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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Cave Sculpture from the Karawari

Flowing through ranges of hills and surrounding swampland, the Karawari River is one of numerous tributaries of the great Sepik River, which drains into the north coast of New Guinea. In a series of caves and rock shelters along the upper reaches of the Karawari, the Ewa people kept a remarkable series of wood carvings. Created and used by Ewa men during their lifetimes, the carvings were kept after their owners’ deaths. Preserved in the caves for generations, some of the carvings are between 200 and 400 years old, making them the oldest surviving examples of wood sculpture from New Guinea.

Although there are numerous variations, reflecting the individual visions of the sculptors who created them, the carvings are of three basic types. The first consist of thin, silhouette-like one-legged male figures seemingly made to be viewed in profile. The second are planklike female figures shown in frontal view, and the third small wood heads mounted on spikes.

While they also practiced agriculture, the Ewa were heavily dependent on hunting for their livelihood. The rich rainforests that surrounded them provided a variety of game, including wild pigs, tree kangaroos, and cassowaries (large ostrichlike birds). The one-legged male figures, called aripa, played a vital part in hunting magic. Representing individual helping spirits, each aripa served as a means by which an Ewa man could maintain contact with, and receive aid from, his helping spirit to bring him success in hunting.

Strikingly different from the one-legged aripa, the planklike two-legged female figures depicted very different subjects. These images were representations of ancient mythical women associated with the founding of the village clans. The small wooden heads also had important female associations, representing the “mother” of the men’s ceremonial house where all three types of figures were kept while their owners were alive.

The carvings from the Karawari caves first came to the attention of the wider world about forty years ago when the Ewa, having changed or abandoned their former beliefs, began to bring the carvings out of their caves and offer them for sale to Westerners. As a result, today these remarkable works of art from the Karawari can be seen in museums and private collections throughout the world.