The Wostrack-Krämer Uli was accessioned into the Linden Museum in Stuttgart on 26th February 1908 (registration number 55685), a time of intense competition for such objects between German ethnological museums, particularly those in Berlin, Leipzig, Stuttgart and Dresden. The figure was collected by Wilhelm Wostrack, a native of Stuttgart, who was asked in 1904 to collect objects for the city’s ethnographic collection by Graf von Linden, the founder of the eponymous museum.

As the District Officer stationed at Namatanai, Wostrack was responsible for imposing German rule over central and southern New Ireland. His knowledge of and access to villages on the east coast of central New Ireland was unsurpassed, particularly as he was responsible for implementing the head tax in 1907. This compelled all adult men to engage in the colonial economy as they needed cash to pay the tax. The intention was to encourage men to work as labourers on the expanding plantations, but they could also earn money by selling artefacts and garden produce to traders, plantation owners, missionaries or anyone else with access to German currency. Wostrack may have accepted artefacts in payment for the head tax, and he may have purchased artefacts from other foreign residents as well. His position of power and the timing of his work in New Ireland gave him unsurpassed access to the wealth of central New Ireland’s material culture.  Wostrack appears to have collected six Uli figures. The objects he sent to the Linden Museum in 1908 included another Uli figure, 55689, a lunet rub drum, an overmodelled skull and two feather headdresses.

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Uli figures were produced in central New Ireland, in an inland area just to the northwest of the Lelet Plateau. Krämer observed Uli figures being carved in 1909 near Lamasong village, but both the carvings and the rituals and ceremonies surrounding their use had largely disappeared by 1914. Krämer’s research, conducted during a seven month visit, suggests that these figures were images of ancestral clan leaders, with their hermaphroditic features embodying the traits of strength and aggression, as well as nurture and protection, required of a leader. They were heirloom objects, passed down from generation to generation and used in cycles of ceremonies commemorating the ancestral clan leaders.

There are around 220 Uli figures in collections today, most of which, where the date of collection is known, were collected between 1907 and 1914. The figures were first classified by Augustin Krämer, based mainly on their posture and design. Krämer identified eleven different kinds of Uli figure, and Michael Gunn has added a further five categories. In 1925 Krämer identified the Uli from the Frum collection as the reference piece for one of the rarest categories: selamlúngin antelóu, where a full smaller figure is held in front of the torso of the main figure. The remarkable power of the head and the squat body are complemented by the staring eyes and grimacing mouth, complete with blackened teeth and beard, which represent traditional warrior virtues. The high, domed head has a well-defined crest on top of his hair; this crest probably depicts a type of feathered headdress formerly worn by men of status.


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16 September 2014 | Paris