male must pass through eight separate initiation rites over the course of twenty to thirty years, before he is a fully initiated man. Each successive ritual requires both a physical ordeal and the viewing of increasingly elaborate displays of sacred objects in specially constructed chambers within the men’s ceremonial house. This process continues until the final rites, in which the initiate is shown the largest and most sacred of all displays—the brilliantly painted figures and other images portraying the powerful clan spirits called nggwalndu. The largest nggwalndu images are used during this final ritual. Although nggwalndu figures are impressive works of sculpture, to the
Abelam, their efficacy lies in the bright polychrome paints applied to their surfaces. For the Abelam, paint is a magical substance that endows the figures with supernatural power and beauty. In creating their displays, artists strive to achieve a visual magnificence that will overwhelm the viewer. This monumental nggwalndu figure, impressive even now, must have been awe-inspiring when freshly painted and set amidst the scores of brilliantly colored paintings and figures that lined the initiation chamber, which would have been lit by the flickering fire.
Roy James Hedlund, 1964; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1964, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1964–1967; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1967–1978

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