Female Figure (Tetepeku)

Date: 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Papua New Guinea, Prince Alexander Mountains, Middle Sepik River

Culture: Abelam people

Medium: Wood, paint

Dimensions: H. 42 1/2 x W. 23 x D. 7 in. (108 x 58.4 x 17.8 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1962

Accession Number: 1978.412.819


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. Although the initiation cycle is restricted to men, its sacred spaces and sculptures are often suffused with female symbolism and imagery.

In the highest initiation rites, tetepeku, slender female images with long, widely spread legs are erected inside the men's ceremonial house above the main entrance and the entrances to the interior passages and initiation chamber. As they enter the house or initiation chamber, the male initiates stoop or crawl beneath the tetepeku figure, emerging from between her legs into the sacred space beyond, an act likely symbolic of the "rebirth" of the novices as initiated men. Once past the tetepeku, the full splendor of the initiation chamber, filled with brilliantly colored paintings and carvings representing the clan spirits (nggwalndu), is revealed. Although smaller than most examples, this figure is almost certainly a tetepeku image. Displaying the bold, volumetric style characteristic of early Abelam sculpture, this figure would originally have been brightly painted when in use. Showing evidence that it was repainted many times, it likely witnessed the transformation of generations of novices into initiated men.