Seated Figure, late 19th–early 20th century
Satawan Island, Caroline Islands
Wood, shell, traces of paint and resin; H. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm)
Purchase, The Fred and Rita Richman Family Foundation Fund, in memory of Douglas Newton, 2003 (2003.8)
Artists in a number of areas of the Caroline Islands created similar seated figures, suggesting that these widespread images share a common origin and function. The present work is among a small group of examples that show evidence of substantial age and use, indicating that they were employed in indigenous contexts. The precise significance of the seated figures, which are often, as here, of indeterminate gender, is uncertain. What historical evidence exists comes mostly from the island of Hatobei, where a stone example recovered archaeologically suggests the tradition is of some antiquity.
The figures may represent ancestors. If so, like ancestor images elsewhere in Oceania, they likely served as vehicles through which ancestral spirits could be contacted and venerated during rituals. On Hatobei, seated figures were also used in canoe magic during which malevolent spirits were captured within, or lured away by, the image, which was placed in a model canoe and sent out to sea to expel the spirits from the community.
With its stylized facial features and angular body, this figure embodies the spare, minimalist approach to the human form typical of Micronesian art. The domed head and smoothly curving browlines contrast with the angularity of its thin, lozenge-shaped mouth and markedly pointed chin, giving the face an almost masklike appearance. The body is rendered as a series of interlocking angular forms, with the hands, which are only subtly indicated, resting on the knees.