Unidentified Abelam maker
Papua New Guinea
mid-20th century (probably before 1942)
Wood, pigment, and red and yellow ochre
Overall: 57 in. (144.8 cm)
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Harry A. Franklin Family Collection
Place Made: Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, Oceania
Not on view
Nggwalndu figures are the main art tradition represented inside the men’s cult houses among the Abelam in the hilly country north of the Sepik River. They are carvings of spirits, some of which appear in the rich repertoire of Abelam myths, told as a series of images carved in wood. Erected in the haus tambaran, or men’s cult house, these nggwalndu lean against the inside sago spathe walls of the cult house, often sitting on the ground, which is why most of these figures show signs of deterioration where they stood directly on the earthen floor. Some clans lean several dozen of these figures against the most sacred and powerful parts of the structure, although the pattern varied from village to village and from one clan to another. The figures often represented the spirits of powerful, long-dead ancestors, but it seems that many represented various spirits that have come into the men’s cult house to look after the men of the village and their families.
Men and their initiated sons often slept in the haus tambaran whenever they wanted to discuss important ritual matters, plans for fights with hostile neighbors, and problems with sickness in the village. Most women would never have seen these figures, as they were always hidden from view, in much the same way that men never discussed ritual matters and clan magic and spells within earshot of their wives, daughters, and uninitiated sons.
Several dozen of these carved figures standing up against the inside walls of the men’s house would have been an impressive sight. The effect in the flickering light of a fire would have been profound for the men, particularly since the dominant color, red, derived from red ochre paint, was so unusual among the other possessions of any family. Red ochre was typically reserved for men’s cult secrets.
From the 2019 exhibition Melanesian Art: The Sepik River and Abelam Hill Country, curated by Robert Welsch, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Franklin Pierce University
Art and Culture in New Guinea Societies: The Abelam and their Neighbors, Harrington Gallery Teaching Exhibition, Anthropology 47, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, March 28-April 30, 2000.
Melanesian Art: The Sepik River and Abelam Hill Country, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26-December 8, 2019.
The Art of Papua New Guinea: Selections from the Harry A. Franklin Family Collection, Alvin P. Gutman Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, November 1, 1993-February 13, 1995
Jane Benson Ackerman, The Hood Museum of Art: Ten Years of Making Art at Home in the Upper Valley, Upper Valley Magazine, November/December 1995, Volume 9, No. 6, Van Etten, Inc., 1995, pp. 22-29, ill. p. 26
Acquired by Harry A. Franklin (1903-1983), Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s; bequeathed to the Harry A. Franklin Family Collection, Los Angeles, California, 1983; lent to present collection, 1990; given to present collection, 1991.
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