Date: late 19th century
Geography: Papua New Guinea, New Ireland
Culture: Southern New Ireland
Medium: Chalk, paint
Dimensions: H. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Evelyn A. J. Hall, 1981
Accession Number: 1981.331.5
Representing individuals who had recently died, kulap figures were distinctive to southern New Ireland. Used throughout the region, they were created by specialists living in the Rossel Mountains, where the quarries that provided the fine, chalklike limestone from which the figures were fashioned were located. When a family member died, a male relative journeyed to the mountains and acquired or commissioned a male or female kulap, depending on the sex of the deceased. After returning home, the figure was erected, together with other kulap, within a shrine constructed inside a ceremonial building that was surrounded by an enclosure.
The kulap figures served as temporary abodes for the spirits of the dead, which might otherwise wander, causing harm to the living. Only men were permitted inside the ceremonial enclosure and allowed to view the images. However, women often gathered outside the compound to mourn their lost relatives. After an appropriate period of time had elapsed, the figures were removed from the shrine in secret and destroyed or, during the colonial period, often sold to Westerners.