In northeastern Papua New Guinea, on the coastline of Astrolabe Bay, monumental images of male or female ancestral heroes, called telum, were the focal points of ritual and spiritual life. Featuring a highly expressive archaic-cubist style, Astrolabe Bay telum figures appear to be of great age and were probably created by a northern New Guinea proto-culture that influenced both Sepik River and Huon Gulf cultural regions. The similarity between the figures like the present lot and Biwat (Mundugumor) spirit figures from a sacred flute (wusear), as well as to the masks and other figural sculpture from the Huon Gulf and Peninsula, attests to the very close cultural relationships between these styles and the art-historical importance of Astrolabe Bay figural sculpture.
The offered figure is extremely well documented for a work from Melanesia. It was one of the earliest works from Papua New Guinea to arrive in Europe after having been collected in situ in 1889 by the German explorer Hugo Zöller on the occasion of his expedition to the Finisterre Mountains. Another figure collected by Zöller during this expedition was later acquired by Marcia and John Friede and is today one of the centerpieces of the JOLIKA Collection at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Due to their distinctive style, great age and extreme rarity, Astrolabe Bay telum figures have become icons of Papua New Guinea art. In addition to the present lot, only four comparable figures exist:
- one in the JOLIKA Collection of Marcia and John Friede at the M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco (collected in situ by Hugo Zöller in 1889, together with the present lot)
- a second in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkerkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands
- a third in the Vereinigte Evangelische Mission, Wuppertal, Germany
- and a fourth in the Ethnographic Museum, Budapest.
While the aforementioned figures all represent males, the offered figure is the only female in the group. It is also the only one to remain in private hands.
In his discussion of the offered figure at the occasion of the landmark exhibition Sculptur uit Afrika en Oceanië - Sculpture from Africa and Oceania, at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, Dirk Smidt (in Kooten and Heuvel 1990: 310-312) notes: “‘The sculptures and masks of the [Astrolabe Bay] region are highly valued rarities, and unavailable on the art market' [Stöhr 1987: 84]. Zöller, who procured the piece illustrated here [= the present lot] in 1889, provided no specific documentation. All he managed to report was that: ‘With patience and friendliness we managed, by walking back from the Finisterre Mountains, to buy a number of these old ancestor statues, which are often erroneously thought to be gods’ [Zöller, cited in Schmitz 1959]. Such figures, called telum (tselum, silim, schulum), were already no longer obtainable locally by the turn of the century . And before that time they had been seen by outsiders only sporadically.
“It is probably ancestors (or at events people who when alive had played a major role in society), possibly even mythical ancestors whom the telum represents. Each telum had its own name. Once every so many years a great feast was held for a telum and the men associated with it, when it was positioned amidst the revelers. It may have played an important part in the ritual circumcision of boys, as part of their initiation. Normally, the telum was set up in a men’s house, the asa-tal, which was associated with a particular clan. The impression created by certain authors that some of these statues stood outside, may have arisen from the fact that early travelers, as we can read in their reports, sometimes asked the inhabitants to place them outside so as to be able to draw and photograph them.
“This figure [= the present lot] shows a number of carved motifs that together signify elements of ceremonial adornment. On the head, a (feather?) head-dress, trimmed with (partly damaged) boar tusks, or shell rings in imitation of tusks; also on the head, perhaps, a spherical cap of bark cloth like those worn by important men. A figure larger than life-size, photographed in situ, has instead a wig of feathers [Hagen 1899: fig. 42]. Depicted at the bottom of the pierced, elongated earlobes is a cylindrical ornament of turtle-shell, as worn by both men and women. Carved in relief on both upper arms is a plaited armband decorated with shells, whose upright flaps are given as triangular motifs. These flaps are interpreted in the hinterlands of Astrolabe Bay as the rapidly sprouting shoot of a vegetable (probably a symbol of fertility). Such armbands, made by the father or another male relative, formed the first and most important attribute received by newly initiated boys on making the transition to adulthood. As a component of the ‘bride price’ they hold a high value. At festivals, they were stuffed with croton leaves, credited with a magic, medicinal effect, or sometimes with bull-roarers which in love magic possessed a symbolic significance.
“The object in the mouth signifies a bul or bulra, an ornament worn during dance and warfare, made of plaited fibres and boar tusks or ovula ovum shells, and symbolizing a killed enemy. It was held in the mouth during fighting to strike terror into the enemy.
"This arresting figure can only be compared stylistically with a few others from Astrolabe Bay, including the famous lifesize example in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde at Leiden [Schmidt 1987: pl. 119]. The smaller size and, most likely, female character of this figure, which was first published by Carl Schmitz in 1959, does, however, make it quite exceptional within this style group.”
Art Historical Significance of telum Figures
Situated between the Sepik River and Huon Gulf cultural areas, the Astrolabe Bay is “one of the most archaic parts of New Guinea” (Bodrogi 1953: 91) and the geographical hinge between these two regions.
The art of the Astrolabe Bay coast shares formal characteristics with the broader corpus of figural sculpture from the Huon Peninsula, the islands of the Vitiaz Strait, and New Britain, where figural sculptures are characterized by a helmet-like domed head, long vertical nose, and delicate openwork ear lobes with integrally-carved ornaments. The masks are often painted with brightly colored geometric patterns; although the three of the four surviving early telum have weathered surfaces, the Wuppertal figure retains its paint and reveals how these figures were originally decorated. The offered figure bears remnants of multi-layered white, black and red pigment, and in the course of its long life in situ must have been ritually painted and repainted.
The facial characteristics of the Astrolabe Bay telum figures are particularly close to those seen in the arts of the Huon Gulf region. Cf. Fig. 3 for a representative mask of this region, collected in 1885, today in the Australian Museum, Sidney. Below the domed, helmet-like head the face is divided by a strong horizontal brow, in a line with the bulbous eyes, resembling an oblique figure eight. High, vertical, laterally-positioned ears are pierced and decorated with pendants and attachments, represented abstractly so that it is not clear where the ear ends and the jewelry begins. Dominating the center of the face is a large nose with a long vertical bridge and flaring nostrils below. Interestingly even the pointed teeth of the Sidney mask are closely analogous to those of the offered telum figure, in which lips and teeth are fused in a raised ring with jagged grooves, clenched around the war pendant.
The aesthetics of the Astrolabe Bay telum figures relate also to the classic styles of the greater Sepik River region. Among the most iconic sculptures of this region are the famous Biwat (Mundugumor) wusear spirit figures, which surmounted sacred flutes (also known as "flute-stoppers"); cf. Fig. 4 for a superb example previously in the JOLIKA collection of Marcia and John Friede, probably collected during the von Schleinitz expedition of 1886 (sold Sotheby’s New York, May 14, 2010, lot 89). A formal comparison of the physiognomy of the offered telum and that of the Friede wusear reveals the close relationship between these two styles. The overall body proportions of both figures are in similar ratios, with the height of the head and headdress greatly exaggerated in relation to the rest of the body. The arms and hands hang straight downward. The architecture of the lower body is quite similar, with the legs forming an inverted U-shape, with open space between them but the feet linked by an integrally-carved plinth. A mask-like face with dramatic, bulging features is the visual center of both sculptures. Like the above-mentioned arts of the Huon Gulf region, the facial characteristics of the telum and the wusaer feature a high, domed forehead; laterally positioned vertical ears, richly decorated with jewelry (represented in carved wood in the case of the telum); a severe, straight, horizontal brow with bulbous eyes below; and an inverted-triangular lower half of the face featuring a massive vertical nose with large flaring nostrils and a pursed mouth. Finally, perhaps the most ostentatious aspect of both the wusear and the telum are their dramatic vertical headdresses, each with a star-burst of attachments (again represented sculpturally in the telum, while actual cowries, human hair, and cassowary feathers are affixed to the wusear). This gives both figures an overall silhouette which rises upwards in an eruption of visual power, emphasizing the importance of the ancestor-hero/ine.
The weathered appearance of the surfaces of all known telum figures suggests that they are of great age. Also the collecting history of some of these works is extremely early: the present lot and the JOLIKA example were collected together by Hugo Zöller in 1889; the Leiden figure was first seen at Bongu village by Dr. Otto Finsch in 1844/45, who speculated that it must have already been in use for several generations by that time; the same figure was recorded again in 1877 when it was drawn in situ by the great Russian explorer and ethnographer Nikolay Miklouho-Maclay. Radiocarbon analysis further supports the assumption of great age. The present lot was dated by radiocarbon analysis to between 1630 and 1810 (ETH Zurich, sample "43224" on file with Sotheby's). The JOLIKA figure was dated before 1670 (Friede 2005: 142, cat. 363).
In light of the great age of the telum figures, it seems plausible to identify their creators as the members of a northeastern New Guinea proto-culture which informed both the Sepik River and Huon Gulf cultural styles.
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