Ancestor Figure (Korwar)

Date: late 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Indonesia, Papua Province (Irian Jaya), Cenderawasih Bay region

Culture: Cenderawasih Bay

Medium: Wood, glass beads

Dimensions: H. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Purchase, Fred and Rita Richman Gift and Rogers Fund, 2001

Accession Number: 2001.674


The peoples of the coasts and islands of Cenderawasih Bay in northwest New Guinea formerly created korwar, figures that portrayed recently deceased ancestors. Formerly in the collection of the Surrealist poet and theoretician André Breton (1896–1966), this remarkable korwar exemplifies the distinctive approach to the human form that prompted many Surrealists to seek inspiration in Oceanic art. Korwar images served as supernatural intermediaries, allowing the living to communicate with the dead, who remained actively involved in family and community affairs. When a family member died, his or her relatives summoned a carver, typically a religious specialist, who created a korwar and enticed the spirit of the deceased to enter it.

Korwar imagery was highly conventionalized, depicting the ancestor in a seated or standing position with the robust head and arrow-shaped nose that are the hallmarks of Cenderawasih carving. Although the sex of the figures is often difficult to determine, all were either male or female, depending on the gender of the deceased. Kept by the family, korwar were consulted during crises and prior to important undertakings, such as trading voyages, warfare, or fishing. When a korwar's advice proved sound, it was shown great deference. However, if the advice a korwar provided proved wrong, the living at times vented their anger on the figure, hurling it against the walls or house posts or even destroying it.