Canoe prow ornament


About this object

This very early sculpture is one of a pair which entered Liverpool Museum in 1867, recorded in an 1882 catalogue of the collections as 'Figures carved in wood from boats, or idols, painted red, black and white, the eyes inlaid with the opercula of the Turbo.' It is probably a 'malagan' figure and may be a prow ornament from a soul boat, a model canoe displayed at memorial ceremonies. It is one of the oldest figures from New Ireland in any museum collection.

The sculpture depicts a humanoid male figure, standing with slightly bent knees on a plinth, arms sharply bent at the elbow and hands touching its shoulders or the flat, curved piece of wood which extends from the area of the loincloth at the front, over the shoulders and down to the plinth at the back, narrowing and ending in a fish's head. Snakes extending up from the plinth bite the figure's elbows on each side.

The head has the lower half of the face jutting forwards, with a hooked nose and eye areas elliptical and slanted, resembling fish shapes which continue in a fairly symmetrical way over the back of the head. The irises are formed by sea snail operculae (the flaps that close the snails' shells). The mouth is relatively small and oval in shape. Two raised ridges, joined at the tip, run from the forehead to the back of the head, where they re-join and extend downwards to join the back covering. The area in between, on the top of the head, is filled with resin or fruit paste, with many small depressions in the surface.

The figure is painted in red, black and white, with a black loincloth, armlets, snakes, the eye area on its right side and probably the chest and back covering originally also. The eye area on the left is red.

Object specifics

  • Type
    Religion; Art
  • Culture
  • Artist/Maker
  • Place made
    Oceania: Melanesia: Papua New Guinea
  • Date made
    1867 before
  • Materials
    Pigment; Wood; Seed or Fruit Paste; Sea Snail Operculae
  • Location
    World Museum, Level 3, World Cultures
  • Acquisition
    Gift of Joseph Mayer, 1867
  • Collector
    Joseph Mayer
  • Place collected
    Not recorded
  • Date collected
    1867 before
  • Measurements
    580 mm x 160 mm x 170 mm
  • Related people
    Joseph Mayer ( Associated Person, collector, previous owner)


Previous owners

  • Joseph Mayer

    Owned from: Unknown or unrecorded
    How acquired: Unknown or unrecorded
    Owned until: 1867
    Disposal method: Unknown or unrecorded
Object view = Humanities
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