Canoe Prow Ornament (Mani)

Humboldt Bay

Not on view

As in most island groups across Oceania, canoes are widely used along the northwest coast of New Guinea. Larger canoes are used for long-distance voyaging, while smaller vessels are used for fishing and other activities closer to shore. Across Oceania, canoes are considered animate, living vessels, in the same way the sea itself has its own agency as a living form. The prow – which is attached to the front of the canoe – is imbued with apotropaic power, charged with protecting the crew on their voyage. On the northwest coast of New Guinea, ancestral figures, animals, and birds adorn the prow ornaments (mani) and are associated with this protective function. The mani here, from Humboldt Bay, would have been attached to the prow at the front of the canoe with a fiber cord threaded through the hole at the bottom. The bird carved at the top would have sat perched at the highest point of the vessel, able to see far into the distance. Birds are significant symbols across Oceania because they are master wayfinders that have for centuries guided voyagers across the Pacific. Their flightpaths help navigators determine their own position and distance from land, and they also identify schools of fish to sustain people on their journey. The bird carved into this mani would have pointed away from the crew, facing the ocean and therefore looking out for fish and for any danger. Two smaller birds are carved underneath, with their beaks pointed upward to support the topmost bird, which is also held up by a shaft carved with openwork designs of symmetrical triangles. This motif appears across New Guinea as an abstracted form of a human figure facing forward with their arms and legs spread apart, knees and elbows touching. Down the middle of the openwork shaft is a thin black line that ends in a hand belonging to the topmost bird, who grips the sides of a horizontal figure with a human face. Possibly depicting an ancestor, the dynamic figure appears to be flying as it is swiftly carried by the bird above, facing the opposite direction to watch over the canoe’s crew.

Canoe Prow Ornament (Mani), Wood, paint, Humboldt Bay

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