Skull Hook (Agiba), 19th–early 20th century
Kerewa people, Pai'ia'a village, western Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea
Wood, paint; H. 55 7/8 in. (141.9 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969 (1978.412.796)
The most important sacred objects of the Kerewa people of the western Papuan Gulf in southeast New Guinea were agiba, flat, boardlike figures created for the display of human skulls. In the past, headhunting formed an integral element of religious practices throughout the Papuan Gulf, honoring the spirits (imunu) whose powers sustained the community. Kerewa men formerly lived in communal men's houses divided into cubicles in which the members of each clan or subclan slept. Each cubicle housed a clan shrine containing one or more agiba and other sacred objects.
Agiba symbolized the vitality and martial prowess of the clan, presiding over the skulls obtained by its members, which were hung from it by loops of rattan placed over the hooklike projections at the base. At times, a platform was constructed below the image to support the weight of the assembled skulls. Only men who had captured an enemy head were entitled to carve agiba. The image reportedly represented a spirit, which revealed itself to the carver in a dream.