Female Figure, 16th–early 19th century
Inyai–Ewa people, Korewori River, Middle Sepik region, Papua New Guinea
Wood; H. 66 1/4 in. (168 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965 (1978.412.857)
According to some accounts, the broad, flat female images of the Inyai-Ewa people of the Korewori River in northeast New Guinea portray two primordial sisters who helped to shape the world and, in one oral tradition, are said to be responsible for the creation of two of the valleys where the Inyai-Ewa live and hunt today. In some cases, these primordial women are also identified as clan ancestors and some of the figures may portray female clan founders. Unlike the more numerous one-legged male figures known as aripa, which were kept in the men's ceremonial house, these female images appear to have been created expressly for display in rockshelters, where they would have been visible to all members of the community. The rockshelters, which protected the figures from the elements, often enabled the images to survive for many centuries. Extant examples were primarily created between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, making them the earliest Melanesian wood sculptures to survive in substantial numbers.