Canoe Prows on the Sepik River
Canoes offer the easiest way to travel within the Sepik River region. One or several men can stand in dugout canoes propelling these craft with long hardwood paddles. Women’s canoes are smaller and rarely decorated with prow ornaments. Canoes are essentially the same from the far Upper Sepik region through the Middle Sepik to the mouth of this great river, which is the longest in New Guinea. They differ in the shape and character of their prows, which generally represent the stylized head of a crocodile. This assemblage of prow ornaments from the Franklin Collection illustrates the region’s diversity of styles and specifically represents the three major regions of the river: the Lower Sepik, the Middle Sepik, and the Upper Sepik.
Among the Middle Sepik groups, artists traditionally strived for more or less realistic carvings, sometimes achieving extremely realistic results. In the lower reaches of the Sepik, the prows were typically shorter, rounder, and more highly stylized. Among the Upper Sepik groups, the carvings were much more stylized and often heavily painted with white clay and red ochre paints.
The original canoes were quite long, mostly between 20 and 35 feet. Since few collectors could ship whole canoes back to the United States or even Australia, very few whole canoes can be found in any museum’s collection. Instead, field collectors used axes and bush knives to cut off the prow ornaments, assuming that the canoe owner could patch up the canoes and continue to use them.
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
Melanesian Art: The Sepik River and Abelam Hill Country, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26-December 8, 2019.
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, 1997.
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