Created before 1800 on the Pacific island of New Ireland, the present statue is a masterpiece which, although documented as early as 1914, has remained unseen for decades. Its fortunate survival across a vast span of space and time allows us to come face-to-face with an entity which the French poet André Breton addressed as “grand dieu”: the Uli. Representing an ideal clan leader, the Uli “has become an icon among Western collectors of Oceanic art. The sheer strength of presence of these amazing figures ranks them among the greatest works of Oceanic art in existence.” (Gunn in Peltier and Gunn 2006: 172)
Within the corpus of New Ireland Uli figures, the present statue ranks at the top, with only two comparable examples in terms of size, age and sculptural quality: one is today in the Louvre in Paris, and the other remains in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.
This sculpture offers us a glimpse into the spiritual life of a primordial, autochthonous island culture, as it existed before the cataclysmic influence of Western contact. The themes expressed are remarkably accessible to the contemporary viewer: astonishing strength, fearsome protectiveness, and the sumptuous insignia of power. We are immediately struck by the subject’s piercing eyes (composed of a “cat’s eye” operculum from a sea snail, Turbo petholatus, affixed to an inverted shell). Together with the dynamic stance, bared teeth, powerful shoulders, and protruding sex, these project a penetrating intensity; as Peltier notes (op. cit.: 23), this gaze imparts “a fixed, disquieting stare, [bringing the] sculpture to life.” Like many sacred sculptures from the traditional cultures of the Pacific, the Uli is not a ‘representation’ of an ancestor or god in the Western sense, but rather a physical manifestation which contains and transmits the spirit of such a being. As we encounter the gaze of the Uli we experience a profoundly thrilling ancient force from a world long lost.
Geographical and Historical Context
The island of New Ireland is situated close to the equator in the Bismarck Archipelago at the heart of the Pacific region of Melanesia, and is today a province of Papua New Guinea. This island was home to several of the iconic art traditions of the Pacific, including the wide array of masks and sculpture created for malagan ceremonies in the north of the island, and the stone kulap figures from the south. Most imposing and distinctive are the statues of clan leaders known as Uli, created in the mountainous interior of central New Ireland.
Along with the other islands of the Melanesian group, New Ireland was first populated during gradual migrations originating from Southeast Asia many millennia ago, and developed a unique cultural character stemming from a greater Austronesian mother culture. Although the first Europeans to set foot on the island arrived in 1616, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that New Ireland was fully colonized. While under German rule (1885-1914), New Ireland was renamed Neu-Mecklenberg and the traditional culture of the inhabitants changed radically. Contact with the German colonists brought the introduction of metal tools, widespread conversion to Christianity, and new systems of social power and economic subsistence. The artistic practices likewise experienced a dramatic shift, first resulting in stylistic decline and then the outright demise of certain traditional forms. Peltier and Gunn (2006: 15-16) note: “The primary period of increasing Western presence in New Ireland occurred between 1880 and 1914. During those years, significant social changes occurred throughout much of this previously insular region. In the pre-colonial period the only avenue to high social status in New Ireland was directly related to the production and use of art-works in ritual context […] After Western influence became so pervasive, other avenues to high status opened up: access to Western influence and goods, conversion to Christianity, and the consequent social power that came with membership in religious organizations of the colonial powers. Equally shattering to the existing cultural system was the destructive impact of the plantation labor system in which large numbers of young men were taken out of the islands and sent to work in Queensland, many never to return.”
Gunn (op. cit.: 172) notes that “Augustin Kraemer in 1909 recorded a sequence of Uli ceremonies at Lamasong village in the Madak-speaking region of the northern part of the east coast. He noted that the Uli funerary rites were a loan cult of the coast, for the villages in the rain forests of the mountains were the ones where people knew how to make the figures and possessed the secrets of the magic spells associated with them. This is the region northwest of the Lelet Plateau, inland from the coastal village of present-day Konos.”
Ritual Context and Iconography
Accounts written by Europeans who came into contact with New Irelanders before the disintegration of their traditional religion provide a fragmentary basis for the interpretation of their complex ritual practices. The primary such source for the ritual context of the Uli ceremonies is Augustin Kraemer (1865-1941), a naval surgeon, naturalist, and ethnographer who authored Die Malanggane von Tombara (Munich, 1925), including descriptions of Uli ceremonies he witnessed circa 1909 which were among the final such rituals ever performed. Kraemer’s research, conducted during a seven month visit, suggests that these figures were images of ancestral clan leaders, embodying the traits of strength and aggression, as well as nurture and protection.
The subject of the Uli is depicted with the feathered accoutrements, crested headdress, and face paint of a potent and richly-dressed warrior, sculptural representations of the actual apparel worn by New Irelanders. The lower jaw framed with a projecting beard and prominent phallus identify him as male; interestingly, the statue also bears protruding dome-shaped female breasts. While it has been suggested that this iconography is akin to the Western concept of a hermaphroditic character, it is more plausible that it simply represents the adoption of both male and female power by the clan leader. Valluet (1991: 38) notes that in some New Ireland ceremonies, male dancers wore wooden female breasts attached with bindings. This iconography conveys the leader’s health and ability to nurture and protect, in addition to his aggressive male strength.
Upon the death of a high-ranking leader, the skull of the deceased was buried in a sacred grove, and a tree planted over the burial. Once the tree had matured, and its roots reached the ancestral relics, absorbing the spiritual power therein, the tree would be felled and an Uli carved from it. Thus the medium itself contains life-force of the ancestor; this procedure notably involves the passage of a significant time while the tree matures, testifying to a long cultural memory and the antiquity of this tradition. Furthermore examples of related figures of similar overall form but with an actual overmodeled skull in place of the head suggest that the Uli form relates to actual reliquary figures. An overmodeled skull in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart (inv. no. “55772”) also bears a close similarity to the design of the head of the present Uli, with face paint, bearded jawline, and layered tripartite coiffure.
Uli statues presided over the important funerary feasts held in honor of recently deceased leaders. Regional feasts were also held periodically, in which the Uli figures of multiple communities were brought together. According Kraemer’s accounts, the 1909 ceremonies were organized by the chief Lipiu, and involved the gathering of ten Uli, presented by the heads of ten villages in honor of an eminent chief. Amongst the names of the ten chiefs listed in Kraemer's notebooks is that of Longgat - a patronymic identical to that of the chief of Lévinko, who had died a few months before Kraemer's visit in April 1909.
When not in use, the figures were kept in a covered sanctuary, protected from the elements and from the gaze of the uninitiated or unauthorized viewers; Kraemer records an illustration of such a shelter (calling it “Ulihaus”).
Typological analysis of the surviving corpus of Uli statues has identified a dozen main types. These are distinguished as formulaic iconographic poses, repeated across different stylistic groups and in works of evidently different ages. According to Gunn (in Peltier and Gunn 2006: 172) these types may represent distinct individual leaders, with certain examples serving as archetypes to later artists. The arms of the present figure are held at the sides of the torso, with the hands clasped upon a geometrically-inscribed panel in front of the body; this pose is seen in other examples and may represent a particular leader. As compared to other poses in the corpus, such as those of the Louvre or Berlin figures, it evokes a particular sense of calm well-being.
Placement Within the Uli Corpus and Dating
Many sculptures from the Uli corpus observed in public and private collections are cursorily-carved and display the cut marks and flat planes characteristic of a late style carved with metal tools. These examples were likely created within the last decades of the 19th century after the arrival of metal on New Ireland, not long before they were collected by German explorers around the turn of the 20th century or shortly thereafter, and before the radical social changes brought about by colonial intervention, and indeed the outright prohibition of the Uli ceremonies.
Unlike the material culture which accompanied the famous malagan rituals of New Ireland, which were typically used once and then destroyed, discarded, or sold to Westerners, Uli statues were preserved as heirlooms for generations of repeated use. Older examples often show evidence of layered pigments from painting and repainting. Throughout their ritual career, these figures accumulated power with each successive cycle of use.
The present statue is quite distinctive in several overall characteristics, with only a few parallels in the known corpus. It is among the very largest in size; close observation of the naturally undulating surface reveals that it was certainly carved with stone-age tools: stone blades and rasps, or tools made from animal teeth. It displays thin vertical age cracks throughout which indicate the gradual shrinking of wood over a long period of time. Most importantly, it is of far superior sculptural quality to almost any other Uli known. Gunn (op. cit.: 172) estimates that of the known corpus of circa 255 Uli figures, only around ten percent show signs of having been carved with stone tools, pre-dating the arrival of metal, and that these “may have been already several hundred years old when they were collected”. We may hypothesize such an early dating for the present sculpture, supported not only by the evidence of its stone-tool manufacture, but also by its artistic quality. Indeed within the spectrum of known examples it stands so far above much of the corpus that we may suppose it had archetypal status.
Recently-conducted radiocarbon analysis of the wood of the present figure has yielded important data which confirms this age hypothesis, conclusively dating the wood between 1650 and 1800. Thus at the time it was collected this figure was already at least several generations old. Distinguished by its great age, rarity, superb artistic quality, and potent spiritual presence, the present figure is undoubtedly the finest Uli statue remaining in private hands, and one of the greatest surviving masterpieces of Pacific art.
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