Canoe Prow, Wood, cowrie shells, Iatmul people

Canoe Prow

19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Mindimbit village, Middle Sepik River
Iatmul people
Wood, cowrie shells
L. 71 1/2 in. (181.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1955
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 354
Crocodiles play a central role in the art and culture of the Iatmul people. According to one Iatmul creation account, an ancestral crocodile was responsible for forming the land. In the beginning, the earth was covered by a primordial ocean, into whose depths the crocodile dived. Reaching the bottom, it brought up on its back a load of mud, which became an island when it surfaced. From that island, the land grew and hardened, but it continues to rest on the back of the ancestral crocodile, which occasionally moves, causing earthquakes. Both now and in the past, the prows of most sizeable canoes are carved, as here, in the form of a crocodile. The scale of the present work indicates that it probably adorned a large war canoe, capable of holding from fifteen to twentyfive men. These large canoes, hollowed from a single massive log, were also used for trading and fishing expeditions. Although canoes are no longer used in warfare, contemporary Iatmul carvers continue to make large examples for use in trade and general transportation.
[Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, until 1955]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1955–1978

Museum of Primitive Art. Masterpieces in the Museum of Primtive Art: Africa, Oceania, North America, Mexico, Central to South America, Peru. Handbook series. New York, NY: Museum of Primitive Art, 1965, nos. 40.a and 40.b.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 174.

Forge, J. Anthony. "Art and Environment in the Sepik." In Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, edited by Carol F. Jopling. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1971, p. 293.

The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 135.

Dinerman, Ina R. "Iatmul Art as Iconography (New Guinea)." Anthropos vol. 76 (1981), pp. 807–94; see p. 819.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, no. 41, p. 82.

Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 43.