Figure (Uli)

Date: mid-19th–early 20th century

Geography: Papua New Guinea, Mandak-Barak area, New Ireland

Culture: Central New Ireland, Mandak-Barak region

Medium: Wood, paint, fiber, shell

Dimensions: H. 52 x W. 16 x D. 13 3/4 in. (132.1 x 40.6 x 34.9 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of Sarah d'Harnoncourt, 1977

Accession Number: 1977.455


Like their neighbors to the north and south, the artistic traditions of the peoples of central New Ireland formerly focused largely around mortuary rites. In contrast to the intricate malagan carvings of the north, artists in central New Ireland produced less ornate but more permanent figures known as uli, which were kept and reused many times. No longer made today, uli were displayed as part of lengthy fertility rites involving the exhumation and reburial of human skulls, which accompanied the planting of sacred plants.

Uli figures appear hermaphroditic, having both a phallus and prominent breasts. This blending of male and female features possibly symbolized the fertile and nourishing powers of clan leaders, who were expected to provide for the other members of the clan.